Top Essentials to Know About the Vietnam War

The Vietnam War was an extremely long conflict, lasting from the sending of a group of advisors to aid South Vietnam on November 1, 1955, to the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975. As time progressed it caused more and more controversy in the United States. What began as a small group of 'advisors' under President Dwight Eisenhower ended up with more than 2.5 million American troops involved. Here are essential points to understanding the Vietnam War.

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Beginning of American Involvement in Vietnam

Archive Holdings Inc./ The Image Bank/ Getty Images

America began sending aid to the French fighting in Vietnam and the rest of Indochina in the late 1940s. France was fighting Communist rebels led by Ho Chi Minh. It wasn't until Ho Chi Minh defeated the French in 1954 that America became officially involved in trying to defeat the Communists in Vietnam. This began with financial aid and military advisors sent to help the South Vietnamese as they fought Northern Communists fighting in the South. The U.S. worked with Ngo Dinh Diem and other leaders to set up a separate government in the South.

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Domino Theory

Dwight D Eisenhower, Thirty-Fourth President of the United States.

Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-117123 DLC

With the fall of North Vietnam to the Communists in 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower explained America's stance in a press conference. As Eisenhower stated when asked about the strategic importance of Indochina: " have broader considerations that might follow what you would call the 'falling domino' principle. You have a row of dominoes set up, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly...." In other words, the fear was that if Vietnam fell completely to communism, this would spread. This Domino Theory was the central reason for America's continued involvement in Vietnam over the years.

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Gulf of Tonkin Incident

Lyndon Johnson, Thirty-Sixth President of the United States.

 Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-21755 DLC

Over time, American involvement continued to increase. During the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson, an event occurred that resulted in an escalation in the war. In August 1964, it was reported that the North Vietnamese attacked the USS Maddox in international waters. Controversy still exists over the actual details of this event but the result is undeniable. Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that allowed Johnson to increase America's military involvement. It allowed him to "take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack...and to prevent further aggression." Johnson and Nixon used this as a mandate to fight in Vietnam for years to come.

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Operation Rolling Thunder

Operation Rolling Thunder - Bombing Resumes in Vietnam.

Photograph VA061405, No Date, George H. Kelling Collection, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University.

In early 1965, the Viet Cong staged an attack against a Marine barracks that killed eight and injured over a hundred. This was called the Pleiku Raid. President Johnson, using the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution as his authority, ordered the air force and navy forward in Operation Rolling Thunder to bomb. His hope was that the Viet Cong would realize America's resolve to win and stop it in its tracks. However, it seemed to have the opposite effect. This quickly led to further escalation as Johnson ordered more troops into the country. By 1968, there were more than 500,000 troops committed to fighting in Vietnam.

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Tet Offensive

President Lyndon B. Johnson's visit to Cam Ranh Bay, South Vietnam. Public Domain/White House Photo Office

On January 31, 1968, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong launched a major attack on the South during Tet or the Vietnamese New Year. This was called the Tet Offensive. American forces were able to repel and seriously injure the attackers. However, the effect of the Tet Offensive was severe at home. Critics of the war increased and demonstrations against the war began to occur across the country.

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Opposition at Home

Kent State Shootings -- Newseum.


The Vietnam War caused a great division among the American population. Further, as news of the Tet Offensive became widespread, opposition to the war greatly increased. Many college students fought against the war through campus demonstrations. The most tragic of these demonstrations occurred on May 4, 1970, at Kent State University in Ohio. Four students staging a protest demonstration were killed by national guardsmen. Antiwar sentiment also arose in the media which further fed the demonstrations and protests. Many of the popular songs of the time were written in protest to the war such as "Where Have All the Flowers Gone," and "Blowing in the Wind."

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Pentagon Papers

Richard Nixon, Thirty-Seventh President of the United States.

CC0 Public Domain/NARA ARC Holdings

In June 1971, the New York Times published leaked top-secret Defense Department documents known as the Pentagon Papers. These documents showed that the government had lied in public statements about how the military involvement and progress of the war in Vietnam. This confirmed the worst fears of the anti-war movement. It also increased the amount of public outcry against the war. By 1971, over 2/3 of the American population wanted President Richard Nixon to order troop withdrawals from Vietnam.

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Paris Peace Accords

Secretary of State William P. Rogers signs the Peace Agreement ending the Vietnam War. January 27, 1973.

Public Domain / White House Photo

During most of 1972, President Richard Nixon sent Henry Kissinger to negotiate a ceasefire with the North Vietnamese. A temporary ceasefire was completed in October 1972 which helped secure Nixon's reelection as president. By January 27, 1973, America and North Vietnam signed the Paris Peace Accords which ended the war. This included the immediate release of American prisoners and the withdrawal of troops from Vietnam within 60 days. The Accords were to include the end of hostilities in Vietnam. However, soon after America left the country, fighting broke out again eventually resulting in a victory for the North Vietnamese in 1975. There were over 58,000 American deaths in Vietnam and more than 150,000 wounded.

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Kelly, Martin. "Top Essentials to Know About the Vietnam War." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Kelly, Martin. (2023, April 5). Top Essentials to Know About the Vietnam War. Retrieved from Kelly, Martin. "Top Essentials to Know About the Vietnam War." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 29, 2023).