The war pitted the communist government of North Vietnam against South Vietnam and its ally, the United States. The Cold War between the Soviet Union and US contributed to the tensions and conflict. The Vietnam War was a controversial action that ended up killing more than 3 million people, more than half of which were Vietnamese civilians. America lost 58,000. The war ended when communist forces seized control of South Vietnam in 1975. The following year, the country was unified as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. America saw a rise in social protests on the homefront.
Vietnam War Timeline (1887-1976)
France imposes colonial system over Vietnam, Cochin China and Cambodia, calling it French Indochina, Laos was added in 1893.
Soviets train Ho Chi Minh as an agent of the Communist International or Comitern.
French offer little resistance to invasion.
Japan carries out a coup and ends colonial era in the area. Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia are declared independent.
Japan is defeated and leaves a power vacuum in Indochina. France reasserts authority over Vietnam.
Ho Chi Minh models his declaration of independence on America's famous document in an unsuccessful bid to win US support.
Ho Chi Minh rejects France's offer of limited self-government, choosing guerrilla tactics instead.
President Harry Truman addresses Congress stating that the US should assist any country whose stability is threatened by communism. This foreign policy was known as the Truman Doctrine.
This served as a turning point in the cold war with the US.
Communist leader Mao Zedong creates the People's Republic of China following civil war in China.
Both China and the Soviet Union officially recognize the communist Democratic Republic of Vietnam and begin supplying the country's communist resistance fighters with economic and military support.
The Soviet Union and Communist China help the Viet Minh escalate their offensive against the French.
US steps up military assistance to France after recognizing the Viet Minh as a Communist threat.
Following a humiliating defeat at Dien Bien Phu, the French orders a cease fire. The battle lasted 55 days and killed 3,000 French troops and wounded another 8,000. The Viet Minh losses were worse (8,000 dead; 12,000 wounded). The French loss devastated the French resolve and they let Indochina fall.
US President Dwight D. Eisenhower says the fall of French Indochina could set up a Communist "domino" effect in Southeast Asia a threat. This theory guides US foreign policy for the next decade.
The Geneva Accords establish the boundaries of North and South Vietnam along the 17th parallel. The agreement also call for an election within two years to unify Vietnam under one democratic government. That condition was never met.
US backs Catholic nationalist Ego Dinh Diem as leader of South Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh runs the northern communist state.
A specialized North Vietnamese unit, Group 559, begins building a supply route from North Vietnam, through Laos and Cambodia to South Vietnam, with offshoots leading back into Vietnam along its entire length. The goal is to establish access to South Vietnam for guerrilla attacks. This supply route becomes known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail and work on it continues throughout the Vietnam War.
US soldiers are killed by guerrillas near Saigon in the first US deaths in the Vietnam Conflict.
With Ho Chi Minh in poor health, Le Duan is named head of North Vietnam's ruling communist party.
North Vietnam backs formation of the National Liberation Front (NLF) as the political wing of antigovernment insurgency in South Vietnam. The US identifies NLF as the face of North Vietnam and begins calling the NLF the Viet Cong, which stands for Vietnam Cong-san, a shortened version of Vietnam communists.
President John F. Kennedy sends helicopters and 400 "special advisor" Green Berets to South Vietnam. Kennedy authorizes secret operations against the Viet Cong and training of South Vietnamese soldiers in counter-insurgency measures. This expands into establishing the Civilian Irregular Defense Groups, tapping into the strength of the mountain men of South Vietnam called Montagnards. These groups set up fortified camps along the mountains to fight North Vietnamese incursions.
US helicopters and 400 US personnel charged with flying and maintaining the aircraft arrive at the docks in South Vietnam.
US aircraft begin spraying Agent Orange and other herbicides over rural areas of South Vietnam to kill vegetation that provides cover for insurgents.
US Army helicopters take 1,000 South Vietnamese soldiers to a North Vietnam stronghold near Saigon during the first US combat mission against the Viet Cong.
Ngo Dinh Diem, who showed extreme favor to South Vietnam's Catholic minority, which made him unpopular among Vietnamese Buddhists and the rest of the population, survives a bombing attempt on his life.
Viet Cong fighters defeat a much larger South Vietnamese force at Ap Bac, a village in the Mekong Delta, despite US technical and strategy assistance. It was a stunning victory for the Viet Cong.
