George Ball – a brief summary

A diplomat easy to dub ‘the man who was always right’, George Ball’s reputation as a critic of US policy towards South East Asia during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations often cast him to the fringes of decision-making, but eventually saw him vindicated when the ‘Wise Men’ group of senior advisors decided to halt US escalation in the Vietnam War following the 1968 Tet Offensive.

George BallBelieving that the main arena for USA Cold War policy should be Europe, George Ball argued against growing escalation from 1961. When the Taylor-Rostow Report recommended the dispatch of 8,000 US troops in October, Ball predicted that 500,000 would be required within four years. Although President Kennedy famously described him as being crazy as hell for this prognosis, the experience of Americanization 1965-68 vindicated Ball’s original fears.

In spite of his attitude to the Vietnam War, Ball was not a pacifist, but argued that developing strong relationships with her western European partners should be America’s prime objective, which in turn would lead to a rapprochement with the Soviet Union. He also claimed that the US should build closer relationships with China, whose threat to US interests was seriously over-estimated in Washington.

After resigning in 1966, George Ball maintained a strict silence over the administration’s approach to the war, only returning to his critical theme after Lyndon B Johnson had left office. Ball became US Ambassador to the UN for a brief period during the last few months of Johnson’s presidency, before working as an investment. He continued to write and speak on international issues, gaining a new reputation as a critic of America’s relations with Israel.

George Ball died aged 84 on 26 May 1994.

Vietnam WarNeil Smith

For more about the Vietnam War, see The Vietnam War: History In An Hour published by Harper Press, and available in various digital formats, and as downloadable audio.

See also articles on William Westmoreland, Ho Chi Ming, Ngo Dinh Diem and Domestic opposition to the Vietnam War.

General Vo Nguyen Giap – a brief summary

It was announced today, 4 October 2013, that General Vo Nguyen Giap, a key figure in securing Vietnam’s independence and winning the Vietnam War, has died, aged 102.

Vo Nguyen GiapWith an academic background, and little formal military training, Vo Nguyen Giap rose to become not only North Vietnam’s pre-eminent strategist and military leader, but arguably one of the twentieth century’s best known commanders.

Before the outbreak of the First Indochina War, Giap was educated at the University of Hanoi, before becoming a history teacher. After joining the Indochina Worker’s Party in 1937, he, was responsible for founding the Vietminh with Ho in 1941. He subsequently led the resistance campaign against the Japanese in the north of Vietnam, with the assistance of US OSS agents.

After the war, he was appointed both Minister of the Interior and Commander in Chief in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, and proclaimed the outbreak of war against the French in November 1946. Regarded as the architect of the 3 stage Dau Tranh strategy, Giap deployed a joint political-military approach which was designed to win over the population, gradually undermine the enemy’s will to fight, before progressing to conventional big unit battles.

His greatest success against the French was undoubtedly the battle of Dienbienphu in the spring of 1954. Surprising the French with his ability to move both a large army and heavy artillery into positions surrounding the French base, Giap inflicted such a defeat on France that they were forced to leave South East Asia forever.

Giap turned his 3 stage strategy on the new South Vietnamese Republic and US forces after 1954, successfully undermining the credibility of the ARVN, and managing to control most of the country’s Strategic Hamlets during the programme’s  short-lived existence. Perhaps his biggest mistake was in believing that the time was right for a general offensive during Tet in January 1968. The failure of the offensive not only had a significant impact in terms of casualties, it virtually wiped out the VC in the countryside and prevented a further major campaign until Easter 1972.

After the US withdrawal, he was appointed Minister of Defense; a position he held until 1980.

Neil Smith, author of The Vietnam War: History In An Hour.

Madame Nhu – a summary

Madame Nhu (Tran Le Xuan) was arguably the most controversial figure of South Vietnam’s brief history. An advocate of women’s rights, but an opponent of abortion and contraception, hailed as the saviour of South East Asia in the 1950s by the US media, then lambasted for her callous insensitivity towards the regime’s opponents, she was a deeply complicated character who appeared to intoxicate as much as revile even her political enemies.

Born Tran Le Xuan into a wealthy (Buddhist) Vietnamese family, she married Ngo Dinh Nhu at the age of 18, and quickly abandoned her Buddhism for her husband’s Roman Catholic faith. An early victim of the First Indochina War, Madam Nhu was taken prisoner by the VietMinh for four months along with her daughter and mother-in-law. (Pictured, Madame Nhu with Lyndon B Johnson, 1961. At the time Johnson was vice president).

After her brother-in-law, Ngo Dinh Diem, assumed control of South Vietnam in 1955, she became the most powerful female in South East Asia. Whilst her only position was as a member of the South Vietnamese National Assembly, her husband’s control of the secret police, and her unofficial role as the hermit-like Diem’s “first lady” guaranteed her both headlines and influence.

Continue reading

Nguyen Van Thieu – a summary

Nguyen Van Thieu, president of South Vietnam from 1965–75, presided over two critical periods in the decline of South Vietnam, serving as president whilst the US withdrew from the country in 1973 and remaining in power until shortly before the final collapse of the country in April 1975.

Nguyen Van ThieuNguyen Van Thieu’s first major involvement in the country’s political fortunes came as a supporter of Ho Chi Minh’s nationalist movement, rising to the position of District commander. However, this dalliance with the VietMinh barely lasted a year, with an apparent realisation that the nationalist movement he had joined was, in fact, a front for communist insurgents.

