Vietnam War Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Vietminh victory over the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 led to the withdrawal of the French from Vietnam, which they had colonized and controlled for more than a century except for a brief period during World War II. The 1954 Geneva Conference split Vietnam into North and South and recommended elections be held within two years. However, South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem rejected the Geneva agreement, proclaiming himself president of the Republic of Vietnam. The United States, which refused to sign the Geneva agreement, supported the Diem regime with funds and, by 1960, with 900 American military personnel.

The Vietminh victory over the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 led to the withdrawal of the French from Vietnam, which they had colonized and controlled for more than a century except for a brief period during World War II. The 1954 Geneva Conference split Vietnam into North and South and recommended elections be held within two years. However, South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem rejected the Geneva agreement, proclaiming himself president of the Republic of Vietnam. The United States, which refused to sign the Geneva agreement, supported the Diem regime with funds and, by 1960, with 900 American military personnel.

U.S. Involvement

The incoming presidential administration of John F. Kennedy approved a counterinsurgency plan for Vietnam early in 1961. The Kennedy White House likewise sought a cease-fire in Laos, where communists also sought to gain a foothold. South Vietnamese President Diem requested an increase in the U.S. presence in his country, which rose to 3,205 advisers by the end of the year.

In 1962, the United States established the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), under the authority of General Paul Harkins. Changes were also made in the army’s joint chiefs and chief of staff positions. In order to gain the support of the South Vietnamese people against communist invaders, the United States assisted South Vietnam with the strategic hamlet program, whereby rural communities were organized and fortified against attacks. American military personnel increased to 11,300 by the conclusion of 1962.

T<sc>ime</sc> L<sc>ine of the</sc> V<sc>ietnam</sc> W<sc>ar</sc>Aug. 18, 1945Indochinese Communist Party leader Ho Chi Minh proclaims a Democratic Republic of Vietnam, and France begins reasserting its colonial rule in Indochina.Mar. 13-May 7, 1954Battle of Dien Bien Phu: Viet Minh victory over the French, leads to withdrawal of the French from Vietnam.July 21, 1954The Geneva Conference calls for a partition of Indochina into four countries–North Vietnam, South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia–and for an election within two years to unify North and South Vietnam.Aug. 11, 1954Formal peace treaty partitions the country into North and South Vietnam.1955United States assumes political control of South Vietnam from the French.1956United States and the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese president, Ngo Dinh Diem, reject the Geneva-mandated reunification elections, knowing that the popular Ho Chi Minh would win.1961North Vietnam seeks to absorb South Vietnam; United States gradually becomes involved.Aug., 1964Gulf of Tonkin incident: Facts pertaining to this event, which is used to justify empowering the president of the United States to conduct warfare without Senate approval, are suppressed by the U.S. government in order to rally popular support for the Vietnam War.Nov. 14–16, 1965Battle of Ia Drang Valley: U.S. disturbance of a planned North Vietnamese offensive.Jan. 21-Apr. 6, 1968Siege of Khe Sanh: Although U.S. firepower clearly overwhelmed the North Vietnamese, General Vo Nguyen Giap refuses to admit defeat, claiming that the battle is a calculated diversionary tactic.Jan. 30-Feb. 25, 1968Tet Offensive: North Vietnamese and Viet Cong launch the Tet Offensive, which, although unsuccessful, provides a political and psychological victory.Jan. 31-Feb. 25, 1968Battle of Hue: The battle signals the beginning of the end of U.S. involvement in the war.Mar. 16, 1968My Lai Massacre.Apr. 29-June, 1970U.S. troops invade Cambodia.Nov. 17, 1970-Mar. 29, 1971Lieutenant William L. Calley is tried and convicted of killing twenty-two Vietnamese civilians.Jan. 31, 1973Peace accord is signed; North Vietnam begins releasing U.S. prisoners.Mar. 29, 1973Last U.S. troops leave Vietnam.Apr. 30, 1975North Vietnam occupies Saigon, ending the civil war, and last U.S. advisers leave the country.July 2, 1976North and South Vietnam are formally united.

The following year witnessed several violent demonstrations against the Diem government, which was accused of progressing too slowly on reforms and stifling dissent. After the U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam was replaced, the Kennedy administration gave tacit support to a coup by some of Diem’s military commanders. The coup succeeded, and Diem and his brother were subsequently executed. Less than three weeks after the change in the South Vietnamese government, President Kennedy was assassinated. Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson became president, promising no major changes in Vietnam policy. By the end of the year, 16,300 U.S. military advisers were stationed in South Vietnam.

