Background to the Wars in Southeast Asia

The wars in Southeast Asia had their origins in the ethnic, colonial and nationalist tensions that came to a head after the end of the Second World War.  Having cooperated with the Allies in the war against the Japanese, Vietnamese communists turned against their French colonial rulers in 1945.  A guerilla campaign by Viet Minh communist forces against the French expanded into open warfare in September 1950 with an initial victory against the French at Dong Khe.  The final crushing defeat of French forces at Dien Bien Phu in May 1954 spelled the end of French colonial rule in Indo-China and resulted in the partition of Vietnam, pending elections of a national government under the terms of an agreement signed in Geneva.  However, the elections failed to materialise and two separate states evolved; the northern Democratic Republic of Vietnam and the southern State of Vietnam.  A 12-mile deep Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) at the 17th parallel separated the two states and an International Control Commission was formed to monitor the compliance of the Geneva Accords.  The Superpowers gave their support to the opposing factions, the USA supporting President Ngo Dinh Diem’s government in the South while China and the Soviet Union supported Ho Chi Minh’s communist government in the North.  In September 1954 the Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO) was formed with the encouragement of the USA, to guarantee the security of Laos, Cambodia and South Vietnam from communist aggression.  The US took over military training of the armed forces in South Vietnam from the French in 1957 and provided arms and equipment to build up the Army of the Republic of Vietnam and the Vietnamese Air Force.

However, the nation-building process in South Vietnam suffered numerous setbacks, mostly caused by sectarian rivalry, ethnic conflict and corruption.  The problems were made worse by the influx of over 900,000 refugees who fled from the communist-dominated North.  When the two Vietnams were created many Viet Minh soldiers stayed behind in South Vietnam and later formed the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam, popularly known as the Viet Cong.  To the Americans the Viet Cong, often shortened to VC or Charlie, became synonymous with the North Vietnamese Army but there were many differences in terms of organisation and equipment.  Ho Chi Minh spent the first three years after the partition consolidating his authority over North Vietnam but in late 1957 guerrilla action against the government in the South commenced with assistance from the North.  Guerrilla attacks and terrorist incidents increased rapidly as the Viet Cong forces in the South were supplied with arms and reinforcements from North Vietnam.  Arms and men flowed into South Vietnam along a series of roads and tracks that connected the two Vietnams through southern Laos and Cambodia and which became known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

As a result of the 1954 Geneva agreement Laos became an independent state with a pro-Western government but the communist Pathet Lao movement had popular support in much of the country.  In 1957 the Laotian government negotiated with the Pathet Lao and declared Laos to be neutral and independent of foreign interference.  Soon after an election confirmed the neutralist government in power in May 1958 it was toppled in a coup by right wing forces and the neutralists and Pathet Lao joined forces against the new government.  In December 1959 the Laotian government was again showing signs of an accommodation with the Pathet Lao but a military coup removed the government and planned new elections in April 1960.  The military junta won what was regarded as a rigged election and received covert military support from the USA.  In August 1960 the political instability in Laos finally boiled over into outright civil war when yet another coup ousted the pro-Western government.  The neutralists were once more in power in Vientiane and requested assistance from the Pathet Lao and the Soviet Union.  However, in December 1960, right wing forces once more took the capital and the neutralists joined the Pathet Lao in their stronghold in the Plain of Jars, close to the border with North Vietnam.

As in Vietnam the Superpowers predictably took sides.  The communist Pathet Lao were supported by the Soviet Union and North Vietnam while the right wing Royalist forces and Hmong (Meo) guerrillas were supported by the USA.  North Vietnam in particular needed Laotian assistance in developing and keeping open the system of roads and trails that the North needed to infiltrate into South Vietnam.  A Soviet airlift of arms and supplies to rebel forces in the Plain of Jars commenced in December 1960.  The US reacted to the crisis in Laos by activating Joint Task Force 116 in March 1961 while the 315th Air Division’s transport aircraft started to deploy to a forward base at Clark AB in the Philippines.  Contingency plans were about to be put into practice to deploy thousands of American troops to Laos but the situation in Laos improved as peace talks were commenced and the Task Force was stood down.

Between May and December 1961 a 14-nation conference held in Geneva devised an accord that assured the neutrality of Laos and established a coalition government under Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma.  However, the Pathet Lao and their neutralist allies took little heed of the peace accord.  Having regrouped, they started a new offensive early in 1962 and by the end of March had swept aside the Laotian government forces, surrounded Luang Prabang and were threatening Vientiane itself.  JTF 116 was reactivated and US transport aircraft began flying military equipment into Thailand for stockpiling as a Marine Corps assault force sailed towards the South China Sea.  On 18 May 1962 the USAF deployed the F-100-equipped 428th TFS from Cannon AFB, New Mexico to Takhli RTAB as the first of several temporary duty rotations.  On the same day A-4C Skyhawks of Marine Corps squadron VMA-332 and UH-34Ds of HMM-261 arrived at Udorn, Thailand.  Two weeks later USAF C-130s and C-124s began flying arms and supplies directly from Clark to Vientiane airport.  For several days the situation was very tense while President Kennedy took counsel on whether or not to deploy combat forces into Laos and make his stand against communism there.  In the event the fighting in Laos subsided as the warring factions came towards a negotiated agreement and US forces in Southeast Asia began a gradual stand down from a war footing.  The conference at Geneva made slow progress but eventually, on 23 July 1962, a Declaration on the Neutrality of Laos was signed requiring the removal of foreign troops from Laos and the monitoring of the agreement by the International Control Commission.

When President Kennedy took office in January 1961 the most pressing problems in Southeast Asia appeared to be in Laos and he soon became aware of the need to make a firm stand against communist aggression but decided that South Vietnam stood the best chance of success.  However, President Diem refused to institute the political and military reforms that the USA recommended and his position as president deteriorated.  In September 1961 Diem finally asked the USA for a bilateral defence treaty which opened the way for the gradual influx of American military units into South Vietnam.  The first American unit, the Farm Gate air commando detachment, arrived in South Vietnam in early November followed the next month by two companies of US Army H-21C helicopters.  Deployed under the guise of ‘advisors’ or ‘trainers’, these units and those that followed fought the war while attempting to train and encourage the South Vietnam military.  There were noticeable improvements in the organisation and performance of the ARVN and VNAF soon after the Americans started their work.  There was also a willingness to adopt new strategies and tactics including the concept of creating fortified hamlets that formed a network of bases from which operations could be mounted and protection to the local populace could be afforded.

However, despite improvements in the South Vietnamese military performance President Diem remained alienated from his people and his military.  A major government defeat at the hands of the Viet Cong at Ap Bac in January 1963 and the growing repression of Buddhists throughout South Vietnam brought matters to a head later in the year.  Several ARVN generals planned a coup against Diem in August but were unsure of American support at that time.  However, in September the Americans announced restrictions in military and economic assistance as a consequence of Diem’s actions against the Buddhists and on 1 November the generals finally acted and Diem was removed from office and shot dead.  Three weeks later President Kennedy was also assassinated leaving the quagmire that was to become the Vietnam War to his successors.

© Chris Hobson and David Lovelady. All rights reserved.