Peace and Conflict: Conflict In Indochina 1954-79

Decolonisation in Indochina

Conflict in Vietnam 1946-54

  • France took over Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos) in the 1800s -> economic benefits and prestige.

  • 1945: Ho Chi Minh (head of Vietminh—communist nationalist movement) seized power and declared the birth of the independent Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). This wasn’t recognised by France or the US.

    Ho: ‘[the] Vietnamese people… are determined to fight to the bitter end against any attempt by the French colonialists to reconquer their country.’

  • 1945-46: French reoccupied parts of Vietnam, agreement was signed, this didn’t last and French proclaimed colony of Cochin-China (southern Vietnam).

  • French bombed port of Haiphong -> 6000 deaths, Vietminh attacked European districts of Hanoi -> killed dozens.

  • 1947: First Indochina War broke out.

  • Communist China and Russia supported Vietminh through weapons, equipment, etc.

  • US supported France -> containment.

Nature of Vietnamese victory against the French in 1954

  • Vietminh fought guerrilla war with peasant support, also received aid from USSR and China.
  • French relied on US aid.
  • Vietminh opened the Ho Chi Minh Trail—a series of trails along the Vietnam border in Laos and Cambodia -> moved troops and supplies into the south.
  • Dien Bien Phu, 1954: Vietnamese defeated France in a conventional battle in the mountainous region, where the US chose not to support the French.

Significance of the Geneva Conference for Indochina in July 1954

  • Chaired by Britain, USSR, France, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, US -> Geneva Accords
  • Ended conflict in a ceasefire.
  • France had to leave Vietnam -> lost colonial prestige.
  • Vietnam split into two by DMZ—communist North and nationalist dictatorship South.
  • Laos and Cambodia officially recognised as independent and neutral.
  • 900,000+ refugees relocating between North and South.
  • Elections to be held in 1956 to decide if South wanted unity with North.
  • US saw defeat as a setback to containment.

Conflict in Vietnam 1954-64

Communists (Hanoi)Democrats (Saigon)
NVA (North Vietnamese Army)ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam)
DRV (Democratic Republic of Vietnam)RVN (Republic of Vietnam)
VC/NLF (Vietcong/National Liberation Front)

Political, social, military and economic developments in North and South Vietnam

Developments in North Vietnam (Hanoi): Aimed to create a socialist state
  • Became a centralised, communist state
  • Purification—thousands of ‘enemies of the people’ (landowners, French loyalists) were executed.
  • By 1960, most North Vietnamese were compliant and supportive of the regime.
  • Trust and support of Ho Chi Minh—known as Uncle Ho
  • Received aid from USSR and China.
  • Hugely supported VC through Ho Chi Minh Trail.
  • North Vietnamese Army (NVA) grew in size and capability.
  • Land reform policies announced in 1957—individual businesses/private wealth seized, land organised into large agricultural cooperatives -> success, rice production increased by over double.
  • 100+ new factories constructed, country mining own coal, achieving economic targets of three-year plan.
Developments in South Vietnam (Saigon): Aimed to create a capitalist system
  • Political instability under Ngo Dinh Diem’s Can Lao Party—secretive, aloof from rural affairs, corrupt (appointed family/friends to government)
  • Diem relied on force, repression, and US support.
  • Diem and brother founded an underground organisation to spy on officials, leaders and citizens.
  • Diem assassinated in 1963.
  • Religious sects destroyed—e.g. Cao Dai and Hoa Hao in 1955.
  • Diem was unloved, untrusted—there was a lack of unity around Diem or goal of independence.
  • Buddhist majority repressed, Roman Catholics favoured (business favours, employment) -> public protests, monks burned themselves in Saigon (e.g. the monk Duc, 1963) -> further unpopularity. Madame Nhu (Diem’s sister) called these protests ‘barbeques’ and said ‘Let them burn and we shall clap our hands.’
  • 1960—National Liberation Front/Vietcong established to support insurgency against Diem regime.
  • Increasing numbers of US military advisors in Vietnam.
  • Diem undid land Vietminh land reforms—civilians now had to buy land/pay rent to landlords. G Kolko: ‘[this] unleashed social discontent and created actual and potential enemies.’
    • Agroville Program (1959)—forced farmers into sanctuaries to prevent communist influence.

