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The Second Indochina War (aka. the Vietnam War or the American War) began in 1955 and ended in 1975 when North Vietnamese forces captured Saigon. During this period, the war escalated from an insurgency in South Vietnam sponsored by the North Vietnamese government to direct military intervention in the south by North Vietnam, as well as the intervention of military forces of the United States and other countries to assist South Vietnam. The war also spilled over into the neighboring countries of Cambodia and Laos. An exhaustive reckoning of the total casualties must include statistical information available for each theater of the war. Most of the fighting took place in South Vietnam; accordingly it suffered the most casualties.
Based on several studies of casualties, deaths in the Vietnam War for the years 1955 to 1975 may have exceeded 2 million persons in the countries of Vietnam (both North and South), Cambodia, and Laos. Civilian deaths caused by both sides amounted to a significant percentage of total deaths, perhaps from 30 to nearly 50 percent. Civilian deaths caused by communist forces, which included the Viet Cong, North Vietnamese Army, Pathet Lao and Khmer Rouge, mostly resulted from assassinations and terror tactics. Civilian deaths caused by the armed forces of the governments of South Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, the United States, South Korea, and other allies were primarily the consequence of extensive aerial bombing and the use of massive firepower in military operations conducted in heavily populated areas. The nature of the war often made it difficult to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants.
|Allied military deaths||282,000|
|Communist military deaths||444,000|
|Civilian deaths (North and South Vietnam)||587,000|
Estimates of the total number of deaths in the Vietnam War vary widely depending upon the time period and area covered by the data.
Gunther Lewy in 1978 estimated 1,313,000 total deaths in North and South Vietnam during the period 1965–1974—the years in which the U.S. was most engaged in the war. Lewy reduced the number of Viet Cong/North Vietnamese battle deaths claimed by the U.S. by 30 percent (in accordance with the opinion of United States Department of Defense officials), and assumed that one third of the battle deaths of the VC/NVA were actually civilians. His estimate of total deaths are reflected in the table.
A detailed demographic study in 1995 calculated 791,000–1,141,000 war-related Vietnamese deaths, both soldiers and civilians, for all of Vietnam from 1965 to 1975. The study came up with a most likely Vietnamese death toll of 882,000, which included 655,000 adult males (above 15 years of age), 143,000 adult females, and 84,000 children. Those totals include only Vietnamese deaths, and do not include American and other allied military deaths which amounted to about 64,000. The study has been criticized for its small sample size, the imbalance in the sample between between rural and urban areas, and the possible overlooking of clusters of high mortality rates.
Also in 1995, the Vietnamese government released its estimate of war deaths for the more lengthy period of 1955 to 1975. According to the Vietnamese, Communist battle deaths totaled 1.1 million and civilian deaths of Vietnamese totaled 2.0 million. These estimates probably include battle deaths of Vietnamese soldiers in Laos and Cambodia, but do not include deaths of South Vietnamese and allied soldiers which would add nearly 300,000 for a grand total of 3.4 million military and civilian dead.
A 2008 study by the BMJ (formerly British Medical Journal) came up with a higher toll of 3,812,000 dead in Vietnam between 1955 and 2002. For the period of the Vietnam War the totals are 1,310,000 between 1955 and 1964, 1,700,000 between 1965 and 1974 and 81,000 in 1975. (The estimates for 1955 to 1964 are much higher than other estimates). The sum of those totals is 3,091,000 war deaths between 1955 and 1975.
Uppsala University in Sweden maintains the Armed Conflict Database. The estimates for conflict deaths in Vietnam are 164,923 from 1955 to 1964 and 1,458,050 from 1965 to 1975 for a total of 1,622,973. The database also estimates combat deaths in Cambodia for the years 1967 to 1975 to total 259,000. Data for deaths in Laos is incomplete.
