If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

To log in and use all the features of Khan Academy, please enable JavaScript in your browser.

Course: US history   >   Unit 8

  • John F. Kennedy as president
  • Bay of Pigs Invasion
  • Cuban Missile Crisis
  • The Cuban Missile Crisis
  • Lyndon Johnson as president
  • Vietnam War
  • The Vietnam War
  • The student movement and the antiwar movement
  • Tools and Resources
  • Customer Services
  • 20th Century: Post-1945
  • 20th Century: Pre-1945
  • African American History
  • Antebellum History
  • Asian American History
  • Civil War and Reconstruction
  • Colonial History
  • Cultural History
  • Early National History
  • Economic History
  • Environmental History
  • Foreign Relations and Foreign Policy
  • History of Science and Technology
  • Labor and Working Class History
  • Late 19th-Century History
  • Latino History
  • Legal History
  • Native American History
  • Political History
  • Pre-Contact History
  • Religious History
  • Revolutionary History
  • Slavery and Abolition
  • Southern History
  • Urban History
  • Western History
  • Women's History
  • Share This Facebook LinkedIn Twitter

Article contents

The vietnam war and american military strategy, 1965–1973.

  • Gregory A. Daddis Gregory A. Daddis Department of History, United States Military Academy West Point
  • https://doi.org/10.1093/acrefore/9780199329175.013.239
  • Published online: 02 March 2015

For nearly a decade, American combat soldiers fought in South Vietnam to help sustain an independent, noncommunist nation in Southeast Asia. After U.S. troops departed in 1973, the collapse of South Vietnam in 1975 prompted a lasting search to explain the United States’ first lost war. Historians of the conflict and participants alike have since critiqued the ways in which civilian policymakers and uniformed leaders applied—some argued misapplied—military power that led to such an undesirable political outcome. While some claimed U.S. politicians failed to commit their nation’s full military might to a limited war, others contended that most officers fundamentally misunderstood the nature of the war they were fighting. Still others argued “winning” was essentially impossible given the true nature of a struggle over Vietnamese national identity in the postcolonial era. On their own, none of these arguments fully satisfy. Contemporary policymakers clearly understood the difficulties of waging a war in Southeast Asia against an enemy committed to national liberation. Yet the faith of these Americans in their power to resolve deep-seated local and regional sociopolitical problems eclipsed the possibility there might be limits to that power. By asking military strategists to simultaneously fight a war and build a nation, senior U.S. policymakers had asked too much of those crafting military strategy to deliver on overly ambitious political objectives. In the end, the Vietnam War exposed the limits of what American military power could achieve in the Cold War era.

  • counterinsurgency
  • limited war
  • Vietnam War
  • Westmoreland

Introduction

By mid-June 1951, the Korean War had settled into an uneasy, yet conspicuous stalemate. Having blunted North Korean and Chinese offensives that killed thousands of soldiers and civilians, the United Nations forces, now under command of General Matthew B. Ridgway, dug in as both sides agreed to open negotiations. Though the enemy had suffered heavily under the weight of allied ground and air power, Washington and its partners had little stomach to press northward. As the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff declared, the objective was to effect “an end to the fighting . . . and a return to the status quo.” 1 Thus, President Harry Truman’s decision in April to relieve General Douglas MacArthur—who in Ridgway’s words “envisaged no less than the global defeat of communism”—suggested that political limitations were now an intrinsic part of developing and implementing strategy in a time of war. Yet what was the purpose of war and strategy if not the complete destruction of enemy forces? In a time when men had “control of machines capable of laying a world to waste,” Ridgway believed escalation without restraint would lead to disaster. Civilian and military authorities had to set attainable goals and work closely in selecting the means to achieve them. 2

Ridgway’s admonitions forecast inherent problems in a Cold War period increasingly dubbed an era of “limited war.” In short, the very definition of wartime victory seemed in flux. An uncertain end to the fighting in Korea implied there were, in fact, substitutes to winning outright on the field of battle. Even if Korea demonstrated the successful application of communist containment, at least one student of strategy lamented that limited war connoted “a deliberate hobbling of tremendous power.” 3 A Manichean view of the Cold War, however, presented knotty problems for those seeking to confront seemingly expansion-minded communists without unintentionally escalating beyond some nuclear threshold. How could one fight a national war for survival against communism yet agree to negotiate an end to a stalemated war? Political scientist Robert Osgood, writing in 1957, judged there were few alternatives to contesting communists who themselves were limiting military force to “minimize the risk of precipitating total war.” For Osgood, the challenge was to think about contemporary war as more than simply a physical contest between opposing armies. “The problem of limited war is not just a problem of military strategy but is, more broadly, the problem of combining military power with diplomacy and with the economic and psychological instruments of power within a coherent national strategy that is capable of supporting the United States’ political objectives abroad.” 4

If Osgood was correct in suggesting that war required more than just an application of military power, then strategy—as a problem to be solved—entailed more than just battlefield expertise. Thus, the post–World War II generation of U.S. Army officers was forced to think about war more broadly. And they did. Far from being slaves to conventional operations, officers ascending the ranks in the 1950s to command in Vietnam understood the rising importance of local insurgency movements. As Andrew Birtle has persuasively argued, by 1965 the army had “succeeded in integrating counterinsurgency and counterguerrilla warfare in substantive ways into its doctrinal, educational, and training systems.” 5 An examination of contemporary professional journals such as Military Review reveals a military establishment wrestling with the problems of local economic and social development, the importance of community politics, and the role played by indigenous security forces. In truth, officers of the day, echoing the recommendations of Harvard professor Henry Kissinger, did not define limited wars in purely military terms. Rather, they perceived strategic problems as those involving changes in technologies, societies, and, perhaps most importantly, political ideas. 6

These same officers labored to devise a coherent strategy for a limited contest in Southeast Asia within the larger construct of the Cold War. In an important sense, the development of strategy for all combatants necessitated attention to multiple layers, all interlaced. As Lyndon Johnson recalled of Vietnam in his 1971 memoir, “It was a political war, an economic war, and a fighting war—all at the same time.” 7 Moreover, American political and military leaders found that Cold War calculations mattered just as much as the fighting inside South Vietnam. Fears of appearing weak against communism compelled the Johnson White House to escalate in 1965 when it looked like Hanoi was making its final bid for Indochinese domination. As Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara told a journalist in April, if the United States withdrew from Vietnam “there would be a complete shift of world power. Asia goes Red, our prestige and integrity damaged, allies everywhere shaken.” Thus, paraphrasing military theorist Basil Liddell Hart, policy imperatives at the level of grand strategy would set the foundations for—and later circumscribe—the application of military strategy on a lower plane. 8

Liddell Hart’s council that strategy involved more than “fighting power” would lead American officers in Vietnam into a near insolvable dilemma. Clearly, the civil war inside Vietnam was more than just a military problem. Yet in the quest to broaden their conception of war, to consider political and social issues as much as military ones, senior leaders developed a strategy that was so wide-ranging as to be unmanageable. Rather than a narrow focus on enemy attrition, sheer comprehensiveness proved to be a crucial factor undermining American strategy in Vietnam. In attempting to both destroy an adversary and build a nation, uniformed leaders overestimated their capacity to manage a conflict that had long preceded American involvement. A near unquestioning faith in the capacity to do everything overshadowed any unease with entanglement in a civil war rooted in competing notions of national liberation and identity. 9 In the end, senior U.S. policymakers had asked too much of those crafting military strategy to deliver on overly ambitious political objectives.

Devising Strategy for a New Kind of War

By June 1965, General William C. Westmoreland had been serving in the Republic of Vietnam for eighteen months. As the newly appointed commander of the U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), the former West Point superintendent was heir to a legacy of varied strategic initiatives aimed at sustaining an independent, noncommunist foothold in Southeast Asia. Since the division of Vietnam along the seventeenth parallel in 1954, an American military assistance and advisory group (MAAG) had been training local forces for a threat both externally military and internally political. 10 The image of North Korean forces streaming across an international boundary in 1950 surely weighed heavily on U.S. officers. Yet these same men understood the importance of a steady economy and secure social structure in combating the growing insurgent threat inside South Vietnam. Consequently, the U.S. advisory group focused on more than just advising the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam (ARVN) for conventional operations against the North Vietnam Army (NVA). 11

As advisers, however, the Americans could not dictate strategy to their Vietnamese allies. President Ngo Dinh Diem, struggling to gain popular support for his own social revolution, equally sought ways to secure the population—through programs like agrovilles and strategic hamlets—from a rising communist insurgency. Yet achieving consensus with (and between) Americans proved difficult. Staff officers debated how best to balance economic and political development with population security and the training of South Vietnamese forces. 12 Was the threat more military or political, more external or internal? Were local paramilitary forces or the conventional army better suited to dealing with these threats? All the while, a shadow government competed for influence within the countryside. When MACV was established in February 1962, its chief, Paul D. Harkins, received the mission to “assist and support the Government of South Vietnam in its efforts to provide for its internal security, defeat Communist insurgency, and resist overt aggression.” 13 Here was a tall order. Moreover, as military operations required a solid political footing for ultimate success, an unstable Saigon government further complicated American strategic planning. Following Diem’s overthrow and death in November 1963, the foundations on which the U.S. presence in South Vietnam rested appeared shaky at best. Hanoi’s own escalation in 1964 did little to assuage concern. 14