Nature and development of US policy towards Indochina to 1964


Fundamental reasons (Cranky Douchebags In Silly Pants)
  • Began in US support of French in First Indochina War, with Ho viewed as part of a worldwide communist aggression campaign.
  • Reinforced by rapid spread of communism, a belief in monolithic communism, fall of China (1949), cold war* tensions.
  • M Maclear: ‘Like Kennedy, Johnson had repeatedly drawn a scenario of an aggressive monolithic communism…’
Domino Theory
  • Eisenhower believed if Vietnam fell, all of SE Asia would fall -> reinforced containment and belief in monolithic, expansionist communism.
  • US saw itself as a fatherly, protective figure of SV. Believed they could create a democratic utopia.
  • JFK: ‘Vietnam represents a proving ground of democracy.’
  • US didn’t want to lose their massive economic/military investment (bases, equipment, aid packages) to the USSR.
  • SV = buffer against international communism.
  • JFK: ‘[America’s stake in Vietnam] can be measured in… American lives and American dollars.’
  • Maintain US prestige, power and pride, often through escalation (as shown in Pentagon Papers)
  • US National Security Council, 1954: ‘The US must… restore its prestige… by a new initiative in South East Asia.’
  • J McNaughton (Assistant Secretary of Defence), wrote that 70% of the US’s motives in Vietnam was to avoid a humiliating US defeat.
  • *Cold War
    • = ideological and power struggle between Russia (communism) and US (democracy).
    • Involved arms build-up, development of nuclear weapons, proxy wars, propaganda, etc.
    • More dangerous than previous struggles due to atomic and nuclear weapons -> reinforced cold war consensus.


  • Began during the French War—Harry Truman wanted to contain communism and get France on its side in the Cold War, so supported the French financially (paying up to 80% of French expenses by the end of the war). The US refused to compromise with Vietminh/Chinese delegates at the Geneva Conference, and didn’t sign the Geneva Accords.
  • Diem years (1954-63)
    • 600 US advisors in SV by 1955, this would increase (3000+ by 1962, almost 17,000 by 1964)
    • 1955—US aid package of $322 million to SV -> By 60s, SV was reliant on US money.
    • US backed Diem, e.g. when he rigged the national referendum in 1955 which outed Emperor Bao Dai, and when he cancelled 1956 nationwide elections for unification as US knew he wouldn’t win.
    • US provided air support and trained SV in counterinsurgency -> The Green Berets
    • WHAM (winning hearts and minds)—aimed to improve SV through health services, education, subsidised rice. Also incl. Strategic Hamlet Program (1960s) which aimed to deny civilian support to VC and gain civilian support, but this failed as they were far from ancestral grounds, built on unpaid peasant labour, basically prison camps -> many SV joined VC.
  • By 1963, the VC had gained much land and Diem’s regime faced heavy opposition -> US made no act to stop Diem from being assassinated.
  • JFK signalled a plan to withdraw US personnel, but this didn’t occur until much later and it’s debated whether this was actually his intention.

Second Indochina War

US foreign policy towards Vietnam from 1964

  • 1963: LBJ elected, supported containment but wanted to ensure his party’s election.

    M Maclear: ‘Johnson’s immediate motivation in Vietnam was political self-defence as much as defence of the Free World…’

  • 1946: US began secret bombing of NV -> beginning of escalation. Tonkin Incident—US ship Maddox moved into NV territorial waters and was attacked -> US retaliated with air raids against NV. Tonkin Resolution—voted in Congress, gave Johnson power to do whatever he deemed needed to be done.

  • 1965: 23,000 troops. Operation Rolling Thunder (continuous bombing over 3 years). 3x bomb tonnage was dropped on the North than on Europe, Asia and Africa in WWII.

  • 1966: Troop numbers increased to about 180,000 (continued to increase until 1970) Pacification—winning hearts and minds—healthcare, education, subsidised rice. Search and destroy—marines cleared areas following air strikes.

  • 1967: Operation Junction City—largest land offensive, attacked Iron Triangle base area. Phoenix Program—CIA tried to find and eliminate supporters of CV, involved infiltration and torture.

  • 1968: Tet Offensive—NVA/VC attack (see Impact of the 1968 Tet Offensive) -> caused outrage and changed policy. My Lai massacre—500 villagers (mainly kids, women, old men) killed by a US platoon. Paris Peace Talks opened.

1969-65 – see ‘Reasons for and nature of US withdrawal’

