Vietnam War

Vietnam War
Chiến tranh Việt Nam  (Vietnamese)
Part of the Indochina Wars and the Cold War
Clockwise, from top left: U.S. combat operations in Ia Đrăng, ARVN Rangers defending Saigon during the 1968 Tết Offensive, two A-4C Skyhawks after the Gulf of Tonkin incident, ARVN recapture Quảng Trị during the 1972 Easter Offensive, civilians fleeing the 1972 Battle of Quảng Trị, and burial of 300 victims of the 1968 Huế Massacre.
Date 1 November 1955 – 30 April 1975 (1975-04-30)
(19 years, 5 months, 4 weeks and 1 day)[A 1][8]

North Vietnamese and Viet Cong/PRG victory

Reunification of North and South Vietnam into the Socialist Republic of Vietnam
Commanders and leaders

≈860,000 (1967)

  • North Vietnam:
    690,000 (1966, including PAVN and Viet Cong).[A 2]
  • Viet Cong:
    (estimated, 1968)[10][11]:
  • China:
    170,000 (1968)
    320,000 total[12][13][14]
  • Khmer Rouge:
    70,000 (1972)[15]:376
  • Pathet Lao:
    48,000 (1970)[16]
  • Soviet Union: ~3,000[17]
  • North Korea: 200[18]

≈1,420,000 (1968)

  • South Vietnam:
    850,000 (1968)
    1,500,000 (1974–1975)[19]
  • United States:
    2,709,918 serving in Vietnam total
    Peak: 543,000 (April 1969)[15]:xlv
  • Khmer Republic:
    200,000 (1973)[20]
  • Laos:
    72,000 (Royal Army and Hmong militia)[21][22]
  • South Korea:
    48,000 per year (1965–1973, 320,000 total)
  • Thailand: 32,000 per year (1965–1973)
    (in Vietnam[23] and Laos)[24]
  • Australia: 50,190 total
    (Peak: 7,672 combat troops)
  • New Zealand: 3,500 total
    (Peak: 552 combat troops)[11]:
  • Philippines: 2,061
Casualties and losses
  • North Vietnam & Viet Cong
    65,000–182,000 civilian dead[25][26]:450–3[27]
    849,018 military dead (per Vietnam; 1/3 non-combat deaths)[28][29]
    666,000–950,765 dead
    (US estimated 1964–1974)[A 3][25][26]:450–1
    600,000+ wounded[30]:739
  • Khmer Rouge: Unknown
  • Laos Pathet Lao: Unknown
  •  People's Republic of China: ~1,100 dead and 4,200 wounded[14]
  •  Soviet Union: 16 dead[31]
  •  North Korea: 14 dead[32]

Total military dead:

Total military wounded:

(excluding GRUNK and Pathet Lao)

  •  South Vietnam
    195,000–430,000 civilian dead[25][26]:450–3[33]:
    254,256–313,000 military dead[34]:275[35]
    1,170,000 wounded[15]:
  •  United States
    58,318 dead[36] (47,434 from combat)[37][38]
    303,644 wounded (including 150,341 not requiring hospital care)[A 4]
  •  Laos: 15,000 army dead[43]
  • Khmer Republic: Unknown
  •  South Korea: 5,099 dead; 10,962 wounded; 4 missing
  •  Australia: 521 dead; 3,129 wounded[44]
  •  Thailand: 351 dead[15]:
  •  New Zealand: 37 dead[45]
  •  Republic of China: 25 dead[46]
  •  Philippines: 9 dead;[47] 64 wounded[48]

Total military dead:

Total wounded:
(excluding FARK and FANK)

The Vietnam War (Vietnamese: Chiến tranh Việt Nam), also known as the Second Indochina War,[54] and in Vietnam as the Resistance War Against America (Vietnamese: Kháng chiến chống Mỹ) or simply the American War, was a conflict in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia from 1 November 1955[A 1] to the fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975.[8] It was the second of the Indochina Wars and was officially fought between North Vietnam and South Vietnam. North Vietnam was supported by the Soviet Union, China,[12] and other communist allies; South Vietnam was supported by the United States, South Korea, the Philippines, Australia, Thailand, and other anti-communist allies.[55][56] The war, considered a Cold War-era proxy war by some,[57] lasted 19 years, with direct U.S. involvement ending in 1973, and included the Laotian Civil War and the Cambodian Civil War, which ended with all three countries becoming communist in 1975.