The government of Ngo Dinh Diem opens fire on a crowd of Buddhist protestors in the city of Hue. Eight people are slain, including children. The incident becomes known as the "Buddhist Crisis."
A 73-year-old monk immolates himself in protest at a major city intersection, leading other Buddhist to follow suit. The US loses confidence in Diem.
The US backs a South Vietnam military coup against Diem. Both Diem and his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu are killed. For the next three years, South Vietnam goes through 12 separate governments, each ended by military coup.
President Kennedy is assassinated in Dallas and Lyndon B. Johnson assumes the presidency.
Two aircraft carriers arrive off the coast of Vietnam.
The US claim North Vietnamese patrol torpedo boats fire on the USS Maddox and two days later on the USS Turner Joy. These actions lead to the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, in which Congress gave authorization for military action by the US. Two US aircraft are shot down during air strikes on the Gulf and one pilot, Everett Alvarez Jr. is the first American taken prisoner by North Vietnam. There is some doubt whether the incident with the Maddox happened as reported.
The resolution authorizes the president to "take all necessary measures, including the use of armed force" against any aggressor in the conflict.
Viet Cong mortars shell Bien Hoa Air Base near Saigon, killing four Americans and wounding 76. Five B-57 bombers are destroyed in the action and 15 more are damaged.
The Soviet Union sends aircraft, artillery, ammunition, small arms, radar, air defense systems, food and medical supplies to North Vietnam.
The Viet Cong launch a series of attacks across South Vietnam. They take control of Binh Gia, a village located 40 miles from Saigon. Two hundred South Vietnamese troops are killed, along with five American advisors.
Viet Cong commandos attack a US helicopter base in the central highlands of South Vietnam. Nine Americans are killed and 70 wounded. President Johnson order US Navy bombers to attack North Vietnamese military targets.
US bombing raids target North Vietnam in retaliation for the raid on the US base in Pleiku and helicopter base Camp Holloway.
The Viet Cong place a bomb at a hotel in Qui Nonh. When it explodes it kills 23 American servicemen.
Johnson approves Operation Rolling Thunder, a bombing offensive aimed at forcing North Vietnam stop supporting Viet Song guerrillas in the South.
Operation Rolling Thunder was a three-year bombing campaign of targets in North Vietnam and along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
The first US combat troops enter Vietnam.
The US begins an attack campaign on North Vietnam's transport system. It was a month-long offensive that targeted bridges, roads and rail junctions, as well as supply depots.
The US offers North Vietnam economic aid for peace. They reject the offer and the US increases military presence in South Vietnam, including more than 60,000 troops. Allied forces from Korea and Australia join in to show international support.
The South Vietnamese provincial capital of Song Be is attacked by 2,500 Viet Cong troops. After two days of brutal battles, the Viet Cong retreat.
The South Vietnamese Army district headquarters and US Special Forces camp of Dong Xai is hit by a full Viet Cong regiment. US air attacks force the Viet Cong back.
General William Westmoreland launches the first offensive operation of the conflict. US ground forces enter NLF territory northwest of Saigon.
President Johnson requests an additional 50,000 ground troops and increases the draft to 35,000 each month.
A deserter from the Viet Cong leaks plans to the US about an imminent attack on the US Marine Base at Chu Lai. Approximately 5,500 US Marines attack the first Viet Cong Regiment in response. The battle lasted six days and scatters the Viet Cong. It was a US victory.
The North Vietnamese Army attacks Plei Mei, a US Special Forces camp. This spurs the Battle of La Drang Valley.
A Quaker from Baltimore, named Norman Morrison, immolates himself in front of the Pentagon in protest of the war. Bystanders convince him to release his 11-month-old-baby just moments before he sets himself ablaze.
Part of the 66th North Vietnamese Regiment that was to take part in the attack on Plei Mei met a US battalion on the way. A battle broke out. By the end of the fight, the US had suffered a 60 percent casualty rate with nearly one of every three soldiers dead. The US also had a new way of fighting. During the battle US ground troops arrived and withdrew via helicopter. This became the strategy of choice in the war. Both sides declared victory, though the Viet Cong were driven back to their bases in Cambodia.
Nearly 8,000 ground troops are deployed to capture the Viet Cong's headquarters in the Saigon region. It was reportedly in Chu Chi, but after the area is repeatedly patrolled and demolished, the US still cannot find the Viet Cong base. This was the largest operation of the war.