Nature and effectiveness of tactics of NVA, NLF, ARVN and US tactics

Pacification of civilians.
  • Winning hearts and minds of civilians.
  • People’s Actions Teams—tried to develop supportive policies, e.g. land reforms.
  • Revolutionary Development Cadres—teams worked to improve village life (health, education, transport, hygiene)
  • Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS)—some success in developing policies.
  • Somewhat effective, but US presence was very destructive.
Attrition of enemy forces in South.
  • General Westmoreland wanted to push VC casualties to a tipping point -> DRV disengagement. Never reached.
  • 3 phases
    • 1: Seize areas/bases to build up forces
    • 2: Separate and protect non-communist civilians, attack NLF/NVA strongholds, inflict heavy casualties.
    • 3: Broaden attack, increase ARVN’s role.
  • Search and destroy missions—attacking commie areas/bases with air support (e.g. Operation Cedar Falls in Iron Triangle—short-term success, commies re-established control -> showed weakness in consolidating control and avoiding harm to civilians).
  • Cordon and search—searched villages for weapons/communists. Not effective, innocents killed, as VC wore civilian clothes.
  • Massive use of air power—made less effective by VC tunnels and ‘grabbing the belt buckle’ (stay close to US so they can’t bomb)
  • US inflicted many casualties and won many battles, but often unable to permanently destroy bases or kill enough soldiers.
  • Ineffective limited war
  • P Caputo: ‘we fought a formless war against a formless enemy’
Isolate South Vietnam and VC from DRV.
  • Naval operations (Market Time, Game Warden) -> damaged ability of commies to use oceans/waterways.
  • Bombing of HCMT (Steel Tiger, Menu) had some effect, but commies could adapt the trail -> indefinite replacement of casualties, 8 NVA divisions moved into South between 1965-8.
Destabilise DRV through air power and secret operations.
  • Small raids in NV and HCMT.
  • Propaganda against the DRV—dictatorship of North and propaganda against the US -> US operations had little effect.
Guerrilla WarfareAvoiding major confrontation
  • Ho’s elephant and tiger analogy—The tiger must stay moving in the face of the larger, more powerful elephant, then pounce on it as it sleeps, over and over until it bleeds to death.
  • Tunnel systems—allowed shelter, escape from battle, movement of supplies.
  • Use of jungle/mountain terrain—suited NLF as they travelled in lightly armed small groups and knew the area.
  • Hit and run, ambush, booby traps—e.g. pits of sharpened/infected punji sticks, mined jungle tracks.
  • Lack of uniform—blended in with population and were more difficult to find.
Local population
  • Part of the population—blended in -> US frustration/hostility -> more SV joined VC.
  • Respect—General Giap and Ho’s men respected and assisted villagers -> strong local support for VC/NVA.
  • Intimidation—ruthless and merciless punishment of traitors. S Karnow: ‘[The VC’s] velvet touch often concealed talons of steel.’
    • Propaganda/education—SV educated about movement’s aims of independence, freedom and equality.
Unity under nationalism
  • -> dedication/high morale as US morale declined.
  • Time is not of the essence in the fight for independence—maintained morale and patience. K Webb: ‘Time for the Vietnamese was not an issue.’
Ho Chi Minh Trail
  • Mass of tracks that moved supplies/men from NV through Laos and Cambodia to SV. C Pach: 'Hanoi had... mobilised sufficient resources to carry on the war indefinitely.'
    • Kept active through peasant, soldier and prison labour (over 20,000 working by 1966)
    • Late 1960s—average of 2000 trucks a day on the trail.
    • A Joes: ‘Winning the war in South Vietnam… required stopping or at least seriously inhibiting the flow of men and supplies into the South.’
  • Role increased from 1964, with Giap willing to engage in occasional conventional battles, aiming to prolong the conflict and wear down the US.
  • Following VC losses in Tet, NVA did most fighting.
  • By 1970s, could launch full-scale conventional campaigns.
  • Safeguarded against danger of US invasion (due to many NV troops in South) w/ USSR and Chinese aid.

Impact of the 1968 Tet Offensive

  • What happened?
    • Throughout 1967, communists performed diversionary attacks to draw US forces from the major cities.
    • Weeks before the event, units and weapons moved south.
    • During the Tet new year festival truce, Hanoi (North) launched a massive attack on the South, aiming to inspire an uprising against Thieu’s South, cause the collapse of his regime, and convince the US to leave.
    • Involved up to 84,000 troops and almost 20,000 guerrillas.
    • The communists attacked over 150 towns, cities and hamlets.
    • Communists took control of the US Embassy for a few hours, and Hue for 3 weeks.
    • Fighting was mainly over within three weeks.
  • Impact
    • 12,500 civilians killed, 1 million refugees created.
    • 60,000 NLF/NVA losses -> ‘the Vietcong, were effectively destroyed.’ (T Bowden)
    • Almost 2000 US soldiers killed, almost 20,000 seriously wounded -> morale deteriorated.
    • A political and psychological failure for the US.
    • A military failure for the communists.
    • Event was publicised, showing a massive and embarrassing communist attack—VC cot into US embassy, US ambassador was seen escaping in his PJs, picture of SV general shooting VC prisoner at a Saigon street.
    • -> distrust of the US government and defence force, e.g. US’s most respected news presenter, Walter Cronkite questioned whether the war was being won -> escalated anti-war protests.
    • -> support for escalation ended -> withdrawal of US forces.
    • Johnson began peace negotiations, immediately spared 90% of NV from US bombing, announced he wouldn’t run for president again, and later ended all air attacks on Vietnam.
    • P Braestrup suggests that the media misrepresented Tet due to ignorance and anti-war bias, emphasising chaos and communist success.
    • D Schmitz argues that Tet revealed weaknesses in US limited war and domestic policy and forced the government to decide between escalation or withdrawal.