The conflict emerged from the First Indochina War between the French and the communist-led Viet Minh.[58][A 5] After the French quit Indochina in 1954, the US assumed financial and military support for the South Vietnamese state. The Việt Cộng, also known as Front national de libération du Sud-Viêt Nam or NLF (the National Liberation Front), a South Vietnamese common front under the direction of North Vietnam, initiated a guerrilla war in the south. North Vietnam had also invaded Laos in the mid-1950s in support of insurgents, establishing the Ho Chi Minh Trail to supply and reinforce the Việt Cộng.[59]:16 U.S. involvement escalated under President John F. Kennedy through the MAAG program from just under a thousand military advisors in 1959 to 16,000 in 1963.[60][30]:131 By 1963, the North Vietnamese had sent 40,000 soldiers to fight in South Vietnam.[59]:16 North Vietnam was heavily backed by the USSR and the People's Republic of China. China also sent hundreds of PLA servicemen to North Vietnam to serve in air-defense and support roles.[30]:371–4[61]

By 1964, 23,000 US advisors were stationed in South Vietnam. In the Gulf of Tonkin incident in August, a U.S. destroyer was alleged to have clashed with North Vietnamese fast attack craft. In response, the U.S. Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and gave President Lyndon B. Johnson broad authority to increase American military presence in Vietnam. Johnson ordered the deployment of combat units for the first time and increased troop levels to 184,000.[60] Past this point, the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) (also known as the North Vietnamese Army or NVA) engaged in more conventional warfare with U.S. and South Vietnamese forces. Despite little progress, the United States continued a significant build-up of forces. U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, one of the principal architects of the war, began expressing doubts of victory by the end of 1966.[30]:287 U.S. and South Vietnam forces relied on air superiority and overwhelming firepower to conduct search and destroy operations, involving ground forces, artillery, and airstrikes. The U.S. also conducted a large-scale strategic bombing campaign against North Vietnam and Laos.

The Tet Offensive of 1968 showed the lack of progress with these doctrines. With the VC and PAVN mounting large-scale urban offensives throughout 1968, U.S. domestic support for the war began fading. The Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) expanded following a period of neglect after Tet and was modeled after U.S. doctrine. The VC sustained heavy losses during the Tet Offensive and subsequent U.S.-ARVN operations in the rest of 1968, losing over 50,000 men.[30]:481 The CIA's Phoenix Program further degraded the VC's membership and capabilities. By the end of the year, the VC insurgents held almost no territory in South Vietnam, and their recruitment dropped by over 80% in 1969, signifying a drastic reduction in guerrilla operations, necessitating increased use of PAVN regular soldiers from the north.[62] In 1969, North Vietnam declared a Provisional Revolutionary Government in South Vietnam in an attempt to give the reduced VC a more international stature, but the southern guerrillas from then on were sidelined as PAVN forces began more conventional combined arms warfare. By 1970, over 70% of communist troops in the south were northerners, and southern-dominated VC units no longer existed.[63] Operations crossed national borders: Laos was invaded by North Vietnam early on, while Cambodia was used by North Vietnam as a supply route starting in 1967; the route through Cambodia began to be bombed by the U.S. in 1969, while the Laos route had been heavily bombed since 1964. The deposing of the monarch Norodom Sihanouk by the Cambodian National Assembly resulted in a PAVN invasion of the country at the request of the Khmer Rouge, escalating the Cambodian Civil War and resulting in a U.S.-ARVN counter-invasion.

In 1969, following the election of U.S. President Richard Nixon, a policy of "Vietnamization" began, which saw the conflict fought by an expanded ARVN, with U.S. forces sidelined and increasingly demoralized by domestic opposition and reduced recruitment. U.S. ground forces had largely withdrawn by early 1972 and support was limited to air support, artillery support, advisers, and materiel shipments. The ARVN, buttressed by said U.S. support, stopped the first and largest mechanized PAVN offensive during the Easter Offensive of 1972. The offensive resulted in heavy casualties on both sides and the failure of the PAVN to subdue South Vietnam, but the ARVN itself failed to recapture all territory, leaving its military situation difficult. The Paris Peace Accords of January 1973 saw all U.S. forces withdrawn; the Case–Church Amendment, passed by the U.S. Congress on 15 August 1973, officially ended direct U.S. military involvement.[64]:457 The Peace Accords were broken almost immediately, and fighting continued for two more years. Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge on 17 April 1975 while the 1975 Spring Offensive saw the capture of Saigon by the PAVN on 30 April; this marked the end of the war, and North and South Vietnam were reunified the following year.

The scale of fighting was enormous. By 1970, the ARVN was the world's fourth largest army, and the PAVN was not far behind with approximately one million regular soldiers.[65][15]:770 The war exacted an enormous human cost: estimates of the number of Vietnamese soldiers and civilians killed range from 966,000[25] to 3.8 million.[50] Some 275,000–310,000 Cambodians,[51][52][53] 20,000–62,000 Laotians,[50] and 58,220 U.S. service members also died in the conflict, and a further 1,626 remain missing in action.[A 4]

The Sino-Soviet split re-emerged following the lull during the Vietnam War. Conflict between North Vietnam and its Cambodian allies in the Royal Government of the National Union of Kampuchea, and the newly formed Democratic Kampuchea began almost immediately in a series of border raids by the Khmer Rouge, eventually escalating into the Cambodian–Vietnamese War. Chinese forces directly invaded Vietnam in the Sino-Vietnamese War, with subsequent border conflicts lasting until 1991. The unified Vietnam fought insurgencies in all three countries. The end of the war and resumption of the Third Indochina War would precipitate the Vietnamese boat people and the larger Indochina refugee crisis, which saw millions of refugees leave Indochina (mainly southern Vietnam), an estimated 250,000 of whom perished at sea. Within the U.S, the war gave rise to what was referred to as Vietnam Syndrome, a public aversion to American overseas military involvements,[66] which together with the Watergate scandal contributed to the crisis of confidence that affected America throughout the 1970s.[67]


