Always use specific historical examples to support your arguments.
How were the Vietnamese Communist forces so effective in the face of the far wealthier, technologically superior powers of France and the United States?
Vietnamese resistance to foreign rule was based on a centuries-long history of Vietnam fighting against imperial and colonial overlords. Raised on stories of generations of fighting against imperial China, Vietnamese Communists were willing to make tremendous sacrifices and fight patiently for decades. Moreover, the Vietnamese Communist forces had a particularly able body of leaders. In sharp contrast to the corrupt French- and U.S.-backed leadership in southern Vietnam, northern Vietnam’s leaders were sincere and passionate about their nationalism. Ho Chi Minh, who exemplified this skillful, unified leadership, had years of experience in the West and appropriated his learning to use against France and the United States.
Strategically, the decentralized command structure of the Vietnamese Communist forces and the agrarian nature of the North Vietnamese economy made it difficult for U.S. bombing campaigns to find targets that would disable Vietnam’s military effort. North Vietnam’s pre-industrial status negated the impact of military technology that the United States had developed for use against highly industrialized nations such as Germany in World War II. This strategic hurdle, combined with the fact that the Vietnamese Communists were willing to accept an enormous human cost to win the independence of their homeland, made the U.S. task difficult. Battling for vague Cold War principles and unwilling to make such sacrifices, the United States ultimately lacked the will to prevail in the war.
How did the Tet Offensive affect American politics, society, and the course of the war in Vietnam?
Although the Tet Offensive was one of the greatest tactical victories for the U.S. forces against Viet Cong guerrillas, it was an enormous political loss for the United States during the war. Because the attack intensified the antiwar protest movement at home and discredited President Lyndon Johnson and U.S. military officials, the Tet Offensive represented a major turning point in the war against the United States.
During the Vietnamese New Year, Tet, in January 1968, thousands of Viet Cong insurgents launched the war’s largest coordinated attack yet, on nearly thirty U.S. military installations in South Vietnam, along with dozens of other South Vietnamese cities. Although U.S. forces were initially caught off guard, they defeated the guerrillas relatively quickly and decisively—a resounding defeat that permanently crippled Ho Chi Minh’s military forces.
Despite this victory, however, the offensive frightened the American public because it seemed to contradict President Johnson’s assurances that the United States was winning the war. U.S. public opinion worsened when General William Westmoreland requested 200,000 additional U.S. troops after the offensive, on top of the nearly 500,000 Americans already serving in Vietnam. Westmoreland’s request startled not only the American public but also congressmen, senators, foreign-policy makers, and even Johnson himself. Many U.S. government officials privately began to question whether Vietnam was actually “winnable” at all and, if so, whether the United States was using the right tactics. Former secretary of state Dean Acheson voiced his disproval, as did Johnson’s own secretary of defense, Robert McNamara, who resigned his position.
The American media compounded the situation, as the official government line that the United States was winning the war contrasted sharply with the shocking images Americans saw on their televisions during the evening news. Westmoreland’s request merely confirmed their suspicions that the government was not telling the truth. As a result, more and more Americans began to distrust the federal government and the military. This so-called “credibility gap” between what the government was saying and what was actually happening fueled antiwar activism in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The credibility gap crippled the Democratic Party and effectively ruined Johnson’s chances for reelection. Although technically a major military victory, the Tet Offensive was thus a major political defeat for Johnson and the U.S. military and a significant turning point in the war.
Discuss the role the American media played in the Vietnam War.
During the Vietnam War, the American media did not act simply as a collaborator with the U.S. government as it had in many previous wars; conversely, it served as a powerful check on government power. This dynamic first emerged in January 1963, when journalists reported the defeat of the South Vietnamese army at the Battle of Ap Bac, contrasting sharply with official U.S. government and military reports that the battle had been a victory.
When this power of the media became apparent, some Vietnamese civilians were able to manipulate it, as in June 1963, when a Buddhist monk protesting the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese government burned himself to death in full view of news photographers in the city of Hue. The pictures of the monk’s self-immolation appeared on front pages of newspapers across the world and alerted the American public to the corruption of the U.S.-supported Diem regime.
Media resistance to the U.S. government’s official statements only increased as the war progressed. The Tet Offensive in 1968, though a tactical victory for the United States, was perceived as a major defeat as the media recast the meaning of the battles. During the Tet offensive, prominent journalist Walter Cronkite editorialized during a nationally televised newscast that it did not look like America could win the war. In 1971, when the New York Times and other newspapers published excerpts of the top-secret Pentagon Papers, public distrust of the U.S. government deepened, causing a scandal in the Nixon administration. In the end, this public discontentment had concrete effects, as the antiwar movement became a prominent force and compelled Nixon to start withdrawing U.S. troops. In this sense, Vietnam was very much a “media war,” fought in newspapers and on television as much as in the jungles of Vietnam.
Suggested Essay Topics
1. Did the United States win or lose the Vietnam War? Justify your answer.
2. How did U.S. objectives differ from the objectives of Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese Communists during the war?
3. Compare and contrast Johnson’s and Nixon’s respective Vietnam War strategies.
4. Discuss the impact of antiwar protest movements in the United States during the Vietnam War.
5. How did U.S. foreign policy evolve from the end of World War II in 1945 to the end of the Vietnam War in 1975?
This collection of Vietnam War essay questions has been written and compiled by Alpha History authors, for use by teachers and students. They can also be used for short-answer questions, homework activities and other research or revision tasks. If you would like to contribute a question to this page, please contact us.
Vietnam to World War II
2. Discuss Vietnam’s contact and relationship with the West, up to 1850. How did this contact shape or affect Vietnamese society?
