The earliest inhabitants of Vietnam are believed to have migrated from the islands of Indonesia and settled on the edges of the Red River in the Tonkin Delta. Archaeologists trace pre-historic migrations through discoveries of stone tools; similar tools are found across Java, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Northern Burma. These stone tools are thought to be the first human tools used in Southeast Asia. Both Mesolithic and Neolithic cultures existed in northern Vietnam 10,000 years ago; remains of these people and their culture have been found in the Hoa Binh Caves along the Red River and in the Tonkin Delta. Throughout Southeast Asia, organized societies developed during the Neolithic Period (8000-800BC) During this period the inhabitants of Vietnam spread across a large area from the foothills of the western mountains to the eastern coast. It is believed that groups of extended families lived in small communities and developed two methods of cultivating their staple food, rice. Dry rice cultivation was done in dry fields in upland areas, while wet rice cultivation, involving the construction of dikes around rivers that collected water into knee-deep ponds flourished along river banks. Both methods are still used today.
The sophisticated Bronze Age Dong Son culture emerged between 800-200BC. Many researchers believe bronze technology was introduced from China, while other evidence points to an independent origin in neighboring Thailand. These people used bronze to make large ritualistic drums known as the Dong Son drums. Three-dimensional carvings, carvings in bas-relief, and etchings on the drums show people farming, doing daily chores such as pounding rice, walking with spears, building boats and riding in them, and playing trumpet-like instruments. Dong Son drums also portray houses built on bamboo poles or stilts in the same architectural style as they are built today in Vietnam and throughout Southeast Asia. Animals depicted on the drums include frogs, sea birds, and deer. Archaeologists believe that the frogs and sea birds symbolized some of the people's religious beliefs pertaining to the worship of the natural elements which surrounded them. Some Dong Son-like drums are still used by the Muong people, a highland group which is found in Vietnam's west mountains. Other Dong Son drums have been unearthed in areas ranging from Southern China to Indonesia.
The movements of peoples and cultures in early Vietnam are explained through myths which give historians insight into what might have happened in the Dong Son era. The most well-known origin myth says the first Vietnamese people originated from the marriage of a dragon father and a fairy mother who had 100 sons. Since the dragon was a water creature, they decided they could not stay together. The fairy mother took 50 sons to the highlands, and the dragon father took the other 50 to the coast. One of the sons who went with the dragon father became the founder of the Hung Dynasty which is thought to have existed from 2769BC until 100AD. The sons who went to the coast are considered to be the people of the Lac Kingdom. According to historians and archaeologists, the Lac people were coastal people who had developed a sophisticated agricultural society as early as 1500BC.
Vietnam is characterized by two major river deltas, the Red River Delta in the north and the Mekong River Delta in the south. In prehistoric times a kingdom formed between the two deltas. It was composed of Malayo-Polynesian people and was highly influenced by Indian and Indonesian trade and religion. This area developed into the kingdom of Champa. Champa was similar to other Hindu-Buddhist civilizations which were formed in Indonesia, Burma, Thailand, and Cambodia.
Peoples from Southern China began migrating into the Tonkin Delta after being forced to leave their homelands by Han Chinese expansion beginning in the 2nd century B.C.. These immigrants and their culture created lasting changes in Vietnamese society. . Until recently, the Chinese claimed that all Vietnamese peoples and culture arrived from China. As more recent data indicates, however, the peoples of the Red River Delta came from other parts of Southeast Asia, rather than China. Since Chinese colonization of Vietnam lasted for 1000 years, many of the aspects that make up pre-Chinese society are indistinguishable from those that came with the Chinese.
From 200 BC to 100AD, many changes took place throughout China, northern Vietnam, and Southeast Asia as peoples migrated, and bases of power shifted and expanded. In China, as the Qin Dynasty lost power to the Han Dynasty in 206 BC, deposed members of the military and government began to trickle into Vietnam's Tonkin or Red River Delta. The people who arrived in this area brought their technology, language, and culture, beginning the Sinicization of Northern Vietnam which continued into the 20th century.
Northern Vietnam was officially annexed and colonized in 111BC by the Han Dynasty. Chinese historians described the Vietnamese people they encountered as barbarian and uncivilized. The Chinese colonists set out to reform Vietnamese culture along Chinese lines but village life did not change substantially. At first, the Chinese only established trading centers so they could conduct business from the coast of Vietnam. In about 100BC two Chinese-run prefectures, Giao Chi and Cuu Chan, were established in the Au Lac Kingdom in the Tonkin Delta.