Various names have been applied to the conflict. Vietnam War is the most commonly used name in English. It has also been called the Second Indochina War[54] and the Vietnam Conflict.[68][69]

Given that there have been several conflicts in Indochina, this particular conflict is known by its primary protagonists' names to distinguish it from others. In Vietnamese, the war is generally known as Kháng chiến chống Mỹ (Resistance War Against America),[70] but less formally as 'Cuộc chiến tranh Mỹ' (The American War). It is also called Chiến tranh Việt Nam (The Vietnam War).[71]


The primary military organizations involved in the war were the United States Armed Forces and the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, pitted against the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) (commonly called the North Vietnamese Army, or NVA, in English-language sources) and the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (NLF, more commonly known as the Viet Cong (VC) in English language sources), a South Vietnamese communist guerrilla force.[15]:xli

Daniel Ellsberg contends that U.S. participation in Vietnam had begun in 1945 when it gave support to a French effort to reconquer its colony in Vietnam, a nation which had just declared independence in August 1945.[72]

Indochina had been a French colony from late 19th century to mid-20th century. When the Japanese invaded during World War II, the Viet Minh opposed them with support from the US, the Soviet Union and China. They received some Japanese arms when Japan surrendered. The Viet Minh, a Communist-led common front under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh, then initiated an insurgency against French rule. Hostilities escalated into the First Indochina War (beginning in December 1946). By the 1950s, the conflict had become entwined with the Cold War. In January 1950, China and the Soviet Union recognized the Viet Minh's Democratic Republic of Vietnam, based in Hanoi, as the legitimate government of Vietnam. The following month the United States and Great Britain recognized the French-backed State of Vietnam in Saigon, led by former Emperor Bảo Đại, as the legitimate Vietnamese government.[73]:377–9[30]:88 The outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950 convinced many Washington policymakers that the war in Indochina was an example of communist expansionism directed by the Soviet Union.[30]:33–5

Military advisors from the People's Republic of China (PRC) began assisting the Viet Minh in July 1950.[59]:14 PRC weapons, expertise, and laborers transformed the Viet Minh from a guerrilla force into a regular army.[30]:26[74] In September 1950, the United States created a Military Assistance and Advisory Group (MAAG) to screen French requests for aid, advise on strategy, and train Vietnamese soldiers.[75]:18 By 1954, the United States had spent $1 billion in support of the French military effort, shouldering 80 percent of the cost of the war.[30]:35

During the Battle of Dien Bien Phu (1954), U.S. carriers sailed to the Gulf of Tonkin and the U.S. conducted reconnaissance flights. France and the United States also discussed the use of three tactical nuclear weapons, although reports of how seriously this was considered and by whom are vague and contradictory.[76][30]:75 According to then-Vice President Richard Nixon, the Joint Chiefs of Staff drew up plans to use small tactical nuclear weapons to support the French.[76] Nixon, a so-called "hawk" on Vietnam, suggested that the United States might have to "put American boys in".[15]:76 President Dwight D. Eisenhower made American participation contingent on British support, but the British were opposed.[15]:76 Eisenhower, wary of involving the United States in a land war in Asia, decided against military intervention.[30]:75–6 Throughout the conflict, U.S. intelligence estimates remained sceptical of France's chance of success.[77]

On 7 May 1954, the French garrison at Dien Bien Phu surrendered. The defeat marked the end of French military involvement in Indochina. At the Geneva Conference, the French negotiated a ceasefire agreement with the Viet Minh, and independence was granted to Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam.[citation needed]

Transition period

The Geneva Conference, 1954

At the 1954 Geneva peace conference, Vietnam was temporarily partitioned at the 17th parallel. Ho Chi Minh had wished to continue the war in the south, but was restrained by his Chinese allies who convinced him that he could win control by electoral means.[78][30]:87–8 Under the terms of the Geneva Accords, civilians were allowed to move freely between the two provisional states for a 300-day period. Elections throughout the country were to be held in 1956 to establish a unified government.[30]:88–90 Around one million northerners, mainly minority Catholics, fled south, fearing persecution by the communists.[30]:96[79] This followed an American psychological warfare campaign, designed by Edward Lansdale for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which exaggerated anti-Catholic sentiment among the Viet Minh and which falsely claimed the US was about to drop atomic bombs on Hanoi.[80][81][30]:96–7 The exodus was coordinated by a U.S.-funded $93 million relocation program, which included the use of the Seventh Fleet to ferry refugees.[82] The northern, mainly Catholic refugees gave the later Ngô Đình Diệm regime a strong anti-communist constituency.[83]:238 Diệm staffed his government's key posts mostly with northern and central Catholics.

In addition to the Catholics flowing south, up to 174,000 "Revolutionary Regroupees" and their 86,000 dependents went to the north for "regroupment", expecting to return to the south within two years.[64]:98 The Viet Minh left roughly 5,000 to 10,000 cadres in the south as a base for future insurgency.[30]:104 The last French soldiers left South Vietnam in April 1956.[30]:116 The PRC completed its withdrawal from North Vietnam at around the same time.[59]:14

Between 1953 and 1956, the North Vietnamese government instituted various agrarian reforms, including "rent reduction" and "land reform", which resulted in significant political oppression. During the land reform, testimony from North Vietnamese witnesses suggested a ratio of one execution for every 160 village residents, which extrapolated resulted in an initial estimation of nearly 100,000 executions nationwide. Because the campaign was concentrated mainly in the Red River Delta area, a lower estimate of 50,000 executions became widely accepted by scholars at the time.[84]:143[85][86]:569[87] However, declassified documents from the Vietnamese and Hungarian archives indicate that the number of executions was much lower than reported at the time, although likely greater than 13,500.[88] In 1956, leaders in Hanoi admitted to "excesses" in implementing this program and restored a large amount of the land to the original owners.[30]:99–100

The south, meanwhile, constituted the State of Vietnam, with Bảo Đại as Emperor and Ngô Đình Diệm (appointed in July 1954) as his prime minister. Neither the United States government nor Ngô Đình Diệm's State of Vietnam signed anything at the 1954 Geneva Conference. With respect to the question of reunification, the non-communist Vietnamese delegation objected strenuously to any division of Vietnam, but lost out when the French accepted the proposal of Viet Minh delegate Phạm Văn Đồng,[89]:134 who proposed that Vietnam eventually be united by elections under the supervision of "local commissions".[89]:119 The United States countered with what became known as the "American Plan", with the support of South Vietnam and the United Kingdom.[89]:140 It provided for unification elections under the supervision of the United Nations, but was rejected by the Soviet delegation.[89]:140 The United States said, "With respect to the statement made by the representative of the State of Vietnam, the United States reiterates its traditional position that peoples are entitled to determine their own future and that it will not join in any arrangement which would hinder this".[89]:570–1 U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote in 1954:

"I have never talked or corresponded with a person knowledgeable in Indochinese affairs who did not agree that had elections been held as of the time of the fighting, possibly eighty percent of the population would have voted for the Communist Ho Chi Minh as their leader rather than Chief of State Bảo Đại. Indeed, the lack of leadership and drive on the part of Bảo Đại was a factor in the feeling prevalent among Vietnamese that they had nothing to fight for."

—  [90]

According to the Pentagon Papers, however, from 1954 to 1956 "Ngô Đình Diệm really did accomplish miracles" in South Vietnam: "It is almost certain that by 1956 the proportion which might have voted for Ho—in a free election against Diệm—would have been much smaller than eighty percent."[91] In 1957, independent observers from India, Poland, and Canada representing the International Control Commission (ICC) stated that fair, unbiased elections were not possible, with the ICC reporting that neither South nor North Vietnam had honored the armistice agreement.[92]

Ba Cut in Can Tho Military Court 1956, commander of religious movement the Hòa Hảo, which had fought against the Việt Minh, Vietnamese National Army and Cao Dai movement throughout the first war

From April to June 1955, Diệm eliminated any political opposition in the south by launching military operations against two religious groups: the Cao Đài and Hòa Hảo of Ba Cụt. The campaign also focused on the Bình Xuyên organized crime group, which was allied with members of the communist party secret police and had some military elements. As broad-based opposition to his harsh tactics mounted, Diệm increasingly sought to blame the communists.[15]:

In a referendum on the future of the State of Vietnam on 23 October 1955, Diệm rigged the poll supervised by his brother Ngô Đình Nhu and was credited with 98.2 percent of the vote, including 133% in Saigon. His American advisors had recommended a more modest winning margin of "60 to 70 percent." Diệm, however, viewed the election as a test of authority.[83]:224 Three days later, he declared South Vietnam to be an independent state under the name Republic of Vietnam (ROV), with himself as president.[30]: Likewise, Ho Chi Minh and other communist officials always won at least 99% of the vote in North Vietnamese "elections".[84]:193–94, 202–03, 215–17

Originating as a bandit group, the Bình Xuyên was a crime syndicate briefly aligned with the Việt Minh before allying with the French in exchange for control over large parts of Saigon. Headed by Bảy Viễn, it was defeated during the Battle of Saigon in 1955.

The domino theory, which argued that if one country fell to communism, then all of the surrounding countries would follow, was first proposed as policy by the Eisenhower administration.[73]:19 John F. Kennedy, then a U.S. senator, said in a speech to the American Friends of Vietnam: "Burma, Thailand, India, Japan, the Philippines and obviously Laos and Cambodia are among those whose security would be threatened if the Red Tide of Communism overflowed into Vietnam."[93]

Diệm era, 1954–1963


Map of insurgency and "disturbances", 1957 to 1960

A devout Roman Catholic, Diệm was fervently anti-communist, nationalist, and socially conservative. Historian Luu Doan Huynh notes that "Diệm represented narrow and extremist nationalism coupled with autocracy and nepotism."[73]:200–1 Most Vietnamese people were Buddhist, and they were alarmed by Diệm's actions, like his dedication of the country to the Virgin Mary.