Though cognizant of the difficulties ahead, American leaders felt they had little choice but to persevere in South Vietnam. By early 1965, with the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution authorizing him to “take all necessary steps, including the use of armed force” to assist South Vietnam, President Johnson believed he had little alternative but to escalate. He was in a difficult position. Hoping to preserve his domestic agenda but stand strong against communist aggression, Johnson initially hesitated on committing ground troops. Instead, he turned to airpower. Operation Rolling Thunder, launched in early March 1965, aimed at eliminating Hanoi’s support of the southern insurgency. Concurrently, Johnson hoped, in Michael Hunt’s words, to “bring a better life to the people of Vietnam—on American terms.” 15 The president would be disappointed on both counts. The punitive bombing of North Vietnam did little to interfere with Hanoi’s support of the insurgents and nothing to resolve the internal political problems of South Vietnam. Moreover, military leaders complained that the president’s gradual response, of limiting the tempo and ferocity of the air campaign, unduly limited American military might. (Few worried as restlessly as Johnson about full-blown Chinese or Soviet intervention.) By the spring, it became clear the president’s policies in South Vietnam were failing. In June, Westmoreland officially requested additional troops “as a stop-gap measure to save the ARVN from defeat.” 16

The decision to escalate in Vietnam persists as one of the most controversial in twentieth-century American foreign policy. Competing interpretations revolve around the question of purpose. Was escalation chosen as a matter of policy, of containing communism abroad? Was it used as a way to test American capacity in nation-building, of expanding democracy overseas? Or did escalation flow from concerns about prestige and credibility, both national and political? Clearly Johnson considered all these matters in the critical months of early 1965, and it is plausible to argue that the president believed he had few alternatives given reports of South Vietnam being on the verge of collapse. Yet ultimately intervention was a matter of choice. 17 Johnson feared the political ramifications and personal consequences of “losing” Vietnam just as Truman had “lost” China. Thus, when Westmoreland sent a cable to the Pentagon in early June requesting 40,000 combat troops immediately and more than 50,000 later, hasty deliberations in the White House led to support for MACV’s appeal. As McNamara later recalled, “South Vietnam seemed to be crumbling, with the only apparent antidote a massive injection of US troops.” 18

The task now fell to Westmoreland to devise an offensive strategy to use these troops. Realizing Hanoi had committed regular army regiments and battalions to South Vietnam, the MACV commander believed he had no choice but to contest this conventional threat. But he also had to provide security “from the guerrilla, the assassin, the terrorist and the informer.” 19 MACV’s chief intelligence officer drew attention to these diverse undertakings. As Phillip B. Davidson recalled, Westmoreland “had not one battle, but three to fight: first, to contain a growing enemy conventional threat; second, to develop the Republic of Vietnam’s Armed Forces (RVNAF); and third, to pacify and protect the peasants in the South Vietnamese countryside. Each was a monumental task.” 20 Far from being wedded to a battle-centric strategy aimed at racking up high body counts, Westmoreland developed a comprehensive campaign plan for employing his forces that factored in more than just killing the enemy.

Stabilization and security of South Vietnam formed the bedrock of Westmoreland’s “three-phase sustained campaign.” Phase I visualized the commitment of U.S. and allied forces “necessary to halt the losing trend by 1965.” Tasks included securing allied military bases, defending major political and population centers, and strengthening the RVNAF. In Phase II, Westmoreland sought to resume the offensive to “destroy enemy forces” and reinstitute “rural construction activities.” In this phase, aimed to begin in 1966, American forces would “participate in clearing, securing, reserve reaction and offensive operations as required to support and sustain the resumption of pacification.” Finally, in Phase III, MACV would oversee the “defeat and destruction of the remaining enemy forces and base areas.” It is important to note that Westmoreland’s plan included the term “sustained campaign.” 21 The general was under no illusions that U.S. forces were engaged in a war of annihilation aimed at the rapid destruction of the enemy. Attrition suggested that a stable South Vietnam, capable of resisting the military and political pressures of both internal and external aggressors, would not arise in a matter of months or even a few years.

Hanoi’s political and military leaders equally debated the strategic concerns of time, resources, and capabilities. Johnson’s decision to commit U.S. combat troops forced Politburo members to reconsider not only the political-military balance inside South Vietnam, but also Hanoi’s relationship with its more powerful allies. To be sure, national communists like Vo Nguyen Giap had discussed the role of a “long-term revolutionary war” strategy and the importance of political education in military training. 22 By 1965, however, the massive American buildup complicated strategic deliberations. In December, Hanoi’s leadership, increasingly under the sway of First Secretary Le Duan, promulgated Lao Dong Party Resolution 12, which outlined a basic strategy to defeat the Americans “under any circumstances.” The resolution placed greater emphasis on the military struggle as domestic priorities in the North receded into the background. As a result, Le Duan battled with senior military officials like Giap over the pace of military operations and the building of forces for a general offensive against the southern “puppets.” Escalation proved challenging for both sides. 23

The strategic decision making leading to American intervention in Vietnam illustrates the difficulties of developing and implementing strategy for a postcolonial conflict in the nuclear era. Even from Hanoi’s perspective, strategy was not a straightforward process. A sense of contingency, of choices, and of action and reaction permeate the critical years leading to 1965. Why Johnson chose war, and the restrictions he imposed on the conduct of that war, remain contentious questions. So too do inquiries into the nature of the threat that both Americans and their South Vietnamese allies faced. Finally, the relationship between political objectives and the strategy devised to accomplish those objectives offers valuable instruction to those researching the faith in, and limitations of, American power abroad during the Cold War. 24

From Escalation to Stalemate

In March 1965, the first contingent of U.S. Marines landed at Da Nang in Quang Nam province. Their mission, to defend American airbases supporting the bombing campaign against North Vietnam, called for setting up three defensive “enclaves” at Phu Bai, Da Nang, and Chu Lai. As the summer progressed and additional army units arrived in country, Westmoreland sought authorization to expand beyond his airfield security mission. If South Vietnam was to survive, the general needed to have “a substantial and hard-hitting offensive capability . . . with troops that could be maneuvered freely.” 25 With the growing recognition that Rolling Thunder was not achieving desired results, the Pentagon gave Westmoreland the green light. The MACV commander’s desires stemmed largely from his perception of the enemy. To the general, the greatest threat to South Vietnam came not from the National Liberation Front (NLF) insurgency but rather from main force units, both NLF and NVA. Westmoreland appreciated the long-term threat insurgents posed to Saigon, but he worried that since the enemy had committed larger combat units to battle, he ignored them at his peril. 26

The Americans thus undertook offensive operations to provide a shield for the population, one behind which ARVN could promote pacification in the countryside. By early October, the U.S. 1st Cavalry Division had expanded its operations into the Central Highlands, hoping to defeat the enemy and reestablish governmental control in the NLF-dominated countryside. Hanoi, however, had continued its own buildup and three North Vietnam Army regiments had joined local forces in Pleiku province near the Cambodian border. In mid-November, the cavalry’s lead battalion, using new techniques of helicopter insertion onto the battlefield, collided with the NVA. For two days the battle raged. Only the employment of B-52 strategic bombers, called in for close air support, staved off defeat. The battle of Ia Drang clearly demonstrated the necessity of conventional operations—Westmoreland could not risk NVA regiments controlling the critical Highway 19 and thus cutting South Vietnam in two. But the clash raised important questions as well. Was Ia Drang an American victory? Would such battles truly impact Hanoi’s will? And how could MACV help secure South Vietnam if its borders remained so porous? 27

Despite the attention Ia Drang drew—Westmoreland publicly called it an “unprecedented victory”—revolutionary development and nonmilitary programs never strayed far from MACV’s sights. Westmoreland continued to stress psychological operations and civic action, even in the aftermath of Ia Drang. In December, he wrote the 1st Infantry Division’s commander detailing how the buildup of forces should allow for an increased emphasis on pacification: “I am inviting this matter to your personal attention since I feel that an effective rural construction program is essential to the success of our mission.” 28 Unfortunately, these early pacification efforts seemed to be making little progress as Hanoi continued infiltrating troops into South Vietnam and desertions from the South Vietnamese armed forces rose sharply. 29 Accordingly, Westmoreland requested an additional 41,500 troops. Further deployments might be necessary. The request staggered the secretary of defense, who now realized there would be no rapid conclusion to the war. “The U.S. presence rested on a bowl of jelly,” McNamara recalled. His doubts, however, were not forceful enough to derail the president’s commitment to a secure, stable, and noncommunist South Vietnam. 30

When American and South Vietnamese leaders met at Honolulu in early February 1966, Johnson publicly reaffirmed that commitment. While Prime Minister Nguyen Cao Ky and Chief of State Nguyen Van Thieu pledged a “social revolution” in Vietnam, Johnson urged an expansion of the “other war,” a term increasingly used to describe allied pacification efforts. 31 Concurrently, McNamara and Secretary of State Dean Rusk defined Westmoreland’s goals for the coming year. MACV would increase the South Vietnamese population living in secure areas by 10 percent, multiply critical roads and railroads by 20 percent, and increase the destruction of NLF and NVA base areas by 30 percent. To make sure the president’s directives were not ignored, Westmoreland was to augment the pacified population by 235,000 and ensure the defense of political and population centers under government control. The final goal directed MACV to “attrite, by year’s end, VC/PAVN forces at a rate as high as their capability to put men in the field.” 32

The Honolulu conference is a critical episode for understanding American military strategy in Vietnam. The comprehensive list of strategic objectives presented by Rusk and McNamara forced American commanders to consider the war as an effort in both construction and destruction. The conference also reinforced the necessity of thinking about strategy in broader terms than simply battle. Attrition of enemy forces was only part of a much larger whole. In one sense, pacification of the countryside was a process of trying to create political space so the government of South Vietnam (GVN) could stabilize. (The New York Times reported in April that a “crisis in Saigon” was snagging U.S. efforts.) Yet MACV’s own definition of pacification—“the military, political, economic, and social process of establishing or re-establishing local government responsive to and involving the participation of the people”—seemed problematic. 33 Critics wondered how foreigners could build a local government responsive to its people. Furthermore, the expansive nature of pacification meant U.S. troops would be asked to fight an elusive enemy while implementing a whole host of nonmilitary programs. Thus, while Westmoreland and senior commanders emphasized the importance of winning both control over and support of the Vietnamese people, American soldiers wrestled with building a political community in a land long ravaged by war. That they themselves too often brought devastation to the countryside hardly furthered the goals of pacification. 34