The aristocracy of the Au Lac kingdom, the Lac Lords, initially accepted the Chinese and worked with them. They looked to the Chinese to help them in maintaining power over their own kingdoms. Unfortunately, this resulted in a loss of respect for the Vietnamese lords by their own people. The Vietnamese peasants turned to their own extended families for protection against the excesses of the Chinese and their rulers. Chinese colonization and pressure increased with the collapse of the Western Han Dynasty in 9AD which caused a large migration of Chinese aristocrats into Southern China and later into Vietnam. There was a massive immigration of scholars, officers, and wealthy Chinese and many local rulers were replaced by Chinese officials. Some of these officials married into the Vietnamese aristocracy, creating what became a major force in Vietnam-an educated class of Sino-Vietnamese, or people of mixed Chinese and Vietnamese origin. Chinese immigrants built schools and temples, and ordered the construction of major networks of canals, dikes, road ways, and bridges to facilitate the production of rice and the movement of people and natural resources. Gradually the Chinese population of the Tonkin Delta grew, and the two original prefectures were divided into seven, with Chinese prefects appointed for each area. In addition, soldiers from the Han Dynasty were granted land by the Chinese government and began to take up farming in Vietnamese villages.
This led to much discontent on the part of the Vietnamese villagers who made up the majority of the population. This discontent periodically grew and shrunk over the next 700 years, frequently erupting into major rebellions as peasants found their land allotments shrinking and their taxes increasing Eager Chinese immigrants were happy to buy up land on which the Vietnamese peasants could no longer pay taxes. Poor government and natural disasters added to the peasant suffering.
In 39AD, one of the first uprisings against Chinese rule was begun by two daughters of a Vietnamese aristocrat. The aristocrats of the Au Lac kingdom realized they were losing power to the Chinese and that their land was, in effect, governed and controlled by outsiders. Corrupt Chinese prefects, excessive taxation, and ethnic discrimination provoked the Vietnamese throughout the Lac kingdom. Trung Trac and her sister Trung Nhi, two daughters of a local Vietnamese ruler, gathered forces, united the people, and launched a rebellion which the Chinese government. For three years, they ruled the kingdom. During this time, Trung Trac proclaimed herself queen, re-established the original tax system and took steps to alleviate the poverty of the peasants. In 42 AD the Chinese defeated the sisters and retook control of North Vietnam. According to Chinese history, the Trung sisters were killed by Chinese soldiers, but Vietnamese history contends that, rather than surrender, the women drowned themselves in a river. The Trung sisters are still venerated as Vietnamese national heroines and patriots and their statues can be found in many temples.
In 248AD, another woman tried unsuccessfully to fight off the Chinese colonizers. Trieu Au, enlisted the help of the Chams from central Vietnam, and, aided by elephants trained in warfare, led a short rebellion. She is reported to have said:
I want to ride the stormy sea, subdue its treacherous waves, kill the sharks of the ocean, drive out the aggressors and repossess our land, undo the ties of tyranny and never bend my back to be the concubine of any man
Thus she rebelled not only against the Chinese colonization, but also against the changing roles of women in society. Under Chinese Confucianism, the position of women declined in several ways, the most significant being the adoption of the Chinese tradition of concubinage. Unfortunately, this rebellion did not stem the impact of Chinese Confucian ideas and the independence of Vietnamese women continued to decline.
During the 6th century AD, Chinese supervision over Vietnam relaxed somewhat due to the peaceful nature of the Chinese Emperor Wu who was a devout Buddhist and a patron of the arts. His lenience led to high levels of political infighting in China while in Vietnam local Chinese leaders, who no longer worried about supervision from China, were able to accumulate power. The misuse of this power led to a revolt against the tyrannical Chinese governor by Ly Bon, of Sino-Vietnamese ancestry. In 542, Ly Bon defeated the Chinese and established his own kingdom which he ruled until the Chinese retook the areas in 546. His followers continued to oppose Chinese rule with sporadic guerilla tactics until 603 when the Sui Dynasty (589-618) gained control in China and Vietnam. At that time, a new Vietnamese capital was established in present-day Hanoi, then known as Tong-binh.