Beginning in the summer of 1955, Diệm launched the "Denounce the Communists" campaign, during which suspected communists and other anti-government elements were arrested, imprisoned, tortured, or executed. He instituted the death penalty against any activity deemed communist in August 1956.[7] About 12,000 suspected opponents of Diệm were killed between 1955 and 1957, and by the end of 1958, an estimated 40,000 political prisoners had been jailed.[64]:89

U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles greet President Ngô Đình Diệm of South Vietnam in Washington, 8 May 1957

In May 1957, Diệm undertook a ten-day state visit to the United States. President Eisenhower pledged his continued support, and a parade was held in Diệm's honor in New York City. Although Diệm was publicly praised, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles privately conceded that Diệm had been selected because they could find no better alternative.[83]:230

Insurgency in the South, 1954–1960

Between 1954 and 1957, the Diệm government succeeded in quelling large-scale, disorganized dissidence in the countryside.[citation needed] In early 1957, South Vietnam enjoyed its first peace in over a decade. Incidents of political violence began to occur in mid-1957, but the government "did not construe it as a campaign, considering the disorders too diffuse to warrant committing major GVN [Government of Vietnam] resources."[citation needed] By early 1959, however, Diệm had come to regard the (increasingly frequent) disorders as an organized campaign and implemented Law 10/59, which made political violence punishable by death and property confiscation.[94] There had been some division among former Viet Minh whose main goal was to hold the elections promised in the Geneva Accords, leading to "wildcat" activities separate from the other communists and anti-GVN activists.[7]

In December 1960, the Viet Cong was formally created with the intent of uniting all anti-GVN activists, including non-communists. It was formed in Memot, Cambodia, and directed through a central office known as COSVN. According to the Pentagon Papers, the Viet Cong "placed heavy emphasis on the withdrawal of American advisors and influence, on land reform and liberalization of the GVN, on coalition government and the neutralization of Vietnam." The identities of the leaders of the organization often were kept secret.[7]

Support for the VC was driven by peasant resentment of Diem's reversal of land reforms in the countryside. Most of the population lived in countryside villages and strongly supported the reforms. In areas they controlled, the Viet Minh had confiscated large private landholdings, reduced rents and debts, and leased communal lands, mostly to the poorer peasants. Diem brought the landlords back to the villages. People who were farming land they had held for years now had to return it to landlords and pay years of back rent. This rent collection was enforced by the South Vietnamese army. The divisions within villages reproduced those that had existed against the French: "75 percent support for the NLF, 20 percent trying to remain neutral and 5 percent firmly pro-government".[95]:73

The Ho Chi Minh trail, known as the Truong Son Road by the North Vietnamese, cuts through Laos. This would develop into a complex logistical system which would allow the North Vietnamese to maintain the war effort despite the largest aerial bombardment campaign in history

In March 1956, southern communist leader Lê Duẩn presented a plan to revive the insurgency entitled "The Road to the South" to the other members of the Politburo in Hanoi; however, as both China and the Soviets opposed confrontation at this time, Lê Duẩn's plan was rejected.[59]:58 Despite this, the North Vietnamese leadership approved tentative measures to revive the southern insurgency in December 1956.[6] This decision was made at the 11th Plenary Session of the Lao Dong Central Committee. Communist forces were under a single command structure set up in 1958.[96]

The Ho Chi Minh trail required, on average, four months of rough-terrain travel for combatants from North Vietnam destined for the Southern battlefields.

The North Vietnamese Communist Party approved a "people's war" on the South at a session in January 1959,[30]:119–20 and, in May, Group 559 was established to maintain and upgrade the Ho Chi Minh trail, at this time a six-month mountain trek through Laos. About 500 of the "regroupees" of 1954 were sent south on the trail during its first year of operation.[97] The first arms delivery via the trail was completed in August 1959.[98] About 40,000 communist soldiers infiltrated the south from 1961 to 1963.[59]:76

Kennedy's escalation, 1961–1963

President Kennedy's news conference of 23 March 1961

In the 1960 U.S. presidential election, Senator John F. Kennedy defeated incumbent Vice President Richard M. Nixon. Although Eisenhower warned Kennedy about Laos and Vietnam, Europe and Latin America "loomed larger than Asia on his sights."[83]:264 In April 1961, Kennedy approved the Bay of Pigs Invasion and that invasion failed. In June 1961, he bitterly disagreed with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev when they met in Vienna to discuss key U.S.–Soviet issues. Only 16 months later, the Cuban Missile Crisis (16–28 October 1962) played out on television worldwide. It was the closest the Cold War came to escalating into a full-scale nuclear war, and the U.S. raised the readiness level of Strategic Air Command (SAC) forces to DEFCON 2.