In important ways, waging battle—a necessity given Le Duan’s commitment to a general offensive in South Vietnam—undermined U.S. nation-building efforts in 1966 and underscored the difficulties of coordinating so many strategic actors. This management problem long had been a concern of counterinsurgency theorists. British adviser Sir Robert Thompson, a veteran of the Malayan campaign, articulated the need to find a “proper balance between the military and the civil effort, with complete coordination in all fields. Otherwise a situation will arise in which military operations produce no lasting results because they are unsupported by civil follow-up action.” 35 The reality of South Vietnam bore out Thompson’s claims. Worried about Saigon’s political collapse, American war managers too often focused on short-term, military results. The decentralized nature of strategic implementation equally made it difficult to weave provincial franchises into a larger national effort. 36

This lack of coordination led to pressures for a “single-manager” to coordinate the increasingly vast American enterprise in South Vietnam. (By the end of 1966, more than 385,000 U.S. military personnel alone were serving in country.) In May, Westmoreland incorporated a new directorate into his headquarters—Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support. While ostensibly a South Vietnamese program, CORDS redefined the allied pacification mission. 37 The directorate’s head, Ambassador Robert W. Komer, threw himself into the management problem and assigned each senior U.S. military adviser a civilian deputy for revolutionary development. MACV now provided oversight for all of the allied pacification-related programs: “territorial security forces, the whole RD effort, care and resettlement of refugees, the Chieu Hoi (“Open Arms,” or amnesty) program to bring VC [Vietcong] to the GVN side, the police program, the attempts to stimulate rural economic revival, hamlet schools, and so on.” 38 In short, CORDS assumed full responsibility for pacification.

If CORDS could be viewed as a microcosm of Westmoreland’s comprehensive strategy, it also underscored the difficulties of implementing so many programs at once. Physically controlling the population did not guarantee allied forces were making inroads against the insurgency’s political infrastructure. Improved security conditions did not necessarily win civilian “hearts and minds.” Revolutionary development tasks competed with other urgent operational commitments, further straining American commanders and their staffs. More importantly, pacification required a deeper appreciation of Vietnamese culture than most Americans possessed. 39 Senior officers labored to balance the competing requirements of attacking enemy units and performing civic action in the hamlets and villages. On the ground, many American soldiers made few distinctions between friend and foe when operating in the countryside. The army’s personnel rotation policy, under which individual soldiers served for twelve months before returning home, only exacerbated these problems. With some units experiencing a 90 percent personnel turnover within a three-month period, the pacification process was erratic at best. 40

As 1967 wore on, American journalists increasingly used words like “stalemate” and “quagmire” to describe the war in Vietnam. Early-year operations like Cedar Falls and Junction City, though inflicting heavy damage on the enemy, failed to break Hanoi’s will. At most, pacification was yielding modest results. Political instability in Saigon continued to worry U.S. embassy officials. Both the White House and MACV thus found it ever more difficult to convince Americans at home that their sacrifices were generating results. 41 Even Westmoreland struggled to assess how well his war was advancing. Body counts told only a fraction of the story. A lack of fighting in a certain district could either mean the area was pacified or the enemy was in such control that battle was unnecessary. Two years into the war, American soldiers remained unsure of their progress. (MACV and the CIA even debated the number of soldiers within the enemy’s ranks.) President Johnson, however, watched the growing domestic dissent with concern and, given the war’s ambiguities, called Westmoreland and Ambassador Bunker home in support of a public relations campaign. In three appearances in 1967 MACV’s commander reported to national audiences his views on the ongoing war. Though guarded in his commentary, Westmoreland’s tone nonetheless was optimistic given the president’s desires to disprove claims of a stalemated war. 42

Hanoi’s political and military leaders similarly deliberated their own progress in 1967. Because of the American imperialists’ “aggressive nature,” the Politburo acknowledged the southern insurgency campaign had stalemated in the countryside. Still, to Le Duan in particular, an opportunity existed. A strategic offensive might break the impasse by instigating a popular uprising in the South, thus weakening the South Vietnamese–American alliance and forcing the enemy to the negotiating table. A southern uprising might well convince the international community that the United States was unjustly fighting against an internally led popular revolution. More importantly, a military defeat of the Americans, real or perceived, might change the political context of the entire conflict. 43

During the plan’s first phase, to be executed in late 1967, NVA units would conduct conventional operations along South Vietnam’s borders to draw American forces away from urban areas and to facilitate NLF infiltration into the cities. Le Duan planned the second phase for early 1968, a coordinated offensive by insurgent and regular forces to attack allied troops and support popular uprisings in the cities and surrounding areas. Additional NVA units would reinforce the uprising in the plan’s final phase by assaulting American forces and wearing down U.S. military strength in South Vietnam. 44

Though Le Duan’s desired popular uprising failed to materialize, the general offensive launched in late January 1968 shocked most Americans, especially those watching the war at home. Commencing during the Tet holiday, communist forces attacked more than 200 cities, towns, and villages across South Vietnam. Though not completely surprised, Westmoreland had not anticipated the ability of Hanoi to coordinate an offensive of such size and scope. The allies, however, reacted quickly and the communists suffered mightily under the weight of American and South Vietnamese firepower. Yet the damage to the U.S. position in Vietnam, some argued irreparable, had been done. Even in the offensive’s first hours, senior CIA analyst George Carver predicted that “the degree of success already achieved in Saigon and around the country will adversely affect the image of the GVN (and its powerful American allies as well) in the eyes of the people.” 45 Indeed, Tet had taken a heavy psychological toll on the population. After years of U.S. assistance, the Saigon government appeared incapable of securing the country against a large-scale enemy attack. Any claims of progress seemed artificial at best, intentionally deceitful at worst.

News reports about Westmoreland’s late-February request for an additional 206,000 men, followed soon after by the president’s decision not to run for reelection, only reinforced perceptions of stalemate. Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford, who replaced McNamara in early March, wondered aloud how MACV was winning the war yet needed more troops. Public opinion mirrored growing doubts within Johnson’s inner circle. A 10 March Gallup poll found only 33 percent of Americans believed the United States was making progress in the war. Thus, Johnson approved only 10,500 additional troops for Westmoreland and in late March suspended all air attacks over North Vietnam in hopes of opening talks with Hanoi. If the 1968 Tet offensive was not an outright turning point of the war—many historians still consider it to be—Hanoi’s assault and Washington’s response brought about a shift in American policy and strategic goals. Westmoreland, hoping for a change in strategy that would expand operations into the Cambodian and Laotian sanctuaries and thus shorten the war, instead received word in late spring that he would be leaving Vietnam to become the Chief of Staff of the Army. The best the general had been able to achieve was a long and bloody stalemate. 46

Historians have seized upon the Tet offensive and mid-1968 impasse as proof of a misguided military strategy crafted by a narrow-minded general who cared only for piling up high body counts. Such arguments should be considered with care. Far from being focused only on military operations against enemy main force units, Westmoreland instead crafted a strategy that took into account the issues of pacification, civic action, land reform, and the training of South Vietnamese units. If Tet illustrated anything, it was that battlefield successes—both military and nonmilitary—did not translate automatically into larger political outcomes. Despite the wealth of manpower and resources Americans brought to South Vietnam, they could not solve Saigon’s underlying political, economic, and social problems. Moreover, Westmoreland’s military strategy could not answer the basic questions over which the war was fought. In a contest over Vietnamese national identity in the postcolonial era, the U.S. mission in South Vietnam could only keep Saigon from falling to the communists. It could not convince the people a better future lay with an ally, rather than an enemy, of the United States.

From Stalemate to Withdrawal

In June 1968, Creighton W. Abrams, a West Point classmate of Westmoreland, assumed command of MACV. Only a month before, the enemy launched a series of new attacks in South Vietnam. Dubbed “mini-Tet,” the offensive sputtered out quickly but produced 125,000 new refugees inside a society already heavily dislocated by years of fighting. Reporters were quick to highlight the differences between the outgoing and incoming commanders. But Abrams, in Andrew Birtle’s words, differed from Westmoreland “more in emphasis than in substance.” Stressing a “one war” concept that viewed the enemy as a political-military whole, the new commander confronted familiar problems. As one officer recalled, “By the time Abrams arrived on the scene, there were few options left for changing the character of the war.” 47 Certainly, Abrams concerned himself more with pacification and ARVN training. These programs rose in importance, though, not because of some new strategic concept, but rather because the American phase of the war had largely run its course. From this point forward, the war’s outcome would increasingly rest on the actions of the Vietnamese, both North and South. While U.S. officials remained committed to an independent, noncommunist Vietnam, peace had replaced military victory as Americans’ principal national objective. 48

The inauguration of Richard M. Nixon in January 1969 underscored the diminishing role of South Vietnam in American foreign policy. The new president hoped to concentrate on his larger aim of improving relations with China and the Soviet Union. Such foreign policy designs hinged on reversing the “Americanization” of the war in Southeast Asia while fortifying South Vietnam to withstand future communist aggression. As Nixon’s national security advisor Henry Kissinger recalled, the challenge was to withdraw American forces “as an expression of policy and not as a collapse.” 49 Of course, Nixon, still the Cold War warrior, remained committed to opposing the expansion of communism. Withdrawal from Vietnam thus required maintaining an image of strength during peace negotiations if the United States was to retain credibility as a world power and a deterrent to communist expansion. Nixon’s goal of “peace with honor” thus would hold crucial implications for military strategists inside Vietnam. 50