R.J. Rummel's mid-range estimate in 1997 was that the total deaths due to the Vietnam conflict totaled 2,115,000 from 1954 to 1975. Rummel calculated communist war deaths at 1,062,000 and South Vietnamese and allied war deaths of 741,000, both totals including civilians inadvertently killed. He estimated that victims of democide (deliberate killing of civilians) included 214,000 by the communists and 98,000 by South Vietnam and its allies.
|low estimate of deaths||middle estimate of deaths||high estimate of deaths||Notes and comments|
|North Vietnam/Viet Cong military and civilian war dead||533,000||1,062,000||1,489,000||includes an estimated 90,000 to 180,000 non-combatants inadvertently killed by U.S/SVN bombing/shelling|
|South Vietnam/U.S./South Korea war military and civilian war dead||429,000||741,000||1,119,000||includes non-combatants inadvertently killed in military operations|
|Democide by North Vietnam/Viet Cong||131,000||214,000||302,000||Democide is the murder of persons by or at the behest of governments.|
|Democide by South Vietnam||57,000||89,000||284,000||Democide is the murder of persons by or at the behest of governments.|
|Democide by the United States||4,000||6,000||10,000||Democide is the murder of persons by or at the behest of governments.|
|Democide by South Korea||3,000||3,000||3,000||Rummel does not give a medium or high estimate.|
|Subtotal Vietnam||1,156,000||2,115,000||3,209,000||may not add to total due to rounding|
|Cambodians||262,000||262,000||262,000||Rummel estimates 211,000 killed by Khmer Rouge (1967–1975), 60,000 killed by U.S. and 1,000 killed by South Vietnam (1970–1973). No estimate given for deaths caused by Viet Cong/North Vietnam (1954–1975).|
|Laotians||28,000||62,000||115,000||Source: accessed 24 Nov 2014|
|Grand total of war deaths: Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos||1,506,000||2,465,000||3,459,000|
Levy estimates that 40,000 South Vietnamese civilians were assassinated by the Viet Cong/North Vietnamese; 250,000 were killed as a result of combat in South Vietnam, and 65,000 were killed in North Vietnam. He suggests that another 222,000 civilians were counted as military deaths by the U.S. in compiling its "body count." His estimated total of civilian deaths is 587,000. It was difficult to distinguish between civilians and military personnel on the Viet Cong side as many persons were part-time guerrillas or impressed laborers who did not wear uniforms.
R. J. Rummel estimated that NVA/VC forces killed around 164,000 civilians in democide between 1954 and 1975 in South and North Vietnam, from a range of between 106,000 and 227,000, plus another 50,000 killed in North Vietnam. Rummel's summary has a mid-level estimate of 17,000 South Vietnamese civil servants (ARVN's local millitia) killed by North Vietnamese forces (including the Viet Cong). In addition, at least 36,000 Southern civilians were executed for various reasons in the period 1967–1972. About 130 American and 16,000 South Vietnamese POWs died in captivity. During the peak war years, Lewy attributed almost a third of civilian deaths to the Viet Cong.
From 1964 to 1975, an estimated 1,500 people died during the forced relocations of 1,200,000 civilians, another 5,000 prisoners died from ill-treatment and about 30,000 suspected communists and fighters were executed. 6,000 civilians died in the more extensive shellings. In Quang Nam province 4,700 civilians were killed in 1969. This totals, from a range of between 16,000 and 167,000 deaths caused by South Vietnam (Diem-era), and 42,000 and 118,000 deaths caused by South Vietnam (post Diem-era), excluding North Vietnamese forces killed by the ARVN in combat.
Rummel estimated that American forces committed around 5,500 democidal killings between 1960 and 1972, from a range of between 4,000 and 10,000. Estimates for the number of North Vietnamese civilian deaths resulting from US bombing range from 50,000–65,000. Although information is sparse, American bombing in Cambodia is estimated to have killed between 40,000 and 150,000 civilians and combatants.
18.2 million gallons of Agent Orange (Dioxin) was sprayed by the U.S. military over more than 10% of Southern Vietnam, as part of the U.S. herbicidal warfare program, Operation Ranch Hand, during the Vietnam War from 1961 to 1971. Vietnam's government claimed that 400,000 people were killed or maimed as a result of after effects, and that 500,000 children were born with birth defects.
German historian Bernd Greiner mentions the following war crimes reported, and/or investigated by the Peers Commission and the Vietnam War Crimes Working Group, among other sources:
– Seven massacres officially confirmed by the American side. My Lai (4) and My Khe (4) claimed the largest number of victims with 420 and 90 respectively, and in five other places altogether about 100 civilians were executed.
