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Collection Scope and Content Notes

Vietnamese Communists initiated armed struggle against the French colonialists in 1929. Although largely driven underground during the 1930s, they maintained armed militias that began to fight the Japanese military after the 1940 Japanese occupation. These became the seed for the army of the Viet Minh, The League for the Independence of Viet Nam, a Communist led organization that incorporated other nationalists. The Viet Minh did not attempt large scale engagements against the Japanese army but did have de facto control of parts of the countryside by 1945 when they staged an uprising in Hanoi a few weeks after the Japanese surrender in World War 2. They declared a provisional government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.

When the French attempted to reassert control in 1946 war ensued until their defeat at Dien Ben Phu in 1954. By the later stage of this French-Vietnamese War, French troops had essentially become a mercenary army for the U.S. Motivated by Cold War concerns of Communist advance in SE Asia U.S. policy makers decided to pay for most of the cost of the French military effort.

Under an armistice agreement the Viet Minh troops withdrew north of the 17th parallel and an international conference in Geneva negotiated peace accords and proposed a 1956 election to determine the government for Vietnam. The election was never held in part because the U.S. feared a Communist victory. Thereafter a Communist government controlled North Vietnam and a regime allied with the U.S. controlled South Vietnam.

The South Vietnamese government was controlled by unpopular elites, many of them Catholic and French speaking and viewed by some of their population as former collaborators with the French colonialists. Fighting broke out in the late 1950s between peasant veterans of the Viet Minh in South Vietnam and troops of the South Vietnamese government. Initially the North Vietnamese were reluctant to support the guerilla movement in the South, in part because of pressure from Soviet leaders seeking détente with the U.S., but the guerilla war escalated into full scale war between the governments of North and South Vietnam by the early 1960s.

Since 1956 the U.S. had provided the South Vietnamese government with arms and financial aid and small contingents of U.S. military advisors. As the war went badly for the South Vietnamese government, these commitments ratcheted steadily upward with the number of U.S. “advisors” reaching 16,000 by 1963.

By the following year the South Vietnamese government approached military collapse, and the Johnson administration decided on a full scale military commitment to prevent Communist victory in Vietnam. U.S. troops strength peaked at more than 500,000, augmented by the most massive commitment of airpower in global military history. The U.S. dropped more tons of bombs on Vietnam than all combatants had dropped during World War 2.

The last U.S. troops withdrew in 1975. Over 58,000 Americans died in Vietnam. Vietnamese casualty figures are subject to debate, but the Vietnamese government claims more than one million Vietnamese military casualties and more than two million additional civilian casualties.

American Communists and some non-Communist peace activists occasionally published accounts critical of the US supported French war in Vietnam and the US support of the South Vietnamese government after 1956, but these attracted little notice before the escalation of US military involvement. Small demonstrations against the war occurred in 1963 and 1964, but the first large scale protest against US involvement in Vietnam was an anti war march in Washington sponsored by SDS in April 1965. Thereafter the scale and intensity of antiwar protest paralleled the expansion of US military action. The movement peaked in 1970 shortly after the Nixon administration admitted expanding US military action into neighboring Cambodia (such incursions had occurred before but on a smaller scale and not publicly acknowledged). For the first time since the beginning of the US military effort, a majority in national opinion polls declared the war a mistake and said the US should withdraw.

The long war in Vietnam fueled the expansion of the New Left in the United States more than any other cause or event. The anti-Vietnam War items in the collection were produced by a diverse array of national organizations and local ad hoc action groups. As expected, a majority of the material is from the period between 1967 though 1973.

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