The Vietnam War as Seen in Pictures

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Vietnam War | Eisenhower Greets Ngo Dinh Diem

Ngo Dihn Diem and Eisenhower

 PhotoQuest/Getty Images

In this photo, US President Dwight D. Eisenhower greets South Vietnam's President Ngo Dinh Diem upon his arrival in Washington D.C. in 1957. Diem ruled Vietnam after the French pulled out in 1954; his pro-capitalist stance made him an attractive ally to the United States, which was in the throes of the Red Scare.

Diem's regime became increasingly corrupt and authoritarian until Nov. 2, 1963, when he was assassinated in a coup. He was succeeded by General Duong Van Minh, who orchestrated the coup d'etat.

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Wreckage from a Viet Cong Bombing in Saigon, Vietnam (1964)

Wreckage from Viet Cong bombing in Saigon (1964)
Bombing in Saigon, Vietnam by Viet Cong.

Lawrence J. Sullivan/Wikimedia Commons

Vietnam's largest city, Saigon, was the capital of South Vietnam from 1955 to 1975. When it fell to the Vietnamese People's Army and the Viet Cong at the end of the Vietnam War, its name was changed to Ho Chi Minh city in honor of the leader of Vietnam's communist movement.

1964 was a key year in the Vietnam War. In August, the United States alleged that one of its ships had been fired on in the Gulf of Tonkin. Although this was not true, it provided the Congress the pretext it needed to authorize full-scale military operations in Southeast Asia.

By the end of 1964, the number of US troops in Vietnam shot up from about 2,000 military advisers to more than 16,500.

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U.S. Marines patrol at Dong Ha, Vietnam (1966)

Bombing in Saigon, Vietnam by Viet Cong
Bombing in Saigon, Vietnam by Viet Cong.

Lawrence J. Sullivan/Wikimedia Commons

A key outpost during the Vietnam War, the city of Dong Ha and the surrounding area marked the northern border of South Vietnam, on the Vietnamese DMZ (demilitarized zone). As a result, the U.S. Marine Corps built its Combat Base at Dong Ha, within easy striking distance of North Vietnam.

On March 30-31, 1972, the North Vietnamese forces struck in a major surprise invasion of the South called the Easter Offensive and overran Dong Ha. The fighting would continue in South Vietnam through October, although the North Vietnamese forces' momentum was broken in June when they lost the city of An Loc.

Logically, since Dong Ha was closest to North Vietnamese territory, it was among the last cities liberated as the southerners and US troops pushed the North Vietnamese back in the fall of 1972. It also was among the first to fall again in the final days of the war, after the U.S. pulled out and left South Vietnam to its fate.

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American Troops Patrol Portion of the Ho Chi Minh Trail

American patrol on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a major communist supply route during the Vietnam War.
The Ho Chi Minh Trail, supply route for Communist Forces during the Vietnam War. U.S. Army Center of Military History

During the Vietnam War (1965-1975) as well as the earlier First Indochina War, which pitted Vietnamese nationalist troops against French imperial forces, the Truong Son Strategic Supply Route ensured that war material and manpower could flow north/south between different embattled sections of Vietnam. Dubbed the "Ho Chi Minh Trail" by the Americans, after the Viet Minh leader, this trade route through neighboring Laos and Cambodia was key to the communist forces' victory in the Vietnam War (called the American War in Vietnam).

American troops, like those pictured here, attempted to control the flow of material along the Ho Chi Minh Trail but were unsuccessful. Rather than being a single unified route, the Ho Chi Minh Trail was an interwoven series of paths, even including sections where goods and manpower traveled by air or water.

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Wounded at Dong Ha, Vietnam War

Dong Ha was the northernmost big city in South Vietnam, and the US Marines' forward staging base
Carrying the wounded to safety, Dong Ha, Vietnam. Bruce Axelrod / Getty Images

Over the course of US involvement in the Vietnam War, more than 300,000 American troops were wounded in Vietnam. However, that pales in comparison to the more than 1,000,000 South Vietnamese wounded, and the more than 600,000 North Vietnamese injured.

