History Lessons

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This page will provide some primers on historical events that are referenced in The Winchesters. Remember there will be many accounts of any historical events, and the best way to get informed is to read widely! The summaries here are not intended to be comprehensive. There will inevitably be nuance lost in these summaries and bias inherent in their telling. Please add any comments to the discussion page.

War in Vietnam

The Vietnam War, as it is known in the United States, was fought from November 1955 through April 1975. In Vietnam it is called the War against America or the American War. It is also referred to as the Second Indochina War, as it also involved neighboring Cambodia and Laos. The United States never formally declared war on North Vietnam. It was one of the defining conflicts of the Cold War in the second half of the 20th century.

Following World War 2, the United States and its European allies were highly suspicious of communism for both ideological and economic reasons even though the Soviet Union had been their ally against the Axis Powers (Germany, Italy, and Japan). In the early 1950s, this saw the US involvement in Korea. This undeclared conflict between communist countries (led by either the Soviet Union or the People’s Republic of China) and non-communist countries (largely led by the U.S.) was known as the Cold War. Most U.S. leaders subscribed to the so-called Domino Theory: if one country in a region came under the influence of communism, then the surrounding countries would follow. The Cold War lasted from the end of World War II through the early 1990s.


Vietnam is a country that borders the south China sea to its east, Cambodia and Laos to its west and China to is north. It is slightly larger than Germany or the US state of New Mexico.
In the 1880s, France invaded and colonised Vietnam. In 1940, Japan invaded and allowed a puppet French government to retain nominal control over the country. The Viet Minh formed during World War II as a resistance organization against the Japanese. After the Japanese surrendered to the Allies in 1945, Ho Chi Minh, leader of the Viet Minh, proclaimed the establishment of an independent Vietnam. However 20 days later, the French with US backing, re-invaded the country. In 1950, China and the Soviet Union recognized the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, based in the north in Hanoi and the US and Britain recognized the French-backed State of Vietnam in what was then called Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), in the South.

Eventually, the French were driven from the country in 1954. The United Nations divided the country in a northern communist region, and a non-communist south. The US, and its allies, provided military aid and support to the South. North Vietnam was a communist/socialist state, while South Vietnam was intended to be a constitutional republic. In practice, the government of South Vietnam ended up as a dictatorship followed by a series of military coups.
In the late 1950s, a group called the Viet Cong began a guerilla campaign challenging the government of South Vietnam. The Viet Cong supported unification of the country under the communist government of North Vietnam. They were supported with money and arms from the Soviet Union. In 1958, North Vietnam also invaded neighboring Laos, establishing a supply line for the Viet Cong through Laos and Cambodia and dragging those countries into the escalating conflict. At this time President Kennedy ramped up the military presence in the South and after his assassination, President Lyndon Johnson escalated US involvement by ordering bombing campaigns and committing hundreds of thousands of US troops to the fight. By June 1965, 82,000 U.S. combat troops were stationed in Vietnam, a number would only increase over time. The U.S. also began conducting regular bombing raids of North Vietnam and Laos.
The war lasted ten years until the United States government, faced with increasing human and economic costs and decreasing support from its allies and citizens, signed a peace agreement with North Vietnam which included the full withdrawal of American troops from the Indochinese peninsula. The last U.S. military unit left Vietnam on March 29, 1973. The official end of the war is dated to April 30, 1975, when the North Vietnamese forces captured Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam although sporadic conflicts on the peninsula continued for the next 15 years North Vietnam then invaded the South and united the country under a communist government.


