Humanities › History & Culture A Short Guide to the Vietnam War What Everyone Should Know About the Vietnam Conflict Share Flipboard Email Print Interim Archives/Archive Photos / Getty Images History & Culture The 20th Century People & Events Fads & Fashions Early 20th Century The 20s The 30s The 40s The 50s The 60s The 80s The 90s American History African American History African History Ancient History and Culture Asian History European History Genealogy Inventions Latin American History Medieval & Renaissance History Military History Women's History View More By Jennifer Rosenberg History Expert B.A., History, University of California at Davis Jennifer Rosenberg is a historian and writer who specializes in 20th-century history. our editorial process Jennifer Rosenberg Updated December 13, 2018 The Vietnam War was the prolonged struggle between nationalist forces attempting to unify the country of Vietnam under a communist government and the United States (with the aid of the South Vietnamese) attempting to prevent the spread of communism. Engaged in a war that many viewed as having no way to win, U.S. leaders lost the American public's support for the war. Since the end of the war, the Vietnam War has become a benchmark for what not to do in all future U.S. foreign conflicts. Dates of the Vietnam War: 1959 -- April 30, 1975 Also Known As: American War in Vietnam, the Vietnam Conflict, Second Indochina War, War Against the Americans to Save the Nation Ho Chi Minh Comes Home There had been fighting in Vietnam for decades before the Vietnam War began. The Vietnamese had suffered under French colonial rule for nearly six decades when Japan invaded portions of Vietnam in 1940. It was in 1941 when Vietnam had two foreign powers occupying them, that communist Vietnamese revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh arrived back in Vietnam after spending 30 years traveling the world. Once Ho was back in Vietnam, he established a headquarters in a cave in northern Vietnam and established the Viet Minh, whose goal was to rid Vietnam of the French and Japanese occupiers. Having gained support for their cause in northern Vietnam, the Viet Minh announced the establishment of an independent Vietnam with a new government called the Democratic Republic of Vietnam on September 2, 1945. The French, however, were not willing to give up their colony so easily and fought back. For years, Ho had tried to court the United States to support him against the French, including supplying the U.S. with military intelligence about the Japanese during World War II. Despite this aid, the United States was fully dedicated to their Cold War foreign policy of containment, which meant preventing the spread of communism. This fear of the spread of communism was heightened by the U.S. "domino theory," which stated that if one country in Southeast Asia fell to communism then surrounding countries would also soon fall. To help prevent Vietnam from becoming a communist country, the U.S. decided to help France defeat Ho and his revolutionaries by sending the French military aid in 1950. Soldiers of the French Foreign Legion at Dien Bien Phu in north-west Vietnam, the site of a major battle between the French and the Vietminh in 1954. Ernst Haas/Getty Images France Steps Out, U.S. Steps In In 1954, after suffering a decisive defeat at Dien Bien Phu, the French decided to pull out of Vietnam. At the Geneva Conference of 1954, a number of nations met to determine how the French could peacefully withdraw. The agreement that came out of the conference (called the Geneva Accords) stipulated a cease-fire for the peaceful withdrawal of French forces and the temporary division of Vietnam along the 17th parallel (which split the country into communist North Vietnam and non-communist South Vietnam). In addition, a general democratic election was to be held in 1956 that would reunite the country under one government. The United States refused to agree to the election, fearing the communists might win. With help from the United States, South Vietnam carried out the election only in South Vietnam rather than countrywide. After eliminating most of his rivals, Ngo Dinh Diem was elected. His leadership, however, proved so horrible that he was killed in 1963 during a coup supported by the United States. Since Diem had alienated many South Vietnamese during his tenure, communist sympathizers in South Vietnam established the National Liberation Front (NLF), also known as the Viet Cong, in 1960 to use guerrilla warfare against the South Vietnamese. First U.S. Ground Troops Sent to Vietnam As the fighting between the Viet Cong and the South Vietnamese continued, the U.S. continued to send additional advisers to South Vietnam. When the North Vietnamese fired directly upon two U.S. ships