The Kennedy administration remained essentially committed to the Cold War foreign policy inherited from the Truman and Eisenhower administrations. In 1961, the U.S. had 50,000 troops based in South Korea, and Kennedy faced four crisis situations: the failure of the Bay of Pigs Invasion that he had approved on 4 April,[99] settlement negotiations between the pro-Western government of Laos and the Pathet Lao communist movement in May ("Kennedy sidestepped Laos, whose rugged terrain was no battleground for American soldiers."[83]:265), the construction of the Berlin Wall in August, and the Cuban Missile Crisis in October. Kennedy believed that yet another failure to gain control and stop communist expansion would irreparably damage U.S. credibility. He was determined to "draw a line in the sand" and prevent a communist victory in Vietnam. He told James Reston of The New York Times immediately after his Vienna summit meeting with Khrushchev, "Now we have a problem making our power credible and Vietnam looks like the place."[100][101]

South Vietnam, Military Regions, 1967

Kennedy's policy toward South Vietnam assumed that Diệm and his forces had to ultimately defeat the guerrillas on their own. He was against the deployment of American combat troops and observed that "to introduce U.S. forces in large numbers there today, while it might have an initially favorable military impact, would almost certainly lead to adverse political and, in the long run, adverse military consequences."[102] The quality of the South Vietnamese military, however, remained poor. Poor leadership, corruption, and political promotions all played a part in weakening the ARVN. The frequency of guerrilla attacks rose as the insurgency gathered steam. While Hanoi's support for the Viet Cong played a role, South Vietnamese governmental incompetence was at the core of the crisis.[73]:369

One major issue Kennedy raised was whether the Soviet space and missile programs had surpassed those of the United States. Although Kennedy stressed long-range missile parity with the Soviets, he was also interested in using special forces for counterinsurgency warfare in Third World countries threatened by communist insurgencies. Although they were originally intended for use behind front lines after a conventional Soviet invasion of Europe, Kennedy believed that the guerrilla tactics employed by special forces such as the Green Berets would be effective in a "brush fire" war in Vietnam.

Kennedy advisors Maxwell Taylor and Walt Rostow recommended that U.S. troops be sent to South Vietnam disguised as flood relief workers.[103] Kennedy rejected the idea but increased military assistance yet again. In April 1962, John Kenneth Galbraith warned Kennedy of the "danger we shall replace the French as a colonial force in the area and bleed as the French did."[104] By November 1963, 16,000 American military personnel were stationed in South Vietnam.[30]:131

The Strategic Hamlet Program was initiated in late 1961. This joint U.S.–South Vietnamese program attempted to resettle the rural population into fortified camps. It was implemented in early 1962 and involved some forced relocation, village internment, and segregation of rural South Vietnamese into new communities where the peasantry would be isolated from the Viet Cong. It was hoped these new communities would provide security for the peasants and strengthen the tie between them and the central government. However, by November 1963 the program had waned, and it officially ended in 1964.[15]:1070

On 23 July 1962, fourteen nations, including China, South Vietnam, the Soviet Union, North Vietnam and the United States, signed an agreement promising to respect the neutrality of Laos.

Ousting and assassination of Ngô Đình Diệm

The inept performance of the ARVN was exemplified by failed actions such as the Battle of Ap Bac on 2 January 1963, in which a small band of Viet Cong won a battle against a much larger and better-equipped South Vietnamese force, many of whose officers seemed reluctant even to engage in combat.[105]:201–6 During the battle the South Vietnamese had lost 83 soldiers, 5 US war helicopters that had been shot down by Vietcong forces, while the Vietcong forces had lost only 18 soldiers. The ARVN forces were led by Diệm's most trusted general, Huỳnh Văn Cao, commander of the IV Corps. Cao was a Catholic who had been promoted due to religion and fidelity rather than skill, and his main job was to preserve his forces to stave off coup attempts; he had earlier vomited during a communist attack. Some policymakers in Washington began to conclude that Diệm was incapable of defeating the communists and might even make a deal with Ho Chi Minh. He seemed concerned only with fending off coups and had become more paranoid after attempts in 1960 and 1962, which he partly attributed to U.S. encouragement. As Robert F. Kennedy noted, "Diệm wouldn't make even the slightest concessions. He was difficult to reason with ..."[106] Historian James Gibson summed up the situation:

Strategic hamlets had failed ... The South Vietnamese regime was incapable of winning the peasantry because of its class base among landlords. Indeed, there was no longer a 'regime' in the sense of a relatively stable political alliance and functioning bureaucracy. Instead, civil government and military operations had virtually ceased. The National Liberation Front had made great progress and was close to declaring provisional revolutionary governments in large areas.[107]

Discontent with Diệm's policies exploded in May 1963 following the Huế Phật Đản shootings of nine unarmed Buddhists protesting against the ban on displaying the Buddhist flag on Vesak, the Buddha's birthday. This resulted in mass protests against discriminatory policies that gave privileges to the Catholic Church and its adherents over the Buddhist majority. Diệm's elder brother Ngô Đình Thục was the Archbishop of Huế and aggressively blurred the separation between church and state. Thuc's anniversary celebrations shortly before Vesak had been bankrolled by the government, and Vatican flags were displayed prominently. There had also been reports of Catholic paramilitaries demolishing Buddhist pagodas throughout Diệm's rule. Diệm refused to make concessions to the Buddhist majority or take responsibility for the deaths. On 21 August 1963, the ARVN Special Forces of Colonel Lê Quang Tung, loyal to Diệm's younger brother Ngô Đình Nhu, raided pagodas across Vietnam, causing widespread damage and destruction and leaving a death toll estimated to range into the hundreds.

