Almost ten years to the day after the first US combat troops entered South Vietnam, Communist North Vietnam launched their war winning conventional offensive against South Vietnam.
In 1964, the South Vietnamese Army was almost completely combat ineffective and had to be rebuilt. To buy the time to do so, General William Westmoreland, the commander of the US and SEATO Military Assistance Command- Vietnam (MAC-V), brought in US airpower and US combat troops. Between 1965 and 1968, Westmoreland used US and Allied troops to search for and destroy VC and NVA main force units, while relying on special forces, indigenous militias and the ARVN for counter insurgency and security. These tactics proved effective to a point, but didn’t play well on TV and certainly weren’t quantifiable, though Westmoreland tried with “body counts”. When Westmoreland was denied the authority to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail and seize communist base camps in the Laotian panhandle and the Fishhook in Cambodia, the war was militarily unwinnable for the US and South Vietnam. North Vietnamese Minister of Defense and commander of the North Vietnamese Army, General Võ Nguyên Giáp, took advantage of this reality and advocated for a slower insurgency campaign that avoided costly big unit engagements. This approach would empower the VC, increase US casualties, embolden the US anti-war movement, and allow time for the Soviet propaganda machine to work over America.
This slower, but inevitably successful, course of action was backed by the Soviet faction inside the North Vietnamese Communist Party, led by Giap and Ho Chi Minh. In 1967, when Ho was ill and Giap at a conference in Moscow, the Chinese faction in the government and armed forces staged a soft coup. The Chinese faction, led by COSVN commander Tran Van Tra and North Vietnamese politician Le Duan, came to power and demanded big unit battle with the Americans, because that was how the French were defeated previously. Returning to Vietnam, Giap was forced to accept the new strategy.
In January 1968, the NVA and VC launched the “General Offensive/General Uprising” i.e. the Tet Offensive, which shocked the Americans and South Vietnamese. However, though the General Offensive portion of the plan was executed, the General Uprising of South Vietnamese was nonexistent. The South Vietnamese populace on the whole refused to support the communists. The NVA and VC were defeated in a few weeks, the VC decisively so. Although the communists suffered extremely heavy casualties, the Tet Offensive turned the US public opinion against the war. The scale of the offensive gave lie to the official Johnson and Westmoreland position that there was a light at the end of the tunnel. Gen Westmoreland was replaced that spring by General Creighton Abrams.
The Tet Offensive destroyed the Viet Cong as a viable military entity, and forced Giap to move NVA regular units into South Vietnam to take their place, setting the insurgency back years. This gave Abrams the opportunity to implement new tactics in Vietnam dubbed the “Inkblot Strategy”. American and ARVN troops secured the cities, town, hamlets, and then the countryside of S. Vietnam through counterinsurgency tactics the way ink blots spread on a piece of paper. Combined with targeted strikes on high value targets and partnering and training of South Vietnamese troops and irregulars, the “inkblot strategy” proved effective. Dubbed “Vietnamization” the strategy was successful, and the ARVN took over security of the country with most American combat troops out of Vietnam by 1972.
Though Abrams’ strategy was successful, the four years of lost time under Westmoreland meant that the South Vietnamese still needed American advisors, air support, supplies, and financial assistance to deal with the increasingly conventional NVA attacks. With American assistance, the ARVN held its own against the NVA coming out of Cambodia and Laos. On New Year’s Eve 1972, Giap conceded that “We have lost the war” (his words) after Operation Linebacker II and the disastrous Easter Offensive, both of which prompted the North Vietnamese to accept the Paris Peace Accords in early 1973. South Vietnam repelled North Vietnam’s 1972, 1973, and 1974 spring offensives, without American combat troops.
As usual for modern American peace deals, the United States kept its part of the bargain and its adversaries did not. In February 1975, the US public was tired of the war. The newly elected Democratic congress cut off all funding to South Vietnam, while North Vietnam was awash in funds and supplies from various Communist bloc countries. On 10 March 1975, Giap launched the spring offensive, named after the deceased former leader of North Vietnam Ho Chi Minh, with hundreds of tanks and artillery pieces. “The Ho Chi Minh Campaign” was the fourth massive conventional spring offensive in as many years against South Vietnam. Giap had reached the bottom of his manpower pool, but unfortunately South Vietnam had neither the resources nor the will to properly defend. The NVA broke through within days and Saigon fell on 30 April.
