While the French occupation brought improvements in transportation and communications, it brought little benefit to most Vietnamese. In the countryside, peasants struggled under heavy taxes and high rents, workers in factories, coal mines, and rubber plantations labored in abysmal conditions for low wages. By the early 1920s, nationalist parties began to demand reform and independence, and in 1930 the revolutionary Ho Chi Minh formed an Indochinese Communist party. For a decade they labored underground, meeting little success against the French or, after 1940, the Japanese occupiers. After the Japanese surrendered in August, 1945, the Vietminh (short for Viet Nam Doc Lap Dong Minh, or League for the Independence of Vietnam) declared the establishment of an independent republic in Hanoi. emphasized moderate reform and national independence rather than specifically Communist aims. Unwilling to concede independence, the French drove the Vietminh and other nationalist groups out of the south; by December 1946 the French and Vietnamese were at war.
By 1954 the Vietminh had retreated to the hills of North Vietnam while the French-backed government of Emperor Bho Dai controlled the populated areas of the coast and south Vietnam. Facing constant guerrilla attacks in Vietnam, the French also found themselves facing increasing pressure to withdraw at home. Finally, after losing their fortified base at Dien Bien Phu and 3,000 soldiers, the French agreed to negotiations. The country was temporarily partitioned into communist-controlled North Vietnam and pro-French South Vietnam, with free elections and reunification scheduled for 1957. Unfortunately, the new South Vietnamese President, Ngo Dinh Diem, was not particularly interested in holding free elections until he had stamped out the "communist menace." Since he defined most of his political opposition as "communist," this led to increasing repression, and the increasing unpopularity of his regime. In 1963 Diem's unpopularity caught up with him; he was assassinated in a coup staged by his own generals. This led to increased instability, and even greater popular support for Ho Chi Minh and his guerrilla forces, the Viet Cong.
While the French had lost interest in Vietnam, the Americans were just discovering this remote country. President Kennedy had begun sending aid and "military advisors" to Vietnam; his successor, Lyndon Johnson, would escalate the conflict further. On August 7, 1964, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution authorized Johnson to "take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression." In 1961 there were 3,000 U.S. troops in Vietnam; by 1965 that number had risen to 60,000, and at the end of 1966 there were 385,00 U.S. soldiers in Vietnam
U.S. forces had unquestioned air superiority. Using air reconnaissance, they were able to spot Viet Cong safe bases … and to bomb them. The Vietnam conflict would see nearly 700,000 tons of explosives dropped on North Vietnam - and over 500,000 tons dropped in neighboring Laos and Cambodia. Agent Orange was used to defoliate potential hiding places - and destroy crops which might feed Viet Cong troops. The Viet Cong responded by going underground - literally. Enormous networks of tunnels (over 200 miles at Cu Chi) connected the country, providing shelter and fighting bases even as the Americans took control of the overhead villages. The Viet Cong made up for their lack of weapons with ingenuity. Unexploded ordinance was quickly converted into lethal booby-traps. Sharpened, feces-smeared bamboo shafts became "pungee sticks" which could pierce Army issue boots.
Since the Viet Cong did not wear uniforms, it was nearly impossible to tell the difference between friendly and hostile Vietnamese. As the war ground on, there were fewer of the former and more of the latter: even in "safe" areas American soldiers frequently found themselves targeted by guerrilla attacks. Unsure who the enemy was… or what their actual mission was … troops became increasingly mistrustful, and reports of atrocities began trickling out. March 1968's My Lai massacre, where U.S. soldiers killed over 500 unarmed Vietnamese men, women and children, would become a widespread scandal, and add further fuel to the war's growing unpopularity at home.
Among the casualties of the Vietnam Conflict was the Johnson Presidency; he refused to run for a second term in 1968, leaving the field wide open for Richard M. Nixon. Nixon's "peace with honor" translated into a gradual withdrawal, with still more troops killed in what everyone now knew was an unwinnable war. Not until March 1973 would the last U.S. combat forces left South Vietnam. On April 30, 1975, two U.S. Marines involved in the airlift of American citizens were killed in a rocket attack. They would be the last American casualties in a war that had claimed the lives of over 58,000 Americans and well over 1 million Vietnamese soldiers, guerrillas and civilians.