ARVN forces capture a Viet Cong

U.S. officials began discussing the possibility of a regime change during the middle of 1963. The United States Department of State wanted to encourage a coup, while the Defense Department favored Diệm. Chief among the proposed changes was the removal of Diệm's younger brother Nhu, who controlled the secret police and special forces, and was seen as the man behind the Buddhist repression and more generally the architect of the Ngô family's rule. This proposal was conveyed to the U.S. embassy in Saigon in Cable 243.

Ngô Đình Diệm after being shot and killed in a coup on 2 November 1963

The CIA contacted generals planning to remove Diệm and told them that the United States would not oppose such a move nor punish the generals by cutting off aid. President Diệm was overthrown and executed, along with his brother, on 2 November 1963. When Kennedy was informed, Maxwell Taylor remembered that he "rushed from the room with a look of shock and dismay on his face."[83]:326 Kennedy had not anticipated Diệm's murder. The U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam, Henry Cabot Lodge, invited the coup leaders to the embassy and congratulated them. Ambassador Lodge informed Kennedy that "the prospects now are for a shorter war".[83]:327 Kennedy wrote Lodge a letter congratulating him for "a fine job".[108]

Following the coup, chaos ensued. Hanoi took advantage of the situation and increased its support for the guerrillas. South Vietnam entered a period of extreme political instability, as one military government toppled another in quick succession. Increasingly, each new regime was viewed by the communists as a puppet of the Americans; whatever the failings of Diệm, his credentials as a nationalist (as Robert McNamara later reflected) had been impeccable.[73]:328

Viet Cong fighters crossing a river

U.S. military advisors were embedded at every level of the South Vietnamese armed forces. They were however criticized for ignoring the political nature of the insurgency.[109] The Kennedy administration sought to refocus U.S. efforts on pacification- which in this case was defined as countering the growing threat of insurgency-[110][111] and "winning over the hearts and minds" of the population. The military leadership in Washington, however, was hostile to any role for U.S. advisors other than conventional troop training.[112] General Paul Harkins, the commander of U.S. forces in South Vietnam, confidently predicted victory by Christmas 1963.[75]:103 The CIA was less optimistic, however, warning that "the Viet Cong by and large retain de facto control of much of the countryside and have steadily increased the overall intensity of the effort".[113]

Paramilitary officers from the CIA's Special Activities Division trained and led Hmong tribesmen in Laos and into Vietnam. The indigenous forces numbered in the tens of thousands and they conducted direct action missions, led by paramilitary officers, against the Communist Pathet Lao forces and their North Vietnamese supporters.[114] The CIA also ran the Phoenix Program and participated in Military Assistance Command, Vietnam – Studies and Observations Group (MAC-V SOG), which was originally named the Special Operations Group, but was changed for cover purposes.[115]

Johnson's escalation, 1963–1969

President Kennedy was assassinated on 22 November 1963. Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson had not been heavily involved with policy toward Vietnam;[116][A 6] however, upon becoming president, Johnson immediately focused on the war. On 24 November 1963, he said, "the battle against communism ... must be joined ... with strength and determination."[118] Johnson knew he had inherited a rapidly deteriorating situation in South Vietnam,[119] but he adhered to the widely accepted domino theory argument for defending the South: Should they retreat or appease, either action would imperil other nations beyond the conflict.[120]

The military revolutionary council, meeting in lieu of a strong South Vietnamese leader, was made up of 12 members. This council was headed by General Dương Văn Minh, whom Stanley Karnow, a journalist on the ground, later recalled as "a model of lethargy".[83]:340 Lodge, frustrated by the end of the year, cabled home about Minh: "Will he be strong enough to get on top of things?" Minh's regime was overthrown in January 1964 by General Nguyễn Khánh.[83]:341 There was also persistent instability in the military, however, as several coups—not all successful—occurred in a short period of time.