– Two further massacres were reported by soldiers who had taken part in them, one north of Duc Pho in Quang Ngai Province in the summer of 1968 (14 victims), another in Binh Dinh province on 20 July 1969 (25 victims).
– Tiger Force, a special operations force, murdered hundreds, possibly over a thousand, civilians.
– In the course of large-scale operations an unknown number of non-combatants were killed either accidentally or deliberately – with some estimating more than 5,000 allegedly died in the course of Operation Speedy Express. Excluding deaths from artillery and air attacks, the total number of dead may have reached tens of thousands during the entire war.
– According to the 'Information Bureau of the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam' (PRG), between April 1968 and the end of 1970 American ground troops killed about 6,500 civilians in the course of twenty-one operations either on their own or alongside their allies. Three of the massacres reported on the American side were not mentioned on the PRG list.
Nick Turse, in his 2013 book, Kill Anything that Moves, argues that a relentless drive toward higher body counts, a widespread use of free-fire zones, rules of engagement where civilians who ran from soldiers or helicopters could be viewed as Viet Cong, and a widespread disdain for Vietnamese civilians led to massive civilian casualties and endemic war crimes inflicted by U.S. troops. One example cited by Turse is Operation Speedy Express, an operation by the 9th Infantry Division, which was described by John Paul Vann as, in effect, "many My Lais". In more detail,
Air force captain, Brian Wilson, who carried out bomb-damage assessments in free-fire zones throughout the delta, saw the results firsthand. "It was the epitome of immorality...One of the times I counted bodies after an air strike—which always ended with two napalm bombs which would just fry everything that was left—I counted sixty-two bodies. In my report I described them as so many women between fifteen and twenty-five and so many children—usually in their mothers' arms or very close to them—and so many old people." When he later read the official tally of dead, he found that it listed them as 130 VC killed.
ROK Capital Division massacred Tây Vinh citizens between February and March 1966. ROK Capital Division massacred Bình An citizens on 26 February 1966. In October, 1966, Tịnh Sơn citizens were massacred. 2nd Marine Brigade massacred Binh Tai citizens on 9 October 1966. In December, 1966, Blue Dragon Brigade massacred Bình Hòa citizens. Second Marine Brigade massacred Phong Nhị citizens on 12 February 1968. South Korean Marines massacred Hà My citizens on 25 February 1968.
According to the Vietnamese government, there were 1,100,000 North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong military personnel deaths during the Vietnam War (including the missing). Rummel reviewed the many casualty data sets, and this number is in keeping with his mid-level estimate of 1,011,000 North Vietnamese combatant deaths. The official US Department of Defense figure was 950,765 communist forces killed in Vietnam from 1965 to 1974. Defense Department officials believed that these body count figures need to be deflated by 30 percent. In addition, Guenter Lewy assumes that one-third of the reported "enemy" killed may have been civilians, concluding that the actual number of deaths of communist military forces was probably closer to 444,000.
The Phoenix Program, a counterinsurgency program executed by the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), United States special operations forces, and the Republic of Vietnam's security apparatus, killed 26,369 suspected NLF operatives and informants.
For historian Christian Appy, "search and destroy was the principal tactic; and the enemy body count was the primary measure of progress" in Westmoreland’s war of attrition. Search and destroy was coined as a phrase in 1965 to describe missions aimed at flushing the Viet Cong out of hiding, while the body count was the measuring stick for the success of any operation. Competitions were held between units for the highest number of Vietnamese killed in action, or KIAs. U.S. Army and marine officers knew that promotions were largely based on confirmed kills. The pressure to produce confirmed kills resulted in massive fraud. One study revealed that American commanders exaggerated body counts by 100 percent.
Casualties as of 29 December 2014:
During the Vietnam War, 30% of wounded service members died of their wounds.
Note: *One escapee died of wounds sustained during his rescue 15 days later.
