There is a large body of literature on the American peace movement. For a quick reference guide, see Charles F. Howlett, “American Peace History since the Vietnam War,” Perspectives on History (State of the Field), December 2010, .
South Vietnam suffered in more ways. Some 1,200,000 people were forcibly relocated through “pacification” programs and five million became refugees between 1964 to 1975. The urban population swelled from 15 percent in 1964 to 40 percent in 1968, to 65 percent in 1974, undermining the social fabric of the country. Normally a rice exporter, South Vietnam had to import 725,000 tons of rice in 1967. Hunger and starvation were side effects of the war. The U.S. also conducted its chemical war in the south, spraying nineteen million gallons of toxins on five million acres, with some parts of North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia sprayed as well. The debilitating effects of this chemical war still linger.
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The story that was heard in the U.S., however, was that of Douglas Pike, an employee of the U.S. Information Agency, who blamed the civilian deaths entirely on the insurgents and warned that more massacres could be expected should South Vietnam fall to the communists. His story was spread by U.S. agencies and the American Friends of Vietnam, which issued a pamphlet in June 1969 warning that the “massacres at Hue … were only the most outrageous in a long history of such Communist atrocities.” Excerpts of Pike’s story also appeared in Reader’s Digest (September 1970) in part to counter revelations of American atrocities at My Lai. Writing forty years later, the American military historian James Willbanks concludes:
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I am sure the great American people, if only they knew the true facts and background to the developments in South Vietnam, will agree with me that further bloodshed is unnecessary. And that the political and diplomatic methods of discussions and negotiations alone can create conditions which will enable the United States to withdraw gracefully from that part of the world. As you know, in times of war and hostilities, the first casualty is truth.
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The American War in Vietnam was mainly fought in the South. The U.S. bombed North Vietnam heavily but did not send in U.S. troops, as this would likely have triggered Chinese intervention and a wider war, as noted in a CIA estimate in July 1965. Moreover, writes the international relations scholar John W. Garver, “A Sino-American war fought on the Southeast Asian peninsula would probably have facilitated the growth of communist power in Thailand, Burma, the Philippines, and Malaysia. China would have spared no efforts to outflank the United States by supporting insurgencies elsewhere in Southeast Asia.”
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With the introduction of U.S. combat troops, efforts to win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people were eclipsed by intensified efforts to win the counterinsurgency war. Given the widespread animosity toward the GVN, if not outright support for the NLF, the American War quickly turned into a war against the rural population. The targets included not only the communist-led NLF but also any person or village that offered support to NLF cadre or failed to expel them from their villages. The idea that Americans could distinguish between communists and non-communists, and between civilians and guerrillas, in a foreign world of thatched huts, straw mats, and wooden plows was predictably illusory, with debilitating consequences. The war against the rural population entailed harsh relocation (“pacification”) programs, a clandestine assassination program against village leaders suspected of helping the NLF (Operation Phoenix), the burning of villages deemed pro-NLF, the bombing and strafing of whole regions decreed as free-fire zones, and the spraying of poisons such as Agent Orange on millions of acres of forests and cultivated fields.
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In fact, Johnson rejected a plethora of diplomatic initiatives during the month of February 1965. Appeals were made by Indian Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, Pakistani leader Mohammad Ayub Khan, Japanese Prime Minister Eisaku Sato, Canadian Prime Minister Lester Pearson, and French foreign minister Maurice Couve de Murville. British Prime Minister Harold Wilson issued a statement on February 8 backing U.S. air strikes against North Vietnam but also instructed his ambassador in Washington, Lord Harlech, to meet with administration officials and request a new Geneva conference. In Rome, Pope Paul VI called for a negotiated settlement to the war sponsored and guaranteed by the United Nations. On February 24, UN Secretary-General U Thant, having tried and failed to broker a peace agreement, appealed directly to the American people, suggesting that the Johnson administration had not been fully candid about its war plans and operations: