United States Enters the Vietnam War Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

U.S. involvement in the costly, prolonged, and ultimately futile Vietnam War has had a profound impact on the social and political attitudes of Americans and on U.S. foreign policy well into the twenty-first century.

Summary of Event

Early in 1954, representatives of nineteen nations gathered in Geneva, Switzerland, with hopes of settling a revolutionary war that had been plaguing French Indochina since 1946. Before a truce could be concluded, however, Vo Nguyen Giap’s insurrectionary guerrilla army overran a vital French outpost at Dien Bien Phu Dien Bien Phu, Battle of (1954) . France had gambled its hopes on the staying power of this one garrison; when it fell, French power in Indochina Postcolonialism;Vietnam fell with it. By the middle of the year, the Geneva Accords Geneva Accords (1954) had ratified France’s withdrawal from Southeast Asia and divided French Indochina into Laos, Cambodia, and a Vietnam divided at the seventeenth parallel. The communist-oriented Viet Minh Viet Minh revolutionary forces, led by Ho Chi Minh, controlled the northern half of the country, while the remnants of the French colonial regime, now headed by Ngo Dinh Diem, controlled the southern part. Vietnam War (1959-1975);U.S. entry [kw]United States Enters the Vietnam War (Aug. 7, 1964-Jan. 27, 1973) [kw]Vietnam War, United States Enters the (Aug. 7, 1964-Jan. 27, 1973) [kw]War, United States Enters the Vietnam (Aug. 7, 1964-Jan. 27, 1973) Vietnam War (1959-1975);U.S. entry [g]Southeast Asia;Aug. 7, 1964-Jan. 27, 1973: United States Enters the Vietnam War[08140] [g]Vietnam;Aug. 7, 1964-Jan. 27, 1973: United States Enters the Vietnam War[08140] [g]United States;Aug. 7, 1964-Jan. 27, 1973: United States Enters the Vietnam War[08140] [c]Vietnam War;Aug. 7, 1964-Jan. 27, 1973: United States Enters the Vietnam War[08140] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Aug. 7, 1964-Jan. 27, 1973: United States Enters the Vietnam War[08140] Ho Chi Minh Johnson, Lyndon B. [p]Johnson, Lyndon B.;Vietnam War Kennedy, John F. [p]Kennedy, John F.;Vietnam War Kissinger, Henry McNamara, Robert Nixon, Richard M. [p]Nixon, Richard M.;Vietnam War Ngo Dinh Diem Westmoreland, William Vo Nguyen Giap

Aside from France, the country most interested in the fate of Vietnam and Southeast Asia was the United States. Since the inception of this colonial war, U.S. money and materiel had found their way into the Asian jungles in support of the counterrevolutionary French Union Forces French Union Forces . At the conclusion of the French phase of the war, U.S. aid to Indochina totaled billions of dollars.

Prevailing assumptions about the character of the communist threat among foreign policy experts during the mid-1950’s emphasized the unanimity of communism and its single-minded expansionism. When the defeat at Dien Bien Phu signaled the failure of France to hold the line against the communist advance in Southeast Asia, these precepts dictated that the United States throw itself into the breach. When considering the implications of the Geneva Accords, the National Security Council believed they were a disaster that foretold the collapse of all Southeast Asia. The United States embarked on a political, economic, and military aid program to the government of South Vietnam. Thus, by the end of 1954, the United States government began a limited gamble that it could protect the sovereignty of South Vietnam.

The U.S. effort in Southeast Asia from 1954 to 1964 was a measured one, characterized by a steady increase in power and influence. For several years following the Geneva Accords, politico-military opposition to Diem was quiescent; in 1959, the United States still had only a few hundred military advisers, well within the number allowed by the Geneva peace agreement. However, the United States and South Vietnam rejected the Geneva Accords’ proposal for nationwide elections and reunification of the country in 1956, fearing that would lead to the takeover of the entire country by Ho Chi Minh, the popular leader of the movement that had won independence from France.

By the end of the decade, as political attempts to overthrow Diem and reunify the nation failed, and as Diem jailed or executed tens of thousands of political opponents, fighting between the remnants of the Viet Minh in the South and the Diem government increased dramatically. Terrorism and assassination increased apace with renewed government campaigns to end political resistance. By 1960, open military actions became the norm, and the insurgents announced the formation of the National Liberation Front (NLF), a clandestine political group informally known as the Viet Cong Viet Cong .