In 618 the Tang Dynasty gained control of China and of Northern Vietnam, changing the name of the country to Annam (Pacified South) in 679 to reflect its status as a part of Southern China. During the T'ang period, a number of individuals tried to revolt against this new and more intrusive government. In 687, Ly Tu Tien and Dinh Kien led an insurrection. In 722, Mai Thuc Loan, also known as the Black Emperor, attempted to become emperor of Vietnam. With the help of Vietnamese neighbors, the Khmers and Chams, he was able to capture the capital for a short time. Further rebellions were started by Phung Hung during the period from 767 to 791 and Duong Thanh in 819 to 820. These rebellions preceded a period of anarchy which occurred both in China and Vietnam in the 10th century with the collapse of the Tang dynasty.
The most successful of these many rebellions was that of Ngo Quyen, who defeated the Chinese army in 939, proclaimed himself king, and established the capital of Vietnam at Co Loa. At Ngo Quyen's untimely death in 944, anarchy and civil war broke out in Vietnam, but the Chinese army was neither strong enough nor quick enough to retake the country. During the following 900 years Vietnam enjoyed a measure of political independence although Chinese thought and culture continued to play an important role in Vietnamese lifestyle and politics. This produced a unique blend of Chinese and Vietnamese cultures which shaped both traditional and modern Vietnam
Vietnamese Independence (950 - 1859)
In 965, Dinh Bo Linh, a man of peasant background, proclaimed himself King of Northern Vietnam, taking the title of Emperor in 968. Dinh Bo Linh attempted to bring together Chinese and Vietnamese political theory by using both Vietnamese and Chinese titles and incorporating both Buddhist and Daoist rituals and priests into court life. His court facilitated the fusion of Buddhism with the animist and mystical teachings of Daoism, appealing to the people of the village. Dinh Bo Linh also established the 10 Circuit Army, an army of 100,000 men that is the predecessor of today's Vietnamese Army. The dynasty founded by Dinh Bo Linh survived only until 980 when Le Dai Hanh overthrew it and inaugurated the short-lived Early Le Dynasty (980-1009).
From the 11th to 13th centuries, the independence of the Vietnamese Kingdom (Dai Viet) was consolidated under the emperors of the Ly Dynasty, founded by Ly Thai To in 1009. The emperors of this dynasty reorganized the administrative system, founded the nation's first university (The Temple of Literature in Hanoi), promoted agriculture and built the first embankments for flood control along the Red River. During the Ly Dynasty, the Chinese, Khmers, and Chams repeatedly attacked Vietnam, but were repelled, most notably under the renowned strategist and tactician Ly Thuong Kiet (1030-1105), a military official of royal blood who is still revered as a national hero.
The Ly dynasty fought wars against the weakening Champa state and the eventual conquest of Cham territory greatly increased size of the emerging Vietnamese state. This conquest accompanied by an aggressive policy of colonization that imposed northern social and political structures onto the newly settled territories, destroying the Cham civilization. A chain of homogenous villages was built that stretched from the Chinese border to the Gulf of Thailand and consolidated the area under Ly dynasty rule.
By the 13th Century, the Ly dynasty was weakened and was overthrown by rebels who founded the Tran dynasty in 1226. By 1260, however, the Tran's found themselves fighting again against a far greater threat, Kublai Khan and the Mongols from China. Eventually, Kublai Khan was defeated and aggression between Champa and Vietnam resumed as the Chams took advantage of the turmoil brought by the mOngol invasions to revolt. By the end of the 1300s, the Tran Dynasty had succeeded in checking the advances of the now weakened Chams, only to face its own internal problems.
In 1400, Ho Qui Ly, the regent of the child king, usurped the throne and established the Ho Dynasty. In 1407, when the ousted Trans asked for assistance from the Ming Dynasty of China, the Chinese used this request as an excuse to invade the Red River Delta and set up a Chinese administration which lasted for 14 years. During this time, they destroyed all libraries and archives.
Le Lo, a member of the large and wealthy Le family organized the Lam Son uprising against Chinese rule in 1418 After his victory in 1428, Le Loi declared himself emperor beginning the Later Le Dynasty (1428-1788), which became the longest lived dynasty in Vietnamese history.
Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, Vietnam was divided between the Trinh Lords, who ruled in the North under the titular kingdom of the Later Le monarchs, and the Nguyen Lords, who controlled the South and also nominally recognized the Later Le dynasty. Each ruling family and its bureaucracy had built up its wealth while paying little attention to the plight of the peasant farmers and villagers. By 1739, there was no more land for peasants in the north to acquire because the wealthy families had enlarged their estates and employed the peasants as tenant farmers. An edict passed in 1711 to stop wealthy families from amassing more land did not remedy the situation. Many peasants were reported to have left their villages in search of food, often dying along the roadside. According to one source, the price of rice was so high that peasants were forced to eat rats and snakes. As a result, four major, but unsuccessful, insurgencies erupted in the Red River Delta during this period.
