Probably the tipping point in American military intervention, the Vietnam War showed us that we couldn’t have our way everywhere on the globe without their being consequences. After Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam’s independence from France in 1945, the country wound up split into two halves. The North allied with the Communist Chinese and the South with the democratic nations. You may know the CliffsNotes version, but here are ten facts about Vietnam that you probably didn’t know.
Separation of Church and State
One thing that fanned the flames of insurgency in South Vietnam was the religious leanings of President Ngo Dinh Diem. In a country where the overwhelming majority of the population was Buddhist, Diem’s fervent Catholicism was more than a little weird. After winning the office in the 1955 elections that most considered totally rigged, Diem proceeded to alienate the majority of his constituents by dedicating the country to the Virgin Mary and forcing Buddhists to convert to Catholicism.
South Vietnam Was Already In Trouble
The big lie that was told to the American people was that the Communist regime in North Vietnam was destabilizing the democratic government of the South. That was not the case – the corrupt presidency of Ngo Dinh Diem (seen here meeting President Eisenhower in 1957) used incredibly repressive measures including throwing 50,000 citizens into “political reeducation camps” and implementing “Law 10/59,” which made political violence a crime punishable by death and the government taking all your property. The peasant uprising wasn’t spurred by the Red axis, but by the state’s own policies.
The Unburning Heart
Protests against Diem grew in frequency throughout his presidency, with more and more South Vietnamese becoming angry at his policies. One of the most notorious came during the holiday of Vesak, which celebrates the birthday of Buddha. Diem forbade Vietnamese from flying the Buddhist flag, replacing it with the flag of the Vatican. Thich Quang Duc, a Buddhist monk, set himself on fire in a Saigon road to protest. The photo of his self-immolation has become one of the most recognizable images of the period, but did you know that his heart was not burned, and didn’t even burn after the remains of his body were cremated? It’s now considered a Buddhist holy relic.
We Killed the South Vietnam President Without JFK Knowing
As the situation became worse, President Diem was judged to be the incompetent leader that he truly was – despite some of the Western world’s most important politicians calling him the “Winston Churchill of Asia.” CIA operatives were in touch with a cadre of generals in the Vietnamese army who were planning to overthrow Diem, and they communicated that the United States would not pursue any reprisals if that were to happen. Diem was executed in 1963, and when President John F. Kennedy found out he was shocked, as the CIA had not informed him that the hit was going to happen.
Ho Chi Minh Didn’t Want War
The United States government interjected their military forces into the Vietnam war under extremely dubious principles after the Gulf of Tonkin incident, where the USS Maddox allegedly fired on torpedo boats that were pursuing it. There has never been any proof that those boats even existed, but it didn’t stop us from launching airstrikes over North Vietnam, dropping over a million tons of rockets, missiles and bombs. Despite all this, the North’s leader Ho Chi Minh commented, “If the Americans want to make war for twenty years then we shall make war for twenty years. If they want to make peace, we shall make peace and invite them to afternoon tea.”
The Helicopter Changed the Way War was Fought
One of the most interesting things about the Vietnam War was how different it was from any war before it. The average soldier in the Pacific Theater during World War II saw about 40 days of combat in a year’s deployment, with the rest of his time given to transportation and rest between missions. That same soldier in Vietnam saw a staggering 240 days of combat in a year’s deployment. This was mostly due to the introduction of the helicopter to the battlefield, allowing soldiers to be placed where they were needed quickly and cheaply.
Saigon had 75 Miles of Tunnels
We’ve all heard stories about how the North Vietnamese used tunnels for many purposes during the war, traveling significant distances underground and popping out to gain the strategic advantage. But did you know that the tunnel network underneath Saigon – also known as Ho Chi Minh City – stretched out to over 75 miles? The Cu Chi tunnels were heavily fortified and served as the base for the Viet Cong during the Tet Offensive. Amazingly enough, they’ve been preserved by the government and turned into a tourist attraction!
Vietnam has Bigfoots
One of the oddest events during the latter period of the war came in 1974, when despite the Viet Cong preparing to take the South, Professor Vo Quy of the Vietnam National University was sent into the remote province of Kontum to study reports of nguoi rung, or “forest people.” Many U.S. soldiers came back from the war with tales of the hair-covered jungle people, who appeared peaceful but had no spoken language. Quy found a footprint on the forest floor and had it cast and analyzed. It was too large to be an ape but wider than a human footprint. Interestingly enough, teams of scientists discovered three new mammal species in those areas during the 1990s.
The Largest Helicopter Evacuation in History
The fall of Saigon marked the end of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, as the South’s capital finally fell to the Viet Cong. Everything happened a lot faster than intelligence suggested it would, so the United States frantically scrambled to put together “Operation Frequent Wind,” the code-name for getting more than 7,000 people out of the city in just two days. This remains the biggest helicopter operation of all time, with hundreds of choppers carrying refuges from the city to land on the decks of aircraft carriers in the South China Sea. It was so crazy that helicopters that ran out of fuel were simply pushed off the deck to sink into the ocean so they could make room for more landings.
Next: Wartime Venereal Disease Propoganda
The Vietnam War Paved the Way for Military Women
Prior to the start of the Vietnam War, women were not considered fit for combat duty, no matter what their role. However, coming as it did alongside the first wave of feminism, gender roles in the U.S. military started a gradual shift that has continued to this day. Because manpower was in such high demand, the Army allowed women to volunteer for service overseas, working primarily as nurses but also as stenographers and data processors. Nearly 7,500 American women served a tour of duty in Vietnam, and all but one came back alive.