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Between 1960 and 1964, the U.S. presence in South Vietnam became more pronounced. Advisers to President John F. Kennedy, including defense secretary Robert McNamara, were sanguine about the ability of South Vietnam to withstand the increasing pressure of the Viet Cong. Although repeatedly urged from all sides to embark on a large-scale military intervention, Kennedy refrained from giving in to such suggestions. Nevertheless, at the end of 1963, there were more than seventeen thousand U.S. “advisers” in South Vietnam, and Kennedy’s years in the presidency were marked by a pronounced expansion of the U.S. commitment of military, economic, and political support for South Vietnam.

In 1963, the Kennedy administration, believing that corruption and dictatorial policies would prevent Diem from ever garnering the support of the people of South Vietnam, supported a military coup that led to Diem’s assassination. Revolutions and coups;South Vietnam South Vietnamese coup (1963) A few weeks later, Kennedy himself was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. The problem of what to do about Vietnam was in the hands of Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson. Despite increasing U.S. support and the removal of Diem, the South Vietnamese government continued to lose ground in the war.

Full-scale U.S. military involvement was occasioned in August, 1964, after Johnson informed Congress on August 4 that North Vietnam had made a naval assault on U.S. warships in the Gulf of Tonkin two days earlier. The resolution that Congress passed in response—the Tonkin Gulf Resolution Tonkin Gulf Resolution (1964) of August 7—gave Johnson a free hand to conduct a presidential war, although it would later turn out that the administration had lied to the press and the public about the so-called Tonkin Gulf incident. The United States responded to the Tonkin Gulf incident with bombing raids against selected sites in North Vietnam. Then, as Viet Cong attacks against the South Vietnamese government continued, an attack on U.S. military advisers at Pleiku, on February 7, 1965, provided the opportunity to commence Operation Rolling Thunder Operation Rolling Thunder , a steady air war against the North.

In March, 1965, the first U.S. combat troops (from the Marine Corps) were authorized, initially to protect U.S. air bases, but soon they were involved in offensive search-and-destroy maneuvers against Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops. By the end of 1965, there were nearly 200,000 U.S. combat troops in South Vietnam; within two years, the number had grown to more than half a million troops. Under commander William Westmoreland, the United States took primary control over the ground war in the South. Each step of U.S. escalation was more than matched by the opposition, however, so that despite massive bombing and growing U.S. casualties, the position of the South Vietnamese government remained precarious and the strength of the enemy seemed undiminished.

Domestic discontent over U.S. involvement in what many considered to be an Asian civil war began as early as 1964, but the spectacle of U.S. bombers over North Vietnam and U.S. casualties on the ground encouraged the formation of more groups in the United States demanding peace. The protraction of an undeclared war in a part of the world where the United States had little obvious interest also contributed to a growing public disapproval of the Johnson administration’s war policies. The initial strength of the antiwar movement derived from college campuses, but as the war continued, greater numbers of the citizenry advocated a general withdrawal. In addition, many people who were not vehemently against the war disapproved of the manner in which the United States was conducting the war. When these critics charged the successive administrations with simply reacting to North Vietnamese moves as they were made, they showed an appreciation of the fact that U.S. intelligence had consistently underrated the ability of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese to resist the U.S. military machine.

The most telling demonstration of this fact occurred on January 31, 1968, when the Viet Cong launched an offensive against all the urban areas of South Vietnam. Embarrassingly, the U.S. embassy in Saigon was assaulted by a Viet Cong suicide squad. It has since been acknowledged that the Tet Offensive Tet Offensive (1968) Vietnam War (1959-1975);Tet Offensive (so called because it was launched on the eve of Tet, the lunar New Year) was of major importance in changing the war policy of the government and encouraging renewed efforts to negotiate the United States out of a war many perceived it could not win, even though U.S. and South Vietnamese forces had crushed the Tet Offensive. The Viet Cong had won a major psychological victory despite a smashing military defeat.

Partly because of the implications of the Tet Offensive and partly because of increased antiwar activity, President Johnson announced he would not seek reelection in 1968. The field was thrown open to candidates who identified themselves as much by their positions on the war as by political party. The several candidates advocated a spectrum of solutions, which ranged from an immediate withdrawal to a negotiated peace. The election of Richard M. Nixon in 1968 seemed a mandate for negotiation, but Nixon continued Johnson’s peace and war efforts, led by his chief adviser on Vietnam, Henry Kissinger, for five more years, with some changes in emphasis but little apparent success.