  • How many people died? Official Vietnamese figures estimate up to 2,000,000 civilians in both the north and south were killed and just over 1,100,000 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong fighters. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington lists more than 58,300 names of members of the U.S. armed forces who died in the conflict. There were also deaths among their allies in South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.
  • What was the draft? During the 1960s there was a draft, i.e. forced military service for men, in place. Men are required register with Selective Service within one month of their 18th birthday. There were exemptions, for example for those enrolled in college or conscientious objectors" based on religious reasons , but over time this resulted in the majority of draftees being from amongst the poor, the lower class, and minorities. In 1969 a lottery was introduced that selected people based on their birth date. People drafted were actually in the minority of those who served in the in combat zones. Many chose to sign up before they were drafted as it gave them some choice of service and assignment. Over 2.2 million American men were drafted during the 10 years of the Vietnam war.
  • Who were the draft dodgers? As the Vietnam War became more and more unpopular in the U.S., many men refused to serve. Those who did not qualify as conscientious objectors either refused to register with Selective Service (a crime) or fled the country. As many as 30,000 American men of draft age may have fled to Canada during the Vietnam War.
  • What's napalm and Agent Orange In the Vietnam War, these substances were among those used to burn vegetation that could hide opposition forces and also destroy crops that they relied on for food. Napalm is a mix of petrol and a gel which had been used in flamethrowers and tanks in World War II. Agent Orange was one of the most commonly used herbicides. It contained numerous toxic chemicals, including dioxin. Exposure to Agent Orange caused serious health issues for both the Vietnamese people and U.S. servicemen and their families, including birth defects, cancer, neurological problems and severe psychological issues.
  • What did Americans think of the War? Many Americans supported the War, although there was a very vocal anti-war movement not seen during the US engagement in World War 2. The Vietnam War was different from previous wars for Americans, as there was extensive coverage on television - it was "beamed into people's lounge rooms". This allowed people to see the impact on both the US military and civilians. Conscription meant many people knew men directly involved in the war, or in trying to avoid being drafted, and it became became increasingly unpopular. The Civil Rights movement highlighted the inequity of African-Americans being overrepresented in Vietnam troops and deaths, while still suffering under many oppressions at home. Many Americans didn't understand why they were involved in a war on the other side of the world. Anti-war protests increased through the 60s, with over half a million people taking place in the 1971 "Vietnam War Out Now" rally on the National Mall in Washington. Response to anti-war protests by the US Government often became violent, resulting in the infamous incident in which the National Guard shot and killed four and wounded nine people at Kent State College in Ohio.
People in the military also opposed the war. Thousands American soldiers deserted, while others turned to drugs and alcohol to cope with the trauma of combat. In the US thousands of Vietnam veterans joined in anti-war protests.
In 1971, the Pentagon papers were published - a Department of Defense history of the United States' political and military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967 and documented the extent to which the Government had misrepresented its motivations and actions during the war to both the public and Congress.
  • What happened in Vietnam after the War? The War had a devastating impact on the country. Large sections of the country been ravaged by bombing, herbicides and napalm, resulting in the destruction of needed infrastructure and the economy. In the south, people who were part of the South Vietnamese government, military and those who had worked with US forces, were put into forced labour camps where they endured torture and starvation. The Vietnamese government claimed that the war resulted in 10 million refugees, 1 million war widows, 880,000 orphans, 362,000 war invalids, and 3 million unemployed people. All faced terrible poverty. Many people from the south fled the country and sought refuge elsewhere in Asia, as well as countries including Australia and the US. While the country continues to face issues of poverty, it has one of the fastest growing economies in the area, bolstered by foreign aid and oil exports. The U.S. resumed trade and diplomatic relations with Vietnam in the 1990s. Over 600,000 US tourists visit each year. <br
  • What happened to US veterans after the War? Unlike the return of veterans from World War 2, there were few celebratory ticker tape parades for Vietnam vets. However, the idea that veterans were routinely abused and spat on, is a fabrication. However, regardless of people's support for the war, the idea that the US had lost was a discomfort that was often projected onto those who had been part of it. When US veterans returned home they found there was inadequate support for their physical and mental health issues they had to deal with (which has continued for veterans involved in other conflicts since), and an economy moving into recession. Compounding these problems, for many years, popular culture depicted Vietnam veterans as damaged and dangerous. The impact on the people who served, and their families continues to this day.