Southeast Asia

Why was the Vietnam War fought, and what were some of the consequences?

After World War II, Vietnamese nationalists and communists fought the French to gain their freedom from European colonization. Ultimately, the French left Vietnam in shambles, and the former colony divided into the primarily communist controlled North and the pro-West forces in the South. The United States initially was involved in the war to help its ally France regain control of the colony by sending in advisers and aiding in military supplies. Forces in the South saw the chance to gain American assistance, and they convinced various U.S. administrations to assist in ridding the country of their enemies. In an effort to stem the spread of communism, the United States continued to support South Vietnam until the fall of Saigon in 1975.

Ironically, during the height of the Vietnam War in 1970 while communist Vietnamese were being portrayed as a threat to the American way of life, President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger were courting the largest, most radical communist country, the People’s Republic of China, to extend relations with the West. China had been funding and supporting militarily Vietnamese resistance against both French and American forces for decades.

The American occupation of Vietnam lasted from 1962 to 1975. In 1975, Saigon was overrun by communist forces, and the country was eventually unified under one communist regime. The aftermath and legacy of the war in Vietnam was the destabilization of and genocide in neighboring Laos and Cambodia, which cost millions of lives during the upheaval of the 1970s, as well as the displacement of millions of Vietnamese, some of whom emigrated to the U.S. as “boat people.”

An early morning street scene in Hanoi, Vietnam (photo by Paul A. Tucci).

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