Impact of the war on civilians in Vietnam

Social impactEconomic impactEnvironmental impact
  • Westernisation—materialist values, goods, fashion, music, prostitution, drug trade
  • Western wealth -> corruption
  • Urbanisation
  • Political repression under Diem and following regimes.
  • War expenditure -> stunted country’s development.
  • Massive inflation/black market by 70s.
  • Devastated post-war economy.
  • US post-war bans on trade.
  • Bombing -> reduced food output.
  • Forest and agricultural regions (dykes, land, crops) destroyed by bombing/defoliants (20 million gallons of defoliants/herbicides dropped on SV over 10 years)
  • Lasting issue of unexploded shells/mines in Indochina.
Cultural impactHuman impact
  • Urbanisation -> decline in traditional village life.
  • Peasants moved from ancestral sites (e.g. to Hamlets or due to conflict)
  • Traditional Northern buildings destroyed by bombing.
  • Pervasive US presence.
  • Threatened traditional culture.
  • Food shortages -> movement into poor urban conditions -> disease.
  • Up to 3 million Vietnamese killed.
  • Many sick (e.g. cancers due to defoliants), wounded, disabled (e.g. Christmas Bombing-> thousands of permanently deaf children).
  • Birth defects due to Agent Orange e.g. cerebral palsy, deformed limbs. (up to 5 million Vietnamese exposed to it)
  • Horror and trauma of the war (bombing, search and destroy)
  • Post-war political repression/economic hardship -> 3 million Indochinese refugees (800,000 Vietnamese) -> pirates, poor conditions at sea/refugee camps.

Nature and significance of anti-war movements in the US and Australia


  • Why?
    • Questions being asked—why are we in Vietnam? What was happening to America? (My Lai, napalm, invasion of Cambodia) What was happened to American politics? (deception, Pentagon Papers, Watergate scandal)
    • Zeitgeist of the 60s—less conformity and acceptance of authority.
    • The US was losing—reinforced by Tet (showed VC in the US Embassy, General Loan’s shooting of a VC suspect, fighting in Hue)
    • The media—anti-war bias; brutality of bombing; search and destroy, reports of VC captives being tortured, etc.
    • TV—Vietnam War was televised with immediacy and brutal reality, more personal and close-up than past media, e.g. real-time tallies of US soldier deaths -> lounge-room war.
    • Inequality—more black and lower/working class families sent to fight.
  • Events—1960s - early 70s
    • Students for a Democratic Society protests in Washington
    • Sit-ins, burning of draft cards, teach-ins (informal lectures/discussions)
    • Civil rights groups (MLK, Black Panthers) spoke against the war.
    • N Morrison self-immolated outside the Pentagon in protest, holding his baby daughter
    • Vietnam Veterans Against the War established
    • 250,000 person march in Washington.
    • Moratorium movement marches.
    • Throughout 1968, protests become more violent and dominated by hippies and radical blacks, and the media primarily focused on these radical groups.
    • Scale dropped following Vietnamisation.
  • Significance
    • Heartened the North Vietnamese and weakened US morale (also, unfriendly reception veterans faced on return)
    • Not very effective, due to its radicalism and how Nixon said he would do ‘what his long experience and conviction tells him is right’. Nixon primarily pursued withdrawal due to the need for relations with USSR and China rather than to pander to public opinion.
    • However, it can be argue that Nixon did pander, as he commissioned many polls to ‘verify when [his] military and diplomatic strategy required adjustment’ (A Katz)


  • Nature
    • Early opposition = limited due to cold war consensus, need to back the US, and pro-war attitudes of the media and Returned and Services League (RSL).
    • Pacifists and religious groups began opposition—Save Our Sons, the Youth Campaign Against Conscription, conscientious objectors (refused on religious/moral ground—e.g. Jehovah’s Witnesses, teacher Bill White)
    • Opposition grew and become more violent in late 60s, largely dominated by hippies and students -> weakened the movement.
    • By 1970, protests emulated Moratorium Movement and became larger, more peaceful and local.
  • Significance
    • Not very significant to bringing troops home, as this simply followed US withdrawal.
    • Veterans vilified—no formal welcome home for troops until 1987.
    • Eventually focused on conscription—banned in 1972.
    • Contributed to unpopularity of Menzie’s Liberal government and election of Labour under Whitlam.

Reasons for and nature of US withdrawal

  • Nixon supported escalation, viewed anti-war protesters as traitors.

