A 30-year-long war raged in Vietnam between 1945 and 1975. It was the longest and one of the most brutal military conflicts of the 20th century. In the period from 1966 to 1968 alone, the USA and its allies dropped almost 2,900,000 tonnes of explosives on Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia – this was 800,000 more than total tonnage dropped during the Second World War. The suffering of the civilian population defies imagination. Over half of the rural population was driven out of its villages in the 1960s and forced to live in urban slums or refugee camps. The most conservative estimates work on the assumption that almost 630,000 civilians were killed in North and South Vietnam between 1965 and the end of 1974. As opposed to this, many historians refer to over two million deaths and over four million wounded – in a country with a population at the time of about 35 million inhabitants. In any case, the proportion of civilians among the war victims was far in excess of 40 percent and therefore exceeded the corresponding quota for the Second World War.
Very few would have deemed such an escalation of events possible in 1945. Although France had rejected the independence of its colony as proclaimed by the Viet Minh (League for the Independence of Vietnam) and sent troops to the region which engaged in battle with the Viet Minh throughout the country from the end of 1946, for financial reasons alone, Paris could not afford a long-drawn-out war. And the idea that other major powers would join in was more or less out of the question. Meanwhile, however, the context was altered fundamentally as a result of the seizure of power by the Chinese Communists in autumn 1949, not to speak of the invasion of South Korea by North-Korean troops in June 1950. Seen through the lens of the Cold War and regarded as part of a world-wide struggle between «good and evil», post-colonial conflicts experienced an unexpected boost, and the victory of the Viet Minh over the French armed forces in Dien Bien Phu in early May 1954 was interpreted as an event of seismic political significance and a test case for the future world order. Following the division of the country along the 17th parallel in accordance with a resolution of the Geneva Conference on Indochina of summer 1954, the USA declared itself France’s substitute as the guarantor of an anti-communist South Vietnam, while the Viet Minh in the north could rely on the patronage of the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China for support in the establishment of a communist social order.
The way for the big war was paved first by a year-long civil war. Or, to be more precise: by the policies of the «small actors» in Hanoi and Saigon. In an effort to consolidate their rule on each side of the demarcation line, Ho Chi Minh and Ngo Dinh Diem had tens of thousands detained or deported to re-education camps. Approximately 15,000 real or imagined opponents of the respective regimes are reputed to have been killed on both sides by the end of 1957. Diem, who was unpopular among all sectors of the population, ultimately became the fire-raiser. His campaign of terror had not only driven the disenfranchised farmers to fight back but also prompted the leadership in Hanoi to embark on a momentous change of course in January 1959. From then on, the communists in the South were provided with support in the form of weapons and experienced guerrillas. When the National Liberation Front (NLF) was finally established in 1960 and the Southern insurgents had a political umbrella organization, the «big actors» in Washington, Moscow, and Peking found themselves caught in a solidarity trap. The failure to honour the fervent promise of support made earlier would have damaged their credibility – an inconceivable option, in particular in the Cold War era.