Blacks were suffering disproportionately high casualty rates in Vietnam, and in 1965 alone they comprised almost one out of every four combat deaths. With the draft increasing due to the troop buildup in South Vietnam, the military significantly lowered its admission standards. In October 1966, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara initiated Project 100,000 which further lowered military standards for 100,000 additional draftees per year. McNamara claimed this program would provide valuable training, skills and opportunity to America's poor – a promise that was never carried out. Many black men who had previously been ineligible could now be drafted, along with many poor and racially intolerant white men from the southern states. The number of US military personnel in Vietnam jumped from 23,300 in 1965 to 465,600 by the end of 1967. Between October 1966 and June 1969, 246,000 soldiers were recruited through Project 100,000, of which 41% were black, while blacks only made up about 11% of the population of the US. Of the 27 million draft-age men between 1964 and 1973, 40% were drafted into military service, and only 10% were actually sent to Vietnam. This group was made up almost entirely of either work-class or rural youth. College students who did not avoid the draft were generally sent to non-combat and service roles or made officers, while high school drop-outs and the working class were sent into combat roles. Blacks often made up a disproportionate 25% or more of combat units, while constituting only 12% of the military.
Civil rights leaders including Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, John Lewis, Muhammad Ali, and others, criticized the racial disparity in both casualties and representation in the entire military, prompting the Pentagon to order cutbacks in the number of African Americans in combat positions. Commander George L. Jackson said, "In response to this criticism, the Department of Defense took steps to readjust force levels in order to achieve an equitable proportion and employment of Negroes in Vietnam." The army instigated myriad reforms, addressed issues of discrimination and prejudice from the post exchanges to the lack of black officers, and introduced "Mandatory Watch And Action Committees" into each unit. The proportion of black casualties began to decrease, and by late 1967, black casualties had fallen to 13%, and were below 10% in 1970 to 1972. Upon the war's completion, black casualties made up 12.5% of US combat deaths, approximately equal to percentage of draft-eligible black men, though still slightly higher than the 10% who served in the military.
Up to 155,000 refugees fleeing the final NVA Spring Offensive were killed or abducted on the road to Tuy Hoa in 1975. Sources have estimated that 165,000 South Vietnamese died in the re-education camps out of 1–2.5 million sent, while somewhere between 50,000 and 250,000 were executed. Rummel estimates that slave labor in the "New Economic Zones" caused 50,000 deaths (out of a total 1 million deported). According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, between 200,000 and 400,000 Vietnamese boat people died at sea, although Rummel cites estimates ranging from 100,000 to 1,000,000. Including Vietnam's foreign democide, Rummel estimates that a minimum of 400,000 and a maximum of slightly less than 2.5 million people died of political violence from 1975–87 at the hands of Hanoi. In 1988, Vietnam suffered a famine that afflicted millions.
Under the leadership of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge killed 1–3 million Cambodians in the killing fields, out of a population of around 8 million. The Pathet Lao killed some 100,000 Hmong people in Laos.
Unexploded ordnance especially bombs dropped by the United States, continue to detonate and kill people today. The Vietnamese government claims that Unexploded ordnance has killed some 42,000 people since the war officially ended. In 2012 alone, unexploded bombs and other ordnance claimed 500 casualties in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, according to activists and government databases. The United States has spent over $65 million since 1998, trying to make Vietnam safe.
Agent Orange and similar chemical substances, have also caused a considerable number of deaths and injuries over the years, including the US Air Force crew that handled them. The government of Vietnam says that 4 million of its citizens were exposed to Agent Orange, and as many as 3 million have suffered illnesses because of it; these figures include the children of people who were exposed. The Red Cross of Vietnam estimates that up to 1 million people are disabled or have health problems due to contaminated Agent Orange.
On the 9th of August 2012, the United States and Vietnam began a cooperative cleaning up of the toxic chemical on part of Danang International Airport, marking the first time Washington has been involved in cleaning up Agent Orange in Vietnam. Danang was the primary storage site of the chemical. Two other cleanup sites the United States and Vietnam are looking at is Biên Hòa, in the southern province of Đồng Nai – a 'hotspot' for dioxin – and Phù Cát airport in the central province of Bình Định, says U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam David Shear. According to the Vietnamese newspaper Nhân Dân, the U.S. government is providing $41 million to the project, which will reduce the contamination level in 73,000 m3 of soil by late 2016.
People's Republic Of China
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