Key dates and events in the Vietnam War
Following the Franco-Chinese War, French forces controlled the area, then called French Indochina. This lasted until their defeat in 1954, when Vietnam was divided at the 17th parallel into a non-communist south and a communist north.
Following the end of World War II, the Cold War began as a struggle between two nuclear powers—communist nations led by the Soviet Union, and democracies led by the United States. This led to what is known as a proxy war, where two powers use third parties as a supplement or a substitute for fighting each other directly. The first such conflict was the Korean War, which resulted in a divided country in 1953—communist North Korea and democratic South Korea.
The French were defeated at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu by the communist forces led by Ho Chi Minh. American President Dwight D. Eisenhower cited his “Domino Theory,”— a theory that if one Asian country fell under communist control, all of Asia would follow.
Vietnam split into two nations with the establishment of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam). President Ngo Dinh Diem pledged to prevent a communist takeover of the South. Ho Chi Minh led the Communist Party in the North.
President John F. Kennedy pledged support to South Vietnam but did not send large forces.
One month before Kennedy was assassinated, Ngo Dinh Diem, president of South Vietnam, was assassinated by generals within his own army. The U.S. backed the overthrow, and the South Vietnam government was replaced by a military dictatorship.
July — American warships were attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin. Congress gave President Lyndon B. Johnson almost unlimited military power to wage war against the Vietnamese communists in the north. Bombing began in North Vietnam.
President Johnson increased the number of American ground forces in Vietnam.
January — The North Vietnamese launched a massive offensive (known as the Tet Offensive). At this point, it became apparent to the United States that the war could not be won unless the full weight of America’s military was put into effect.
May — U.S. negotiations with North Vietnam began in Paris.
August — As U.S. casualties increased, so did opposition to the war. Massive anti-war demonstrations took place on U.S. college campuses. At the Democratic National Convention, violent protests were broadcast on national television.
Newly elected President Richard Nixon began the process of “Vietnamization,” a program that supported turning the war effort over to the South Vietnamese and withdrawing U.S. ground troops.
Nixon expanded the war into Laos and Cambodia in an effort to end supply routes to North Vietnam. This led to increased opposition to the war at home.
May 4 — Four college students were killed at Kent State in Ohio while protesting the expansion of U.S. forces into Southeast Asia.
The North Vietnamese Army launched what is known as the Easter Offensive, a massive artillery barrage targeting Quang Tri Province, close to the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon. During this offensive, the town of An Loc, approximately 40 miles north of Saigon, came under siege by North Vietnamese forces. Supplies were air dropped in as the city remained under siege for over two months.
The United States signed a treaty with North Vietnam and began to bring home troops and POWs as South Vietnam continued to fight.
April 30 — the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon fell to communist forces, unifying Vietnam and ending the war.
© 2005 J. Paul Getty Trust