In truth, Nixon’s larger policy goals complicated the process of de-Americanizing the war, soon dubbed “Vietnamization” by Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird. In shifting more of the war’s burden to the South Vietnamese, the president was quietly redefining success. Realizing, in Nixon’s words, that “total military victory was no longer possible,” the new administration sought a “fair negotiated settlement that would preserve the independence of South Vietnam.” 51 (Both Nixon and Laird believed flagging domestic support was limiting their options, long a concern of senior policymakers.) Abrams would preside over an American war effort increasingly concerned with reducing casualties while arranging for U.S. troop withdrawals. Moreover, the impending American departure did little to settle unresolved questions over the most pressing threat to South Vietnam. In preparing to hand over the war, should Americans be training the ARVN to defeat conventional North Vietnamese forces or a battered yet resilient insurgency? 52

After a detailed examination of the war led by Kissinger, Nixon formulated a five-point strategy “to end the war and win the peace.” The new policy depended first on pacification, redefined as “meaningful continuing security for the Vietnamese people.” Nixon also sought diplomatic isolation of North Vietnam and placed increasing weight on negotiations in Paris. Gradual withdrawal of U.S. forces was the fourth aspect of Nixon’s strategy. As the president recalled, “Americans needed tangible evidence that we were winding down the war, and the South Vietnamese needed to be given more responsibility for their defense.” (Some ARVN officers balked at the insinuation that they hadn’t been responsible for their nation’s security.) The final element, Vietnamization, aimed at training and equipping South Vietnam’s armed forces so they could defend the country on their own. Of note, political reform in Saigon, largely a task for Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker, accompanied the military side of Vietnamization. “Our whole strategy,” Nixon declared, “depended on whether this program succeeded.” 53

For Abrams, the problem now became one of synchronizing all facets of his “one war” approach. Back in August 1968, MACV had to fend off another enemy offensive, the third of the year. Without retreating from the conventional threat, Abrams turned increasing attention to pacification. Under the influence of the new CORDS chief William Colby, the GVN initiated an Accelerated Pacification Campaign at year’s end. The campaign endeavored to upgrade 1,000 contested hamlets to relatively secure ratings by the end of January 1969. To provide political space for the Saigon government, U.S. military operations increased dramatically to keep the enemy off balance, further depopulating the countryside and creating more refugees. 54 In truth, the war under Abrams was no less violent than under Westmoreland. Still, the new MACV chief hoped to cut into the NLF infrastructure by boosting the number of those who would rally to Saigon’s side under the Chieu Hoi amnesty program, reinvigorating local defense forces, and neutralizing the insurgency’s political cadre. 55 This last goal fell largely to “Phoenix,” an intelligence coordination program that targeted the NLF political organization for destruction by police and local militia forces. MACV believed the defeat of the enemy infrastructure “essential to preclude re-establishment of an operational or support base to which the VC can return.” 56

While media attention often focused on battles like the costly engagement at “Hamburger Hill” in May 1969, conventional combat operations overshadowed MACV’s larger efforts to improve and modernize South Vietnam’s armed forces. For Abrams, any successful American withdrawal was predicated on improvements in this key area of Vietnamization. In the field, U.S. advisers trained their counterparts on small-unit patrolling and coordinating artillery support with infantry and armor operations. In garrison, the Americans concentrated on improving the ARVN promotion system and building an effective maintenance program. Moreover, ARVN leadership and morale needed attention to help reduce desertion rates. So too did intelligence, logistic, and operational planning programs. Abrams also had to propose an optimal force structure and help develop an operational approach best suited to ARVN capabilities. 57

Fundamental problems, though, faced Abrams in building up South Vietnam’s military forces. After Nguyen Van Thieu, South Vietnam’s president since the September 1967 election, announced a national mobilization in mid-1968, the size of the regular army and popular and regional forces increased substantially. In two years, the total armed forces grew by 40 percent. Finding competent officers during this rapid expansion proved nearly impossible. Additionally, capable ARVN leaders, of which there were many, too often found themselves and their units still relegated to secondary roles during allied maneuvers. 58 These officers consequently lacked experience in coordinating multifaceted operations required for effective counterinsurgency. Problems within the enlisted ranks rivaled those among ARVN’s leadership. Newsweek offered a harsh appraisal of the typical South Vietnamese trooper who was “often dragooned into an army where he is poorly trained, badly paid, insufficiently indoctrinated about why he is fighting—and, for the most part, led by incompetent officers.” 59 Simply increasing the number of soldiers and supplying them with better weapons would not achieve the larger goals of Vietnamization.

Moreover, the ultimate success of Vietnamization depended on resolving perennial problems. Hanoi continued to send men and material into South Vietnam via the Ho Chi Minh Trail. North Vietnamese units still found refuge in sanctuaries along the Cambodian and Laotian borders. Thus, expanding the war into Cambodia offered an opportunity to give the GVN the breathing space it needed. From his first day in office, Nixon sought to “quarantine” Cambodia. (Hanoi had taken advantage of the nominally neutral country by building base areas from which NVA units could infiltrate into South Vietnam.) To Nixon and Kissinger, improvements in ARVN readiness and pacification mattered only if South Vietnam’s borders were secure. On April 30, 1970, the president announced that U.S. troops were fighting in Cambodia. By expanding the war, Nixon was hoping to shorten it. While officials in Saigon and Washington heralded the operation’s accomplishments—Nixon stated that the “performance of the ARVN had demonstrated that Vietnamization was working”—the incursion into Cambodia left a mixed record. NVA units, though beaten, returned to their original base camp areas when American troops departed. By early June, the allies had searched only 5 percent of the 7,000 square miles of borderland despite having aimed to disrupt the enemy’s logistical bases. Additionally, the ARVN’s reliance on American firepower did not augur well for a future without U.S. air and artillery backing. 60

Worse, the Cambodian incursion set off a firestorm of political protest at home. After Ohio National Guardsmen fired into a demonstration at Kent State University on May 4, leaving four students dead, a wave of antiwar rallies swept the nation, closing nearly 450 colleges and universities. Less than four months earlier, the New York Times reported on the My Lai massacre. In March 1968, with the Tet offensive still raging, American soldiers on a search and destroy mission had summarily executed more than 300 unarmed civilians. Claims of civilian casualties prompted an informal inquiry, but army investigators covered up the story for nearly eighteen months. 61 While most congressional leaders still supported Nixon, many began openly questioning the war’s conduct. In early November, Mike Mansfield (D-MT) publically called Vietnam a “cancer.” “It’s a tragedy,” argued the Montana senator. “It’s eating out the heart of America. It’s doing us no good.” Senator George McGovern (D-SD) joined the chorus of dissenters, imploring Nixon to “stop our participation in the horrible destruction of this tiny country and its people.” The loss of support incensed the president. Nixon insisted that the pace of Vietnamization, not the level of dissent, determine U.S. troop withdrawals. Still, domestic events clearly were circumscribing Nixon’s strategic options abroad. 62

The discord at home seemed matched by discontent within the ranks of U.S. troops remaining in South Vietnam. Though contemporary views of a disintegrating army now appear overblown, clearly the strategic withdrawal was taking its toll on American soldiers. By early 1970, with the first units already departed Vietnam and more scheduled to leave, officers worried how the withdrawal was affecting their soldiers’ capacity to fight. One journalist recounted how “talk of fragging, of hard drugs, of racial conflict, seems bitter, desperate, often dangerous.” 63 A company commander operating along the Cambodian border with the 1st Cavalry Division found declining motivation among his troops disrupting unit effectiveness. “The colonel wants to make contact with the enemy and so do I,” reported the young captain, “but the men flat don’t.” 64 Few draftees wanted to be fighting in Vietnam in the first place and even fewer wanted to risk being killed in a war clearly that was winding down. In addition, Abrams increasingly had to concern himself with racial polarization inside his army. Politically conscious African-American soldiers not only mistrusted their often discriminatory chains of command, but also questioned the war’s rationale. Many blacks denounced the ideal of bringing democracy to South Vietnam when they were denied many freedoms at home. In short, the U.S. Army in Vietnam seemed to be unraveling. 65

By the end of 1970, U.S. strength dropped to some 254,800 soldiers remaining in country. Kissinger warned that unilateral withdrawals were weakening the bargaining position of the United States in Paris, but Nixon continued with the redeployments to prove Vietnamization was on track. 66 With the new year, however, came the realization that NVA logistical bases remained intact. While the Cambodian operation had denied Hanoi the use of the Sihanoukville port, the Ho Chi Minh Trail continued to serve as a major infiltration route into South Vietnam. “An invasion of the Laos Panhandle,” one ARVN officer recalled, thus “became an attractive idea.” Such an operation would “retain the initiative for the RVNAF, disrupt the flow of enemy personnel and supplies to South Vietnam, and greatly reduce the enemy’s capability to launch an offensive in 1971.” 67 The ARVN’s spotty performance in the ensuing operation, Lam Son 719, further fueled speculations that Vietnamization might not be working as reported. Though Nixon declared the campaign had “assured” the next round of U.S. troop withdrawals, Kissinger worried that Lam Son had exposed “lingering deficiencies” that raised questions over South Vietnam’s ability to bear the full burden of the ongoing war. 68

If Kissinger agonized over the need to balance negotiations with troop withdrawals and offensive operations to keep the enemy off balance, he was not alone. Inside Hanoi’s Politburo, Le Duan equally pondered strategic alternatives in the aftermath of Lam Son 719. Though only sixteen U.S. maneuver battalions remained in South Vietnam by early 1972, on all fronts the war appeared deadlocked. Le Duan hoped a new invasion would “defeat the American ‘Vietnamization’ policy, gain a decisive victory in 1972, and force the U.S. imperialists to negotiate an end to the war from a position of defeat.” 69 Abrams remained unclear regarding enemy intentions. Was a large-scale invasion an act of desperation, as Nixon believed, or a way to gain leverage in negotiations by controlling South Vietnamese territory? North Vietnamese strategists certainly were taking risks but not out of desperation. The 1972 Nguyen-Hue campaign aimed for a collapse of South Vietnam’s armed forces, Thieu’s ouster, and the formation of a coalition government. Failing these ambitious goals, Le Duan envisioned the struggle continuing against a weakened ARVN. In either case, the Politburo believed its “actions would totally change the character of the war in South Vietnam.” 70

