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Prof. Dr. Rolf Steininger

Prof. Dr. Rolf Steininger

To person

Rolf Steininger, studied in Marburg, G├Âttingen, Munich, Lancaster, Cardiff; from 1984 until his retirement in 2010 head of the Institute for Contemporary History at the University of Innsbruck; Senior Fellow of the Eisenhower Center for American Studies at the University of New Orleans; Jean Monnet Professor; Visiting professor in Tel Aviv, Queensland (Australia) and New Orleans; Visiting scholar in Saigon, Hanoi, Cape Town, Arcata; 1993 call to the University of D├╝sseldorf, 2007 to the University of Bozen; 2011 Tyrolean State Prize for Science.

In the middle of the Cold War, the USA embarked on a military adventure in Vietnam in 1964 to stop the presumed advance of communism. After 11 years and almost 60,000 dead US soldiers and millions of dead Vietnamese, the Vietnam War came to an end. The result: a nation deeply disappointed by its president - and a lost war.

Almost 60,000 American soldiers died in the Vietnam War. (& copy AP)

prehistory

During the Second World War, the Americans dropped brochures about Vietnam in which the population was called upon to resist the Japanese occupiers and offered them independence and self-determination. But after the US victory over Japan and the start of the Cold War, there was no longer any talk of it. Now it was about the "containment" of communism, and with this in mind, the US also accepted France's intentions to restore its colonial rule in Indochina. That couldn't be done without violence. And so, at the end of 1946, the French Indochina War began.

For the US this was initially just a "dirty" colonial war. That changed with the victory of the communists in China in 1949 and the beginning of the Korean War on June 25, 1950. Almost at the same time as the intervention in Korea, American engagement in Vietnam began. The French colonial war turned into a "crusade against communism", part of the beginning global conflict between East and West. In 1953/54 the USA paid around 75% of the French war costs. With the defeat at Dien Bien Phu in May 1954, however, France's colonial rule in Indochina ended. At the subsequent conference in Geneva, Vietnam was divided along the 17th parallel. The new man in South Vietnam was called Ngo Dinh Diem, who came from exile in America and was built up by Washington as a "strong man". Diem was supposed to direct the bulwark against North Vietnam's communist leader Ho Chi Minh, but not alone. The number of military advisers in South Vietnam increased to 16,000 during the presidency of John F. Kennedy. For Kennedy's successor Lyndon B. Johnson, South Vietnam was the first stone in a long line of dominoes: If this stone were to fall, the other states in Southeast Asia would also become communist. The freedom of San Francisco, it was said, was being defended in Saigon.

Johnson's war

At the beginning of August 1964, a momentous incident occurred in the Gulf of Tonking. North Vietnamese patrol boats shot at the US destroyer "Maddox". Two days later, the Americans launched the first air raids against North Vietnam. A second incident - which, as we now know, did not take place at all - led to the infamous Tonking Resolution in Washington, an empowerment to war that, Johnson said, "covers everything like grandmother's nightgown": Congress empowered Johnson to "take all necessary steps, including the use of armed force," to support South Vietnam.

The most momentous decisions were made in the spring of 1965: A smoldering conflict turned into an American war. After two attacks by the Communists on American barracks, Johnson ordered the air strikes to be stepped up: Operation "Rolling Thunder" started on March 2, 1965 and was not ended until October 30, 1968. During this time, the American Air Force flew a total of 304,000 sorties in North Vietnam, including 2,083 B-52 attacks. The communists' will to resist was not broken.

The Americans took the next decisive step on March 8, 1965: For the first time since the Korean War, American combat troops re-entered Asian soil. 3,500 Marines went ashore in Da Nang. Hanoi spoke of an "open declaration of war". On April 21, 1965, another 82,000 soldiers were sent to South Vietnam, and at the end of July another 75,000. At the end of the year, 100,000 US soldiers were stationed in South Vietnam; in the spring of 1968 there were at times 550,000.

The end of Johnson's war came in January 1968 with the so-called "Tet Offensive", a no longer considered possible major attack by the Communists against five of the six large cities, 36 of the 44 provincial capitals and a quarter of the 242 provincial cities of South Vietnam. In the end, the Americans and South Vietnamese had recaptured all the lost territories, but it was a Pyrrhic victory. The American public had lost faith in victory, and the president had lost his credibility. At the end of April, Johnson announced that he would not stand for re-election.