Contrary to popular historical opinion, South Vietnam did not fall to a popular insurgency, but a conventional attack that would not have been out of place in the Second World War.
130,000 South Vietnamese fled the country and 200,000 more were be murdered by the North Vietnamese over the next month. Hundreds of thousands more were forced into re-education camps. Following their victory in Vietnam, Cambodia fell to the Khmer Rouge, and Laos fell to the Pathet Lao. A further 1.6 million men, women, and children were murdered by the Communists.
In early 1965, there were 22,000 US Special Forces advisers, pilots, and support personnel in South Vietnam assisting the Republic of South Vietnam in the war against the communist National Liberation Front insurgents aka Viet Cong (VC), and their backers in North Vietnam. The situation in South Vietnam steadily deteriorated over the previous two years and the chaos reached a crescendo in February 1965. The Army of the Republic of South Vietnam (ARVN) was recently defeated in two conventional battles against the VC and regular North Vietnamese Army (NVA). Also the civilian government of South Vietnam endured a successful coup by the ARVN Army Chief of Staff, Gen Nguyen Khanh and his Buddhist supporters, only to be immediately followed by another failed coup by communist sympathizers on the Armed Forces Council (The Vietnamese version of the Joint Chiefs of Staff). Furthermore, the South Vietnamese village pacification program was recognized as a complete failure in February. Additionally, Viet Cong terror bombings became increasing common in South Vietnam’s major cities. But the final straw was the attack on Pleiku Air Base which killed eight Americans, wounded 128 others and destroyed 20 aircraft in the first large scale attack directed solely at Americans.
In response to the chaos, on 2 March 1965, President Lyndon Johnson authorized Operation Rolling Thunder, a sustained bombing campaign against the Viet Cong’s supply routes aka the “Ho Chi Minh Trail”, and military and industrial targets inside North Vietnam. Rolling Thunder was a major escalation to the war. The operation was scheduled to last eight weeks; it would go on for three years.
In order to protect the Rolling Thunder airbases from further Pleiku style attacks, the Military Assistance Command – Vietnam commander, Gen. William Westmoreland, requested American ground combat troops. The first of these arrived on 8 March 1965 when two battalions of US Marines landed on the beach at Danang, where they assumed security of the US airbase there. They could have flown directly to the airbase, but Westmoreland thought it more dramatic for the cameras if they landed on the beach like their fathers did in the Pacific War.
95,000 more American troops followed over the course of 1965.
In the late 80s, Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev introduced “perestroika” (restructuring), “glastnost” (openness), and the lesser known “khozraschyot” (commercialization) reforms to make the Soviet system more efficient and alleviate the crushing social, political, spiritual, and economic problems of late stage socialism. However, Gorbachev’s reforms gave a small taste of life in the West and just acted as a catalyst for the demand of more reforms. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, communist and socialist governments fell across Eastern Europe culminating in the violent Romanian Revolution in December 1989. However, the iron grip of the Communist Party in Russia staved off revolution in the Soviet Union, though significant political turmoil and economic stagnation still existed. Reformers fought “moderates” who fought hardliners who fought everyone for the soul of the Russian people.
In a victory for the reformers, Western businesses were allowed access to Russian markets. One of the first business to capitalize (ahem…) on the new market was the McDonald’s Corporation. On 31 January 1990, the first McDonald’s fast food restaurant opened on Pushkin Square in the center of Moscow, the capital of the Soviet Union. Thousands lined up and waited for hours to spend the equivalent of several days’ wages for a Big Mac.
The Golden Arches, the most recognizable symbol of Western Capitalism, had entrenched itself in the belly of the beast. The Russian people weren’t just lining up for a tasty burger, but to experience firsthand the inevitable changes on the horizon. For the first time, there was no jumping of the queue for party members. True egalitarianism was found in the order line; a queue that ended at the smiling face of the polite cashier. The politeness of the cashier was shocking to a people who were “used to the commercial boorishness” of the Soviet consumer goods’ sector and the unchallenged petty power of even the lowest members of the party and government bureaucracies. For years, the McDonald’s in Moscow was the most popular and trendy restaurant in the country.