General William Westmoreland replaced General Harkins as head of the MACV, while General Maxwell Taylor replaced Henry Cabot Lodge as U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam in 1964. In August of that year, allegations of two separate attacks by the North Vietnamese on U.S. destroyers in the region led the Johnson administration to request that Congress approve the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which would permit the United States to suppress communist attacks by any means necessary. The latter legislation was approved unanimously in the U.S. House of Representatives, and it received only two negative votes in the Senate. On November 1, two days before Johnson was elected president in his own right, an attack by communist supporters in South Vietnam (Viet Cong) resulted in the deaths of five U.S. servicemen. Two more Americans were killed by a Viet Cong attack on Christmas Eve. By the end of 1964, 23,300 U.S. soldiers were stationed in Vietnam.

Escalation of the Conflict

After widespread attacks by Viet Cong on U.S. military installations in South Vietnam during early 1965, President Johnson ordered the first large-scale ground troops to the embattled nation. He likewise authorized the beginning of an air-bombing campaign, known as Operation Rolling Thunder, which would continue on and off until the end of 1972. Lodge returned as U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam in July of 1965. In November, with American troop strength at 184,300, the first major battle between American and North Vietnamese soldiers occurred in the Ia Drang Valley (1965) region. American deaths totaled 636 by the end of the year.

Although American military involvement in Vietnam began long before Lyndon B. Johnson became president and did not end until more than six years after he left office, the war is associated more closely with his administration than with that of any other president, and it ultimately doomed his presidency. (Library of Congress)

The United States rapidly escalated its military presence in South Vietnam over the next two years. In 1966, Americans bombed oil deposits in Hanoi and Haiphong. Troop strength increased to 385,300 by the end of 1966. During 1967, Nguyen Van Thieu was elected president of South Vietnam, ending a period of instability in which a series of South Vietnamese leaders served for a short duration, and Ellsworth Bunker became the new U.S. ambassador there. By the end of 1967, 485,600 U.S. military personnel were present in South Vietnam, with a total of 16,021 U.S. servicemen killed to date in the conflict.

For several reasons, 1968 proved to be a pivotal period in the Vietnam War. First, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong engaged Americans in costly battles at Khe Sanh and Hue. Second, the Viet Cong, led by Vo Nguyen Giap, used the lunar new year known as Tet to simultaneously attack military, diplomatic, and civilian sites throughout South Vietnam. Third, General Creighton William Abrams, Jr., replaced General Westmoreland as head of MACV. Fourth, President Johnson announced in March that he would not run for reelection as president. Republican Richard Nixon narrowly defeated Democrat Hubert H. Humphrey for the presidency in the November election, promising to enact a plan to end the war. Finally, after several years of backing U.S. participation in the Vietnam War, a majority of American citizens expressed opposition to it. By the end of 1968, with the war looking like a stalemate at best, 536,000 U.S. soldiers were stationed in South Vietnam. A total of 30,610 U.S. troops had perished in hostilities to date.

Nixon’s Strategy

The incoming Nixon administration implemented a multifaceted strategy pertaining to the Vietnam War in 1969. First, in June, President Nixon announced the initial withdrawal of American ground troops, which numbered about 25,000. Second, Nixon promulgated the Nixon Doctrine in July, which established the policy of Vietnamization. By that policy, the United States would furnish the funds and equipment necessary to permit the South Vietnamese military to defend the country against the communist North. Third, the Nixon White House initiated secret talks with the North Vietnamese aimed at ending the U.S. role in the conflict, which would continue through 1972. Fourth, the Nixon administration enacted a pacification policy, which involved coordinating military, intelligence, and civilian operations in order to take the offensive in the war. Although U.S. troop strength decreased to 475,200 by the end of 1969, the number of American deaths climbed to a cumulative total of 40,024.

Frustrated by the communist tendency to use neighboring Cambodia as a sanctuary from which attacks were mounted against South Vietnam, the Nixon administration sought the assistance of Cambodian leader Prince Norodom Sihanouk. When Sihanouk insisted on remaining neutral, the U.S. supported a coup to topple him from power. The replacement of Sihanouk with General Lon Nol, in March, 1970, led directly to the U.S. occupation of the nation a month later in order to ferret out communist troops. The operation, though approved by General Nol, was viewed by many Americans as an invasion. Subsequent protests at home, many on college campuses, precipitated the killing of four students at Kent State University, in Ohio, and two students at Jackson State University, in Mississippi. The Cambodian mission ended after two months. The reaction by the U.S. Congress was swift: In July, the Senate unanimously repealed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, and in December, Congress banned both American combat forces and advisers from Cambodia and Laos. By the end of 1970, with U.S. troop strength reduced to 334,600, a total of 44,245 Americans had died in the conflict.

