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Vietnam War,conflict in Southeast Asia, primarily fought in South Vietnam between government forces aided by the United States and guerrilla forces aided by North Vietnam. The war began soon after the Geneva ConferenceGeneva Conference,
any of various international meetings held at Geneva, Switzerland. Some of the more important ones are discussed here. 1 International conference held Apr.–July, 1954, to restore peace in Korea and Indochina.
..... Click the link for more information. provisionally divided (1954) Vietnam at 17° N lat. into the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) and the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam). It escalated from a Vietnamese civil war into a limited international conflict in which the United States was deeply involved, and did not end, despite peace agreements in 1973, until North Vietnam's successful offensive in 1975 resulted in South Vietnam's collapse and the unification of Vietnam by the North.
Causes and Early Years
In part, the war was a legacy of France's colonial rule, which ended in 1954 with the French army's catastrophic defeat at DienbienphuDienbienphu
or Dien Bien Phu
, former French military base, N Vietnam, near the Laos border. It was the scene in 1954 of the last great battle between the French and the Viet Minh forces of Ho Chi Minh in Indochina. The French occupied the base by parachute drop in Nov.
..... Click the link for more information. and the acceptance of the Geneva Conference agreements (see VietnamVietnam
, officially Socialist Republic of Vietnam, republic (2015 est. pop. 93,572,000), 128,400 sq mi (332,642 sq km), Southeast Asia. Occupying the eastern coastline of the Southeast Asian peninsula, Vietnam is bounded by China on the north, by Laos and Cambodia on the west,
..... Click the link for more information. ). Elections scheduled for 1956 in South Vietnam for the reunification of Vietnam were canceled by President Ngo Dinh DiemDiem, Ngo Dinh
, 1901–63, president of South Vietnam (1955–63). A member of an influential Roman Catholic family, he was a civil servant before World War II and was connected with the nationalists during the war.
..... Click the link for more information. . His action was denounced by Ho Chi MinhHo Chi Minh
, 1890–1969, Vietnamese nationalist leader, president of North Vietnam (1954–69), and one of the most influential political leaders of the 20th cent. His given name was Nguyen That Thanh. In 1911 he left Vietnam, working aboard a French liner.
..... Click the link for more information. , since the Communists had expected to benefit from them. After 1956, Diem's government faced increasingly serious opposition from the Viet CongViet Cong
, officially Viet Nam Cong San [Vietnamese Communists], People's Liberation Armed Forces in South Vietnam. The term was originally applied by Diem's regime to Communist troops (about 10,000) left in hideouts in South Vietnam after the Geneva Conference of 1954,
..... Click the link for more information. , insurgents aided by North Vietnam. The Viet Cong became masters of the guerrilla tactics of North Vietnam's Vo Nguyen GiapGiap, Vo Nguyen
, 1911–2013, Vietnamese military leader and government official whose strategies helped drive the forces of Japan, France, and the United States from Vietnam.
..... Click the link for more information. . Diem's army received U.S. advice and aid, but was unable to suppress the guerrillas, who established a political organization, the National Liberation Front (NLF) in 1960.
In 1961, South Vietnam signed a military and economic aid treaty with the United States leading to the arrival (1961) of U.S. support troops and the formation (1962) of the U.S. Military Assistance Command. Mounting dissatisfaction with the ineffectiveness and corruption of Diem's government culminated (Nov., 1963) in a military coup engineered by Duong Van MinhMinh, Duong Van
, 1916–2001, Vietnamese army officer and political leader. A military adviser (1962–63) to President Diem, he helped to overthrow Diem in 1963. He was head of government (1963–64), after which he went into exile.
..... Click the link for more information. ; Diem was executed. No one was able to establish control in South Vietnam until June, 1965, when Nguyen Cao KyKy, Nguyen Cao
, 1930–2011, premier (1965–67) and vice president (1967–71) of the former Republic of South Vietnam. Flight trained by the French, he returned to Vietnam (1954) and held a series of commands in the South Vietnamese air force.
