One of the recurring myths about the Vietnam War was that the North Vietnamese and other communists were liberators and overwhelmingly popular while South Vietnam’s leaders were Imperialists puppets and its leadership was hated. This fits well with the North Vietnamese propaganda that they were eventually victorious because they were the ‘good guys,’ liberating Vietnam(their homeland) from the French and then the Americans. The myth goes on that the majority of South Vietnamese wanted to join their North Vietnamese brothers in building a prosperous, peaceful, state.
The truth was much more complicated. Interestingly the only people fighting for their homes were the South Vietnamese (whether they were ARVN or NLF). While there was a great deal of brutality, the ARVN had largely won its battle against the NLF (aka Viet Cong).
The North Vietnamese, who took over most of the combat later in the war after the Tet offensive greatly weakened the South Vietnamese communist forces, were as much an expeditionary army as the Americans and other of the South Vietnamese allies.
Another fact we overlook is that almost all of the fighting and the massive bombing by the US air forces were against South Vietnamese targets. Although the Americans did bomb North Vietnam, they bombed and shelled far more in South Vietnam. Fear of Chinese intervention prevented the Americans and South Vietnamese from taking the war into North Vietnam or even making serious attempts to cut off the Ho Chi Minh ‘trail’(which was actually a vast logistics network constantly repaired by North Vietnamese and Chinese engineers that included a pipeline and roads that could support trucks) which ran through Laos and Cambodia.
The people suffering the worst of the bombing and shelling were South Vietnamese.The remarkable story of resilience and endurance during the Vietnam War was actually that the South Vietnamese managed to keep fighting that long - not that they eventually lost.
Even though the South Vietnamese government was corrupt and brutal, there were many that fought hard for it. Of course, as in any guerilla war, the communist insurgents and North Vietnamese were as brutal if not more so.
This picture is South Vietnamese in the city of Hue sorting through clothing trying to identify their loved ones, after they uncovered a mass grave where communists had massacred government supporters. The articles of clothing obviously show that the victims were civilians.
If the North Vietnamese enjoyed overwhelming popular support, one must ask why so many South Vietnamese had to be ‘re-educated.’ Hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese were sent to these camps, and hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese would risk their lives on boats to escape the ‘peaceful reunified Vietnam’ where they could work without “fear of being killed by American bombs” (to quote Lucia Millar ).
The men being marched here are ARVN soldiers and government officials shortly after the North Vietnamese took Saigon.
While the atrocities by the communists does not justify those committed by the ARVN or its allies the history of the Vietnam War is much more complex than any simplified black vs. white narrative.