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Vietnam War 101

An Overview of the Conflict

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The Vietnam War occurred in present-day Vietnam, Southeast Asia. It represented a successful attempt on the part of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam, DRV) and the National Front for the Liberation of Vietnam (Viet Cong) to unite and impose a communist system over the entire nation. Opposing the DRV was the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam, RVN), backed by the United States. The war in Vietnam occurred during the Cold War, and is generally viewed as an indirect conflict between the United States and Soviet Union, with each nation and its allies supporting one side.

Vietnam War - Causes of the Conflict

Viet Cong Attack
Three Lions - Stringer/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Vietnam War first began in 1959, five years after the division of the country by the Geneva Accords. Vietnam had been split into two, with a communist government in the north under Ho Chi Minh and a democratic government in the south under Ngo Dinh Diem. Ho launched a guerilla campaign in South Vietnam, led by Viet Cong units, with the goal of uniting the country under communist rule. The United States, seeking to stop the spread of communism, trained the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and provided military advisors to help combat the guerillas.

Vietnam War - Americanization of the War

Photograph Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration

In August 1964, a US warship was attacked by North Vietnamese torpedo boats in the Gulf of Tonkin. Following this attack, Congress passed the Southeast Asia Resolution which allowed President Lyndon Johnson to conduct military operations in the region without a declaration of war. On March 2, 1965, US aircraft began bombing targets in Vietnam and the first troops arrived. Commanded by General William Westmoreland, US troops won victories over Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces around Chu Lai and in the Ia Drang Valley that year.

Vietnam War - The Tet Offensive

Map Courtesy of the Central Intelligence Agency

Following these defeats, the North Vietnamese avoided fighting conventional battles and focused on engaging US troops in small unit actions in the sweltering jungles of South Vietnam. In January 1968, the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong launched the massive Tet Offensive. Beginning with an assault on US Marines at Khe Sanh, the offensive included attacks by the Viet Cong on cities throughout South Vietnam. Though the North Vietnamese were beaten back with heavy casualties, Tet shook the confidence of the American people and media who had thought the war was going well.

Vietnam War - Vietnamization

Photograph Courtesy of the US Air Force

As a result of Tet, President Lyndon Johnson opted not to run for reelection and was succeeded by Richard Nixon. Nixon's plan for ending US involvement was to build up the ARVN so that they could fight the war themselves. As this process of “Vietnamization” began, US troops started to return home. The mistrust of the government that had begun after Tet worsened with the release of news about US soldiers massacring civilians at My Lai (1969), the invasion of Cambodia (1970), and the leaking of the Pentagon Papers (1971).

Vietnam War - The End of the War & the Fall of Saigon

Photograph Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration

The withdrawal of US troops continued and more responsibility was passed to the ARVN, which continued to prove ineffective in combat, often relying on American support to stave off defeat. On January 27, 1974, a peace accord was signed in Paris ending the conflict. By March of that year, American combat troops had left the country. After a brief period of peace, North Vietnam recommenced hostilities in late 1974. Pushing through ARVN forces with ease, they captured Saigon on April 30, 1975, forcing South Vietnam’s surrender and reuniting the country.

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