The US launch four search and destroy missions in February to force direct battles with the enemy. While the operation managed to create two minor battles, it failed to produce any significant engagements.
The Viet Cong 9th Division, 272nd Regiment attacks a US 3rd Brigade battalion at Lo Ke. The US manage to bomb the Viet Cong to retreat. Two days later the US 1st Brigade and a 173rd Airborne battalion is attacked. They manage to force a Viet Cong retreat with artillery fire.
The US sends in more than 5,000 troops accompanied by large numbers of helicopters and armored vehicles to sweep the area north of Saigon. The plan was to engage large number of Viet Cong and reduce the threat. But the Viet Cong remained elusive and by the end of the three week operation, only 100 Viet Cong were neutralized.
The North Vietnamese Army (NVA) cross the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and engage a US Marine battalion. The NVA holds its ground and the largest battle of the war breaks out by Dong Ha. The US sends in reinforcements of Marines backed by South Vietnamese troops. US warships use their heavy guns and US artillery and air power drive the NVA back across the line. The battle lasted three weeks.
The first air strikes on cities in North Vietnam begin.
Route 13 linked Vietnam to Cambodia. They attack US forces and the US takes heavy losses. US air and artillery support prevents a complete loss.
Known as "the Hill of Angels," Con Thien was far from heaven, but it was a key tactical position to protect a US staging area at Dong Ha. US Marines held this area two miles south of the DMZ against NVA attacks. During a sweep operation north of the base, US Marines are ambushed by NVA troops. Nearly 1,300 North Vietnamese troops are killed in heavy fighting by Con Thien. US Marines lost 86 and had 176 wounded. The US considered it a loss.
The US 196th Brigade along with 22,000 South Vietnamese troops launch aggressive search and destroy missions through Tay Ninh Province. They discover large caches of NLF supplies, but the NLF does not engage. There is no large-scale battle. After six weeks, the mission ends with approximately 1,000 Viet Cong dead and 150 Americans.
The Viet Cong prepares a new offensive. The 9th Division was rebuilt from supplies and reinforcements sent down the Ho Chi Minh trail.
By the end of 1966, there were 385,000 US forces in Vietnam, as well as 60,000 US sailors off shore. The US had lost 6,000 and 30,000 had been wounded. The Viet Cong had lost 61,000. But with reinforcements, the Viet Cong's numbers had grown to 280,000.
The North Vietnamese begin heavy bombardments of US bases south of the DMZ, including Khe Sanh, the Rockpile, Cam Lo, Dong Ha, Con Thien and Gio Linh.
The operation was intended to drive the Viet Cong from the Iron Triangle–a 60 square mile area between the SaigonRiver and Route 13. The US troops flood the area, but encounter little to no resistance. They capture huge stores of enemy supplies. The operation lasted 19 days, during which 72 Americans are killed by snipers and traps. The Viet Cong lose 720.
This was one of the largest air-mobile assaults ever attempted, aimed at easy pressure on Saigon. It began with 240 helicopters flying over Tay Ninh province. The goal was to destroy Viet Cong air bases and the military headquarters for South Vietnam. After 72 days, there are again no major battles, only success in capturing supplies and weapons.
US attacks on North Vietnamese airfields begin. By the end of 1967, only one of the Viet Cong's MiG bases had not been hit.
US air forces engage in heavy air battles over Hanoi and Haiphong. They shoot down 26 North Vietnamese jets, which removed half of their pilots from action.
US intercepts Viet Cong units coming into Vietnam from Cambodia. The nine day battle was a US victory. The North Vietnamese lost hundreds of soldiers.
The North Vietnamese arrest 200 senior officials for opposing the Tet strategy, as they build up for the offensive in Hanoi.
Nguyen Van Thieu wins the presidential election in South Vietnam, which is operating under a new constitution.
Both sides experience heavy losses in the worst battle in the Central Highlands region. Dak To is located 280 miles north of Saigon, near the Cambodian border. The US had approximately 4,500 servicemen, including ground and air troops. They faced off against 6,000 communist troops. It was a US victory with heavy losses. US casualties included 285 dead, 985 wounded and 18 missing.