Within two years, the Soviet Union would cease to exist.
In the late summer of 1944, Hitler pulled all Wehrmacht troops out of the Balkans to help stop the Soviets and the Allies as they raced towards Germany. Hitler’s Balkan allies, Romania and Bulgaria, sought an accommodation with the Soviet Union and switch sides. In Yugoslavia, Josef Tito’s highly organized communist partisans filled the vacuum left by the retreating Germans and successfully stiff armed “liberating” Soviet troops. In Greece however, the partisans were generally divided into two camps that were hostile to each other. The first were the various factions supported by Tito’s Partisans and the Soviet Union, the National Liberation Front (EAM), and the other was composed of the various groups and reformed army units supporting the Greek Government in Exile, backed by Great Britain.
Winston Churchill foresaw the coming post war conflict with Communism and vowed Stalin would not have direct access to a port on the Mediterranean. All through 1944, the British made a point of securing German occupied islands in the Eastern Mediterranean and Aegean Seas. The stage set, Winston Churchill quietly pulled British units out of Italy and the Middle East to accompany the return of the Greek Government in Exile after the Germans departed. On 3 October, British and Greek units occupied Athens and began funneling supplies to allied militias and disarming the EAM and the Greek Communist Party.
The EAM organized a general strike and on 3 December staged a massive protest in Athens to stop the complete erosion of communist power in Greece. The protest degenerated into a riot and eventually into open street fighting by the EAM against Greek soldiers, police and militias and their British backers. On 12 December, the tough 4th Indian Division, veterans of the 2nd Battle of Monte Cassino, arrived from Italy and this turned the tide against the Communists. By late January, the EAM was defeated. In February the various parties signed a ceasefire, supported by the US, Great Britain and even the Soviet Union. Stalin knew he could then use Churchill’s intervention in Greece as a pretext to openly do in Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, and Hungary what he was already doing in secret.
The Greek Civil War began in earnest in March 1946 when the Yugoslav and Soviet backed Democratic Army of Greece (DSE) attacked Greek policemen across the country (the DSE was formed from the remnants of the EAM). Great Britain was bankrupt from six years of war and asked for the United States to take their place as the Greek government’s patron.
In 1945, President Truman recognized America’s new found leadership role in the Free World, and with Secretary of State George C Marshall developed and adopted the “Truman Doctrine”, which vowed America would stop the spread of Communism, starting with Greece.
In the autumn of 1989, the people of Eastern Europe had had enough of Socialism. In Poland in September, Lech Walesa and Solidarity formed the first non-Communist government in a Warsaw Pact nation. In Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel was organizing the Velvet Revolution from his prison cell, and thousands of East Germans were openly using the West German Embassy in Prague to escape their Stasi-controlled socialist paradise. In Hungary, the border was effectively open and tens of thousands of Eastern European “tourists” were flooding Austria, never to return.
In East Germany, and Berlin in particular, massive but peaceful protests rocked the Communist government. In early November, the protesters stopped chanting “We want out!” and began chanting “We are staying!”. The new East German leader, Egon Krenz, recognized that he would not be in power for long if some changes were not made. On 9 November 1989, he and his advisors finished reviewing the new rules which greatly lessened the restrictions on travel and the burdensome bureaucratic process needed to obtain approval, but it did not open the border.
A note about the new regulations was passed to his spokesman, Gunter Schabowski, who was having a press conference that evening. Schabowski told reporters that there would be changes to the regulations, but not the details since he didn’t have them. When asked, Schabowski assumed they would also include Berlin and that they were effective immediately. The reporters then assumed the changes would open the border as it was in Hungary, and ran with it. This was most definitely not the case, but within the hour, it was broadcast around the world that the inter-German border was open.
