Vietnam War Era: 1955–1975

Beginnings of Vietnam War and U.S. Involvement

Conflict in Vietnam Prior to U.S. Involvement

The Vietnam conflict had its origins in French colonization in the region in the 1880s and grew as Vietnamese nationalism took hold.

The conflict in Vietnam started long before U.S. involvement in the region. France established a colony in Vietnam in the 1880s and went on to establish French Indochina, a group of French-controlled colonies. The colonies supplied natural resources such as metals, coals, and spices and became markets for French industry and manufactured goods.

Vietnamese resistance to French colonialism had existed for decades, but after World War I a strong nationalist movement emerged. The nationalists followed communism, a system in which there is no privately owned property because all property and goods are owned by the government. Ho Chi Minh (1890–1969), a Vietnamese Communist leader who led Vietnamese forces against foreign nations controlling Vietnam, emerged as a strong nationalist leader. He petitioned Allied leaders to free Vietnam when they met in Versailles, but was ignored. In 1941 he formed the Viet Minh, a communist-led group that led the struggle against foreign control of Vietnam. Although led by communists, the Viet Minh welcomed all Vietnamese nationalists. During the Japanese occupation in the midst of World War II, the Viet Minh allied themselves with the United States and used guerilla war tactics to gain control of northern parts of Vietnam. When the war ended in 1945, the Viet Minh formed the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. To restore colonial control, the French took the southern half of Vietnam. By 1946 the First Indochina War had begun. By 1949 the newly established Chinese Communist government aided the Viet Minh, while the United States aided the French.

The First Indochina War ended in 1954 at Dien Bien Phu, a French garrison near the border with Laos. Although the French received U.S. support, a large Viet Minh force captured the garrison. With the fall of Dien Bien Phu, the Viet Minh had wrested control of three quarters of Vietnam. The French agreed to end the war.

Representatives of nine countries attended the peace negotiations in Switzerland in April 1954. These were Cambodia, France, Laos, the People's Republic of China, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States as well as the State of Vietnam (the South Vietnamese) and the Viet Minh (the North Vietnamese). A commission of representatives from India, Poland, and Canada was appointed to execute the agreement, called the Geneva Accords. The Accords established a cease-fire line at the 17th parallel. Free elections in Vietnam were to be held before July 1956 and supervised by the commission. The Viet Minh accepted what they considered a temporary withdrawal of their forces and agreed to retreat north of the 17th parallel, believing the elections would unify the country. No treaty was signed, but most of the nine nations agreed to "guarantee" the agreements. The United States, however, stated it was not bound by the Geneva Accords. Consequently, with U.S. support under the Eisenhower administration, South Vietnam later refused the elections and the United States supported an anticommunist nation south of the 17th parallel.

French Indochina: Then (1900-45) and Now (since 1976)

The area once known as French Indochina evolved into a region of independent countries.

Conflict in Vietnam: Early American Involvement

France withdrew from Vietnam in 1954, and the United States quickly established a presence in South Vietnam to prevent a communist takeover.

With France's withdrawal from Vietnam in 1954, the United States began sending aid to South Vietnam. Invoking the Cold War domino theory, the idea that the fall of a noncommunist country to communism would cause neighboring noncommunist countries to also fall to communism, President Eisenhower lent the South financial and military aid. With U.S. backing, South Vietnam refused to participate in the elections called for by the Geneva Accord. Instead, a Vietnamese political leader, Ngo Dinh Diem, became prime minister of a U.S.-supported government. A year later, Diem appointed himself President of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) and established an autocratic regime, which made him unpopular among the people.

The northern communist Viet Minh, who had kept political operatives below the 17th parallel, began working to weaken support of Diem's government. In response, the U.S. military launched a secret operation called the Saigon Military Mission to conduct propaganda that would reduce Viet Minh influence.

By 1957 a group of Vietnamese Communist guerilla fighters, called Viet Cong, began terrorizing the government in South Vietnam. But because Diem was so unpopular, even the anticommunists who opposed Diem joined the Viet Cong. At the same time North Vietnam began infiltrating soldiers into the South to overthrow Diem. By 1960 the communists had formed a political party in South Vietnam called the National Liberation Front (NLF). Members of the party included the Viet Cong and those who wanted to defeat Diem.

When President John F. Kennedy took office in 1961, the Viet Cong group was strong and influential. Kennedy viewed the Viet Cong and its guerrilla tactics as a new kind of threat to the free world. The group was aided by the Soviet Union and communist China. Both nations encouraged "wars of liberation" in newly independent nations in Asia and Africa. To Kennedy, the solution was to mount a "counterinsurgency," unconventional warfare against communist guerrillas in those emerging nations under attack. He approved secret counterinsurgency actions executed by the Green Berets, U.S. soldiers in the Special Forces who fought guerrillas. In November 1961, in response to a South Vietnamese request, Kennedy approved the spraying of herbicides. Beginning in January 1962, Operation Ranch Hand used herbicides to defoliate South Vietnamese jungles, which provided both cover and food for Viet Cong guerillas. One particularly deadly herbicide used was Agent Orange, which contained dioxin, a powerful toxic chemical. Many Vietnamese and U.S. servicemen exposed to Agent Orange suffered from various forms of cancer and other serious health problems after the war.
Operation Ranch Hand, a U.S. defoliation program in South Vietnam, operated from 1962 through 1971 and destroyed approximately 20 percent of South Vietnam's jungles and crops.
Credit: Courtesy National Archives, photo no. 530626
Opposition to Diem's harsh regime in the form of public protests and self-immolation by Buddhist monks led to Diem's assassination by his own generals in early November 1963. It was later determined the United States was aware of the generals' plans and supported Diem's execution. President Kennedy was assassinated later that month. His vice president, Lyndon B. Johnson, inherited the evolving, complex problem of Vietnam.