Vietnam War (1954-75)

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Vietnam War (1954-75). Trinh Cong Son wrote a war protest song in Vietnamese titled, "A Mother's Legacy." The song summarizes Vietnam's history "A thousand years of slavery to the Chinese, a hundred years of domination by the French, twenty years of civil war." Americans call the latter "the Vietnam War." Some Vietnamese now call it "the American War."

At the end of World War II, Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam independent and then appealed to the United States president and secretary of state for support. Instead of answering Ho Chi Minh, the United States supported the return of France to rule Vietnam as a colony. By 1954, the United States aid to France totaled 86 percent of French expenses for her war in Vietnam.

After Vietnam militarily defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the Geneva Peace Accords temporarily divided Vietnam, allowing Vietnam time to reorganize for national elections in 1956. The United States immediately began a rumor campaign against the North and then helped evacuate people moving to the South. Later the former president of the United States, Dwight Eisenhower, acknowledged that, if the 1956 election had been held, 80 percent of the people would have voted for Ho Chi Minh rather than Ngo Dinh Diem. Both Ngo Dinh Diem and United States leaders disliked that prospect and consequently thwarted the election and majority rule. With those roots, war's bitter fruit loomed ahead.

In 1964, the United States began taking unpublicized, provocative actions against the Democratic Government of (North) Vietnam (DRVN), including kidnapping citizens and sending U.S. warships deep into the Gulf of Tonkin. In 1965, the U.S. secretary of state falsely claimed that 400 troops from North Vietnam had invaded South Vietnam; soon the U.S. bombed North Vietnam and sent 3,500 Marines to South Vietnam. The major resistance to the Republic of (South) Vietnam (RVN), however, lay in the South. In 1968, at BenTre, South Vietnam (population 35,000), a U.S. army major said, "It became necessary to destroy the town in order to save it." That year, the number of U.S. troops in Vietnam totaled more than 500,000. In 1969, the opposition in the South organized the Provisional Revolutionary Government (PRG).

In October 1972, U.S. president Richard Nixon agreed to sign a peace treaty, then reneged and ordered a massive bombing of North Vietnam at Christmas. Although the Paris Peace Accords were signed in January 1973, the war dragged on until the Republic of Vietnam collapsed in April 1975. Vietnam held national elections in April 1976.

Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) work in Vietnam began with refugee relief work in 1954 in the South. The first workers included Delbert Wiens, Roy Eby, Adam Ewert, and Eva Harshbarger. Besides being a friend, Nguyen Van Ninh served as translator, administrative assistant, and advisor through the years of foreign Mennonite presence in Vietnam. Sponsored by the Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities (EMBMC), James and Arlene Stauffer started the Vietnam Mennonite Mission in 1957. Luke and Mary Martin (1962) and Don and Doris Sensenig (1963) came later. Mennonite Central Committee and the Vietnam Mennonite Mission shared personnel and cooperated on many projects: evangelism and service went hand-in-hand.

Attempting to maintain a balanced perspective, MCC contacted the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in 1966. MCC delegations headed by Atlee Beechy met representatives of the DRVN and the forerunner of the PRG in 1968; medical shipments to them followed. As the PRG picked up the pieces after the collapse of the Republic of Vietnam, the four foreign MCC workers who stayed in Vietnam through the change of governments in April 1975 (Earl Martin, Yoshihiro Ichikawa, Max Ediger, and James Klassen) continued the dialogue with some of the same representatives. Although MCC delegations have visited Vietnam, no long-term foreign Mennonite personnel have stayed in Vietnam since Yoshihiro Ichikawa left in 1976. One MCC worker in Central Vietnam, Dan Gerber, has been missing since May 1962, just prior to intense military action in the area where he lived.

Foreign Mennonites working in Vietnam during the war faced many ambiguities: helping refugees appeared to help the Thieu government which officially condemned peace (or neutralism) as illegal and procommunist. MCC medical shipments to the opposition also raised questions. Vietnamese Mennonites agonized over the war and military conscription. One active member of the Gia Dinh Mennonite congregation was a draft resister.

North American Mennonites needed to confront warmongering in their own countries. Mennonite publications carried a steady flow of information and discussion about the basic issues of the war with more accuracy and more clarity than the U.S. government provided. In the U.S., responses to the draft, income tax, telephone surtax, and federal elections involved difficult decisions. U.S. history is clear: income taxes were established to support wars. Mennonite response to income tax was blurred; many paid the tax, some paid under protest, some refused to pay, some avoided paying. Conscription in the United States also prompted many responses: some Mennonites protested, some burned their selective service (draft) cards, some resisted the draft and were imprisoned, many Mennonite men requested conscientious objector status, a small percentage served in the military. Unrest and fragmentation in the U.S. society permeated the church: Mennonites debated the validity of peace walks and prayer vigils. Some Mennonite participated, many did not. Some received national media attention, most did not. Some Mennonites traveled to Washington, D.C., to protest; MCC established a Peace Section office there.

Faithful discipleship challenged Canadian Mennonites, too. Some helped U.S. draft dodgers resettle in Canada. The need to protest Canadian production of military supplies for U.S. use in Vietnam was just as clear, but the response was weaker. Many Mennonite churches in Canada, as well as in the U.S., have helped Vietnamese war refugees and refugees from the economic collapse which hit Vietnam when U.S. economic aid was terminated in 1975.

The war in Vietnam taught many Mennonites that every stance carries political overtones: paying taxes or joining the military are neither more nor less political than refusing to pay taxes or refusing to join the military. Regarding Vietnam, the record of the Mennonite church -- like that of her members -- reflects a continuum of faithfulness, from clear to blurred. To this day, forgiveness and reconciliation are needed to heal the wounds of that war. The U.S. still deals with Vietnam under the Trading-with-the-Enemy Act. Canada, however, has established diplomatic relations with Vietnam. The war in Vietnam -- like all war -- caused untold suffering and created more problems than it solved.


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Author(s) James R Klassen
Date Published 1989

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Klassen, James R. "Vietnam War (1954-75)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 12 Apr 2024.

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Klassen, James R. (1989). Vietnam War (1954-75). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 12 April 2024, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 913-914. All rights reserved.

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