In 1971, the Nixon administration faced the release of the Pentagon Papers–the secret history of the Vietnam War as compiled by the Department of Defense–when the U.S. Supreme Court rejected their suppression. Though the mission of U.S. ground troops changed from an offensive to a defensive role, Nixon ordered a resumption of bombing of North Vietnam. By the end of the year, 156,800 American troops were still present in South Vietnam, with 45,626 U.S. soldiers killed in fighting to date.

Turning Point

Other than 1968, the year 1972 was the most eventful of the war. First, the South Vietnamese military, with American logistical support, successfully repelled an Easter offensive by North Vietnam. Second, Nixon’s dual visits to China and the Soviet Union resulted in slowing support for North Vietnam by both the Chinese and the Soviets. Third, Americans renewed bombing of Hanoi in March and mined several North Vietnamese ports in April. The combination of the latter factors hastened a peace agreement between the United States and North Vietnam. Announced in October, less than a month from the presidential election, it no doubt contributed to Nixon’s overwhelming victory against Democratic candidate George McGovern. The agreement, hammered out by Nixon’s national security adviser, Henry A. Kissinger, later appeared to be in jeopardy.

In response, Nixon ordered widespread bombing of North Vietnam, including civilian targets. The massive bombing continued over the Christmas holiday but caused Hanoi to request renewed negotiations on December 26. At the end of 1972, for the first time during the conflict, cumulative American deaths (45,926) outnumbered the remaining troops stationed in South Vietnam (24,200).

The peace agreement ending direct U.S. participation in the Vietnam War was signed in Paris on January 27, 1973. It called for withdrawal of all but a few U.S. troops from South Vietnam along with a return of all U.S. prisoners of war. However, because it also provided for a cease-fire, allowing the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong to remain in South Vietnam, the South Vietnamese government opposed the arrangement.


Though South Vietnamese leaders remained adamantly against the aforementioned peace agreement, they assumed that the United States would fulfill Nixon’s pledge to furnish the material and fiscal resources necessary to protect their nation. However, the Watergate scandal, combined with a newly assertive Congress, compromised the U.S. promise to guard South Vietnam against further communist aggression. In August, 1973, direct U.S. military operations ended in all of Indochina. In November, the U.S. Congress prohibited funds from being expended for military actions in any part of Southeast Asia and passed the War Powers Act over Nixon’s veto. In April, 1974, as he faced impeachment, Nixon requested an additional $474 million to assist South Vietnam and was denied it.

Vietnam, 1954–1975

(1) Last French position falls, 1954. (2) Tet Offensive, January, 1968. (3) Cambodian invasion, April-May, 1970. (4) Sihanouk falls, April, 1970. (5) Laotian incursian, February, 1971. (6) Areas of U.S. bombing, 1972. (7) Mining of Haiphong Harbor, May, 1972. (8) Lon Nol falls, April, 1975. (9) North Vietnamese offensive, spring, 1975. (10) South Vietnam surrenders, April 20, 1975.

After Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974, Vice President Gerald R. Ford became president. He reaffirmed to South Vietnamese President Thieu the U.S. commitment to furnish funds and equipment, but his subsequent proposals in that regard were rejected by Congress. Although they assumed in December, 1974, that it would take two years to conquer the South, North Vietnamese military leaders planned a winter, 1975, offensive. The strategy proved enormously successful, as South Vietnamese troop morale and supplies diminished rapidly. Just two weeks after Cambodia fell to communist forces, North Vietnamese soldiers marched on Saigon on April 30, 1975, ending the decades-long conflict and unifying the nation under communism.

The United States spent over $140 billion in its longest war, which most acknowledge to be the first military defeat suffered by the nation. The United States lost more than money; it lost a generation of its youth, with more than 58,000 killed in fighting or as a result of the war. Some 2,000 U.S. troops missing in action remain unaccounted for and are presumed dead. South Vietnam lost more than one million soldiers and citizens during the conflict, as did North Vietnam. In 1995, twenty years after the end of the conflict, the United States and Vietnam renewed diplomatic relations and began trading with each other.

Categories: History