  • After Tet, Nixon’s view was changed from focus on victory to peace with honour, survival of Thieu’s regime, re-election—the US was losing, and a defeat would embarrass the US, destroy Nixon’s career, and encourage communist expansion.

    P Davidson: ‘[Nixon believed] that a first American defeat would lead to a collapse of confidence in American leadership and to communist expansion…’

  • 1969-71

    • Employed Madman Theory—widen war by bombing/invading Cambodia and Laos, scare DRV into making peace
    • Vietnamisation—strengthen ARVN while withdrawing US.
    • Triangulation—have USSR and China competing for good relations w/ US to reduce their support of Vietnam.
    • Operation Phoenix—fought like guerrillas to neutralise VC -> weakened VC, 20,000 captured.
    • Operation Menu—secret bombing against HCMT in Cambodia to destroy communist HQ and disrupt the trail.
    • Leaked a story that he would take massive retaliatory action -> NVA eased up.
    • US/ARVN invaded Cambodia to destroy communist bases -> failed, inflamed anti-war protests.
    • Declining morale of US forces—desertion rates 5x higher in 1971 than 1966, ¾ of men had tried heroin, over 500 attempts of fragging (troops murdering officers)
    • Operation Lam Son—ARVN attacked NVA supply lines in Laos -> disaster, half of 5000 troops killed.
    • Paris Peace Talks dragged on—Nixon offered a ceasefire, but NV denied.
    • Little progress was made by Nixon by 1971.
  • 1972

    • Following the NV Easter Offensive, Nixon bombed various targets, at one stage dropping 3000 tons of bombs a day.
    • In October, bombing ended and Henry Kissinger (US) and Le Duc Tho (NV) had made an agreement—US withdrawal, independence for SV, US promise to help with reconstruction, etc.
    • However, Thieu (SV) was annoyed that he was not in the negotiations, and ordered an ARVN attack on the NVA -> perceived as US bad faith by NV.
    • Months later, NV walked out of peace talks following US amendments to the October plan, and ignored US demands to resume talks.
    • US Operation Linebacker Two bombing campaign began in December, lasting for 11 days with horrifying extent—40,000 tons of bombs dropped.
    • NV resumed talks, Thieu had no choice but to follow US signing -> Jan 1973 peace treaty signed—NVA troops remain in SV, US troops withdrawn, International Control Commission to monitor ceasefire, US aid to SV, Council of National Reconciliation and Concord to sort political disputes, etc.

Reasons for communist victory in Vietnam

Military factors
  • VC/NVA relevant tactics (guerrilla warfare, blending with population); and support through HCMT (US inability to destroy it) and Russian/Chinese aid
  • US conventional warfare (heavily armed men, bombing) didn’t suit the country.
Attitudes towards regimes
  • SV (e.g. Diem) was corrupt, inefficient and brutal; seen as a US puppet; never gained population’s loyalty; ARVN was a poor force therefore Vietnamisation failed (e.g. as seen in Op. Lam Son)
  • NV driven by nationalism, SV population respected and feared the communists -> support.
North’s power and determination
  • Ho’s inspiration (e.g. elephant and tiger analogy), nationalism, fight for independence -> maintain morale, patience.
  • HCMT, Soviet/Chinese aid supplied Southern fighters.
Tet Offensive
  • Boosted US anti-war movement
  • Showed US public the government’s deception
  • Changed media coverage of the war
  • Decreased US morale
  • Changed US war aims -> withdrawal.
Anti-war movement
  • Cold war consensus broke down
  • Sapped government’s will, harmed US troop morale
  • Forced withdrawal and policy of Vietnamisation
  • Boosted communist morale
US inability to understand conflict
  • US saw the war as part of the Cold war, a monolithic communism.
  • BUT it was about Vietnamese nationalism, independence, and opposition to foreign rule.
US unpopularity
  • Indiscriminate bombing, defoliants -> destroyed land/buildings, alienated population
  • Cultural insensitivity, pervasiveness, failure of US social policy, atrocities by US troops (search and destroy, My Lai massacre) -> little support for US.
Direct reasons
End of US aid
  • Departure of US in early 1973 -> massive impact—SV was totally dependent on US financial aid and military support/training
  • While Nixon promised continued aid to SV, Congress passed the War Powers Resolution (limited Nixon’s power to commit troops to foreign conflicts) and totally cut aid to Indochina by 1975.
  • This and the Watergate scandal (Nixon found guilty of lies, cover-ups, abuse of power) -> US unable to/didn’t care to assist SV.
  • S Karnow: ‘the overwhelming majority of Americans… favoured no further aid to the Saigon government.’
SV’s economic collapse
  • By 1974—SV had huge inflation, low industrial production, unemployment of 30%, expansion of black market, low morale, many ARVN desertions, many refugees.
Skill of NVA and General Dung / SV military/civilian panic
  • General Van Tien Dung (NV) moved 22 divisions into SV by 1974, and attacked—made gains in northern provinces and Mekong Delta region.
  • NVA seized Phuc Long province (100km from Saigon) in 1975—US did nothing, USSR increased aid to NV. Aimed to cut SV in half by seizing Central Highlands -> panic, ARVN desertions, refugees.
  • Following seizure of other major cities and collapse of ARVN, NVA seized Saigon.