In the south, the Nguyens of the Le Dynasty were having similar problems, By 1613, landowners had been warned about accumulating large tracts of land, and by 1669, the situation had become a crisis. At the same time, taxes were imposed on all agricultural, handicraft, and trade activities to pay for the 50-year war against the Trinhs and the excesses of the bureaucracy. One Nguyen lord was reported to have a harem of concubines and 146 children. At the time of the Tay Son Rebellion, the Trinh monarchy was controlled by a 6 year old boy, the son of the deceased emperor and his concubine.
The Tay son Rebellion began when three brothers, Nguyen Hue, Nguyen Nhac, and Nguyen Lu first took Binh Dinh Province in southern Vietnam by defeating the Nguyen family of the south. They then fought the Trinh family of the north. They had fought in the name of the Le Dynasty, however, they then turned against the Le emperors and took the country for themselves. Nguyen Hue took the name Quang Trung and declared himself Emperor first of the south, then the central part of Vietnam, and finally the north. The Tay Son Dynasty was praised for reuniting the country.
Once in power, members of the Tay Son Dynasty abolished the old tax systems which had caused villagers so much stress. They created a new system which was based on a Vietnamese, rather than a Chinese, model. Women were not only given more rights, some even became generals in the army. The village education was improved to try and alleviate the gap between the rich and the poor. They Tay Son brothers were especially harsh towards the bureaucracy, which they felt was at the root of all problems in Vietnam.
Dissension over who should rule developed in the Tay Son Dynasty. After he died in 1792, Quang Trung left the throne to his 10 year old son, rather than to his brother. Realizing the dynasty was weakening, the Prince Nguyen Anh of the defeated Nguyen clan, asked for assistance from the French who were only too eager to help.
In 1802, Nguyen Anh, with the help of the French, proclaimed himself Emperor Gia Long (1802-1820) of the Nguyen Dynasty and established his capital at Hue. His first goals were to return to an absolute monarchy and to revive the bureaucratic system. As a reaction against the Tay Son Dynasty, all rights were taken away from women and villagers were taxed in the old ways once again. The Confucian system reached new heights of complexity and excess. There were now 18 levels of bureaucrats, each with a different style of clothing, per-requisites, salaries, and degrees of access to the imperial court. Resentment in the villages grew in intensity. Pockets of resistance were found throughout the Tonkin Delta, and the emperors who followed Gia Long found themselves expending most of their energy trying to control their own people. Meanwhile, the French began an invasion of some Vietnamese cities.
After Gia Long died, the throne was taken over by Minh Mang (1820-1841), who was stricter in his adherence to Chinese Confucianism. As a result of his training, Minh Mang was brilliant in matters of history and Chinese writing, while he had no idea what was happening outside of the imperial city. One of his main goals was to develop a troop of elephants to insure his military superiority. Thus, he ordered searches into Cambodia and Laos for elephants during the 1820s and 1830s while peasants in his capital were rioting over a lack of food and Europeans were making headway with far more sophisticated weaponry. Minh Mang had two major problems: increasingly fierce opposition of the rebels in the Tonkin Delta, and the growing influence of foreign missionaries and traders. His response was to turn down all requests for trade treaties with different countries and to issue decrees against the French religious and missionary activity.
The next emperor, Thieu Tri (1841-1847), followed the same pattern of leadership. Resistance in the north grew even stronger. At the same time, Thieu Tri continued to resist foreign trade and jail missionaries. Frustrated, the French eventually moved to direct aggression by taking over Danang. However, the Emperor did not change his position to trade or missionary activity and the French eventually left Danang and moved south to Saigon.
The major thrust of the French takeover of southern Vietnam occurred during the reign of Tu Duc (1848-1883), the last emperor of independent Vietnam. His reign saw, a continuation and escalation of the problems of his predecessors. Instead of trying to change the Confucian style of leadership, Tu Duc tried to understand where, within Confucianism, he had failed. However, the answers were no longer to be found in the tenets of this doctrine. Rather than facing the problem of the French directly, Tu Duc, like Thieu Tri before him, put his energy into fighting the peasant uprisings directed against him all over northern Vietnam and even closing in on the capital at Hue.