Thousands descended upon the gates in the Berlin Wall demanding that they be allowed to cross into West Berlin, because “Schabowski said we could”. East German Stasi Lieutenant Colonel Harald Jager of the Bornholmer Street Gate made repeated calls to his superiors asking for clarification. His superiors mocked him and told him to use force to clear the protesters since they knew nothing of the new regulations, despite it being all over the news. Jager refused and let the East Berliners through. They were met by celebrating West Berliners. Within days all of the gates in the Berlin Wall were open and several new ones were established when jubilant Berliners smashed through with pick axes and bulldozers.
The Cold War was over.
For seven weeks starting in April 1989, university students occupied Tiananmen Square in Beijing and the Communists were terrified. Though there were some hardliners, the Communists understood the need for economic reforms. They did not want a repeat of the disastrous Cultural Revolution of the 60s when Maoists doubled down on statism and Communism, and 30 million people died as a result. The Chinese people remembered this devastation from a scant twenty years before. In the spring of 1989, they would not stand for it again. In support of the students, millions protested across China for market reforms, free speech, free press, and a way to remove the intolerably corrupt politicians of the Communist government.
But unlike the Soviets and the communists of Eastern Europe, the Chinese Communists were under no illusions about what would happen if they held elections. However, they did have one advantage that the other communist governments did not have: the People’s Liberation Army was not state controlled as in the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc, they were party controlled. They could be relied upon for use against the Chinese people. First subjugation, then economic reforms. In early May 1989, a concerted effort was made to mobilize and bring formations up to fighting standard, and on 20 May 1989, the communists declared martial law.
250,000 PLA soldiers descended on Beijing. However, by 24 May, they were stopped cold by millions of peaceful protesters. For a week there was an impasse, but on 3 June, the communists had had enough. They ordered the PLA to use force to remove the protestors. Although some units refused to shoot civilians, thousands were killed when communist soldiers opened fire that night and into the next day. Almost immediately, vicious street battles broke out after students and shopkeepers banded to together to fight tanks and machine guns with rocks and fists. By the end of 4 June at least three thousand lay dead, and many more wounded. The fighting was largely unnoticed by the outside world.
The communists, like all tyrannical governments, feared scrutiny and transparency so they either coopted or coerced the domestic media into submission. But their censors did not apply to foreign journalists so they had placed severe restrictions on them, including harassment, isolation, and cutting their communications. Nevertheless, on 5 June 1989, those journalists locked in the Beijing Hotel witnessed an amazing event from their balconies. As a column of Type 59 tanks approached Tiananmen Square on Chang’an Avenue, an unnamed man crossed the broad street carrying two bags of groceries. The lead tank came to a stop just before hitting the man. The man, looking up, stood in front of the tank and then refused to move. The driver attempted to go around him, but the young man moved with it. The driver eventually stopped and shut down his engine, and soon the entire column did the same. For a long moment, it seemed that this one courageous individual had defeated the communist regime. The young man talked with the tank crew for a while, but was eventually seized by two goons from the People’s Security Bureau. The column continued on. Tank Man was never identified, nor was he seen or heard from again.
Despite the international exposure that the photos of Tank Man gave the events in China of early June 1989, the PLA successfully dispersed the protestors by 7th of that month. Afterwards, the communists rounded up and arrested anyone with connections to the protests. The People’s Republic of China is one of the few communist regimes that survived 1989. Today, due to censorship, Tank Man is unrecognized and unknown in China.
In April 1989, Lech Walesa’s Solidarity movement in Poland won the right to run candidates in the first fairly free parliamentary elections since before Poland was invaded by Germany and the Soviet Union 50 years before. On 4 June 1989, the Polish people headed to the polls (Ha!).
The Communists knew they were not popular, but they had several critical advantages. First, they still controlled the bureaucracy and the election apparatus. Also, their commissars still controlled the Polish military. Furthermore, more than half of the seats were rigged so only communists were allowed on the ballot. And finally, there was still 60,000 Red Army soldiers stationed on Polish soil.
The Communists believed they could not possibly lose the election utilizing these and every plausibly deniable, and not so deniable, electoral dirty trick. And many Solidarity candidates agreed with them. But the Polish people’s dissatisfaction with Communism’s inherent hypocrisy and corruption ran deep. Despite bureaucratic harassment, voter intimidation, and widespread election fraud, observers estimated that 98% of eligible voters turned out, virtually all for Solidarity.