in international waters on August 2 and 4, 1964 (known as the Gulf of Tonkin Incident), Congress responded with the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. This resolution gave the president the authority to escalate U.S. involvement in Vietnam. President Lyndon Johnson used that authority to order the first U.S. ground troops to Vietnam in March 1965. President Johnson Announces Retaliation for Gulf of Tonkin Incident. Historical/Getty Images Johnson's Plan for Success President Johnson's goal for U.S. involvement in Vietnam was not for the U.S. to win the war, but for U.S. troops to bolster South Vietnam's defenses until South Vietnam could take over. By entering the Vietnam War without a goal to win, Johnson set the stage for future public and troop disappointment when the U.S. found themselves in a stalemate with the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong. From 1965 to 1969, the U.S. was involved in a limited war in Vietnam. Although there were aerial bombings of the North, President Johnson wanted the fighting to be limited to South Vietnam. By limiting the fighting parameters, the U.S. forces would not conduct a serious ground assault into the North to attack the communists directly nor would there be any strong effort to disrupt the Ho Chi Minh Trail (the Viet Cong's supply path that ran through Laos and Cambodia). Life in the Jungle U.S. troops fought a jungle war, mostly against the well-supplied Viet Cong. The Viet Cong would attack in ambushes, set up booby traps, and escape through a complex network of underground tunnels. For U.S. forces, even just finding their enemy proved difficult. Since Viet Cong hid in the dense brush, U.S. forces would drop Agent Orange or napalm bombs, which cleared an area by causing the leaves to drop off or to burn away. In every village, U.S. troops had difficulty determining which, if any, villagers were the enemy since even women and children could build booby traps or help house and feed the Viet Cong. U.S. soldiers commonly became frustrated with the fighting conditions in Vietnam. Many suffered from low morale, became angry, and some used drugs. Troops Fighting during the Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War. Bettmann/Getty Images Surprise Attack - The Tet Offensive On January 30, 1968, the North Vietnamese surprised both the U.S. forces and the South Vietnamese by orchestrating a coordinated assault with the Viet Cong to attack about a hundred South Vietnamese cities and towns. Although the U.S. forces and the South Vietnamese army were able to repel the assault known as the Tet Offensive, this attack proved to Americans that the enemy was stronger and better organized than they had been led to believe. The Tet Offensive was a turning point in the war because President Johnson, faced now with an unhappy American public and bad news from his military leaders in Vietnam, decided to no longer escalate the war. Nixon's Plan for "Peace With Honor" In 1969, Richard Nixon became the new U.S. president and he had his own plan to end U.S. involvement in Vietnam. President Nixon outlined a plan called Vietnamization, which was a process to remove U.S. troops from Vietnam while handing back the fighting to the South Vietnamese. The withdrawal of U.S. troops began in July 1969. To bring a faster end to hostilities, President Nixon also expanded the war into other countries, such as Laos and Cambodia—a move that created thousands of protests, especially on college campuses, back in America. To work toward peace, new peace talks began in Paris on January 25, 1969. When the U.S. had withdrawn most of its troops from Vietnam, the North Vietnamese staged another massive assault, called the Easter Offensive (also called the Spring Offensive), on March 30, 1972. North Vietnamese troops crossed over the demilitarized zone (DMZ) at the 17th parallel and invaded South Vietnam. The remaining U.S. forces and the South Vietnamese army fought back. Representatives from the four factions of the Vietnam War meet in Paris to sign a peace agreement. Bettmann/Getty Images The Paris Peace Accords On January 27, 1973, the peace talks in Paris finally succeeded in producing a cease-fire agreement. The last U.S. troops left Vietnam on March 29, 1973, knowing they were leaving a weak South Vietnam who would not be able to withstand another major communist North Vietnam attack. Reunification of Vietnam After the U.S. had withdrawn all its troops, the fighting continued in Vietnam. In early 1975, North Vietnam made another big push south which toppled the South Vietnamese government. South Vietnam officially surrendered to communist North Vietnam on April 30, 1975. On July 2, 1976, Vietnam was reunited as a communist country, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.