..... Click the link for more information. became premier, but U.S. military aid to South Vietnam increased, especially after the U.S. Senate passed the Tonkin Gulf resolutionTonkin Gulf resolution,
in U.S. history, Congressional resolution passed in 1964 that authorized military action in Southeast Asia. On Aug. 4, 1964, North Vietnamese torpedo boats in the Gulf of Tonkin were alleged to have attacked without provocation U.S.
..... Click the link for more information. (Aug. 7, 1964) at the request of President Lyndon B. JohnsonJohnson, Lyndon Baines,
1908–73, 36th President of the United States (1963–69), b. near Stonewall, Tex. Early Life
Born into a farm family, he graduated (1930) from Southwest Texas State Teachers College (now Southwest Texas State Univ.), in San Marcos.
..... Click the link for more information. .
In early 1965, the United States began air raids on North Vietnam and on Communist-controlled areas in the South; by 1966 there were 190,000 U.S. troops in South Vietnam. North Vietnam, meanwhile, was receiving armaments and technical assistance from the Soviet Union and other Communist countries. Despite massive U.S. military aid, heavy bombing, the growing U.S. troop commitment (which reached nearly 550,000 in 1969), and some political stability in South Vietnam after the election (1967) of Nguyen Van ThieuThieu, Nguyen Van
, 1924–2001, president of the former Republic of South Vietnam (1967–75). After World War II, he joined the Viet Minh, but then left it to join what became the South Vietnamese National Army (ARVN). He rose rapidly, becoming a division commander.
..... Click the link for more information. as president, the United States and South Vietnam were unable to defeat the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces. Optimistic U.S. military reports were discredited in Feb., 1968, by the costly and devastating Tet offensive of the North Vietnamese army and the Viet Cong, involving attacks on more than 100 towns and cities and a month-long battle for HueHue
, city (1989 pop. 260,489), former capital of the historic region of Annam, Vietnam, in a rich farming area on the Hue River near the South China Sea. Probably founded in the 3d cent. A.D., Hue was occupied in turn by the Chams and the Annamese. After the 16th cent.
..... Click the link for more information. in South Vietnam.
Serious negotiations to end the war began after U.S. President Lyndon Johnson's decision not to seek reelection in 1968, but at the same time presidential candidate Richard M. NixonNixon, Richard Milhous,
1913–94, 37th President of the United States (1969–74), b. Yorba Linda, Calif. Political Career to 1968
A graduate of Whittier College and Duke law school, he practiced law in Whittier, Calif.
..... Click the link for more information. apparently secretly interfered with negotiations through contacts with South Vietnam. Contacts between North Vietnam and the United States in Paris in 1968 were expanded in 1969 to include South Vietnam and the NLF. The United States, after Nixon became president, altered its tactics to combine U.S. troop withdrawals with intensified bombing and the invasion of Communist sanctuaries in CambodiaCambodia
, Khmer Kampuchea, officially Kingdom of Cambodia, constitutional monarchy (2015 est. pop. 15,518,000), 69,898 sq mi (181,035 sq km), SE Asia. Cambodia is bordered by Thailand on the west and north, by Laos on the north, by Vietnam on the east, and by the Gulf of
..... Click the link for more information. (1970).
The length of the war, the high number of U.S. casualties, and the exposure of U.S. involvement in war crimes such as the massacre at My Lai (see My Lai incidentMy Lai incident
, a massacre of Vietnamese civilians by U.S. soldiers in the Vietnam War. On Mar. 16, 1968, a unit of the U.S. army's Americal division, led by Lt. William L.
..... Click the link for more information. ) helped to turn many in the United States against the war. Politically, the movement was led by Senators James William FulbrightFulbright, James William,
1905–95, U.S. Senator from Arkansas (1945–75), b. Sumner, Mo. A Rhodes scholar, he was admitted (1934) to the bar and served (1934–35) in the antitrust division of the U.S. Dept of Justice. He taught law at George Washington Univ.
..... Click the link for more information. , Robert F. KennedyKennedy, Robert Francis,
1925–68, American politician, U.S. Attorney General (1961–64), b. Brookline, Mass., younger brother of President John F. Kennedy and son of Joseph P. Kennedy.
A graduate of Harvard (1948) and the Univ.
