Vietnam War Timeline

POW MIA Flag
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The Vietnam War (also known as the Second Indochina War and the American War in Viet Nam) was an outgrowth of conflicts between the colonizing French forces in Vietnam supported by Bao Dai's Vietnamese National Army (VNA) and the communist forces led by Ho Chi Minh (the Viet Minh) and Vo Nguyen Giap.

The Vietnam War itself began in 1954 when the United States and other members of the Southeast Asia Treat Organization were drawn into the conflict. It would not end until 20 years later, with the fall of Saigon to the Communists in April 1975.

Vietnam War Key Takeaways

  • The Vietnam War was one of several conflicts which began with the struggle over Indochina to overthrow the French colonial forces. 
  • Known as the Second Indochina War, the Vietnam War officially begins when the U.S. gets involved in 1954.
  • The first American fatality was in 1956 when an off-duty airman was shot by a colleague for talking to some children.
  • Four U.S. Presidents oversaw the Vietnam War: Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon.
  • The war ended when Saigon fell to the Communists, in April 1975.

Background to Conflicts in Vietnam

1847: France sends warships to Vietnam, to protect Christians from the ruling emperor Gia Long

1858–1884: France invades Vietnam and makes Vietnam a colony.

Procession of Indigenous Cavalry in French Indo-China (Vietnam)
Procession of Indigenous Cavalry or Troops in French Indo-China (Vietnam, Aug. 1903). Corbis / Getty Images

Early 20th century: Nationalism begins to rise in Vietnam, including several separate groups with different political systems.

October 1930: Ho Chi Minh helps found the Indochinese Communist Party.

September 1940: Japan invades Vietnam.

May 1941: Ho Chi Minh establishes the Viet Minh (League for the Independence of Vietnam).

September 2, 1945: Ho Chi Minh declares an independent Vietnam, called the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, and fighting begins with French forces and the VNA.

December 19, 1946: All-out war breaks out between France and the Viet Minh, signaling the start of the First Indochina War.

1949: Mao Zedong's Communist Party wins the Chinese Civil War.

January 1950: The Viet Minh receive military advisors and weapons from China.

July 1950: The United States pledges $15 million worth of military aid to France to help its troops fight in Vietnam.

1950–1953: Communist takeover in China and the war in Korea creates concern in the West that Southeast Asia would be a dangerous Communist stronghold.

The Second Indochina War Begins

May 7, 1954: The French suffer a decisive defeat at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu.

July 21, 1954: The Geneva Accords creates a cease-fire for the peaceful withdrawal of the French from Vietnam and provides a temporary boundary between North and South Vietnam at the 17th parallel. The accords call for free elections in 1956; Cambodia and Laos receive their independence.

Ngo Dinh Diem
South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem rides with Commissioner Richard Patterson and Chief Protocol of the State Department, Wiley T. Buchanan Jr. in a parade in New York City. Carl T. Gossett Jr / Getty Images

October 26, 1955: South Vietnam declares itself the Republic of Vietnam, with newly elected Ngo Dinh Diem as president.

1956: President Diem decides against the elections required in the Geneva Accords because the North would certainly win.

June 8, 1956: The first official American fatality is Air Force Technical Sergeant Richard B. Fitzgibbon, Jr., murdered by another American airman as he was talking with local children.

July 1959: North Vietnam's leaders pass an ordinance calling for continued socialist revolutions in the north and south.

July 11, 1959: Two off-duty U.S. military advisors Major Dale Buis and Master Sergeant Chester Ovnand are killed when a guerilla strike at Bienhoa struck their mess hall.

The 1960s

Ho Chi Minh And Zhou Enlai
North Vietnamese President and communist revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh (1890–1969, left) with Prime Minister of the People's Republic of China, Zhou Enlai (1898–1976) in Vietnam, 1960. Three Lions / Getty Images

December 20, 1960: The insurgents in South Vietnam are formally established as the National Liberation Front (PLF), but are better known to their enemies as the Vietnamese Communists or Viet Cong for short.

January 1961: John F. Kennedy takes office as the President of the United States and begins to escalate American involvement in Vietnam; two U.S. helicopter units arrive in Saigon.

February 1962: A U.S.-backed "strategic hamlet" program in South Vietnam forcibly relocates South Vietnamese peasants to fortified settlements.

Ultimate Protest
June 11, 1963: A buddhist monk makes the ultimate protest in Saigon by setting himself alight. Keystone / Getty Images

June 11, 1963: Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc sets himself on fire in front of a pagoda in Saigon to protest Diem's policies; the journalist's photo of the death is published worldwide as "The Ultimate Protest."

November 2, 1963: South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem is executed during a coup.

November 22, 1963: President Kennedy is assassinated; the new President Lyndon Johnson would continue the escalation.

HIstoric Images From The Amercan 20th Century
Lyndon B. Johnson takes the oath of office as President of the United States, after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy November 22, 1963. National Archives / Getty Images

August 2 and 4, 1964: North Vietnamese attack two U.S. destroyers sitting in international waters (the Gulf of Tonkin Incident).

August 7, 1964: In response to the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, the U.S. Congress passes the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.

March 2, 1965: A sustained U.S. aerial bombing campaign of North Vietnam begins (Operation Rolling Thunder).

March 8, 1965: The first U.S. combat troops arrive in Vietnam.

January 30, 1968: The North Vietnamese join forces with the Viet Cong to launch the Tet Offensive, attacking approximately 100 South Vietnamese cities and towns.

March 16, 1968: U.S. soldiers killed hundreds of Vietnamese civilians in the town of Mai Lai.

Refugees Flee Viet Cong Attack
Refugees flee the Tan Son Nhut area after a Viet Cong attack on May 6, 1968. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

July 1968: General William Westmoreland, who had been in charge of the U.S. troops in Vietnam, is replaced by General Creighton Abrams.

December 1968: U.S. troops in Vietnam reaches 540,000.

July 1969: President Nixon orders the first of many U.S. troop withdrawals from Vietnam.

September 3, 1969: Communist revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh dies at age 79.

November 13, 1969: The American public learns of the Mai Lai massacre.

The 1970s

Scenes During the Shootings at Kent State
Hundreds of students at Kent State staged a demonstration in protest against the Nixon administration's expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia on May 4, 1970. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

April 30, 1970: President Nixon announces that U.S. troops will attack enemy locations in Cambodia. This news sparks nationwide protests, especially on college campuses.

May 4, 1970: National Guardsmen fire a barrage of tear gas into a crowd of demonstrators protesting the expansion into Cambodia on the campus of Kent State University; four students are killed.

June 13, 1971: Portions of the "Pentagon Papers" are published in The New York Times.

March 1972: The North Vietnamese cross the demilitarized zone (DMZ) at the 17th parallel to attack South Vietnam in what became known as the Easter Offensive.

January 27, 1973: The Paris Peace Accords are signed that provide a cease-fire.

March 29, 1973: The last U.S. troops are withdrawn from Vietnam.

March 1975: North Vietnam launches a massive assault on South Vietnam.

April 30, 1975: Saigon falls, and South Vietnam surrenders to the communists, the official end of the Second Indochina War/Vietnam War.

Former VA Sen. Jim Webb Marks The 40th Anniversary Of The Fall Of Saigon At The Vietnam War Memorial
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 30: Vietnam war veteran Steve Moczary, who served two tours during the war, searches for the name of his friend Msgt. Cecil Hodgson at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Win McNamee / Getty Images

July 2, 1976: Vietnam is unified as a communist country, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

November 13, 1982: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. is dedicated.