An Introduction to the Vietnam War

Combat operations at Ia Drang Valley, Vietnam
Combat operations at Ia Drang Valley, Vietnam, November 1965. Bruce P. Crandall's UH-1 Huey dispatches infantry while under fire. Photograph courtesy of the US Army

The Vietnam War occurred in present-day Vietnam, Southeast Asia. It represented a successful attempt on the part of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam, DRV) and the National Front for the Liberation of Vietnam (Viet Cong) to unite and impose a communist system over the entire nation. Opposing the DRV was the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam, RVN), backed by the United States. The war in Vietnam occurred during the Cold War and is generally viewed as an indirect conflict between the United States and Soviet Union with each nation and its allies supporting one side.

Vietnam War Dates

The most commonly used dates for the conflict are 1959-1975. This period begins with North Vietnam's first guerilla attacks against the South and ends with the fall of Saigon. American ground forces were directly involved in the war between 1965 and 1973.

Vietnam War Causes

The Vietnam War first began in 1959, five years after the division of the country by the Geneva Accords. Vietnam had been divided into two, with a communist regime in the north under Ho Chi Minh and a democratic government in the south under Ngo Dinh Diem. In 1959, Ho commenced a guerilla campaign in South Vietnam, led by Viet Cong units, with the goal of reuniting the country under a communist government. These guerilla units often found support among the rural population who desired land reform. 

Worried about the situation, the Kennedy Administration elected to increase aid to South Vietnam. As part of the larger goal of containing the spread of communism, the United States endeavored to train the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and supplied military advisors to aid in combating the guerrillas.

Though the flow of aid increased, President John F. Kennedy did not wish to use ground forces in Vietnam as he believed their presence would cause adverse political consequences. 

Americanization of the Vietnam War

In August 1964, a US warship was attacked by North Vietnamese torpedo boats in the Gulf of Tonkin.

Following this attack, Congress passed the Southeast Asia Resolution which allowed President Lyndon Johnson to conduct military operations in the region without a declaration of war. On March 2, 1965, US aircraft commenced bombing targets in Vietnam and the first troops arrived. Moving forward under Operations Rolling Thunder and Arc Light, American aircraft began systematic bombing strikes on North Vietnamese industrial sites, infrastructure, and air defenses. On the ground, US troops, commanded by General William Westmoreland, defeated Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces around Chu Lai and in the Ia Drang Valley that year. 

The Tet Offensive

Following these defeats, the North Vietnamese elected to avoid fighting conventional battles and focused on engaging US troops in small unit actions in the sweltering jungles of South Vietnam. As fighting continued, leaders Hanoi contentiously debated how to move forward as American air strikes were beginning to severely damage their economy. Deciding to resume more conventional operations, planning began for a large-scale operation. In January 1968, the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong commenced the massive Tet Offensive.

Opening with an assault on US Marines at Khe Sanh, the offensive featured attacks by the Viet Cong on cities throughout South Vietnam.

Combat exploded throughout the country and saw ARVN forces hold their ground. Over the next two months, American and ARVN troops were able to turn back the Viet Cong assault, with particularly heavy fighting in the cities of Hue and Saigon. Though the North Vietnamese were beaten with heavy casualties, Tet shook the confidence of the American people and media who had thought the war was going well.

Vietnamization

As a result of Tet, President Lyndon Johnson chose not to run for reelection and was succeeded by Richard Nixon. Nixon's plan for ending US participation in the war was to build up the ARVN so that they could fight the war themselves. As this process of “Vietnamization” began, US troops started to return home. The mistrust of Washington that had begun after Tet increased with the release of news about bloody battles of questionable value such as Hamburger Hill (1969).

Protests against the war and US policy in Southeast Asia further intensified with events such as soldiers massacring civilians at My Lai (1969), the invasion of Cambodia (1970), and the leaking of the Pentagon Papers (1971). 

End of the War and the Fall of Saigon

The withdrawal of US troops continued and more responsibility was passed to the ARVN, which continued to prove ineffective in combat, often relying on American support to stave off defeat. On January 27, 1974, a peace accord was signed in Paris ending the conflict. By March of that year, American combat troops had left the country. After a brief period of peace, North Vietnam recommenced hostilities in late 1974. Pushing through ARVN forces with ease, they captured the Saigon on April 30, 1975, forcing South Vietnam’s surrender and reuniting the country. 

Casualties

United States: 58,119 killed, 153,303 wounded, 1,948 missing in action

South Vietnam 230,000 killed and 1,169,763 wounded (estimated)

North Vietnam 1,100,000 killed in action (estimated) and an unknown number of wounded

Key Figures

  • Ho Chi Minh – Communist leader of North Vietnam until his death in 1969.
  • Vo Nguyen Giap – North Vietnamese general who planned the Tet and Easter Offensives.
  • General William Westmoreland – Commander of US forces in Vietnam, 1964-1968.
  • General Creighton Abrams – Commander of US forces in Vietnam, 1968-1973.
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Hickman, Kennedy. "An Introduction to the Vietnam War." ThoughtCo, Jul. 8, 2017, thoughtco.com/vietnam-101-a-short-introduction-2361342. Hickman, Kennedy. (2017, July 8). An Introduction to the Vietnam War. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/vietnam-101-a-short-introduction-2361342 Hickman, Kennedy. "An Introduction to the Vietnam War." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/vietnam-101-a-short-introduction-2361342 (accessed September 22, 2017).