In a statement similar to that made to the French almost two decades earlier, Ho Chi Minh warned that if the Americans "want to make war for twenty years then we shall make war for twenty years. If they want to make peace, we shall make peace and invite them to afternoon tea."[95]:172 Some have argued that the policy of North Vietnam was not to topple other non-communist governments in South East Asia.[73]:48

Gulf of Tonkin incident

On 2 August 1964, USS Maddox, on an intelligence mission along North Vietnam's coast, allegedly fired upon and damaged several torpedo boats that had been stalking it in the Gulf of Tonkin.[64]:124 A second attack was reported two days later on USS Turner Joy and Maddox in the same area. The circumstances of the attacks were murky.[30]:218–9 Lyndon Johnson commented to Undersecretary of State George Ball that "those sailors out there may have been shooting at flying fish."[121]

An undated NSA publication declassified in 2005 revealed that there was no attack on 4 August.[122]

Universal Newsreel film about the attack on the U.S. Army base in Pleiku and the U.S. response, February 1965

The second "attack" led to retaliatory airstrikes, and prompted Congress to approve the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution on 7 August 1964.[123]:78 The resolution granted the president power "to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression" and Johnson would rely on this as giving him authority to expand the war.[30]:221 In the same month, Johnson pledged that he was not "committing American boys to fighting a war that I think ought to be fought by the boys of Asia to help protect their own land".[30]:227

The National Security Council recommended a three-stage escalation of the bombing of North Vietnam. Following an attack on a U.S. Army base in Pleiku on 7 February 1965,[124] a series of airstrikes was initiated, Operation Flaming Dart, while Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin was on a state visit to North Vietnam. Operation Rolling Thunder and Operation Arc Light expanded aerial bombardment and ground support operations.[125] The bombing campaign, which ultimately lasted three years, was intended to force North Vietnam to cease its support for the Viet Cong by threatening to destroy North Vietnamese air defenses and industrial infrastructure. It was additionally aimed at bolstering the morale of the South Vietnamese.[126] Between March 1965 and November 1968, Rolling Thunder deluged the north with a million tons of missiles, rockets and bombs.[83]:468

Bombing of Laos

Ho Chi Minh awards a medal to Nguyễn Văn Cốc, who was claimed to have been responsible for downing 11 enemy aircraft.

Bombing was not restricted to North Vietnam. Other aerial campaigns, such as Operation Barrel Roll, targeted different parts of the Viet Cong and PAVN infrastructure. These included the Ho Chi Minh trail supply route, which ran through Laos and Cambodia. The ostensibly neutral Laos had become the scene of a civil war, pitting the Laotian government backed by the US against the Pathet Lao and its North Vietnamese allies.

Massive aerial bombardment against the Pathet Lao and PAVN forces were carried out by the US to prevent the collapse of the Royal central government, and to deny the use of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Between 1964 and 1973, the U.S. dropped two million tons of bombs on Laos, nearly equal to the 2.1 million tons of bombs the U.S. dropped on Europe and Asia during all of World War II, making Laos the most heavily bombed country in history relative to the size of its population.[127]

The objective of stopping North Vietnam and the Viet Cong was never reached. The Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force Curtis LeMay, however, had long advocated saturation bombing in Vietnam and wrote of the communists that "we're going to bomb them back into the Stone Age".[30]:328

The 1964 Offensive

ARVN Forces and a US Advisor inspect a downed helicopter, Battle of Dong Xoai, June 1965

Following the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, Hanoi anticipated the arrival of US troops and began expanding the Viet Cong, as well as sending increasing numbers of North Vietnamese personnel southwards. At this phase they were outfitting the Viet Cong forces and standardising their equipment with AK-47 rifles and other supplies, as well as forming the 9th Division.[30]:223[128] "From a strength of approximately 5,000 at the start of 1959 the Viet Cong's ranks grew to about 100,000 at the end of 1964 ... Between 1961 and 1964 the Army's strength rose from about 850,000 to nearly a million men."[109] The numbers for U.S. troops deployed to Vietnam during the same period were much lower: 2,000 in 1961, rising rapidly to 16,500 in 1964.[129] During this phase, the use of captured equipment decreased, while greater numbers of ammunition and supplies were required to maintain regular units. Group 559 was tasked with expanding the Ho Chi Minh trail, in light of the near constant bombardment by US warplanes. The war had begun to shift into the final, conventional warfare phase of Hanoi's three-stage protracted warfare model. The Viet Cong was now tasked with destroying the ARVN and capturing and holding areas; however, the Viet Cong was not yet strong enough to assault major towns and cities.

In December 1964, ARVN forces had suffered heavy losses at the Battle of Bình Giã,[130] in a battle that both sides viewed as a watershed. Previously, the VC had utilised hit-and-run guerrilla tactics. At Binh Gia, however, they had defeated a strong ARVN force in a conventional battle and remained in the field for four days.[131]:58 Tellingly, South Vietnamese forces were again defeated in June 1965 at the Battle of Đồng Xoài.[131]:94

American ground war

A Marine from 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines, moves a suspected Viet Cong during a search and clear operation held by the battalion 15 miles (24 km) west of Da Nang Air Base, 1965.

On 8 March 1965, 3,500 U.S. Marines were landed near Da Nang, South Vietnam.[30]:246–7 This marked the beginning of the American ground war. U.S. public opinion overwhelmingly supported the deployment.[132] The Marines' initial assignment was the defense of Da Nang Air Base. The first deployment of 3,500 in March 1965 was increased to nearly 200,000 by December.[73]:349–51 The U.S. military had long been schooled in offensive warfare. Regardless of political policies, U.S. commanders were institutionally and psychologically unsuited to a defensive mission.