3. Explain how the French assumed control of Vietnam in a relatively short space of time. What methods and justifications did they use to increase their power?
4. How did the Nguyen emperors attempt to rid their country of foreign influence, particularly religion, in the 19th century?
5. “French colonialism in Indochina was motivated by a desire to civilise and develop the local population.” To what extent is this statement true?
6. Explain how the French colonial regime maintained its political, economic and social control over Vietnam. What role was played by Francophile Vietnamese?
7. What was life like for Vietnamese peasants and workers during the French colonial period? What problems and conditions did they face?
8. Referring to at least three movements or leaders, explain how some Vietnamese resisted the French colonial regime. How successful was this resistance?
9. Why did Vietnamese nationalists like Ho Chi Minh turn to communism after World War I?
10. Why did the Japanese invade Vietnam in 1940? What methods did they use to assert and expand their control?
The struggle for control, 1945 to 1954
2. When the Japanese surrendered in August 1945, what arrangements were made for the transition of power in Vietnam?
3. Explain why Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnamese independence in September 1945. In doing so, why did he refer to the United States Declaration of Independence?
4. During World War II the United States provided material support to Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh. Why did the American position change after 1945?
5. Discuss how the communist victory in China in October 1949 affected Western policies and attitudes to south-east Asia.
6. Explain the metaphor of “the elephant and the tiger” and how it shaped the outcomes of the First Indochina War.
7. How did Vo Nguyen Giap and the Viet Minh engineer a victory over French forces at Dien Bien Phu?
8. What were the terms of the Geneva Accords pertaining to Vietnam? What were they intended to achieve?
9. Many historians trace the origins of the Vietnam War to the failure of the Geneva Accords. Did the Accords have any chance or success – or were they destined to fail?
10. Discussing similarities and differences, compare the development of Korea and Vietnam in the decade following World War II.
The two Vietnams, 1954 to 1963
1. Describe the political evolution of North Vietnam during the mid 1950s. Who ruled the North and what were their objectives?
2. Evaluate North Vietnam’s policy of land reform during the mid to late 1950s. Did these reforms make life better for the majority of people?
3. Investigate the background and political views of Ngo Dinh Diem. How did he become the leader of South Vietnam in 1954?
4. Western nations described Ngo Dinh Diem as the “Asian Churchill” and “our man in Saigon”. Was Diem a Western puppet, an Asian nationalist or a loose cannon?
5. Discuss the ‘Agroville’ and ‘Strategic Hamlets’ programs, initiated by Ngo Dinh Diem with Western backing. What were these programs intended to achieve and why did they fail?
6. Explain why the government of Ngo Dinh Diem failed to gain popular support in South Vietnam.
7. Investigate the role of Ngo Dinh Nhu and his wife Tran Le Xuan in the Ngo Dinh Diem regime.
8. Evaluate the Kennedy administration’s policy with regard to Vietnam, between January 1961 and November 1963.
9. Why did Ngo Dinh Diem and his followers target South Vietnam’s Buddhists? What effects did this persecution have on Diem’s own regime?
10. Evaluate the origins, structure and ideology of the National Liberation Front (NLF). Why was this group formed and what methods did it employ?
The Vietnam War, 1964-75
1. Why did Lyndon Johnson decide to commit American forces to the conflict in Vietnam? What people, advice and factors influenced Johnson’s decision?
2. Explain why Thailand, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand contributed military forces to the war in Vietnam.
3. The Gulf of Tonkin incident provided a pretext for American military involvement in Vietnam. To what extent was this justified?
4. Evaluate the leadership of General William Westmoreland between 1964 and 1968. What was Westmoreland’s strategy for protecting South Vietnam? How successful was this?
5. Describe the challenges faced by American combat soldiers in Vietnam. What conditions and factors blunted the effectiveness of the American military?
6. Consider the causes and effects of the My Lai massacre of March 1968. What did this incident reveal about America’s military involvement in Vietnam?
7. Explain why the Tet Offensive was a victory and a defeat for both the Americans and the NVA-Viet Cong.
8. Discuss the objectives of Richard Nixon’s policy of Vietnamisation. How successful was this policy in achieving its goals?
9. Investigate American media coverage of the war in Vietnam. How was the war reported between 1964 and 1975 and how did this shape public attitudes and opinions?
10. Referring to data like opinion polls, evaluate American attitudes to the Vietnam War between 1964 and 1975. Which policies, developments or events caused significant shifts in public opinion?
11. What ideas, tactics and methods were used by individuals and groups opposed to Western involvement in Vietnam?
12. Evaluate the role of art, music and literature in the anti-Vietnam War movement.
Effects and aftermath
2. Evaluate the development of Vietnam in the two years after the fall of Saigon in April 1975. How did the communist victory affect the lives of ordinary Vietnamese?
3. Describe the difficulties faced by Vietnam veterans as they returned to civilian life in the United States or Australia.
4. Evaluate the claim made by some leaders, including General William Westmoreland, that the United States did not lose the Vietnam War.
5. Was the Domino Theory validated or refuted by the progress and outcomes of the Vietnam War?
6. Position the Vietnam conflict in the broader Cold War. How did the Vietnam War shape or affect the relationship between the United States, the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China?
7. What effects did the Vietnam War have on American government and society between 1965 and 1975? Consider changes to political, social and cultural attitudes.
8. What effect did American military intervention have on nearby Cambodia between 1969 and 1975?
9. Discuss how events in Vietnam shaped the development of neighbouring Laos from 1957 onwards.
10. Who were the Khmer Rouge and what was their vision for Cambodia? How did they go about implementing this vision?