Spread of the conflict to:


Background—Sihanouk’s rule

  • Norodom Sihanouk led the People’s Socialist Community, became PM, removed Cambodia from the French Union, and then became head of state—Prince Sihanouk.

  • Sihanouk tolerated no opposition—his regime involved a cult of personality, political instability, corruption and economic inefficiency.

    J Tully: ‘He tolerated no rivals, recognised no equals…’

  • In 1963, he nationalised banks and trade and cancelled US aid -> revenue fell 15%, huge shortages -> corruption, opposition -> up to 10,000 killed to put down unrest in 1967-8.

  • Sihanouk wanted neutrality in the cold war, e.g. accepted both US and Chinese aid in the Bandung Conference.

  • Following rumours that an assassination attempt on his life was US-organised and the ARVN invasion of Cambodia, Sihanouk cut ties with the US and moved towards the communists (allowed in Chinese supplies for NVA/NLF, allowed VC bases).

  • 1969—Sihanouk opened a casino against advice, the Kampuchean People’s Revolutionary Party was fighting the regime, US began Operation Menu (bombing VC in Cambodia) -> Sihanouk became unpopular and his power became weak, many of the population was radicalised and turned towards the growing KPRP (led by Pol Pot)

Reasons for communist (Khmer) victory

Lon Nol regime

  • While Sihanouk was in Paris for medical treatment in the 1970s, his PM Lon Nol (anti-Viet, anti-communist) allied with the US/RVN (SV flags up, held up VC shipments, ordered VC bases to leave) and declared Sihanouk no longer head of state.
    • Reasons for his fall—economic mismanagement, political/military corruption, self-indulgence, US bombing, communist growth, Lon Nol’s tactics.
  • Sihanouk allied with Khmer Rouge against Lon Nol -> propaganda tactic for Khmer.
  • US supported Lon Nol and sought the destruction of the VC in Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge.
Conflict during Lon Nol’s regime
Cambodian nationalists v. NV (1)Following Lon Nol’s seizure of power, NVA attacked to overthrow Nol. Many Cambodians volunteered to the military to remove the NVA.
US/ARVN v. VC/NVAIn 1970, 80,000 US/ARVN troops invaded eastern Cambodia -> communists retreated deeper. ARVN presence in Cambodia -> old hatreds developed until they withdrew.
Cambodian nationalists v. NV (2)During Operation Chenla II (Cambodian op. to open a road to the North), Cambodians army lines were sliced up by NVA. The army continued to deteriorate throughout 1971, short on supplies and Lon Nol weakened due to a stroke.
Khmer Rouge v. Lon Nol1973, Paris Peace Accords end the Vietnam War -> foreign activity in Cambodia ended. Khmer Rouge was powerful and popular due to the unpopularity of the Lon Nol regime, which was seen as a US puppet and was blamed for the US bombing. By 1974, hmer was dominant in rural areas, and Phnom Pen’s situation was desperate (many refugees due to US bombing). Khmer attacked Phnom Penh in 1975, and claimed it in April.
Why did the Khmer Rouge win? (Ladies Untie Elegant Knickers Naughtily)
Lon Nol’s unpopularityFeudal regime, poorly led/supplied army, corruption (increased by US aid).
US involvementBombing destabilised the regime and radicalised the population -> support of Khmer Rouge, US support of overthrowing Sihanouk, financial aid fed corruption.

J Pilger: ‘[US bombing] provided… the Khmer Rouge with a catalyst for a revolution.’

Economic instabilityFollowing conflict; food production was low, irrigation/dykes destroyed, infrastructure destroyed -> refugee movement into Phnom Pen -> made city unstable and easier for Khmer Rouge to plan their final campaign.
Khmer Rouge’s popularityPresented itself as dedicated and selfless, wanted to remove hated Vietnamese and Lon Nol’s dictatorship; also used propaganda of associating with Sihanouk.
NVA/VC presenceDestabilised country, weakened Sihanouk, led to Lon Nol seeking US support, justified US bombing, fanned Cambodian-Vietnamese hatreds.