After studying at various military academies, he fought with the French against the Vietminh until the end of the war in 1954. He was promoted to the rank of corps commander in the South Vietnamese Army, and spent time training in the USA. He was amongst the group of army officers who carried out the coup against Ngo Dinh Diem, the South Vietnamese president, in 1963, and then maintained his position within the army leadership during a succession of coups 1964-5.

Continue reading

William Westmoreland – a summary

Born 26 March 1914, near Spartanburg, South Carolina, William Westmoreland went on to fight in most of America’s major areas of conflict during World War Two and the Cold War, and came to prominence during the Vietnam War. He served as Superintendent at West Point, and enjoyed the patronage of two US Presidents. However, by the end of 1968 his reputation was in tatters, and his stock had declined such that the aspiring nominee for the Republican party’s presidential candidate in 1980 refused to sit next to him on a flight for fear that he be tarnished by association with the disgraced former general.

William Westmoreland As commander of Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), Westmoreland strongly believed in the policy of attrition, refusing to accept that a small nation such as North Vietnam could absorb huge losses. This belief led him to misinterpret the critical lessons of the war, none more so than the unsuitability of conventional big unit tactics to the jungles of Vietnam. Whilst he rightly pointed to the horrendous casualty figures on the communist side, this ignored the growing casualty lists, and equipment losses on the US side.

The Tet Offensive of 1968 turned out to be the beginning of the end of his military career in Vietnam. After announcing the light at the end of the tunnel in a press conference at the end of 1967, his claims of impending success were shown to be hollow as the North Vietnamese launched their largest campaign of the conflict thus far. Even as Westmoreland emphasized the success of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and US forces in crushing the offensive, images of Viet Cong (VC) guerrillas in the grounds of the US embassy, and holding out in the South Vietnamese city of Hue only served to undermine his credibility still further.

Continue reading

Ngo Dinh Diem – a summary

The architect of the South Vietnamese state, and the United State’s principal ally in South East Asia, Ngo Dinh Diem ended his political career in ignominies fashion; shot in the back of an army van after being deposed by his own forces acting with the connivance of the country which had sustained him throughout his premiership since 1954.

Ngo Dinh DiemBorn 3 January 1901, Ngo Dinh Diem grew up in a rich, aristocratic Vietnamese family, and spent time working under Emperor Bao Dai. He went on to become a hardline regional governor, gaining a reputation for taking a tough anti-communist line, and for demonstrating an independent position between French colonialism and the VietMinh nationalists.

Diem and the US

During the First Indochina War he was captured and almost killed by the VietMinh. After escaping, he visited the United States, where he met politicians such as the (Roman Catholic) senator John F. Kennedy. After the French defeat, he returned to Vietnam and was put forward, in the face of French opposition, by the US delegation as a possible ruler of South Vietnam.

The key moment in his rise to the top of South Vietnamese politics was the 1955 referendum over who should rule the country: Bao Dai or himself. Relying heavily on CIA subversion, vote-rigging, and physical intimidation of potential Bao Dai voters, Diem achieved an overwhelming victory; claiming to have won 98.2% of the vote.

Continue reading

Ho Chi Minh – a summary

The single most influential figure in the Vietnamese nationalist movement, Ho Chi Minh was one of those rare figures in history who appear to transcend the movement which spawned them, and who come to personify a set of ideas and goals.

The youngest of three children, Ho was born Nguyen Sinh Cung on 19 May 1890 in a village in central Vietnam. Ho spent his formative political years in exile. Between 1911-41, he travelled through Europe, USA, China and the Soviet Union. Even though he was criticised by communists for being a nationalist, he helped found the French Communist Party, and spent time studying in Moscow.

In 1887, Vietnam had become part of the French Empire, along with Laos and Cambodia. Together, the French referred to this region as Indochina. During the Second World War, the country was occupied by the Japanese, who allowed the French to maintain control of their colony, thus inflicting what Ho later described as a double yoke of imperialism.


Ho returned to Vietnam in 1941, and helped establish the VietMinh, the Vietnamese communist party. As the effective leader of the revolt against the Japanese invaders, Ho declared Vietnamese independence in Saigon. Although this ceremony was witnessed by several agents of US Office of Strategic Services (OSS) sent to coordinate opposition to the Japanese, the French were quick to reclaim their former grip on their colonies in Indochina. Within a month of Ho’s proclamation, the French had initiated a military campaign against the VietMinh, with the primary intention of re-establishing their influence in the country.

Continue reading

Domestic Opposition to the Vietnam War

Domestic protests against American participation in the Vietnam War have been credited with shortening the war by both anti-war protestors themselves, and by supporters of the war effort, who felt that fears of a domestic backlash forced both Presidents Lyndon B Johnson and Richard Nixon to limit US involvement in the conflict. However, this view of the anti-war movement’s influence and impact has arguably been significantly over-stated.

The ‘Madness of Vietnam’

Domestic opposition to the war was diverse in character, composition and strategy. Its roots lay in 1950s peace organisations such as the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE), and the Students for a Democratic Society. However, before 1965, it made little impact on the public consciousness, with the overwhelming majority of the population supporting Johnson’s decision to enter the war in 1965.  Perhaps understandably, this decision provided fuel to the anti-war movement, and campus-based protests such as the ‘Teach-Ins’ at Michigan State and Berkeley universities grew in number as the conflict continued. Protests even spread to US Army bases, such as Fort Hood, where three soldiers were imprisoned in 1966 for refusing to serve in Vietnam. In April 1967, the black civil rights leader Martin Luther King added his voice to the protests arguing that the ‘madness of Vietnam’ needed to cease, with an immediate, unilateral US withdrawal. Continue reading