..... Click the link for more information. , Eugene J. McCarthyMcCarthy, Eugene Joseph,
1916–2005, U.S. political leader, b. Watkins, Minn. He served (1942–46) as a technical assistant for military intelligence during World War II and then taught (1946–49) at the College of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn.
..... Click the link for more information. , and George S. McGovernMcGovern, George Stanley
, 1922–2012, U.S. senator from South Dakota (1963–81), b. Avon, S.Dak. He was a decorated B-24 bomber pilot during World War II. He later obtained degrees from Dakota Wesleyan Univ. (B.A., 1946) and Northwestern (Ph.D.
..... Click the link for more information. ; there were also huge public demonstrations in Washington, D.C., as well as in many other cities in the United States and on college campuses.
Even as the war continued, peace talks in Paris progressed, with Henry KissingerKissinger, Henry Alfred
, 1923–, American political scientist and U.S. secretary of state (1973–77), b. Germany. He emigrated to the United States in 1938. A leading expert on international relations and nuclear defense policy, Kissinger taught (1957–69) at
..... Click the link for more information. as U.S. negotiator. A break in negotiations followed by U.S. saturation bombing of North Vietnam did not derail the talks, and a peace agreement was reached, signed on Jan. 27, 1973, by the United States, North Vietnam, South Vietnam, and the NLF's provisional revolutionary government. The accord provided for the end of hostilities, the withdrawal of U.S. and allied troops (several Southeast Asia Treaty OrganizationSoutheast Asia Treaty Organization
(SEATO), alliance organized (1954) under the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty by representatives of Australia, France, Great Britain, New Zealand, Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand, and the United States.
..... Click the link for more information. countries had sent token forces), the return of prisoners of war, and the formation of a four-nation international control commission to ensure peace.
End of the War
Fighting between South Vietnamese and Communists continued despite the peace agreement until North Vietnam launched an offensive in early 1975. South Vietnam's requests for aid were denied by the U.S. Congress, and after Thieu abandoned the northern half of the country to the advancing Communists, a panic ensued. South Vietnamese resistance collapsed, and North Vietnamese troops marched into Saigon Apr. 30, 1975. Vietnam was formally reunified in July, 1976, and Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh CityHo Chi Minh City,
city (1997 pop. 5,250,000), on the right bank of the Saigon River, a tributary of the Dong Nai, Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh City is the largest city, the greatest port, and the commercial and industrial center of Vietnam.
..... Click the link for more information. . U.S. casualties in Vietnam during the era of direct U.S. involvement (1961–72) were more than 50,000 dead; South Vietnamese dead were estimated at more than 400,000, and Viet Cong and North Vietnamese at over 900,000.
For a general introduction, see D. L. Anderson, The Columbia Guide to the Vietnam War (2002). See also F. FitzGerald, Fire in the Lake (1972); D. Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest (1972); G. Lewy, America in Vietnam (1978); R. Komer, Bureaucracy at War (1985); W. A. Williams, ed., America in Vietnam: A Documentary History (1985); W. S. Turley, The Second Indochina War (1986); B. Diem, In the Jaws of History (1987); R. B. Smith, An International History of the Vietnam War (2 vol., 1987); N. Sheehan, A Bright Shining Lie (1988); O. Lehrach, No Shining Armor (1992); J. L. Plaster, SOG: The Secret Wars of America's Commandos in Vietnam (1997); M. Lind, Vietnam: The Necessary War (1999); F. Logevall, Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam (1999); R. S. McNamara et al., Argument without End: In Search of Answers to the Vietnam Tragedy (1999); L. Sorley, A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam (1999); A. J. Langguth, Our Vietnam: The War, 1954–1975 (2000); C. G. Appy, ed., Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides (2003); D. Maraniss, They Marched into Sunlight: War and Peace, Vietnam and America, October, 1967 (2003); H. T. Schandler, America in Vietnam (2009); V. T. Nguyen, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War (2016); Lien-Hang Nguyen, Hanoi's War: An International History of the War for Peace in Vietnam (2016); G. C. Ward, Remembering Vietnam: 50 Years Later (2016); M. Hastings, Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945–1975 (2018); 10-part documentary dir. by K. Burns and L. Novick (2017).