The subsequent “Easter Offensive,” begun on March 30, 1972, unleashed three separate NVA thrusts into South Vietnam. In some areas, the ARVN fought bravely; in others, soldiers broke and ran. Abrams responded by throwing B-52 bombers into the battle as Nixon ordered resumption of bombing in the North and the mining of Haiphong harbor. Gradually, yet perceptibly, the offensive’s momentum began to slow. Although North Vietnam’s spring offensive had ended with no dramatic battlefield victory, it had met its goal of changing the character of the war. 71 U.S. officials proclaimed Vietnamization a final success given that the ARVN had successfully blunted the enemy’s assault. Overwhelming U.S. air support, however, quite literally saved many units from being overrun and, more intangibly, helped sustain morale during hard months of fighting. Equally important, North Vietnamese leaders made several errors during the campaign. The separate offensives into South Vietnam dissipated combat strength while placing overwhelming strain on logistical support capabilities. Moreover, tactical commanders lacked experience in employing tanks and squandered infantry units in suicidal assaults. 72

By the end of June, only 49,000 U.S. troops remained in South Vietnam. Like his predecessor, Abrams was pulled to become the army’s chief of staff before the guns had fallen silent. Throughout the summer and fall, stalemated discussions in Paris mirrored the military standoff inside South Vietnam. In October, Kissinger reported to Nixon a breakthrough with the North Vietnamese delegation and announced an impending cease-fire. President Thieu fumed that Kissinger had conceded too much, allowing NVA units to remain in South Vietnam and refused to sign any agreement. The resulting diplomatic impasse, fueled by Thieu’s defiance and Hanoi’s intransigence, infuriated Nixon. By December, the president had reached his limits and ordered a massive air campaign against North Vietnam to break the deadlock. Nixon intended the bombing assault, codenamed Linebacker II, to induce both Hanoi and Saigon to return to the negotiating table. On December 26, the Politburo agreed to resume talks while Nixon pressed Thieu to support the armistice. The final settlement changed little from the principles outlined in October. One month later, on January 27, 1973, the United States, North Vietnam, South Vietnam, and the Provisional Revolutionary Government signed the Paris Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam. 73

Conclusions

In large sense, Nixon’s use of B-52 bombers during Linebacker II illustrated the limits of American military power in Vietnam. The press reacted strongly, referring to the bombing of urban targets in North Vietnam as “war by tantrum” and an act of “senseless terror.” 74 But by late 1972, B-52s were the only tools left in Nixon’s arsenal. Despite years of effort and sacrifice, the best the Americans could achieve was a stalemate only temporarily broken by strategic bombing. Many senior military officers, perhaps unsurprisingly, would point to Linebacker II as proof of a mismanaged war. They argued that if only civilian policymakers had been less restrictive in setting unnecessary boundaries, those in uniform could have won much earlier and at much less cost. Such arguments, however, tended to discount the larger political concerns of presidents and their advisers hoping to limit a war that had become the centerpiece of American foreign policy and one that had divided the nation. 75

Others advanced a different “if only” argument regarding U.S. military strategy for Vietnam. They posited that upon taking command of MACV, Abrams, deviating almost immediately from Westmoreland’s conventional methods, had changed the American approach to, and thus nature of, the war. This “better war” thesis found acceptance among many officers in whom a conviction endured that a better application of strategy could have yielded better political results. Yet senior American commanders, even before Westmoreland’s tenure at MACV, tended to see the war as a comprehensive whole and devised their strategy accordingly. Despite frequent heavy-handedness in applying military power inside South Vietnam, almost all officers recognized that the war ultimately was a contest for political power.

Comprehending the complexities of strategy and effectively implementing it, however, were not one and the same. Officers serving in Vietnam quickly found that strategy included much more than simply drafting a plan of political-military action. The complexity of the threat, both political and military, confounded U.S. analysts and staff officers. Westmoreland understood the important role played by southern insurgent forces but argued he could not stamp out these irregular “termites” without substantially eliminating the enemy’s main force units. Even ascertaining enemy motives proved difficult. Not long after Abrams took command, MACV still faced a “real problem, following the Tet offensive, trying to figure out” the enemy’s overall military strategy. 76

Perhaps most importantly, senior U.S. policymakers were asking too much of their military strategists. In the end, the war was a struggle between and among Vietnamese. For the United States, the foundation on which American forces waged a struggle—one that involved both construction of an effective host government and destruction of a committed communist-nationalist enemy—proved too fragile. Officers like Westmoreland and Abrams found that nation-building in a time of war was one of the most difficult tasks to ask of a military force. Yet American faith in the power to reconstruct, if not create, a South Vietnamese political community led to policies that did not address a fundamental issue—the internal contest to define and come to a consensus on Vietnamese nationalism and identity in the modern age.

More than any other conflict during the Cold War era, Vietnam exposed the limits of American military power overseas. It was a reality that many U.S. citizens found, and continue to find, discomforting. Yet if a perspective is to be gained from the long American experience in Southeast Asia, it lies here. Not all problems can be solved by military force, even when that force is combined with political, economic, and social efforts. The capacity of Americans to reshape new political and social communities may not, in fact, be limitless. Writing of his own experiences in the Korean War, Matthew Ridgway offered an important conclusion while the war in Vietnam was still raging. In setting foreign policy objectives, the general advised that policymakers look “to define them with care and to make sure they lie within the range of our vital national interests and that their accomplishment is within our capabilities.” 77 For those seeking to understand the disappointments of American military strategy during the Vietnam War, Ridgway’s counsel seems a useful starting point.

Discussion of the Literature

The historiography on the American experience in Vietnam remains a contentious topic. For a starting point, the best surveys are George Herring’s America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950– 1975, 4th edition (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002) , which is more a diplomatic and political history, and Mark Atwood Lawrence’s The Vietnam War: A Concise International History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008) , which places the war in an international perspective. A solid textbook is George Moss , Vietnam: An American Ordeal , 6th edition (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2009). An excellent collection of essays can be found in both David Anderson’s The Columbia History of the Vietnam War (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011 ) and Jayne Werner and Luu Doan Huhnh , The Vietnam War: Vietnamese and American Perspectives (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1997).

The escalation of the war under Johnson is well covered. Among the most important works are Fredrik Logevall , Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999 ), and Lloyd C. Gardner , Pay Any Price: Lyndon Johnson and the Wars for Vietnam (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1995) . Larry Berman has two very good works on LBJ: Planning a Tragedy: The Americanization of the War in Vietnam (New York: W. W. Norton, 1982 ), and Larry Berman , Lyndon Johnson’s War: The Road to Stalemate in Vietnam (New York: W. W. Norton, 1989). Brian VanDeMark’s Into the Quagmire: Lyndon Johnson and the Escalation of the Vietnam War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991) is also useful. Robert Dallek , Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1961–1973 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998) , provides a balanced overview of the president’s struggles with the war.

The topic of U.S. military strategy is hotly debated. Gregory A. Daddis , Westmoreland’s War: Reassessing American Strategy in the Vietnam War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014) , offers a reinterpretation of those works in suggesting Americans were blind to the realities of the war. Samples of these latter works include: Andrew F. Krepinevich Jr. , The Army and Vietnam (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986) ; Harry G. Summers Jr. , On Strategy: A Critical Appraisal of the Vietnam War (Novato, CA: Presidio, 1982) ; and Jeffrey Record , The Wrong War: Why We Lost in Vietnam (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1998). More persuasive is Andrew J. Birtle , U.S. Army Counterinsurgency and Contingency Operations Doctrine, 1942–1976 (Washington, DC: Center of Military History, 2006). Though Abrams left behind no written work on the war, Lewis Sorley , a staunch admirer of the general, provides insights in Vietnam Chronicles: The Abrams Tapes, 1968–1972 (Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 2004) . Mark Clodfelter takes on the air war in The Limits of Airpower: The American Bombing of North Vietnam (New York: Free Press, 1989). Thomas L. Ahern Jr. looks at the CIA in Vietnam Declassified: The CIA and Counterinsurgency (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2010). Finally, an often overlooked yet important work on senior military leaders is Robert Buzzanco , Masters of War: Military Dissent and Politics in the Vietnam Era (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

On the war’s final years, see Jeffrey Kimball , Nixon’s Vietnam War (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998) ; Ronald H. Spector , After Tet: The Bloodiest Year in Vietnam (New York: Free Press, 1993) ; and James H. Willbanks , Abandoning Vietnam: How America Left and South Vietnam Lost Its War (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004) . Lewis Sorley’s A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1999) takes an overly sympathetic view of the Abrams’s years.