Early ballot counts immediately showed that Solidarity and its allies had won a decisive victory. By the next day, it was confirmed: Solidarity had won 90% of the seats. Even seats where there was only a communist name on the ballot were lost to write-in candidates. It was a stinging rebuke of collectivism.
However, there was still the specter of military intervention. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed. Polish military units began marginalizing, neutralizing or even out right arresting their commissars after the election, particularly if they attempted to take over units from their commanders. The Polish Army would not influence the election and the Poles did not have to worry about the Soviets. Like everything else about communism, the Red Army in 1989 was a facade. The Soviet 6th Motorized Rifle Division and 20th Tank Division had not received fuel or spare parts in months, because their supply system was so horribly corrupt. They had huge discipline problems and soldier-gangs ruled the barracks, where officers refused to go. What soldiers they did have control of were needed to tend the farms around the cantonment areas, which was the only way the divisions could be fed adequately. The Brezhnev Doctrine was dead, not because Gorbachev disavowed it, but because he had no choice.
Solidarity’s landslide victory was a reality on 6 June, 1989.
In July, the communists managed to hold onto the presidency through a series of back room deals, but a Solidarity candidate became prime minister in August. In September, 1989, the first non-communist government in the Eastern bloc in was sworn in.
The rest of Eastern Europe took notice
Since 1988, two former Soviet Republics, Armenia and Azerbaijan fought over the Nagorno-Karabakh region in the Lesser Caucuses Mountains after the Armenian population voted to secede from Azerbaijan and join Armenia. The Nagorno-Karabakh War was fought through the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. On 5 May 1994, Armenia and Azerbaijan signed a cease fire agreement in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, temporarily halting their destructive war. The agreement left the unrecognized Republic of Artsakh as the defacto ruling government of the area as neither Armenia could annex the region nor Azerbaijan control it.
Throughout the late 80s, Communism’s inherent flaws and fundamental inconsistencies could no longer be covered up with propaganda by state controlled media or coercion and terror waged by internal security forces. This was especially true in the more liberal (relative to the Soviet Union) states of the Warsaw Pact: Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. Some political and economic concessions had already been made, but their people clamored for more. When this happened in previous decades, the Soviet Union responded with force. But in 1988 and 1989, the Soviet Union had just withdrawn in defeat from Afghanistan and the Red Army was paralyzed from corruption and the need for its soldiers to participate in the spring planting, lest they starve. Furthermore, the Soviet Union was going through an economic crisis that was 40 years in the making. Soviet Russia could only look on.
Events came to a head in the spring of 1989. Two symbolic events in April 1989 stood out. First, the Solidarity movement in Poland gained a crucial victory when it secured permission to participate in parliamentary elections in June. (They would go on to win 90% of the seats.) But it was the second that was most distressing to the Soviets at the time because they relied on the false perception that Communism was for “the people”. In a reaction to Solidarity’s victory, the Hungarian parliament, who saw the writing on the wall, unanimously voted to change the official name of the country from “The People’s Republic of Hungary” to “The Republic of Hungary” which was more in line with the names of Western governments. This removed the farcical “People’s” from the name. By the late 80s, it was obvious Communism only served a totalitarian, oligarchic, and bureaucratic elite in the name of the “Greater Good”. Still, the name change was only a symbolic gesture, but the reformers in the Hungarian Parliament, who were the sons and daughters of those curb stomped by the Soviets in 1956, knew it was an important one.
On 2 May 1989, that symbolic gesture had substantial consequences. On that day, the Hungarian Border Police, following the lead of their Parliament’s vote, began removing the border fence with Austria, to kick start improved economic ties with the West. Although there were hundreds of small symbolic acts of defiance against the Soviets that spring, the dismantling of the Hungarian border fence was the first concrete act by a Warsaw Pact government toward a peaceful end to the Cold War.
As a popular tourist destination for Warsaw Pact subjects, Hungary was relatively easy for East German, Czech, and Polish families to obtain travel papers. Tens of thousands of “holdiaymakers” fled their countries for the West by ostensibly going to Hungary for vacation. The summer of 1989 was the most successful tourist season in Hungary’s history.