Soldier Jim Lundgard diplaying the Ohio flag that he requested from Governor James Rhodes while serving in Vietnam, 1969. The flag is part of the Ohio Historical Society museum collections, catalog number H 82022.
Although the United States of America's military involvement in Vietnam escalated dramatically beginning in 1964, it actually began in the late 1950s and continued until 1973. During this nearly fifteen year period, approximately 57,000 Americans died in the Vietnam War.
In 1945 and 1946, France sought to reestablish Vietnam as a French colony, as it had been before World War II. During World War II, Japanese troops had driven the French from Vietnam and made Vietnam a colony of Japan. With Japan's defeat in August 1945, the French hoped to regain control of Vietnam.
Unfortunately for the French, many Vietnamese people refused to become colonists of France again. Those people who favored French control generally lived in southern Vietnam and had profitable economic connections with France and other Western countries. People living in northern Vietnam and poorer people in southern Vietnam generally opposed French control. Under Ho Chi Minh, a strong supporter of communism, many Vietnamese people rebelled against the French during the late 1940s and the early 1950s, hoping to drive the French from Vietnam. This rebellion marked the beginning of the Vietnam War. These revolutionaries proved to be successful, forcing the French to sign the Geneva Accords in 1954, in which the French agreed to leave Vietnam.
The Geneva Accords, however, set the stage for a continuation of the Vietnam War. Under this treaty, Vietnam was divided into two separate countries, North Vietnam and South Vietnam. These two nations were to only exist until 1956, when an election was to take place that would reunite the two countries as one under a single leader. Realizing that he would probably lose the election, the leader of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem, prohibited the election from taking place. Eventually, opponents to Diem in South Vietnam and their North Vietnamese supporters rose up, hoping to overthrow Diem.
The United States, involved in the Cold War with the Soviet Union, actively supported Diem. While Diem did not believe in true democracy and generally treated his countrymen and women unjustly, he at least did not support communism, unlike the majority of people in North Vietnam. Hoping to prevent communism from spreading to South Vietnam, President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent American troops to South Vietnam to advise the South Vietnamese military in its war against the South Vietnamese revolutionaries and their North Vietnamese supporters. President John F. Kennedy continued sending advisers to South Vietnam during his administration.
Once Lyndon Baines Johnson assumed the presidency, he sought a way to escalate American involvement in Vietnam. The Gulf of Tonkin Incident, which occurred in August 1964, provided Johnson with the opportunity he needed to send additional troops to Vietnam. North Vietnamese warships purportedly attacked United States warships, the U.S.S. Maddox and the U.S.S. C. Turner Joy, on two separate occasions in the Gulf of Tonkin, a body of water neighboring modern-day Vietnam. President Johnson claimed that the United States did nothing to provoke these two attacks and that North Vietnam was the aggressor. Subsequent reports show that the United States actually provoked these attacks by supporting South Vietnamese commandos operating in North Vietnam and by using U.S. warships to identify North Vietnamese radar stations along the coastline of North Vietnam. There remains no doubt that the North Vietnamese attacked the U.S.S. Maddox in the first incident, which occurred on August 2, 1964, although it does appear that the United States provoked this attack. Many government officials and historians contend that the second incident, which allegedly happened on August 4, 1964, never occurred.
Because of President Johnson's claims, the United States Congress issued the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. This proclamation authorized Johnson to retaliate for the purported attacks in the Gulf of Tonkin. The resolution allowed the president "to take all necessary steps, including the use of armed force, to assist any member or protocol state of the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty requesting assistance in defense of its freedom." In essence, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution permitted Johnson to increase the United States' involvement in North and South Vietnam. Before Johnson became president, approximately sixteen thousand Americans were acting as advisers to the South Vietnamese military. Historians debate whether or not these soldiers were simply acting as advisers or were actually waging war against South Vietnamese revolutionaries and their North Vietnamese allies. After the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, Johnson increased the number of American troops serving in South Vietnam to more than 500,000. These men and women were clearly engaged in actual fighting.
The United States never officially declared war on North or South Vietnam, but it is difficult to claim that Vietnam was not a war. Fierce fighting took place, resulting in the death of approximately 57,000 Americans. Another 150,000 Americans were wounded, and at the conflict's end in 1973, approximately 1,300 Americans were missing. Casualties suffered by the North Vietnamese and the South Vietnamese are heavily debated, but some estimates claim more than three million Vietnamese people combined died.
To try and win the war, the United States engaged in massive bombing campaigns of both North and South Vietnam, most notably Operation Rolling Thunder, and even of neighboring countries of Cambodia and Laos, which the North Vietnamese used to transport troops and supplies into South Vietnam. Following the Tet Offensive in 1968, where North Vietnamese troops and their South Vietnamese allies nearly captured Saigon, the South Vietnamese capital, American opposition to the Vietnam War surged. This event, combined with the revelation that President Johnson was not honest regarding the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, the revocation of college deferments to escape the draft, and anti-war protests especially from college students, prompted Johnson to not seek reelection. Richard Nixon won the election on a pledge to end the United States' involvement in the Vietnam War. By the end of his first term in office, Nixon had reduced American troops in Vietnam from 500,000 to fewer than 100,000. In 1973, the United States agreed to the Paris Peace Accords with North Vietnam, which essentially ended American involvement in the Vietnam War. In 1975, the North Vietnam succeeded in defeating South Vietnam, reuniting the two countries as a single Vietnam.
The United States' escalation in the Vietnam War had a tremendous impact on Ohioans. Hundreds of thousands of Ohioans were members of the armed forces during the Vietnam War, although not all of these men and women served in North or South Vietnam. Of the Ohioans serving in the military, 2,997 of them died in Vietnam, while another twenty thousand of these people suffered wounds. Bealsville, Ohio, lost more people per capita in the Vietnam War than any other community in the United States. Other Ohioans actively protested the war, especially once the federal government eliminated college deferments and it became common knowledge that the United States military was also bombing countries neighboring Vietnam. The most famous protest occurred at Kent State University, where the Ohio National Guard killed four people, but other protests erupted at college campuses across Ohio and the rest of the nation.
- Young, Marilyn B. The Vietnam Wars, 1945-1990. N.p.: Harper Perennial, 1991.
- Gordon, William A. Four Dead in Ohio: Was There a Conspiracy at Kent State?. N.p.: North Ridge Books, 1995.