Forces from the NVA initiated massive artillery bombardment of the US Marine garrison at Khe Sang, located near the Laos border. The battle would last 77 days. The Marines lost 90 percent of their artillery and mortar rounds. Johnson agreed with Westmoreland that the base should be held at all costs. The US launched Operation Niagara to bombard the NVA artillery. The siege ended with Operation Pegasus, which was a joint Army and Marine ground advance that broke the siege. The US focus during this battle was on the northern province allowing the Tet Offensive build up to go unnoticed.
On the lunar new year or Tet, 70,000 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces launched coordinated attacks on more than 100 cities and towns in South Vietnam, including Saigon and Hue. The US Embassy was invaded. The Tet Offensive was planned to break the South Vietnamese and inspire rebellion. The Viet Cong lost 37,000 troops in the operation and had even more wounded. It left more than half a million civilian refugees. The US lost 2,500 men, which is a huge blow to public support for the war. It marks a turning point for the US and the beginning of a gradual withdrawal from the country.
The US and South Vietnamese troops clear the Viet Cong from Hue and Saigon.
The US launches massive search and destroy missions to rout Viet Cong troops around Saigon and other parts of South Vietnam.
A company of American soldiers massacre more than 500 civilians, including women, children and old men, as part of the search-and-destroy missions in the area. An infantryman named Ron Ridenhour wrote a letter to President Nixon one year later about the atrocities. One member of the division is tried and found guilt of war crimes, but the aftermath affects the entire Army.
Following three weeks of quiet in the siege of Khe Sang, a surprise NVA attack hits the base. The bombardment includes 1,000 rounds fired at the rate of 100 per hour. The US responds with heavy bombing.
Johnson announces he will not be running for reelection because of public opposition to the war. He signs an order to stop bombing north of the 20th Parallel in North Vietnam.
US troops take Route 9 from the NVA and end the siege of Khe Sang.
The Army had changed tactics to highly mobile forces and the base is no longer needed for defense purposes. General Westmoreland approves abandoning and demolishing Khe Sanh.
After three-and-a-half years, Operation Rolling Thunder comes to an end. Throughout the operation, the US lost 900 aircraft, 818 pilots were dead or missing, and hundreds were in captivity.
Republican Richard M. Nixon wins the US presidential election on promises to end the draft and restore "law and order."
His goal is to achieve "Peace with Honor" by negotiating a settlement that would allow for withdrawal of the half million US troops while leaving South Vietnam intact.
Despite Johnson's restriction on bombing above the 20th Parallel, Nixon approves Operation Menu, which would bomb NVA and Viet Cong bases within Cambodia. For the next four years, the US will drop more than half a million tons of bombs on Cambodia.
The Viet Cong launches a massive offensive with assault teams and artillery attacks throughout South Vietnam. The US loses 1,140 Americans. Eventually, the US is victorious.
One mile from the Laos border, at Ap Bia Mountain, there was a peak known as Hill 937. There was no real tactical advantage to the mountain, but it became the target of Operation Apache Snow, a US sweep of the A Shau Valley. US paratroopers attack entrenched Viet Cong in an attempt to cut off troops from entering from Laos. The US took the hill temporarily after 10 assaults, but under heavy losses. The carnage is so bad, the journalists covering the battle dubbed it "Hamburger Hill."
President Nixon meets with South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu at Midway Island and announces that 25,000 US troops will be immediately withdrawn from the country.
This action prompts increased public protests and convinces some men to flee to Canada as "draft dodgers."
The Nixon administration gradually reduces US forces in South Vietnam, urging the South Vietnamese Army to take on the responsibility. US troops drop from its height of 549,000 to 69,000 in 1972.
US National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger begins secret peace negotiations with Hanoi Politburo member Le Duc Tho in Paris.
US bombs Cambodian targets for suspected communist base camps and supply zones. Nixon kept the operation secret because of Cambodia's neutrality. The New York Times revealed the operation on May 9, 1969.
National Guardsmen fire on anti-war demonstrators at Ohio's Kent State University. Four students are killed and nine wounded in the incident.
Congress repeals the Resolution to have more control over the President's actions in the war.
Three South Vietnamese divisions attack two enemy bases in Laos, trying to cut off the Ho Chi Minh Trail, not knowing it is a trap by the NVA. In one month, more than 9,000 South Vietnamese troops are killed or wounded and two-thirds of their armored vehicles are destroyed. They are forced to retreat.