Democratic Kampuchea under Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge

  • R Templer: ‘[Pol Pot’s] paranoia and brutality sent [Cambodia] into a chasm of darkness in which as many as two people died.’
  • Evacuation
    • First action of Khmer was to order mass evacuation of Phnom Penh and other cities to avoid urban famine/protect people from US bombing
    • Over 2 million people forced out of the city, could take no food or belongings
    • Those who resisted/couldn’t keep up were beaten/shot (incl. children, pregnant women, etc.)
    • Up to half a million died during this
    • -> broke down relationships, stalled development of opposition, fearful acceptance of Khmer authority
Aims of the Khmer Rouge
Racial purityNon-Khmer groups were targeted, persecuted and killed
  • Vietnamese (some had lived there for generations), many fled to Vietnam
  • Immigrants such as the Chinese
  • Ancient minorities—Muslim Chan people, Montagnards
Cultural purity
  • Eliminate modern and foreign influences to preserve a better, purer Khmer past
  • Modern transport, economic institutions and medicine destroyed.
    • Antibiotics flushed away, hospitals abandoned, doctors were persecuted, sickness viewed as idleness.
    • No power/machinery allowed, work had to be done through primitive equipment.
    • E.g. J Pilger found pyramids of cars, washing machines, typewriters, etc. in Phnom Penh overgrown by jungle.
  • Foreign material influences, ideas, education and languages rooted out.
    • No Western economy—no banks., currency, or trade.
    • Stone buildings destroyed, especially schools.
    • However, Khmer Rouge still used modern weapons and accepted military/economic aid from China.
    • Intellectual life targeted as foreign—police agents would check for soft hands -> evidence of urban, intellectual lifestyle. Those with glasses or western fashion instead of black peasant garb persecuted.
Communal life
  • Traditional family destroyed—first loyalty of children should be to Angkor (the organisation)
  • No private life, everyday activities (eating, sleeping, marriage) were communal
  • State (Angkor) > individual
New society
  • First year named Year Zero—a totally new society
  • Agricultural society, organised as system of communes -> harmony, purity
  • No room for urban communes (seen in evacuations)


  • Destroyed intellectual life

    • Theatres, museums, cinemas, historical monuments destroyed
    • Over 80% of primary school teachers killed
    • Over 90% of professors and secondary school teachers killed
  • Forced into communal lifestyle

    • No privacy allowed

    • Work was up to 16 hours a day, rewarded with meagre rations

    • Family life and affection frowned upon

    • Constant surveillance -> questioning and punishment for slightest indiscretion.

      V Shubin: ‘[the Cambodians] were not allowed to think, to suffer, to laugh, to cry…. any sadness or indignation could well be the reason for the given person to be sent to death.’

    • Evenings spent receiving political instruction and singing patriotic songs

  • Religion destroyed

    • Over 25,000 Buddhist monks killed, almost 3000 pagodas (temples) destroyed

    • Over 100 mosques of the Muslim Cham people destroyed

      V Shubin: ‘The Cham were almost fully exterminated.’ Kompong Cham province—had Muslim population of 20,000 -> none survived.

  • Ethnic minorities abolished

    • Targeted dress, language, customs, beliefs, etc.
  • Party purging

    • Disagreement with Pol Pot = treasonous ‘microbes within the party’ (Pol Pot)
    • By 1978, thousands of loyal party members were in Tuol Seng accused of treachery
    • D Chandler: ‘Believing himself surrounding by enemies, Pol Pot approved the torture and execution [of thousands of party members].’
  • Huge casualties

    • Execution, mass murder, torture in Tuol Sleng (interrogation centre), starvation, disease.
    • Up to 3 million—almost 40% of the population—killed.

Foreign Policy

  • Cambodia was isolated—contact with the rest of the world was forbidden -> purity
  • Linked with China through geopolitics and ideology.
    • China was an exception to isolation—held in high regard, as its Cultural Revolution inspired Pol Pot’s Cambodia.
    • China was close with Khmer as part of a geopolitical strategy—Vietnam became China’s enemy by linking with USSR, therefore Khmer became friend of China by opposing Vietnam.
  • Vietnam
    • Traditional Cambodian-Vietnamese hatreds, Khmer resented NV’s patronising attitude -> armed conflict from 1975.
    • Through 1976, Pot understood his weakness in comparison to Vietnam, and Vietnam wanted to avoid another conflict. However, border clashes developed, furthering distrust.
    • Khmer minorities in Vietnam were expected to organise an anti-Vietnamese rebellion, but they didn’t due to poor organisation and outnumbering. However, Pot saw this as treason and treated them mercilessly.
    • Relations deteriorated throughout 1978
      • Cross-border raids continued (Vietnam took thousands of Cambodians hostage, who took this opportunity to flee the Khmer Rouge)
      • Vietnam announced a Kampuchean Front for National Salvation to remove the Khmer Rouge.
    • On Xmas 1978, 100,000 Vietnamese invaded NE Cambodia. They faced little opposition, so moved onto Phnom Penh, which was abandoned in Jan 1979. Pol Pot and the Khmer fled NW -> end of Khmer rule. Many people welcomed the invasion.