For memoirs from senior leaders, students should consult William Colby with James McCargar , Lost Victory: A Firsthand Account of America’s Sixteen-Year Involvement in Vietnam (Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1989) ; Lyndon Baines Johnson , The Vantage Point: Perspectives on the Presidency, 1963–1969 (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1971) ; Henry Kissinger , Ending the Vietnam War: A History of America’s Involvement in and Extrication from the Vietnam War (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003) ; Robert W Komer , Bureaucracy at War: U.S. Performance in the Vietnam Conflict (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1986) ; Robert S. McNamara , In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (New York: Times Books, 1995) ; Richard Nixon , RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1978) ; Bruce, Palmer Jr. , The 25-Year War: America’s Military Role in Vietnam (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984) ; and William C. Westmoreland , A Soldier Reports (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1976). Among the best memoirs from junior officers and soldiers are: Philip Caputo , A Rumor of War (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1977) ; David Donovan , Once a Warrior King (New York: Ballantine, 1986) ; Stuart A. Herrington , Stalking the Vietcong: Inside Operation Phoenix: A Personal Account (Navato, CA: Presidio, 2004) ; and Harold G. Moore and Joseph L. Galloway . We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young (New York: HarperCollins, 1993). Less a memoir than an excellent collective biography of the enlisted soldier serving in Vietnam is Christian G. Appy , Working-Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993)

Journalists’ accounts were important in covering the American experience and in setting a foundation for how the war has been outlined in popular memory. Among the most indispensable of this genre are David Halberstam , The Best and the Brightest (New York: Random House, 1969) ; David Halberstam , The Making of a Quagmire: America and Vietnam during the Kennedy Era (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964, 1988) ; Michael Herr , Dispatches (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1968) ; Don Oberdorfer , Tet! (New York: Doubleday, 1971) ; and Neil Sheehan , A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam (New York: Random House, 1988). Also useful is Peter Braestrup , Big Story: How the American Press and Television Reported and Interpreted the Crisis of Tet 1968 in Vietnam and Washington (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1977).

The South Vietnamese perspective often gets lost in American-centric works on the war but should not be disregarded. Mark P. Bradley’s Vietnam at War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009) is an excellent one-volume history of the war written from the Vietnamese viewpoint. Both Andrew Wiest , Vietnam’s Forgotten Army Vietnam’s Forgotten Army: Heroism and Betrayal in the ARVN (New York: New York University Press, 2008 ) and Robert K. Brigham , ARVN: Life and Death in the South Vietnamese Army (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2006) , make an important contribution for understanding the U.S. Army’s most important allies. Three provincial studies also delve into the war inside South Vietnam’s villages: Eric M. Bergerud , The Dynamics of Defeat: The Vietnam War in Hau Nghia Province (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1991) ; Jeffrey Race , War Comes to Long An: Revolutionary Conflict in a Vietnamese Province (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972) ; and James Walker Trullinger Jr. , Village at War: An Account of Revolution in Vietnam (New York: Longman, 1980). For an argument on the cultural divide between allies, see Frances FitzGerald , Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam (Boston: Little, Brown, 1972).

If the South Vietnamese perspective often is overlooked, the North Vietnamese also tends to get short shrift in American works. Relying on new research, the best among this group are Pierre Asselin , Hanoi’s’ Road to the Vietnam War, 1954–1965 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013) ; Lien-Hang T. Nguyen , Hanoi’s War: An International History of the War for Peace in Vietnam (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012) ; Ang Cheng Guan , The Vietnam War from the Other Side: The Vietnamese Communists’ Perspective (London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2002 ) and Ending the Vietnam War: The Vietnamese Communists’ Perspective (London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2004); Victory in Vietnam: The Official History of the People’s Army of Vietnam, 1954–1975 , translated by Merle L. Pribbenow (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002) ; William J. Duiker , The Communist Road to Power , 2d ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1996) ; and Warren Wilkins , Grab Their Belts to Fight Them: The Viet Cong’s Big Unit War against the U.S., 1965–1966 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2011).

Finally, students should not overlook the value of novels in understanding the war from the soldiers’ viewpoint. Among the best are Bao Ninh , The Sorrow of War: A Novel of North Vietnam (New York: Riverhead, 1996) ; Josiah Bunting , The Lionheads (New York: George Braziller, 1972) ; Karl Marlantes , Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War (New York: Atlantic Monthly, 2010) ; Tim O’Brien , The Things They Carried (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1990) ; and Robert Roth , Sand in the Wind (Boston: Little, Brown, 1973).

Primary Sources

Among the best documentary collections are Michael H. Hunt , A Vietnam War Reader: A Documentary History from American and Vietnamese Perspectives (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010 ), and Mark Atwood Lawrence , The Vietnam War: An International History in Documents (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014). Also useful is Robert McMahon and Thomas Paterson , Major Problems in the History of the Vietnam War: Documents and Essays (Boston: Wadsworth, 2007). For encyclopedias on the war, see Spencer C. Tucker , ed., The Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War: A Political, Social & Military History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001 ), and Stanley I. Kutler , Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War , 2d ed. (New York: Scribner, 2005).

Researchers should also consult two still useful collections of documents: The Pentagon Papers: The Defense Department History of United States Decision making on Vietnam, ed. Mike Gravel , 5 vols. (Boston: Beacon, 1971–1972), and William Conrad Gibbons , The U.S. Government and the Vietnam War: Executive and Legislative Roles and Relationships , 4 vols. (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1986–1995). The U.S. Department of State has collected a wonderful array of documents in the Foreign Relations of the United States ( FRUS ) series. These resources can be found online at http://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments .

For researchers delving into primary sources, the best place to begin is the Virtual Vietnam Archive run by Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas. This online archive houses more than four million pages of materials and is located at http://www.vietnam.ttu.edu/virtualarchive/ . The physical archive has much more additional material for researchers. For higher level strategic insights, the presidential libraries in Boston, Massachusetts (Kennedy), Austin, Texas (Johnson), and Yorba Linda, California (Nixon) have important archival holdings. Those seeking insights into the U.S. Army will find excellent resources at the U.S. Army Military History Institute in Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, and the U.S. Army Center of Military History at Fort McNair, Washington, DC. The National Archives in College Park, Maryland, offers a vast amount of resources as well. Finally, for those wishing to focus on cultural issues within the region, researchers may wish to consult the John M. Echols Collection on Southeast Asia at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Researcher information can be found at http://asia.library.cornell.edu/ac/Echols/index .

Further Reading

  • Anderson, David L. , ed. The Columbia History of the Vietnam War . New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.
  • Cosmas, Graham A. MACV: The Joint Command in the Years of Escalation, 1962–1967. Washington, DC: Center of Military History, 2006.
  • Cosmas, Graham A. MACV: The Joint Command in the Years of Withdrawal, 1968–1973 . Washington, DC: Center of Military History, 2007.
  • Daddis, Gregory A. Westmoreland’s War: Reassessing American Strategy in the Vietnam War . Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
  • Elliott, David W. P. The Vietnamese War: Revolution and Social Change in the Mekong Delta, 1930–1975. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 2002.
  • Herring, George C. America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950–1975 . 4th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002.
  • Hess, Gary R. Vietnam: Explaining America’s Lost War . Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008.
  • Hunt, Richard A . Pacification: The American Struggle for Vietnam’s Hearts and Minds . Boulder, CO: Westview, 1995.
  • Kimball, Jeffrey . Nixon’s Vietnam War . Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998.
  • Lawrence, Mark Atwood. The Vietnam War: A Concise International History . Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • Nguyen, Lien-Hang T. Hanoi’s War: An International History of the War for Peace in Vietnam . Durham: University of North Carolina Press, 2012.

1. JCS quoted in Max Hastings , The Korean War (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987), 229. Hastings argued that the “Korean War occupies a unique place in history, as the first superpower essay of the nuclear age in the employment of limited force to achieve limited objectives,” p. 338. On the relationship of Korea to Europe, see Stanley Sandler , The Korean War: No Victors, No Vanquished (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1999), 144.

2. Matthew B. Ridgway , The Korean War (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1967 ; reprint, New York: Da Capo Press, 1986), 145, 232.

3. Bernard Brodie , Strategy in the Missile Age (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1959), 311 . For a broader context of this period, see Jonathan M. House , A Military History of the Cold War, 1944–1962 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2012) .

4. Robert E. Osgood , Limited War: The Challenge to American Security (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), 5, 7 .

5. Andrew J. Birtle , U.S. Army Counterinsurgency and Contingency Operations Doctrine, 1942–1976 (Washington, DC: Center of Military History, 2006), 278. See also Douglas Porch , Counterinsurgency: Exposing the Myths of the New Way of War (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2103), 217 . For a counterargument on how U.S. Army officers shunned learning and thus lost the war in Vietnam, see John Nagl , Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002).

6. Henry A. Kissinger , Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957), 139 . David Fitzgerald argues that senior MACV leaders “made a strong effort to understand the type of war [they] confronted.” Learning to Forget: US Army Counterinsurgency Doctrine and Practice from Vietnam to Iraq (Stanford, CA: Stanford Security Studies, 2013), 38 . On multiple dimensions of strategy, see Colin S. Gray , “Why strategy is difficult,” in Strategic Studies: A Reader , 2d ed., ed. Thomas G. Mahnken and Joseph A. Maiolo (New York: Routledge, 2014), 43.

7. Lyndon Baines Johnson , The Vantage Point: Perspectives on the Presidency, 1963–1969 (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1971), 241 . On larger Cold War issues, see John Lewis Gaddis , Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of Postwar American National Security Policy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), 240 .

8. McNamara quoted in Gerard J. DeGroot , A Noble Cause? America and the Vietnam War (Harlow, UK: Longman, 2000), 135 . On enemy escalation and its impact, see David Kaiser , American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of the Vietnam War (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2000), 346 . B. H. Liddell Hart , Strategy , 2d rev. ed. (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1954), 335–336.

9. Neil L. Jamieson argues that “Vietnamese clung to and fought over their own competing and incompatible visions of what Vietnam was and what it might and should become.” In Neil L. Jamieson , Understanding Vietnam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), x .

10. Ronald H. Spector , Advice and Support: The Early Years, 1941–1960 (Washington, DC: Center of Military History, 1983), 336 . While early MAAG commanders realized the importance of economic development as part of an overall approach to strategy, Lieutenant General Lionel McGarr, who took over MAAG in August 1960, elevated the importance of counterinsurgency training within the ARVN ranks. Spector, Advice and Support , 365. See also Alexander S. Cochran Jr. , “American Planning for Ground Combat in Vietnam: 1952–1965,” Parameters 14.2 (Summer 1984): 65 .