Though Dioxin, a component of Agent Orange, was banned in the US in 1968, it was used in Vietnam until 1971. At least 11 million gallons of the herbicide was spread on South Vietnam, containing 240 pounds of Dioxin.
The New York Times publishes a series of articles revealing information from leaked Defense Department documents about the Vietnam war. The articles detailed how the US government had secretly been increasing the US involvement in the war. The articles came to be known as The Pentagon Papers.
The US has pulled out two-thirds of all US troops, leaving only 133,000 in place. Most of the war battles were being fought by the South Vietnamese Army.
The NVA launches the Easter Offensive against the South Vietnamese Army and remaining US troops. While the NVA gained some ground, it is not a wide-scale victory for them. Most of the fighting took place on the DMZ.
The NVA push toward the city of Hue, which was under South Vietnamese control. One week later, they are forced to turn back to resupply.
The NVA returns with tanks and seizes control of the northern section of Hue, but the South Vietnamese Army holds the rest of the city. American B-52 bombers assist in defending the city. One month later, the NVA withdraws.
NVA forces battle toward Quang Tri City against the South Vietnamese Army. The NVA forces a retreat and takes both cities by May 1.
The South Vietnamese attempt to take back the Binh Dinh province and its cities with support from US air forces. The battles last until September 15, when the South Vietnamese retreat. The province is destroyed, but ends up in enemy hands.
The Paris peace talks end.
As the US hands off fighting responsibilities to the South Vietnamese, the NVA begin launching traditional offensives. Operation Linebacker was the first full-scale bombing operation since the end of Rolling Thunder. There are two operations. They dropped 20,000 tons of bombs over Haiphong and Hanoi and lasted 12 days. The US lost 26 planes and 93 airmen are killed, captured or missing.
The Selective Service institutes an all-volunteer military.
President Nixon signs the Paris Peace Accords, with ends US involvement in the Vietnam War. All parties sign a cease fire.
North Vietnam returns 591 Prisoners of War in Operation Homecoming. The passenger lists out of Hanoi started with the man who had been imprisoned the longest. Almost 590 of the POWs were pilots, including future US Senator John McCain. There were 325 Air Force, 138 Navy, 77 Army and 26 Marines brought home. Seven were Medal of Honor recipients and 80 percent stayed in uniform following the war.
The last American combat soldiers leave South Vietnam, leaving military advisors and Marines who are protecting US installations. The war is officially over for the US.
The NVA is weak, but still manage to capture key areas of South Vietnam.
Gerald R. Ford becomes president and South Vietnam loses its strongest ally.
The NVA captures Dong Xoai.
The NVA takes Phuoc Long city and its province in a huge loss to South Vietnam. It is a blatant violation of the Paris Peace Agreement, but the US does not respond to the attack.
The NVA takes the Central Highlands of South Vietnam, leaving 60,000 South Vietnamese troops dead or missing.
NVA sends 100,000 soldiers to take the major cities of Quang Tri, Hue and Da Nang. It was an easy victory for them.
Five weeks from their first attack, the NVA has taken 12 provinces in South Vietnam. The South Vietnamese Army is decimated. Eight million people fall under North Vietnamese control.
As the Khmer Rouge communists advance on the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, Ford calls for an evacuation of all Americans.
While giving a speech at Tulane University, President Ford declares the Vietnam war is over for America.
US Marines and Air Force helicopters begin a massive airlift evacuation of 1,000 American civilians and almost 7,000 South Vietnamese refugees from Saigon. The evacuation takes 18 hours and 81 helicopters. The last helicopter left on the morning of April 30th.
The last Americans to die in the war were killed in a rocket attack on Saigon's Tan Son Nhut airport during the evacuation.
The war officially ends. In the preceding 15 years, nearly one million NVA and Viet Cong troops have died, as well as a quarter of a million South Vietnamese soldiers. Hundreds of thousands of civilians also have been killed.
Communist Cambodia captures the US merchant ship Mayaguez in international waters, which forces President Ford to order a US Marine rescue of the ship's crew. Though the civilian crew is saved, many Marines perish in the rescue. But the world takes note of America's strength and resolve when it comes to its citizens, despite its defeat in Vietnam.
The two sides are officially unified as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam under communist rule.
As Saigon is renamed to honor Ho Chi Minh, hundreds of thousands flee the country, including many who would be called "boat people."