The French had their own plan for Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, a region which they later termed Indochina. Within Vietnam, they had already attracted a serious religious following of Catholic Vietnamese who considered themselves martyrs and were willing to help the French. At the same time, French explorers were mapping the region and developing a trade network between Indochina and Europe. With knowledge of strife occurring in the north, the French concentrated their efforts on the south which they easily invaded in 1859. They forced Tu Duc to sign a series of treaties which gave away much of the emperor's power. When he died, the French placed themselves in power, a place they remained for the next half-century.
Although French colonization officially started in 1874, the French and other Europeans had as early as 1516. Portuguese ships bringing missionaries and traders were the first to arrive in Vietnam; French missionaries cae in the 18th century. British, and French entrepreneurs also attempted to set up businesses and trade arrangements during the 18th and 19th centuries, concentrating primarily on the Mekong Delta.
Controlling their colony was not easy for the French and pockets of opposition scattered throughout the north which had been fighting against Tu Duc, were difficult to control. During the "Pacification Period" (1859-1897), the French attempted to gain control over the Vietnamese rebel groups and the Chinese, who in 1883, decided they would also try to annex Vietnam. Fighting was most pronounced in Tonkin and in the central part of Vietnam known as Annam. This period lasted for 30 years, during which many Vietnamese were killed. Leaders of the remaining opposition groups eventually realized the futitility of fighting against the perseverance and modern weaponry of the French.
French colonization of Vietnam had the goal of economic profit. However, Catholic missionaries felt a moral obligation to try and convert all the people of Asia to Catholicism and some individuals within the colonial government wanted to spread French "culture" and introduced French literature, language, and history. Thus, political, economic and cultural affairs were intertwined.
After the "Pacification Period," Governor-General Paul Doumer focused his energy on "modernizing" Vietnam with a network of communications and the construction of railroads, bridges, and highways. In addition to moving the capital to Hanoi, Doumer also introduced forced labor, heavy taxes, and a centralized government. These "improvements" were designed to maximize profits in the colony. They did not improve life for the Vietnamese peasants.
The Vietnamese either collaborated with the French or remained poorly paid laborers. Collaborators joined the lower levels of the French bureaucracy, made a decent wage, and benefited from the partnership. Many Vietnamese Catholics were especially trusted by the French
Although Vietnam was far from France, it was affected by both the world economy and French politics. At times, during colonization, the tight security maintained over the Vietnamese people was loosened enough to allow some freedom of the press and a promise of change. During 1907 and 1908, Vietnamese confidence and nationalism grew as new Vietnamese poetry and literature, as well as Vietnamese opinions of colonization, appeared in materials printed at the schools and in the press. These actions led to what is known as the Free School Movement where quoc ngu, Romanized Vietnamese, was taught and the Vietnamese, rather than the French or Chinese, version of the country's history was taught. The movement grew quickly before it was closed by the French in 1908.
Nationalism of the sort spread by the Free School Movement was squelched by the French as soon as it became a threat. After 1908, overt opposition in Vietnam was minimal. In 1927, a Nationalist Party was formed in Vietnam but this was repressed and many of its members moved to South China. Generally speaking, conditions were strictly controlled within Vietnam, and the radical and outspoken opponents to colonization were those who had left the country to be educated in France. They were able to travel and study, discussing the future of Vietnam and methods through which they could overthrow the colonial government.
During these travels, young Vietnamese intellectuals were first introduced to the doctrine of Marxism-Leninism. This doctrine was attractive to colonized people all over the world because of the Russian communist leade,r Lenin's, call for the end to colonization. Communism also seemed like a good alternative to the absolute monarchy and unfair landowning practices which had caused Vietnam so many problems throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. The most famous of the Vietnamese student-intellectuals was Ho Chi Minh, who traveled not only to France, but to China, Russia, and throughout Europe, creating his own brand of communism in Hong Kong. Soon communists and nationalists joined together in the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP).