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Military Veterans Protest the Vietnam War, Washington D.C. (1967)

Military vets march against the Vietnam War, Washington D.C. (1967)
Vietnam veterans lead a march against the Vietnam War, Washington D.C. (1967). White House Collection / National Archives

In 1967, as American casualties in the Vietnam War mounted, and no end to the conflict seemed to be in sight, anti-war demonstrations that had been escalating for several years took on a new size and tone. Rather than being a few hundred or a thousand college students here or there, the new protests, like this one in Washington DC, featured more than 100,000 protestors. Not just students, these protestors included returned Vietnam vets and celebrities such as boxer Muhammad Ali and pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock. Among the Vietnam vets against the war was future Senator and presidential candidate John Kerry.

By 1970, local authorities and the Nixon administration were at their wits' end trying to deal with the overwhelming tide of anti-war sentiment. The May 4, 1970 killing of four unarmed students by the National Guard at Kent State University in Ohio marked a nadir in relations between the protestors (plus innocent passers-by) and the authorities.

Public pressure was so great that President Nixon was forced to pull the last American troops out of Vietnam in August of 1973. South Vietnam held out for 1 1/2 years more, before the April 1975 Fall of Saigon and the communist reunification of Vietnam.

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US Air Force POW being held captive by a young North Vietnamese girl

One aspect of communism is its lack of gender role distinctions, as seen in this Vietnam War photo
US Air Force First Lieutenant being held captive by a young North Vietnamese girl, Vietnam War, 1967. Hulton Archives / Getty Images

In this Vietnam War photo, US Air Force 1st Lieutenant Gerald Santo Venanzi is held captive by a young North Vietnamese girl soldier. When the Paris Peace Accords were agreed in 1973, the North Vietnamese returned 591 American POWs. However, another 1,350 POWs were never returned, and about 1,200 Americans were reported killed in action but their bodies were never recovered.

Most of the MIA were pilots, like Lieutenant Venanzi. They got shot down over the North, Cambodia or Laos, and were captured by communist forces.

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Prisoners and Corpses, Vietnam War

This gruesome photo shows how inured to death both sides became during the Vietnam War.
North Vietnamese POWs under questioning, surrounded by corpses. Vietnam War, 1967.

Central Press / Getty Images

Obviously, North Vietnamese combatants and suspected collaborators were taken prisoner by the South Vietnamese and US forces, as well. Here, a Vietnamese POW is questioned, surrounded by corpses.

There are well-documented cases of abuse and torture of American and South Vietnamese POWs. However, North Vietnamese and Viet Cong POWs also made credible claims of mistreatment in South Vietnamese prisons, as well.

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Medic pours water on Staff Sgt. Melvin Gaines after he explores a VC tunnel

The Viet Cong used elaborate tunnels during the Vietnam War for storage, undercover movement, etc.
Medic Green pours water on Staff Sgt. Gaines as Gaines emerges from a VC Tunnel, Vietnam War. Keystone / Getty Images

During the Vietnam War, the South Vietnamese and Viet Cong used a series of tunnels to smuggle fighters and material around the country without detection. In this photo, Medic Moses Green pours water over the head of Staff Sergeant Melvin Gaines after Gaines emerged from exploring one of the tunnels. Gaines was a member of the 173 Airborne Division.

Today, the tunnel system is one of the largest tourist attractions in Vietnam. By all reports, it is not a tour for the claustrophobic.

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Vietnam War Wounded Arrive at Andrews Air Force Base (1968)

Vietnam War wounded arrive at Andrews Air Force Base 1968
Vietnam War wounded are evacuated to Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.

Warren K. Leffler/Library of Congress

The Vietnam War was extremely bloody for the United States, although of course it was much more so for the people of Vietnam (both combatants and civilians). American casualties included over 58,200 killed, almost 1,690 missing in action, and over 303,630 injured. The casualties shown here arrived back in the States via Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, the home base of Air Force One.

Including killed, injured and missing, both North Vietnam and South Vietnam suffered more than 1 million casualties among their armed forces. Shockingly, perhaps as many as 2,000,000 Vietnamese civilians also were killed during the twenty-year-long war. The horrific total death toll, therefore, may have been as high as 4,000,000.