11. Robert Buzzanco , Masters of War: Military Dissent and Politics in the Vietnam Era (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 65, 72–73 . While sympathetic to Ngo Dinh Diem , Mark Moyar covers the American participation during the advisory years in Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954–1965 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006) .

12. Agrovilles were supposedly secure communities to which rural civilians were relocated in hopes of separating them from NLF insurgents. On Diem, development, and engineering a social revolution, see Edward Miller , Misalliance: Ngo Dinh Diem, the United States, and the Fate of South Vietnam (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013) . For a competing interpretation, see James M. Carter , Inventing Vietnam: The United States and State Building, 1954–1968 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008). On training of South Vietnam forces, James Lawton Collins Jr. , The Development and Training of the South Vietnamese Army, 1950–1972 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1975) .

13. Graham A. Cosmas , MACV: The Joint Command in the Years of Escalation, 1962–1967 (Washington, DC: Center of Military History, 2006), 35 .

14. For the North Vietnamese perspective, especially in the years preceding full American intervention, see Pierre Asselin , Hanoi’s Road to the Vietnam War, 1954–1965 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013) , and William J. Duiker , The Communist Road to Power , 2d ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview , 1996) . For a perspective of Diem somewhat at odds with Miller, and especially Moyar, see Seth Jacobs , Cold War Mandarin: Ngo Dinh Diem and the Origins of America’s War in Vietnam, 1950–1963 (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006) .

15. Michael H. Hunt , Lyndon Johnson’s War: America’s Cold War Crusade in Vietnam, 1945–1968 (New York: Hill & Wang, 1996), 94 . On the air campaign, see Mark Clodfelter , The Limits of Airpower: The American Bombing of North Vietnam (New York: Free Press, 1989) , and Lloyd C. Gardner , “Lyndon Johnson and the Bombing of Vietnam: Politics and Military Choices,” in The Columbia History of the Vietnam War , ed. David L. Anderson (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011).

16. Westmoreland quoted in Larry Berman , Planning a Tragedy: The Americanization of the War in Vietnam (New York: W. W. Norton, 1982), 71 . For an example of senior officers blaming civilians for limiting military means to achieve political ends, see U.S. Grant Sharp , Strategy for Defeat: Vietnam in Retrospect (San Rafael, CA: Presidio, 1978) .

17. On the contentious topic of escalation, see Fredrik Logevall , Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999) , and Lloyd C. Gardner , Pay Any Price: Lyndon Johnson and the Wars for Vietnam (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1995). David L. Di Leo offers a treatment of a key dissenter inside the Johnson White House in George Ball, Vietnam, and the Rethinking of Containment (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991).

18. Robert S. McNamara , In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (New York: Times Books, 1995), 188.

19. Westmoreland’s assessment in The Pentagon Papers: The Defense Department History of United States Decisionmaking in Vietnam, vol. 4, ed. Mike Gravel . (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971–1972), 606. See also chapter 7, “Evolution of Strategy,” in William C. Westmoreland , A Soldier Reports (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1976) .

20. Phillip B. Davidson , Vietnam at War: The History: 1946–1975 (Novato, CA: Presidio, 1988), 354 . On MACV guidance in implementing this broad strategy, see John M. Carland , “Winning the Vietnam War: Westmoreland’s Approach in Two Documents,” Journal of Military History 68.2 (April 2004): 553–574 .

21. U. S. Grant Sharp and William C. Westmoreland , Report on the War in Vietnam (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1969), 100 . The Pentagon Papers , Vol. 4, 296.

22. Vo Nguyen Giap , People’s War, People’s Army: The Viet Công Insurrection Manual for Underdeveloped Countries (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1962), 46, 61 . On the evolution of Hanoi’s strategic thinking, see David W. P. Elliott , “Hanoi’s Strategy in the Second Indochina War,” in The Vietnam War: Vietnamese and American Perspectives , ed. Jayne S. Werner and Luu Doan Huynh (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1993) .

23. The strategic debate is best outlined in Lien-Hang T. Nguyen , Hanoi’s War: An International History of the War for Peace in Vietnam (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012), 71 . See also Nguyen Vu Tung , “Coping with the United States: Hanoi’s Search for an Effective Strategy,” in The Vietnam War , ed. Peter Lowe (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998), 46–48 ; and Hanoi Assessment of Guerrilla War in South, November 1966, Folder 17, Box 06, Douglas Pike Collection: Unit 01-Assessment and Strategy, The Vietnam Archive, Texas Tech University, Lubbock, Texas (hereafter cited as TTUVA). Resolution 12 in Communist Strategy as Reflected in Lao Dong Party and COSVN Resolutions, Folder 26, Box 07, Douglas Pike Collection: Unit 06-Democratic Republic of Vietnam, TTUVA, p. 3.

24. For a useful historiographical sketch on the debates over intervention and American strategy, see Gary R. Hess , Vietnam: Explaining America’s Lost War (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2009) , chapters 3 and 4.

25. Westmoreland quoted in Davidson, Vietnam at War , 313. On early U.S. Army actions in Vietnam, see John M. Carland , Stemming the Tide: May 1965 to October 1966 (Washington, DC: Center of Military History, 2000) , and Shelby L. Stanton , The Rise and Fall of an American Army: U.S. Ground Forces in Vietnam, 1965–1973 (Novato, CA: Presidio, 1985) .

26. Westmoreland explained his rationale for focusing on main force units in A Soldier Reports , 180. For a counterargument against this approach, see Andrew F. Krepinevich Jr. , The Army and Vietnam (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986) .

27. The best monograph on the Ia Drang battles remains Harold G. Moore and Joseph L. Galloway , We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young (New York: HarperCollins, 1993) . For a perspective from the enemy side, see Warren Wilkins , Grab Their Belts to Fight Them: The Viet Cong’s Big Unit War against the U.S., 1965–1966 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2011) , especially chapter 6.

28. COMUSMACV memorandum, “Increased Emphasis on Rural Construction,” 8 December 1965, Correspondence, 1965–1966, Box 35, Jonathan O. Seaman Papers, U.S. Army Military History Institute, Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania (hereafter cited as MHI).

29. Westmoreland highlighted Hanoi’s continuing infiltration of forces into South Vietnam at the end of 1965. An evaluation of U.S. operations in early December underscored his concerns that “our attrition of their forces in South Vietnam is insufficient to offset this buildup.” In Carland, “Winning the Vietnam War,” 570. On the media’s take on these early battles, see “G.I.’s Found Rising to Vietnam Test,” New York Times , December 26, 1965.

30. Memorandum to President Lyndon B. Johnson from Robert S. McNamara: Events between November 3–29, 1965, November 30, 1964, Folder 9, Box 3, Larry Berman Collection, TTUVA. On McNamara being “shaken” by the meeting, see Neil Sheehan , A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam (New York: Random House, 1988), 579–580 . McNamara, In Retrospect , 221–222.

31. “Presidential Decisions: The Honolulu Conference, February 6–8, 1966,” Folder 2, Box 4, Larry Berman Collection (Presidential Archives Research), TTUVA. John T. Wheeler , “Only a Fourth of South Viet Nam Is Under Control of Saigon Regime,” Washington Star , January 25, 1966.

32. “1966 Program to Increase the Effectiveness of Military Operations and Anticipated Results Thereof,” February 8, 1966, in The War in Vietnam: The Papers of William C. Westmoreland , ed. Robert E. Lester (Bethesda, MD: University Publications of America, 1993) , Incl. 6, Folder 4, Reel 6. See also U.S. Department of State , Foreign Relations of the United States , vol. 5, Vietnam, 1967 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2002), 216–219 (hereafter cited as FRUS ). Westmoreland took to heart the importance of rural construction. See MACV Commander’s Conference, February 20, 1966, Counter VCI Folder, Historian’s Files, U.S. Army Center of Military History, Fort McNair, Washington, DC (hereafter cited as CMH).

33. Pacification defined in “Handbook for Military Support of Pacification,” February 1968, Folder 14, Box 5, United States Armed Forces Manual Collection, TTUVA. Seymour Topping , “Crisis in Saigon Snags U.S. Effort,” New York Times , April 5, 1966 . Martin G. Clemis , “Competing and Incompatible Visions: Revolution, Pacification, and the Political Organization of Space during the Second Indochina War,” paper presented at the 81st Annual Meeting of the Society for Military History, April 2014, Kansas City, MO.

34. On Westmoreland’s approach to pacification, see Gregory A. Daddis , Westmoreland’s War: Reassessing American Strategy in Vietnam (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014) , chapter 5. For a counterargument that dismisses allied pacification efforts, see Nick Turse , Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2013).

35. Sir Robert Thompson , Defeating Communist Insurgency: The Lessons of Malaya and Vietnam (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1966), 55 . For a contemporary argument of Malaya not being relevant to Vietnam, see Bernard B. Fall , Viet-Nam Witness: 1953–66 (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1966), 272 .

36. Thomas L. Ahern Jr. , Vietnam Declassified: The CIA and Counterinsurgency (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2010), 171–175 .

37. The best monograph on pacification remains Richard A. Hunt , Pacification: The American Struggle for Vietnam’s Hearts and Minds (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1995) . For a balanced treatment of Komer, see Frank L. Jones , Blowtorch: Robert Komer, Vietnam, and American Cold War Strategy (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2013) . See also Robert W. Komer , Bureaucracy at War: U.S. Performance in the Vietnam Conflict (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1986) . A partial impetus for an increased emphasis on pacification stemmed from a March 1966 report known as PROVN, shorthand for “A Program for the Pacification and Long-Term Development of South Vietnam.” PROVN stressed nonmilitary means and argued that “victory” could be achieved only by “bringing the individual Vietnamese, typically a rural peasant, to support willingly the Government of South Vietnam (GVN).” Deputy Chief of Staff for Military Operations, “A Program for the Pacification and Long-Term Development of South Vietnam (Department of the Army, March 1966), 1, 3. The best review of this still hotly debated document is Andrew J. Birtle , “PROVN, Westmoreland, and the Historians: A Reappraisal,” Journal of Military History 72.4 (October 2008): 1213–1247 .