Impact of conflict on civilians

  • US aid -> fed corruption and destabilised Sihanouk’s regime.

  • US bombing -> destabilised Sihanouk’s regime, destroyed agricultural land, killed thousands, radicalised the population, led to thousands of refugees in Phnom Penh -> poor living conditions, urban famine.

  • Development of the Kampuchean People’s Revolutionary Party (originally part of the Indochinese Communist Party founded by NV) -> radicalised population towards far-left.

  • Under Lon Nol’s regime, there was non-stop violence from a variety of conflicting forces—Lon Nol’s government v. North Vietnam, US/ARVN v. VC/NVA in Eastern Cambodia, Khmer Rouge v. Lon Nol -> low food production, irrigation/dykes/agricultural land/infrastructure destroyed, more refugees -> economic instability, allowed Khmer Rouge to take power.

  • Under Khmer—mass evacuation, murder, terror, repression (for details, see ‘Impact’ under ‘Democratic Kampuchea under Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge’ (above)

  • The Cambodian people spent almost 20 years under oppressive, corrupt regimes (Sihanouk, Lon Nol, Pol Pot) and constant military conflict -> left country desperately poor, killed millions of Cambodians, destroyed infrastructure/agricultural land, traumatic legacy.

    D Chandler: ‘for [the Cambodian people], what had happened… made as little sense as an earthquake, a prairie fire, or a typhoon…’



  • Laos was a small country with no clear identity or history of great power, having suffered from attack and exploitation by Thailand, China, France, etc.
  • Following Laos claiming its independence from France in 1953, the Geneva Accords allowed a coalition between the Royal Lao government under PM Phouma (put in place by France) and the Communist Pathet Lao under Prince Souphanouvong (who fought the French).
  • Disagreements developed, and the coalition collapsed after the Pathet Lao won the 1958 election.
  • Conflict continued—Souphanouvong was arrested, there was a coup against the Royal Lao (which didn’t last long).
  • Became involved in the cold war—USSR and NV provided the Pathet Lao with arms and supplies while the US backed the royal forces (Laos was seen as a falling domino).
  • In 1960, M Hasting argues that the New York Times gave 3x as much space to stories about conflict in Laos than Vietnam.
  • The US had provided over $500 million and over 700 CIA personnel by the end of the 1960s to fight the communists.
  • But by the mid 1960s, the US was embroiled in Vietnam.

Spread of the conflict

  • NV used the HCMT in eastern Laos to supply VC -> the US bombed it incessantly to interrupt troops/supplies.
  • US bombing of HCMT and Pathet Lao areas involved 2 million tons of bombs -> 25% of population became refugees.
  • US actions were very close to the Laotian border, e.g. Hamburger Hill assault, 1 mile from border.
  • Battle of Lam Son—Nixon aimed to move ARVN 25 miles into Laos, which was disastrous—ARVN lost half their tanks and troops, about 650 US helicopters were lost/damaged.
  • In early 1973, NVA had over 100,000 troops along SV borders with Laos and Cambodia, ready for attack.
  • In Laos, an agreement on the Restoration of Peace and Reconciliation in Laos was signed between the Pathet Lao and Royal government, and a coalition Provisional Government of National Union (PGNU) was formed.
  • The PGNU broke down—the fall of Phnom Penh in 1975 inspired the Pathet Lao to make a move for power. They captured strategic locations, and months later the King and Phouma resigned.
  • In late 1975, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic was established, with Souphanouvong as President.
  • M Stuart-Fox: ‘the destiny of Laos had been set by events in other states.’

Impact of conflict on civilians

  • More than 270 million bombs were dropped on Laos -> killed many, devastated the countryside, made 25% of the population refugees.
  • US bombing -> destroyed agricultural land and intensified the civil war -> Laos is today desperately poor, with 2 million people living below the poverty line.
  • 1/3 of bombs failed to explode and now kill about 500 a year, with only 1% of Laotian land cleared of these unexploded shells.
  • Laotian civilian K Dalaseng: ‘I hate Americans to this date. They bombed, burned and destroyed everything.’
  • The US/Vietnam conflict contributed to Laos’s legacy of trauma, exploitation, and war.

Reasons for communist (Pathet Lao) victory

  • The French origin and US support of the Royal Lao -> unpopularity of Royal Lao
  • US bombing radicalised the population and turned support towards the Pathet Lao
  • The communist victory in Vietnam inspired the Pathet Lao to take power