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US Marines making their way through a flooded jungle, Vietnam War

Wading through stagnant water gave the marines terrible medical problems, such as jungle rot.
Marines make their way through a flooded rainforest during the Vietnam War, Oct. 25, 1968. Terry Fincher / Getty Images

The Vietnam War was fought in the rainforests of Southeast Asia. Such conditions were quite unfamiliar to the US troops, such as the Marines seen here slogging through a flooded jungle trail.

The photographer, Terry Fincher of the Daily Express, went to Vietnam five times during the war. Along with other journalists, he slogged through the rain, dug trenches for protection, and ducked from automatic weapons fire and artillery barrages. His photographic record of the war earned him the British photographer of the year award for four years.

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President Nguyen Van Thieu of South Vietnam and President Lyndon Johnson (1968)

President Nguyen Van Thieu (South Vietnam) and President Lyndon Johnson, Vietnam War Era (1968)
President Nguyen Van Thieu (South Vietnam) and President Lyndon Johnson meet in 1968.

Yoichi Okamato / National Archives

President Lyndon Johnson of the United States meets with President Nguyen Van Thieu of South Vietnam in 1968. The two met to discuss war strategy at a time when American involvement in the Vietnam War was expanding rapidly. Both former military men and country boys (Johnson from rural Texas, Thieu from a relatively wealthy rice-farming family), the presidents seem to be enjoying their meeting.

Nguyen Van Thieu originally joined Ho Chi Minh's Viet Minh, but later switched sides. Thieu became a general in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam and took office as President of South Vietnam after extremely questionable elections in 1965. Descended from pre-colonial Vietnam's Nguyen Lords, as president, Nguyen Van Thieu ruled first as a figurehead at the front of a military junta, but after 1967 as a military dictator.

President Lyndon Johnson took office when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. He won the presidency in his own right by a landslide the following year and instituted a liberal domestic policy called the "Great Society," which included a "War on Poverty," support for civil rights legislation, and increased funding for education, Medicare, and Medicaid.

However, Johnson also was a proponent of the "Domino Theory" in relation to communism, and he expanded the number of US troops in Vietnam from about 16,000 so-called 'military advisers' in 1963, to 550,000 combat troops in 1968. President Johnson's commitment to the Vietnam War, particularly in the face of incredibly high American battle death rates, caused his popularity to plummet. He withdrew from the 1968 presidential elections, convinced that he could not win.

President Thieu stayed in power until 1975, when South Vietnam fell to the communists. He then fled into exile in Massachusetts.

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US Marines on Jungle Patrol, Vietnam War, 1968

You can feel the humidity, looking at this photo of US Marines in the jungle during the Vietnam War
US Marines on Patrol, Vietnam War, Nov. 4, 1968. Terry Fincher / Getty Images

About 391,000 US Marines served in the Vietnam War; almost 15,000 of them died. The jungle conditions made disease a problem. During Vietnam, almost 11,000 soldiers died of disease as opposed to 47,000 combat deaths. Advances in field medicine, antibiotics, and the use of helicopters to evacuate the wounded significantly cut down on deaths by illness as compared with earlier American wars. For example, in the US Civil War, the Union lost 140,000 men to bullets, but 224,000 to disease.

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Captured Viet Cong POWs and Weapons, Saigon (1968)

These POWs were from the southern Communist forces, the Viet Cong.
Viet Cong POWs and their captured weapons during the Vietnam War in Saigon, South Vietnam. Feb. 15, 1968. Hulton Archives / Getty Images

Captured Viet Cong prisoners-of-war in Saigon hunker down behind a huge cache of weapons, also seized from the Viet Cong. 1968 was a key year in the Vietnam War. The Tet Offensive in January 1968 shocked the US and South Vietnamese forces, and also undermined public support for the war in the United States.

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A North Vietnamese soldier woman during the Vietnam War, 1968.

The Communist North Vietnamese readily accepted female soldiers during the Vietnam War
North Vietnamese soldier Nguyen Thi Hai stands guard at her post during the Vietnam War, 1968. Keystone / Getty Images

In traditional Vietnamese Confucian culture, which was imported from China, women were considered both weak and potentially treacherous - not appropriate soldier material at all. This belief system was superimposed upon older Vietnamese traditions that honored women warriors such as the Trung Sisters (c. 12-43 CE), who led a mostly-female army in rebellion against the Chinese.

