INTO THE FRAY
Preventing South Vietnam from falling to communism was the United States' key goal in the Southeast Asia War. The 1954 Geneva Peace Accords called for a temporary division of North and South Vietnam at the 17th Parallel, with a unification election to be held in 1956. At the time, Vietnamese communists in the south fled north to the friendly pro-communists there while anti-communists in the north moved south. The planned election never took place, and in 1959, communists in the north resolved to reunite Vietnam by force.
Initially, the South Vietnamese fought against southern communist Vietnamese insurgents called the National Liberation Front. These guerillas became more commonly known as Viet Cong or "VC." Later, North Vietnam sent regular North Vietnamese army troops to aid the VC.
In late 1961 the U.S. sent personnel to train the South Vietnamese military to defend itself. Although U.S. troops were not to engage in combat, VC guerillas did not operate under the same restrictions, and they soon shot down four U.S. Army helicopters. American casualties increased as Viet Cong activity increased. In response, the U.S. stepped up its assistance and supply program in order to finish training the South Vietnamese and withdraw its personnel.
As the pace of Viet Cong operations rose over the next three years, U.S. personnel got permission to engage the enemy under certain conditions -- many operations consisted of Army and Marine helicopter units supporting South Vietnamese troops. One USAF contribution to the early effort was flare dropping from modified World War II-era C-47 cargo planes to light the sky during nighttime VC attacks. Early in 1962, the USAF also began tests to defoliate the jungle to deny the enemy cover. Nevertheless, U.S. strategy still called for building up the South Vietnamese military to the point where it could fight and win its own battles, and then remove U.S. forces as soon as possible.
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Down in the Weeds: Ranch Hand
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