Why did the United States withdraw its forces from Vietnam in 1973
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Direct American involvement began in 1955 and the first combat troops were sent in 1964. The war was the longest and most unpopular war in which Americans had fought and huge losses were made, both in human life and financially. The Americans entered Vietnam believing there was to be a “quick kill”, but left in 1973, badly bruised. They left in 1973 after failing to overcome many obstacles and for many reasons. There were many causes for the American withdrawal and they included long and short-term reasons.
The main long-term reasons were: the obvious disadvantages the US soldiers had, their use of tactics, the impact they had on the Vietnamese and the impact their, sometimes brutal tactics, had on the American public. There were also the advantages the Vietcong had and they way in which they carried out their tactics to good effect. There were also the short-term reasons. These were the specific events that occurred during the war, mainly towards the latter stages. Two examples are the Tet Offensive and the My Lai Massacre.
There were a number of problems that the USA faced when fighting in Vietnam. One of the most important (long-term reasons) was the use of guerrilla tactics by the Vietcong. These tactics included fighting on a small scale and taking independent, irregular actions. The Vietcong used surprise attacks and ambushes to outwit the US army. There were no front lines (like in conventional wars) and much of the fighting consisted of hit and run attacks. The Vietcong were also able to stay concealed using their underground tunnel systems and could blend with the common peasants that filled the country. This factor links to the advantages that the Vietcong had throughout the war as they gained support throughout the war from the peasants and so could carry out their tactics efficiently as a result.
The advantage of the peasant support came as the Vietcong were fighting in their own country and the advantages that came with that were key to the eventual victory it brought about. I believe that the in built advantages that the Vietcong had were the most important reason for American withdrawal, and more important even than their use of tactics. The Vietcong knew the terrain they were fighting in exceptionally well and it was as a result of this knowledge that they could employ the tactics that wore the US army down. An example of the territorial advantage they had was the Ho Chi Minh trail. This was used by the North Vietnamese army and the Vietcong to bring troops and supplies into South Vietnam. This supply of troops and their bravery seemed endless. The Vietcong also had a great determination, fuelled by the hatred of the USA, which was brought on by the suffering that was endured as the war grew ever more frustrating for the Americans.
Conventional war methods did not work in the jungles of Vietnam and this resulted in ever growing frustration for the USA. They turned to the tactic known as “search and destroy”. This basically meant hunting down Vietcong soldiers and killing them. But the USA was not successful in this pursuit, as the Vietcong were hard to distinguish from the normal Vietnamese. This is an example of a Vietnamese tactic scuppering a US tactic and links the superior use of Vietcong tactics undermining ineffective US tactics.
As a result of the failure of conventional methods the USA used chemical warfare. This included the use of Napalm and Agent Orange. These were used to strip the land bare and flush the Vietcong out of the jungle. This is where the impact of US tactics on the Vietnamese links to the use of US tactics. As the Americans employed more and more chemical warfare so the hatred felt by the Vietnamese grew. The Americans attempted to win back Vietnamese support with the use of strategic villages. These were whole villages kept behind barbed wire, sometimes entirely moved to a different location. Special aid was also given to villagers, but this had limited success.
Huge numbers of bombs were dropped on North Vietnamese military bases, but this just seemed to strengthen the resolve of the Vietcong. But the most publicised tactical misdemeanour made by the US was the My Lai Massacre. This was a short-term reason for American withdrawal and occurred in 1968. US troops were instructed to kill all 700 of a small village that was supposed to be housing Vietcong soldiers. The majority of the village were women, children or elderly. When the US soldiers left the village there had been around 150 villagers killed and only a handful of Vietcong casualties. But I do not believe the inadequate use of US tactics to be the most important reason as they only became inadequate as a result of the superior tactics of the Vietnamese and the advantages they held.
As well as losing support in Vietnam the US were also fighting a war that was becoming increasingly unpopular in their own country. In 1965 a poll taken showed that 65% of the population supported the war, but by the end of the war the large majority were against it. Shocking scenes, such as the My Lai Massacre, were beamed into the living rooms of the US public and this triggered huge scenes of protest across the country. The war was also an expensive one and the billions of dollars of taxpayers money was not seen to be justifiably spent. The lack of support in the USA links here to the brutal and expensive tactics used by the US army. But even though it was an unpopular war, unpopularity was not the most important reason for American withdrawal.
From the beginning of the war the US had long-term disadvantages and these were gradually magnified throughout the war. The US used inexperienced troops in a war against experienced Vietcong soldiers, many of whom were veterans of previous encounters against various adversaries. The American disadvantages came about mainly as a result of other factors. Their limited knowledge of the terrain was paradoxically an advantage for the Vietcong, and the lack of support from the peasants of Vietnam came about as a result of harsh tactics used by the Americans, as well as the fact that many of the peasants supported the Vietcong from the beginning of the war.
In 1968 the Vietcong made the mistake of using conventional warfare in an event called the Tet Offensive. They were easily defeated by the USA, but this was about as successful as the USA got in defeating the Vietcong. But the Tet Offensive had an unlikely effect on the mindset of the US commanders. Life Magazine calculated it cost $400, 000 for each Vietcong soldier killed, and even with all this cost the Vietcong could still attack in large numbers. The US realised it was fighting a losing battle. This short-term reason for American withdrawal links to the use of expensive tactics by the USA as it was the event that finally made the Americans see their tactics were never going to work.
Another short-term reason for American withdrawal was the Paris Peace Talks that began in 1968. They signalled the beginning of the end of the war and in 1970 the number of US troops in Vietnam began to fall. By 1972 there were just 47,000 troops in Vietnam, compared to 539,000 in 1969. The withdrawal process of removing American troops and replacing them with South Vietnamese troops was called Vietnamisation. It was completed in 1973 and was brought about as a result of all the factors combined. The Peace Talks brought about the end, but were not the most important reason for American withdrawal, just an inevitable result of the American failure to succeed in Vietnam.
In conclusion I believe that the advantages that the Vietcong had from the beginning of the war were the most important reason for American withdrawal. The Vietcong used the advantages to employ their extremely efficient tactics. These tactics were the downfall of the USA and meant victory for the USA could never be attained. Even though the US troops were inexperienced, it was the use of frustrating tactics that could only be used with the advantages they had that meant the Vietcong could never be defeated. The USA finally realised that they could never emerge victorious and it was that that persuaded them to withdraw in 1973.