Between 1965 and 1975, the US was formally involved in a war in Southeast Asia. On the face of it, it was about assisting the people of South Vietnam against the regime of North Vietnam. In reality, it was a much broader global conflict of ideologies. These 45 fascinating facts about the Vietnam War are sure to shed some light on the truth.
The Vietnam War, also known as the Second Indochina War, lasted longer than the American Revolution, and World War Two. Most would argue it was about the US attempting to stop the spread of Communist influence in SouthEast Asia.
Whatever the reasons, it resulted in millions killed, many more wounded, and nations forever changed. Let’s find out more interesting, strange, and surprising facts about the Vietnam War.
So, here are some things you may not know about the facts surrounding the Vietnam war. Some dispute commonly held beliefs, while others offer some detail that may recontextualize some realities about the time, the war, and the politics involved.
Although the impression we get today is that the draft was unfair to working-class and under-educated communities, the reality was not quite so simple. Vietnam soldiers were actually more educated, on average, than soldiers of wars past, averaging at least high-school diplomas.
It is true that wealthier families had some advantages when it came to deferments. They could afford to send their kids to college, for example. The draft itself, though, was random, as promised. As a result, 76% of those who served in Vietnam were, in fact, from working-class communities.
In another interesting statistic related to the draft, only about a quarter of soldiers who served were drafted. Most who saw conflict across the length of the war were volunteers or serving in the armed forces already.
Notably, although less than 25% of those who served were draftees, more than 30% of those who died were from those draftees. Draftees, therefore, died at a higher percentage, or rate, than volunteers.
In 1954, Vietnam was split along the 17th parallel by the Geneva Agreement, with joint elections intended for 1955. The US feared the popularity of Ho Chi Minh and installed Ngo Dinh Diem as the leader in the south.
The main reason given by the West for the war is that they feared the spread of communism. If Vietnam were to succumb, it was feared that Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia would follow.
But, historians also feel that this may have been exaggerated as a focus by history. John F Kennedy famously wanted to limit involvement in Vietnam, although he did share concerns about the spread of communism.
President John F Kennedy publicly stated that he did not want to engage in extended conflict in Vietnam, and declared a desire to withdraw by 1965. He was assassinated in 1963, which ultimately led to a policy reversal from the succeeding administration.
Many veterans feel that the US lost the war in Vietnam because of their own government’s ineptitude. They attribute the government’s lack of commitment to the war effort as a major reason they did not make significant progress against the North Vietnamese forces.
The war had a terrible toll on the physical and mental health of soldiers who returned to the US. It is estimated that nearly 300 000 soldiers suffered from ill effects related to their tours of duty.
One of the causes of serious illness was Agent Orange, a chemical weapon that caused tumors and genetic problems passed on to children. Today’s Vietnamese population is still feeling the effects.
It is estimated that nearly 1.3 million soldiers and combatants died in the Vietnam conflict. An additional one million civilians also reportedly died.
In 1968, the most American troops at any one time were recorded in Vietnam – 549 000. But that number is deceptive. Overall, almost nine million Americans served on active duty during the course of the war.
The North Vietnamese war effort wasn’t just a guerilla affair. An NVA (North Vietnamese Army) pilot is actually the top pilot of the conflict, tallying nine kills in the air compared to the US top pilot, who tallied six. In total, 17 NVA pilots had 5 kills or more, while only three US pilots could claim the same. The US still had air superiority overall, though.
The US was not the only combatant on the side of the South Vietnam republic. South Korea, New Zealand, and Australia also sent troops and support. It is also believed that North Vietnam received support from China and Russia.
History famously recalls the Tet Offensive in 1968, which took the American and South Vietnam forces by complete surprise. The attack targeted more than 100 flashpoints in a single day. But overall, the action resulted in a loss for the North, with 45,000 deaths and serious damage to their military capacity.
Despite the US and South Vietnamese forces eventually repelling the attack, the news of the offensive had a negative impact on the US itself. Many were now convinced that the government’s reporting on the war progress was false and that the war was not going to be easily won.
When the M-16 rifle was introduced in 1966 during the Vietnam conflict, it was a disaster. The weapon would routinely malfunction, and resulted in a congressional hearing that criticized the army for using it.
Many US soldiers got so frustrated with their malfunctioning weapons that they reported simply abandoning them and picking up the AK-47 rifle used by slain North Vietnamese soldiers instead.
In 1970, Richard Nixon expanded the territorial scope of the war by authorizing bombings and incursions into Laos and Cambodia. This was an unpopular decision in the US, leading to mass protests.
In Vietnamese, the official name of the war translates to: “Resistance War Against America.” Today, the war is taught in history classes, as part of the country’s history of fighting colonial powers.
The North Vietnamese forces made use of a network of roads and paths to transport troops and materiel. The network was so vast that it was nearly impossible to police, and was called the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
One of the worst atrocities of the war was the My Lai Massacre, in which 500 civilians – mostly the elderly, women, and children – were killed by a US attack.
The US forces won most (not all) of the battles that took place during the war. No US unit ever surrendered. But the NVA had a fair share of pyrrhic victories and caused serious damage in some cases.
