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How long do you Americans want to fight?

One year? Five years? Twenty years?

We will be glad to accommodate you.

-- Northern revolutionary Pham Van Dong, 1966

Colonial Saigon | The War Years | After Liberation | Ho Chi Minh City Today

portrait photo of ho chi minh

The first Indochina War

The independence Ho Chi Minh had so boldly declared in Hanoi in 1945 was quickly squashed, as foreign allies stepped in to help France reassert its claims in Indochina. British leaders, eager to protect their own shaky colonial empire, sent troops to liberate French soldiers who had been held by the Japanese. While Ho Chi Minh had once hoped for support from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the U.S. instead gave France financial assistance to buy munitions to quell the Viet Minh rebellion. But from the beginning, French control over their mutinous colony remained shaky, and the Communist guerrillas of the Viet Minh put up a fierce fight in the north and central highlands. Saigon was rocked with acts of sabotage, like the 1946 destruction of 4,000 tons of French munitions and the assassination of a French police inspector in 1950. In 1954, after a humiliating military defeat at Dien Bien Phu, France declared peace with it’s former colony at the Geneva Conference, and the country was split in two—North Vietnam, led by Ho Chi Minh, and South Vietnam, led by the emperor Bao Dai. The peace treaty called for elections in 1956 to reunite the nation. They never took place.

America steps in

Throughout the Indochina War, the U.S. had watched with growing anxiety as Vietnam grew to depend more and more on the Soviet Union. Fearing that the loss of Vietnam to Communism would tip the balance in Southeast Asia toward the U.S.’s Cold War enemy, President Eisenhower helped install a Catholic exile named Ngo Dinh Diem as president of South Vietnam in 1955. Communist guerrilla units known as Viet Cong began to stage attacks throughout the South, battles which would erupt into full-fledged war. Repressive countermeasures to root out Viet Cong recruited from Southern villages and the closure of Buddhist temples quickly eroded what little popular support Diem had. Diem was assassinated in 1963, and in 1965, President Lyndon Johnson deployed the first U.S. ground troops.

The number of American soldiers in Vietnam would soon swell into hundreds of thousands. The streets of Saigon teemed with American G.I.s, and soon neon signs lit up the old Rue Catinat, now called Tu Do (Freedom) Street. A thriving black market sold everything from Zippo lighters to Levis to Budweiser beer, and the sounds of American rock music could be heard filtering up from every back alley. During the 1968 Tet offensive, V.C. units attacked downtown Saigon, overwhelming military police who did not expect the vicious onslaught. The scene of Communist units fighting in the city’s airport, a broadcasting station, and even the U.S. Embassy played out on American television—an ominous sign that the military effort in Vietnam was heading for an ignoble end.

buddist monks marching

Buddhism and Catholicism during the war

French missionaries first introduced Catholicism to Vietnam in the 1600s, and by the 20th century Vietnam was second only to the Philippines in Asia when it came to numbers of Christian converts. Many of the civil servants who served the French for almost a century were Catholic, and the victory of the Communist Viet Minh prompted a mass exodus of Christians from the North in 1954.

Still, the vast majority of Vietnamese still practiced some combination of Buddhism and Confucian ancestor worship when South Vietnam elected it’s first leader, the Catholic Ngo Dinh Diem, in 1955. Diem appointed mostly fellow Catholics to top positions in his administration and the army, but the real trouble began when he launched a series of repressive actions against Buddhist practices in the early 1960s.

When Diem banned the carrying of Buddhist prayer flags in religious celebrations in 1963, protests erupted in the central city of Hue in which police killed nine demonstrators. In June of that year, a Buddhist monk in Saigon set himself ablaze at a busy intersection to protest the government action. Photos of his self-sacrifice horrified the world, and set off anti-war protests throughout the South that resulted in the closure of many pagodas.

The Buddhists continued their anti-war activities after Diem’s assassination in 1963, and demonstrations that began on the streets of Saigon spread to the United States and beyond.

Though the monks’ influenced waned in later years, the protests they began eventually helped bring America’s direct involvement in the conflict to an end.


portrait photo of ho chi minh

The War Years
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The end is near

Opposition to the Vietnam War increased at home, but the U.S. continued to support Diem’s successor, Nguyen Van Thieu, until President Nixon began the gradual “Vietnamization” of the war through troop rollbacks starting in 1969. When the United States pulled out of Vietnam in 1973, it was only a matter of time for the Southern regime. The G.I.s had pulled out of a now-sprawling city of 3 million, leaving behind a legacy of prostitution, drug abuse, and shantytowns of those now unemployed. As the war drew to a close and the Northern army rolled southward in the spring of 1975, panic reached a fever pitch in Saigon.

The thousands of Vietnamese who had worked for the Americans feared that they would be killed or tortured by the invading troops. Saigonese, desperate to escape, quickly swamped the American Embassy and Tan Son Nhat airport as the world watched on television. The city fell on April 30, 1975. For most Americans watching at home, Saigon would forever be inextricably linked with the image of sobbing women and children mobbing the gates, begging to be let in as helicopters took off from the embassy roof.