The ICP saw its opportunity to make headway in Vietnam during World War II when most of Southeast Asia was occupied by the Japanese. France avoided a direct confrontation with the Japanese by collaborating with them in Vietnam and the government was allowed to remain in power as long as the Japanese were able to move arms and supplies through the country to other areas. Plans changed in March 1945 as things grew more difficult for the Japanese in other areas of the world. They stated a coup d'etat against the French government and gained full control of Vietnam. By August, however, the Japanese surrendered after the Americans bombed the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In 1941, after 30 years of exile, Ho Chi Minh returned to Vietnam and started a Communist party that became know as the Viet Minh. On the day of the Japanese surrender, the Viet Minh made a deal with the Japanese. They allowed the Japanese soldiers to leave peacefully, and the Japanese gave their arms to the Vietnamese before the return of the French. In August 1945, the Viet Minh launched a revolution which brought them to power. Emperor Bao Dai abdicated on August 25, 1945. On September 2, Ho Chi Minh proclaimed the independence of Vietnam and the creation of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Bao Dai handed over to the Viet Minh the sword and seal which were the traditional symbols of power.
The French soon returned to renew their control over Vietnam. In order to do this, they immediately began appointing members of the Vietnamese upper class from the south who found communism unacceptable. Fighting began in the south in early 1946 and Ho Chi Minh found himself unable to maintain independence. In September of 1946, he was forced to sign control of Cochin China back to the French. Later that year, the French regained some power in the north but promised to set a date for the end of colonization.
Once in power, the French showed no signs of negotiating further for an end to colonial rule, and fighting between French and Vietnamese troops began in earnest in December of 1946, continuing until 1954. In 1949, Chinese communists gained a victory in their country and began to help Ho Chi Minh and the commander of the Viet Minh forces, Vo Nguyen Giap. Russia also sent aid and arms, prompting the involvement of the United States which feared a Communist takeover in Southeast Asia and spent three billion dollars on aid and arms of their own to help the French.
Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap anticipated a long war and planned a number of major attacks on the French which were unsuccessful. In 1953, he changed his tactics and lured a large number of French troops into an area near the Lao border called Dien Bien Phu, and then surrounded them. For 209 days, from November of 1953 to May of 1954, the French held on to their base camp as their numbers dwindled. Vietnamese peasants transported supplies and munitions into the area by bicycle, while French airplanes carrying supplies tried to land in the area but were shot down. By 1952, the French had lost 90,000 troops, and the French people were tired of being at war. The battle of Dien Bien Phi resulted in the surrender of the French and marked the end of both their participation in the war and of their colonial period. Although the French were defeated, many people in the south opposed communism and Ho Chi Minh. Thus, he was granted control over only the northern part of the country which was temporarily divided by the Geneva Agreement of 1954 at the 17th parallel.
The division of the country into a communist North, led by Ho Chi Minh, and the non-communist South, led by Ngo Dinh Diem, created a new dynamic. Diem, a Catholic, disliked the communists and rejected Ho Chi Minh's vision of one socialist republic of Vietnam. Thus, the conflict turned into a civil war with Vietnamese fighting Vietnamese. Ho Chi Minh had the support of the USSR, and initially the Chinese, Ngo Dinh Diem received U.S. support because the U.S. wanted to control the spread of Communism in Southeast Asia.
As the civil war began the government in the South became more repressive, canceling a promised election and forcing a large portion of the rural population of the South to relocate in its "strategic hamlet" program. This program entailed moving people from their home villages into heavily fortified pre-fabricated villages in an attempt to isolate the populace from infiltration by the Viet Minh. This program backfired, greatly increasing anti-government sentiment amongst peasants. Meanwhile, a loosely organized force of communist insurgents managed to infiltrate the urban population of South Vietnam. Communist insurgency, coupled with an extremely corrupt and unpopular government, led to a coup in 1963 which resulted in the assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem.
Meanwhile, U.S. President John F. Kennedy sent American military advisors to work with the South Vietnamese army. The Americans too found those in power in the South to be generally ineffective and corrupt but turned a blind eye as coup after coup was staged. The American participation in the war escalated and by 1964 there were 200,000 American military personnel in South Vietnam and they had changed from being "advisors" to being full participants in the struggle. In 1964, the Destroyer USS Maddox was fired upon off the coast of North Vietnam. While it was maintained for years that this was an unprovoked attack, later information revealed that the American ship was indeed in North Vietnamese waters at the time. With the attack on the Maddox, President Lyndon B. Johnson began to wage an undeclared war against the North Vietnamese, further escalating the number of U.S. military personnel in South Viet Nam to a wartime high of over 500,000 in 1968. The major turning point in the war was the Tet Offensive of 1968.