On January 27, 1973, the United States and North Vietnam concluded a peace agreement in Paris that called for a U.S. troop withdrawal, an exchange of prisoners, and a cease-fire throughout a devastated Indochina. This agreement was hardly the “peace with honor” that Nixon proclaimed. At best, it provided a decent interval between the U.S. withdrawal and the collapse of South Vietnam. Almost immediately after the withdrawal of U.S. troops, fighting began anew. Nixon, bogged down in the Watergate scandal, resigned in 1974; in any case, he was not in a position to provide the assistance he secretly had promised the South Vietnamese in order to get their support of the treaty.

A spring, 1975, North Vietnamese offensive, planned to last several years, met surprisingly little resistance from South Vietnam, and in April, 1975, Saigon was overrun and Vietnam reunified under the control of the North Vietnamese government. Cambodia and Laos, which had been drawn into the conflict, also came under the control of communist revolutionaries.

Significance

The effects of the Vietnam War on U.S. society lasted long after the war ended. It was the longest and least successful war in U.S. history. More than fifty-five thousand U.S. troops died in combat in Vietnam. The repressive nature of the Vietnamese communist regime soon produced streams of “boat people” and refugees Refugees;Vietnamese into the 1990’s. The United States accepted more than one million for resettlement, in part recognizing its responsibility for them.

Long after the war ended, its aftermath continues to plague U.S. society. In addition to being one of the most widely studied and analyzed events in U.S. history, a long-running controversy over the possibility that U.S. prisoners of war had been left in Southeast Asia would continue to simmer decades after the withdrawal. Large numbers of veterans continue to suffer from general post-traumatic stress syndrome, and specifically from massive exposure to Agent Orange, a chemical defoliant widely used in South Vietnam. The appropriate “lessons” of the Vietnam War continued to be hotly debated, and there was probably no more consensus on Vietnam into the early twenty-first century than there was in the midst of the fighting and protests.

Slowly, however, some animosities began to fade. “The Wall,” the official Vietnam memorial in Washington, D.C., was a stunningly successful commemoration of those who fought and died in Southeast Asia. Finally, after decades of continued hostility, in the summer of 1995 the United States resumed full economic and diplomatic relations with the government of Vietnam. Vietnam War (1959-1975);U.S. entry

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Elliott, David W. P. The Vietnamese War: Revolution and Social Change in the Mekong Delta, 1930-1975. 2 vols. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 2003. This study of Dinh Tuong province provides a wealth of historical information about events in South Vietnam before and during the war. One of the best books on the Vietnam War.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hayslip, Le Ly. When Heaven and Earth Changed Places: A Vietnamese Woman’s Journey from War to Peace. New York: Plume, 1990. The perspective of a Vietnamese woman who was involved with the Viet Cong, and who later married an American and emigrated to the United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam: A History. 2d rev. ed. New York: Penguin Books, 1997. An excellent comprehensive survey, updated and revised, of the Vietnam War. A companion to the PBS television documentary Vietnam: A Television History.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McNamara, Robert S. In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. New York: Times Books, 1995. A long-awaited assessment of the Vietnam War by one of the most influential policy makers of the United States’ involvement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sheehan, Neil. A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam. New York: Random House, 1988. Massive study by one of the war’s leading journalists, focusing on the war from the perspective of an influential grassroots-level military and civilian adviser involved in Vietnam.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Skinner, Andrew S. “Vietnam War.” In The Sixties in America, edited by Carl Singleton. Vol. 3. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 1999. A brief article that examines the war’s origins and chronology, the accompanying antiwar protests, and the war’s social impact.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tucker, Spencer C., ed. Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War: A Political, Social, and Military History. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 1998. A three-volume compendium exploring the rich and conflicted history of the Vietnam War. Includes a documentary history in volume 3. Maps, bibliographical references, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Young, Marilyn B., and Robert Buzzanco, eds. A Companion to the Vietnam War. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2002. Another recommended work from the Blackwell Companions to American History series, this 514-page collection covers events leading up to the war, the war itself, and the war’s aftermath. Provides more than a military history, however. Includes social, cultural, and political analyses as well.

Nationalist Vietnamese Fight French Control of Indochina

Vietnam Is Named a State

Operation Passage to Freedom Evacuates Refugees from North Vietnam

Burdick and Lederer Explore the Image of the “Ugly American”

Kennedy Expands U.S. Involvement in Vietnam

United States Sprays Agent Orange in Vietnam

Vietnamese Generals Overthrow Diem Regime

Thieu Is Elected President of South Vietnam

Tet Offensive Begins

Halberstam Reflects on American Involvement in Vietnam in The Best and the Brightest

Nixon Doctrine Is Unveiled

United States Invades Cambodia

Calley Is Court-Martialed for My Lai Massacre

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