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Vietnam War: Key Individuals

From Ho Chi Minh to JFK- learn all about the important people involved in the Vietnam War.

Ngo Dinh Diem

Although Nixon was the Republican president who presided over the Paris Peace Accords and withdrew American troops from Vietnam, his role was controversial. He was vehemently anti-communist, having been a close associate of McCarthy in the HUAC during the early 1950s. Yet, he also believed in ‘realpolitik’, focusing on the end result of political decisions rather than being swayed by moral imperatives or principles. This enabled him to justify escalation and an extension of the conflict to the surrounding areas of former Indochina in an effort to cut off supply lines into North Vietnam.

His presidency saw the most intense bombing of the entire war but he also continued in earnest with peace negotiations, using America’s new diplomatic ties with China to put pressure on the Vietminh from 1972. From the outset, he aimed to achieve ‘peace with honour’ by gradually handing control of a secure South Vietnam to the ARVN. This seemed to have been achieved in the Paris Peace Accords but the swift unification and communist victory over the South that followed undermines the success of his strategy

Bao Dai

Bao Dai was emperor of Vietnam from 1926, when he was crowned at the age of twelve. He was merely a puppet ruler under French colonial control, who was sent to Paris to be educated and then ruled ineffectually on his return. Bao Dai was hugely unpopular with the Vietnamese people because he collaborated with both the French and the Japanese and showed little interest in the promotion of Vietnamese independence.

His main focus seemed to be ensuring that he could continue to live a life of luxury in the presidential palace in Saigon, with frequent excursions to brothels and opium dens. He fled to Hong Kong after the First Vietnam War began but agreed to return and was reinstated as emperor in 1949. In October 1955, a national referendum called for Vietnam to become a republic and Bao Dai retired to France.

Ho Chi Minh

Ho Chi Minh, whose name means ‘Bringer of Light’, was both a nationalist and a communist. His devotion to Vietnamese independence was driven by years of colonial oppression at the hands of the French and the Japanese, and he ultimately promoted national unity over class division during his years as leader of North Vietnam. However, he had founded the Indochinese communist party in 1929 and then travelled extensively, spending time in the UK as well as China and the USSR, where he received Comintern training.

In 1941, he returned to Vietnam to establish the Vietminh and four years later, he declared Vietnamese independence. Ho Chi Minh then led resistance against the French as they tried to reassert colonial control and agreed to rule North Vietnam following their defeat in 1954. The elections that he felt confident would have seen him rule the entire country never occurred and at the point of his death in December 1969, the 2nd Vietnam War still raged. His dreams of a reunified, independent Vietnam would be realised six years later.

General Vo Nguyen Giap

Giap was a key figure in the Viet Minh and a close associate of Ho Chi Minh. With the leader’s backing, he created the People’s Army of Vietnam in 1946 and became the party’s chief military strategist and the architect of French defeat during the First Vietnam War, masterminding the attack at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Giap was effective but he was also ruthless, ordering the killings of thousands of non-communists in 1946. He also led the fight against the military might of the USA by specialising in guerrilla tactics that included small ambushes, booby traps and reliance on the civilian population.

Giap understood the need to attack foreign troops in multiple places at once and also that the struggle would be bloody and protracted; Westmoreland regularly criticised his willingness to lose troops. After the Vietnam War ended, Giap retained his position as Minister of Defence and was appointed Deputy Prime Minister in 1976. He remained a prominent member of the politburo until he was well into his nineties.

John F. Kennedy

Kennedy’s desire for a ‘flexible response’ to meet the threat posed by communism caused him to increase the defence budget from $40billion per annum to $56billion during his first year in office. He was determined to succeed in Vietnam, particularly after the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961, and he therefore escalated US involvement. Military advisors increased from 2,000 under Eisenhower to 16,000 under Kennedy and he also authorised the use of helicopters and fighter planes as part of Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV). His efforts to hinder NLF guerrilla fighters were particularly controversial, with the Strategic Hamlet Programme seeing 70% of the South Vietnamese population herded into guarded camps and chemical defoliants being dropped in civilian areas.

Although he refrained from deploying troops, Kennedy did agree to the use of the Green Berets, an elite force of American guerrilla fighters who were officially training the ARVN but became embroiled in military activity. Kennedy learnt of Diem’s assassination two weeks before his own and it served to confirm the lack of progress the US had made in Vietnam during his presidency.

Lyndon Johnson

The Vietnam War was to dominate Johnson’s presidency and cloud his reputation. He had become president suddenly and unexpectedly following Kennedy’s assassination, when the 2nd Vietnam War was already in full flow. After continuing his predecessor’s policies for a year, Johnson was elected in his own right in November 1964 and within a few months, he had acted on the ‘blank cheque’ afforded by Congress through the Tonkin Resolution and responded to the deteriorating situation in South Vietnam by deploying ground troops and beginning Operation Rolling Thunder; an aerial bombing campaign over North Vietnam. For the next three years, Johnson regularly agreed to General Westmoreland’s requests for increasing numbers of troops but he was plagued by doubts over the chances of success.

In 1965, the majority of the US public was in favour of escalation but by 1968, Johnson declined from standing for re-election and his failures in Vietnam heavily influenced that decision. After the Tet Offensive and the beginnings of vocal protest against the war within the US, Johnson entered into peace talks with the Vietminh in 1968.

Richard Nixon

Although Nixon was the Republican president who presided over the Paris Peace Accords and withdrew American troops from Vietnam, his role was controversial. He was vehemently anti-communist, having been a close associate of McCarthy in the HUAC during the early 1950s. Yet, he also believed in ‘realpolitik’, focusing on the end result of political decisions rather than being swayed by moral imperatives or principles. This enabled him to justify escalation and an extension of the conflict to the surrounding areas of former Indochina in an effort to cut off supply lines into North Vietnam. His presidency saw the most intense bombing of the entire war but he also continued in earnest with peace negotiations, using America’s new diplomatic ties with China to put pressure on the Vietminh from 1972.

From the outset, he aimed to achieve ‘peace with honour’ by gradually handing control of a secure South Vietnam to the ARVN. This seemed to have been achieved in the Paris Peace Accords but the swift unification and communist victory over the South that followed undermines the success of his strategy