The Battle of Fire Support Base Ripcord is a legendary episode from the war, in which a contingent of US forces faced two regiments of PNVA (People’s Army of North Vietnam). Numbers quoted suggest that the US forces were outnumbered 10-1. They held out for 23 days, sustaining heavy losses before being evacuated.
US soldiers faced many perils in an unfamiliar combat environment. Traps called punji pits were among them. They consisted of holes dug and disguised. If a soldier fell into one, he’d be pierced with spiked bamboo.
Vietnam was occupied by France during the time of Napoleon III, after a war that officially ended in 1885. There were several subsequent violent conflicts, however.
There was also a brief period of independence for North Vietnam after 1954, under President Ho Chi Minh. Less than a decade later, the Vietnam War was sparked by intense covert operations on both sides.
History records that the South Vietnamese president Ngô Đình Diệm was assassinated just 20 days before John F. Kennedy was shot in Texas.
The Vietnam War became the most televised conflict in history at the time, offering the first truly embedded reporting of war. The coverage was so extensive, that it was credited as the main reason the US public turned against the war in general.
While the US Congress gradually withdrew troops and support for the South Vietnamese forces, the North was very well supported by Chinese and Russian aid. This, many soldiers believed, contributed to the North gaining the upper hand towards the end of the conflict in the 70s.
The controversy around the Vietnam War led to many stories of soldiers being abused by crowds when they returned home. Officially, however, it is difficult to find any verified incidents, for example, of soldiers being spat on as they returned (a common story told). It is now believed that many of the reported stories may have been exaggerated.
The nature of the war in Vietnam made it difficult to distinguish between enemy combatants and civilians. This led to a high number of civilian deaths – close to one million reported.
It is widely believed that a naval confrontation called The Tonkin Incident led to the US escalation of military involvement in the war. The USS Maddox was allegedly shelled by two NVA boats. The Maddox retaliated, and that started a conflict between North Vietnam and the US. Some historians believe that the facts around the incident are at best misrepresented or at worst falsely reported.
In fact, a government official declared that a second reported attack on US ships never actually happened and that it was the Maddox that in fact fired first.
In any event, the incident allowed President Johnson to deploy ground troops, leading in turn to the war.
As of 2018, a little over 1,000 US soldiers are unaccounted for in the Vietnam conflict. 58,220 are known to have died, while 2,646 were known to be imprisoned at the end of the war as POWs (prisoners of war).
Leaked papers indicate that as early as 1963, the US had been aware, and perhaps conspiratorial, in overthrowing the South Vietnamese government via a military coup. This led to the arrest and assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem, president of South Vietnam.
Some reports insist that Vietnam vets suffer disproportionately from drug use and unemployment. Statistics show this is not true, as the numbers reported for vets and non-vets on both counts were roughly the same by the 1980s.
For the record, there were two distinct forces opposed to the US in the Vietnam War: The NVA or North Vietnamese Army, and the National Liberation Front, better known as the Viet Cong. The latter were South Vietnamese communist supporters who deployed guerilla warfare tactics rather than formal open combat.
By the time it ended, Vietnam had been the longest war in American history at that point, officially taking place between 1955 and 1975 (20 years). Various reasons contributed to this, including political wrangling, difficult, unfamiliar combat terrain, and an enemy that proved more resolute than expected.
The Vietnam War led to the public recognition and understanding of PTSD or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, suffered by many soldiers. It was formalized in the medical field in 1980.
It could be said that the Vietnam War was one of the first in US history to lead to mass public protest. Overall, the awareness and political mass protest around the war were unprecedented.
The public outcry and protest against the war grew in momentum. In 1965, only 28% of Americans polled were against the war. By 1969, 58% were against it. In 1968, influential news anchor Walter Cronkite declared the war unwinnable.
An odd bit of side trivia: The US Navy founded the Top Gun fighter pilot school in part because of the losses sustained during the Vietnam War. As previously mentioned, the North Vietnamese pilots did much better than expected against the US air forces.
The US flew 1.8 million missions in Vietnam and lost one aircraft for every 1000 missions deployed. The air strategy as a whole was called Operation Rolling Thunder. Much of the campaign involved bombing sorties. Even after the war ended, unexploded bombs accounted for tens of thousands of casualties, according to some reports.
Some believe that the Vietnam War was unfavorable to minorities when it came to US forces. In truth, the racial demographics of the US military in Vietnam largely reflected that of the American public in general.
James Davis was the first American serviceman to die in Vietnam. The 509th Radio Research Station in Saigon is named after him – The Davis Station.
Nearly 100,000 US soldiers were severely disabled or completely disabled in Vietnam. Around 61% of those reported killed were younger than 21 years old, although the average age of soldiers killed was 23.
Of the vets who served, 97% were honorably discharged. Reasons for less-than-honorable discharges included drug use, desertion, and other combat-related charges.
Discharges have implications for soldiers. Dishonorable discharges usually mean the loss of veterans’ benefits including health care, GI bill benefits and pensions.
There is some dispute as to the average age of the combat soldier in Vietnam. A popular song in the 1980s contributed to the notion that it was 19 years old. Records seem to indicate, however, that it was closer to 22. By contrast, the average age of the US soldier to land on D-Day in World War II was 26.
A 1995 census revealed an alarming fact. More than nine million respondents falsely claimed to have served in Vietnam. In reality, just over one million Vietnam vets were actually confirmed by the census.