One of the tenets of Communism is that a worker is a worker - regardless of gender. In both the army of North Vietnam and the Viet Cong ranks, women like Nguyen Thi Hai, shown here, played a key role.

This gender equality among the communist soldiers was an important step toward women's rights in Vietnam. However, for the Americans and more conservative South Vietnamese, the presence of female combatants further blurred the line between civilians and fighters, perhaps contributing to atrocities against female non-combatants.

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Return to Hue, Vietnam

Return to Hue, Vietnam after the North Vietnamese were driven out, March 1968
Vietnamese civilians return to the city of Hue after South Vietnamese and US troops recaptured it from the North Vietnamese, March 1, 1968. Terry Fincher / Getty Images

During the 1968 Tet Offensive, the former capital city in Hue, Vietnam was overrun by communist forces. Located in the northern section of South Vietnam, Hue was among the first cities captured and the last "liberated" in the southern and American push-back.

The civilians in this photo are making their way back into the city after it was recaptured by anti-communist forces. Hue's homes and infrastructure was heavily damaged during the infamous Battle of Hue.

After the communist victory in the war, this city was seen as a symbol of feudalism and reactionary thinking. The new government neglected Hue, allowing it to crumble still further.

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Vietnamese Civilian Woman with a Gun to Her Head, 1969

This woman may have been suspected of collaborating with or supporting the other side, Vietnam War
Vietnamese woman with a gun to her head, Vietnam War, 1969.

Keystone / Getty

This woman is likely suspected of being a collaborator or sympathizer of the Viet Cong or the North Vietnamese. Because the VC were guerrilla fighters and often blended in with civilian populations, it became difficult for the anti-communist forces to distinguish combatants from civilians.

Those accused of collaboration might be detained, tortured or even summarily executed. The caption and information provided along with this photo give no indication of the outcome in this particular woman's case.

Nobody knows exactly how many civilians died in the Vietnam War on both sides. Reputable estimates range between 864,000 and 2 million. Those killed died in deliberate massacres like My Lai, summary executions, aerial bombardment, and from simply being caught in the crossfire.

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US Air Force POW on Parade in North Vietnam

Many American POWs faced such humiliation if they were shot down and captured alive.
First Lt. L. Hughes of the US Air Force being paraded through the streets, 1970. Hulton Archives / Getty Images

In this 1970 photo, United States Air Force First Lieutenant L. Hughes is paraded through the city streets after being shot down by the North Vietnamese. American POWs were subjected to this sort of humiliation quite often, particularly as the war wore on.

When the war ended, the victorious Vietnamese returned only about 1/4 of the American POWs they held. More than 1,300 never were returned.

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Immediate Damage from Agent Orange | Vietnam War, 1970

Agent Orange caused immediate damage to foliage, and long-term health problems for people in Vietnam
Palm trees stripped of fronds by Agent Orange, Binhtre, South Vietnam, during the Vietnam War. March 4, 1970.

Ralph Blumenthal / Getty Images

During the Vietnam War, the United States used chemical weapons such as the defoliant Agent Orange. The US wanted to defoliate the jungle in order to make North Vietnamese troops and camps more visible from the air, so they destroyed the canopy of leaves. In this photo, palm trees in a South Vietnamese village show the effects of Agent Orange.

These are the short-term effects of the chemical defoliant. Long-term effects include a number of different cancers and severe birth defects among the children both of local villagers and fighters, and of American Vietnam veterans.

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Desperate South Vietnamese try to board the last flight out of Nha Trang (1975)

South Vietnamese Fight to Escape fall of Nha Trang, March of 1975
South Vietnamese Refugees Fight to Board Last Flight out of Nha Trang, March of 1975. Jean-Claude Francolon / Getty Images

Nha Trang, a city on the central coast of South Vietnam, fell to the communist forces in May of 1975. Nha Trang played a key role in the Vietnam War as the site of an American-operated Air Force Base, from 1966 to 1974.

When the city fell during the 1975 "Ho Chi Minh Offensive," desperate South Vietnamese citizens who had worked with the Americans and feared reprisals tried to get on to the last flights out of the area. In this photo, both armed men and children are seen attempting to board the final flight out of the city in the face of the approaching Viet Minh and Viet Cong troops.