Shattering the serenity of a holiday morning, this attack on U.S. and the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) military installations as well as on nearly every South Vietnamese city, came as a complete surprise and shocked the Americans. Even the American Embassy in the heart of Saigon was attacked by snipers. This Communist offensive was, for the most part, beaten back within a few days, but from that point, it was clear that the Americans could not win in South Vietnam. In America, anti-war sentiment reached an all time high as Americans and the U.S. Government, began to scramble for ways to reach an agreeable solution to its embroilment in the Vietnam conflict. Within months of the Tet Offensive, President Johnson halted bombing of North Vietnam and began to negotiate with the North Vietnamese.
In November of 1968, Richard Nixon was elected President in the U.S. inheriting a nation that was impatient to see American involvement in Vietnam come to a close. Nixon began a policy of "Vietnamization" which entailed the withdrawal of U.S. troops and "handing over the reigns" to the South Vietnamese military. With this program, Nixon reasoned that the South Vietnamese could take over where the U.S. left off, using the superior firepower and technology of the U.S. to win the war. With the Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, Nixon also opened up clandestine channels of communication with the North Vietnamese. In theory, Nixon's ideas may have seemed to be an answer to the problem; however, in reality, they were not effective. U.S. involvement, though scaled down, was still significant.
To curtail Communist use of eastern Cambodia as part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the U.S. staged a coup and invaded the country in early 1970. This plan backfired, dragging neutral Cambodia into the Vietnam conflict. Public sentiment in the U.S. was critical of the U.S. invasion of Cambodia. This sentiment crested with the shooting deaths of four student protesters at Kent State University in May of 1970. In the wake of this event, Nixon announced that all American military personnel would be withdrawn from Vietnam by June 30, 1973. The fighting raged on throughout 1971 and 1972, while Kissinger and the North Vietnamese tried to negotiate a settlement in Paris. Finally, after the Chrismas bombings of Hanoi and Haiphong in December 1972, an agreement was reached in January of 1973, that called for a ceasefire and withdrawal of American forces within 60 days. Both sides signed, but no one stopped fighting. Both sides felt that ignoring the ceasefire was justified because they were defending their respective territories. Amid this rapidly deteriorating situation, the U.S. finally withdrew in 1975.
With the withdrawal of the Americans, South Vietnam's economy went into a tailspin and inflation ran rampant. In 1974, Saigon was the most expensive city in the world due to the heavy demand and limited supply of almost all goods. Throughout 1974, the situation in South Vietnam deteriorated even further. and the North Vietnamese began to assess their strategy for the next year, settling on surprise attacks on provincial capitals. By the end of March 1975, Hue and Da Nang had been lost to the advancing North. As the Communists advanced, populations of entire cities panicked and many fled south. On April 30th, 1975, the North Vietnamese forces marched into Saigon and took over the city, thus ending the civil war.
The reunification of Vietnam took place in the year following the fall of Saigon. The tremendous differences between the cultures of the North and South were revealed as the two were united after 20 years. The affects on the South were particularly staggering, the equivalent of an economic downshift from fourth to first gear. With the economy closed off from the outside world, the country's merchant class, mostly Chinese, found life particularly hard. In addition to this, persecution of Vietnam's Chinese community increased markedly as the Vietnamese Communists, long antagonistic toward their neighbor to the north, began to target the ethnic Chinese population for being counter-revolutionary. Another important development was Vietnam's 1978 invasion of Cambodia. In 1975, the Khmer Rouge (Khmer Communists) took control of the country, emptying all cities and forcing the population to work in the fields. This maniacal regime sought to expand its land holdings to include land in the Mekong Delta that had been Khmer territory hundreds of years before. The Khmer Rouge made repeated incursions into Vietnamese territory resulting in the slaughter of Vietnamese civilians. Vietnam struck back and drove the murderous Khmer Rouge from power. The invasion of Cambodia made things difficult for Vietnam in the international community as China, the U.S., and all ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries condemned the action.
On the economic front, the mid-80s brought the advent of Doi Moi, or "renovation." What Doi Moi meant to the average Vietnamese was increased small scale economic opportunity. For the government, it was a chance to court foreign investment and modernize an infrastructure severely damaged by years of war and neglect. The period from the early 1990s to present has brought a rebirth of Vietnam's potential, with foreign investment in all sectors of the economy. At present, the country strives to maintain a balance between Communist ideology and economic elasticity. Only time will reveal what this holds for the future, but at the present time, life is changing greatly for the Vietnamese people.