38. Robert W. Komer , “Clear, Hold and Rebuild,” Army 20.5 5 (May 1970): 19 . On CORDS establishment, see National Security Action Memorandum No. 362, FRUS , 1964–1968, vol. 5, 398–399. Though revolutionary development remained, at least nominally, a South Vietnamese program, many observers believed the inability of the ARVN to take over pacification in the countryside helped spur the establishment of CORDS. Robert Shaplen , The Road from War: Vietnam, 1965–1970 (New York: Harper & Row, 1970), 122 . As of March 31, 1967, 53 ARVN infantry battalions were performing missions in direct support of pacification. MACV Monthly Evaluation Report, March 1967, MHI, 13.

39. For a contemporary discussion on the cultural divide between Americans and Vietnamese and how this impacted both military operations and the pacification program, see Frances FitzGerald , Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam (Boston: Little, Brown, 1972). Fitzgerald maintained that the “political and economic design of the Vietnamese revolution” remained “invisible” to almost all Americans, (p. 143).

40. For competing tasks within CORDS, see Chester L. Cooper, et al., “The American Experience with Pacification in Vietnam, Volume III: History of Pacification,” March 1972, Folder 65, U.S. Marine Corps History Division, Vietnam War Documents Collection, TTUVA, 271. Journalist Ward Just reported that the real yardsticks of pacification’s progress were “the Vietnamese view of events, the Vietnamese mood, the Vietnamese will and the Vietnamese capability.” See “Another Measure of Vietnam’s War,” Washington Post , October 15, 1967. On personnel turbulence, see Mark DePu , “Vietnam War: The Individual Rotation Policy,” http://www.historynet.com/vietnam-war-the-individual-rotation-policy.htm .

41. As a sampling of contemporary journalist critiques of the war in 1967, see: Joseph Kraft , “The True Failure in Saigon—South Vietnam’s Fighting Force,” Los Angeles Times , May 3, 1967 ; Ward Just , “This War May Be Unwinnable,” Washington Post, June 4, 1967 ; and R. W. Apple , “Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate,” New York Times , August 7, 1967. On the war in 1967 being perceived as a stalemate, see Sir Robert Thompson , No Exit from Vietnam (New York: David McKay, 1969), 67 ; and Anthony James Joes , The War for South Viet Nam, 1954–1975, rev. ed. (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2001), 96 . On military operations early in 1967, see Bernard W. Rogers , Cedar Falls–Junction City: A Turning Point (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1974, 2004) .

42. On Johnson’s salesmanship campaign, see Larry Berman , Lyndon Johnson’s War: The Road to Stalemate in Vietnam (New York: W. W. Norton, 1989) , especially chapters 5–7. On the MACV-CIA debate, see James J. Wirtz , “Intelligence to Please? The Order of Battle Controversy during the Vietnam War,” Political Science Quarterly 106.2 (Summer 1991): 239–263 .

43. On Hanoi’s views and its policy for a decisive victory, see Victory in Vietnam: The Official History of the People’s Army of Vietnam, 1954–1975 , trans. Merle L. Pribbenow (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002), 206–207 . On overriding political goals of Tet, see: Ang Cheng Guan , The Vietnam War from the Other Side: The Vietnamese Communists’ Perspective (London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2002),116–126 ; James J. Wirtz , The Tet Offensive: Intelligence Failure in War (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991), 10, 20–21 ; Ronnie E. Ford , Tet 1968: Understanding the Surprise (London: Frank Cass, 1995), 70–71 ; and Gabriel Kolko , Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, the United States, and the Modern Historical Experience (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985), 303 .

44. If successful, Hanoi’s leaders also would be in a more advantageous position if forced into a “fighting while negotiating” phase of the war. Ford, Tet 1968 , 93. See also Merle L. Pribbenow II , “General Võ Nguyên Giáp and the Mysterious Evolution of the Plan for the 1968 Tết Offensive,” Journal of Vietnamese Studies 3 (Summer 2008): 1–33 .

45. Carver quoted in Robert J. McMahon, “Turning Point: The Vietnam War’s Pivotal Year, November 1967–November 1968,” in Anderson, The Columbia History of the Vietnam War , 198. For a journalist’s account, see Don Oberdorfer , Tet! (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1971) . For an accessible reference book, see William T. Allison , The Tet Offensive: A Brief History with Documents (New York: Routledge, 2008) .

46. Gallup poll results in the aftermath of Tet in Berman, Lyndon Johnson’s War , 185. Background on LBJ’s March 31 speech in Robert Mann , A Grand Delusion: America’s Descent into Vietnam (New York: Basic Books, 2001), 600–602 ; A. J. Langguth , Our Vietnam: The War, 1954–1975 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000), 492–493 ; and Kolko, Anatomy of a War , 320–321. Decision on troop levels in Mann, A Grand Delusion , 576.

47. Zeb B. Bradford , “With Creighton Abrams during Tet,” Vietnam (February 1998): 45 . Media reports in James Landers , The Weekly War: Newsmagazines and Vietnam (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2004), 145–146 . As examples arguing for a change in strategy, see A. J. Langguth , “General Abrams Listens to a Different Drum,” New York Times , May 5, 1968 , and “A ‘Different’ War Now, With Abrams in Command,” U.S. News & World Report , August 26, 1968, 12. On Abrams’s “one-war” concept, see Lewis Sorley , A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1999), 18 . The Westmoreland-Abrams strategy debate remains contentious. In his admiration of Abrams, Lewis Sorley is most vocal in supporting a change in strategic concept. See as an example, Vietnam Chronicles: The Abrams Tapes, 1968–1972 (Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 2004), xix . Others are less certain. Phillip Davidson served under both commanders, as did Robert W. Komer—neither subscribed to a change in strategy under Abrams. Davidson, Vietnam at War , 512, and Komer in The Lessons of Vietnam, ed. W. Scott Thompson and Donaldson D. Frizzell (New York: Crane, Russak, 1977), 79 . Andrew Birtle’s argument on the change being “more in emphasis than in substance” seems most compelling. “As MACV admitted in 1970, ‘the basic concept and objectives of pacification, to defeat the VC/NVA and to provide the people with economic and social benefits, have changed little since the first comprehensive GVN plan was published in 1964.’” In U.S. Army Counterinsurgency and Contingency Operations Doctrine , 367.

48. Andrew J. Goodpaster, Senior Officers Debriefing Program, May 1976, MHI, p. 40. On peace replacing military victory, see Daniel C. Hallin , The “Uncensored War”: The Media and Vietnam (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 178 .

49. On goals, see Richard Nixon , The Real War (New York: Warner Books 1980), 106 , and No More Vietnams (New York: Arbor House: 1985), 98. Henry Kissinger , The White House Years (Boston: Little, Brown, 1979), 298 . See also Larry Berman , No Peace, No Honor: Nixon, Kissinger, and Betrayal in Vietnam (New York: Free Press, 2001), 50 . Jeffrey Kimball argues that de-Americanization “was a course made politically necessary by the American public’s desire to wind down the war and doubts among key segments of the foreign-policy establishment about the possibility of winning the war.” The Vietnam War Files: Uncovering the Secret History of Nixon-Era Strategy (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004), 12.

50. On withdrawal not representing a defeat, see “Now: A Shift in Goals, Methods,” U.S. News & World Report , January 6, 1969, 16. On global perspective, see Jeffrey Kimball , Nixon’s Vietnam War (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998), 62 . Michael Lind argues that Nixon had to withdraw “in a manner that preserved domestic support for the Cold War in other theaters.” Vietnam: The Necessary War (New York: Free Press, 1999), 106 .

51. Richard Nixon , RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1978), 349 . On realizing limits to U.S. power, see Lawrence W. Serewicz , America at the Brink of Empire: Rusk, Kissinger, and the Vietnam War (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2007), 10 . On containing communism, see U.S. Embassy Statement , “Objectives and Courses of Action of the United States in South Viet-Nam,” FRUS , 1964–1968, vol. 7, 719 . See also Lloyd Gardner , “The Last Casualty? Richard Nixon and the End of the Vietnam War, 1969–75,” in A Companion to the Vietnam War , ed. Marilyn B. Young and Robert Buzzanco (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2002), 230 .

52. On problems of different types of threats, see Viet-Nam Info Series 20: “The Armed Forces of the Republic of Viet Nam,” from Vietnam Bulletin, 1969, Folder 09, Box 13, Douglas Pike Collection: Unit 02-Military Operations, TTUVA, ps. 8, 25. See also Richard Shultz Jr. , “The Vietnamization-Pacification Strategy of 1969–1972: A Quantitative and Qualitative Reassessment,” in Lessons from an Unconventional War: Reassessing U.S. Strategies for Future Conflicts, ed. Richard A. Hunt and Richard H. Shultz Jr. (New York: Pergamon, 1982), 55–56 . Loren Baritz argues that the “Nixon administration abandoned counterinsurgency” since it realized the NLF no longer was a significant threat. Backfire: A History of How American Culture Led Us into Vietnam and Made Us Fight the Way We Did (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985), 279 .

53. Nixon, No More Vietnams , 104–107. Definition of pacification on p. 132.

54. Pacification Priority Area Summary, September 3, 1968, prepared by CORDS, Folder 65, US Marine Corps History Division, Vietnam War Documents Collection, TTUVA. Countryside depopulation in Charles Mohr , “Saigon Tries to Recover from the Blows,” New York Times , May 10, 1968 ; and David W. P. Elliott , The Vietnamese War: Revolution and Social Change in the Mekong Delta, 1930–1975, concise ed. (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 2007), 331, 336 . On problems of measuring pacification security, see Gregory A. Daddis , No Sure Victory: Measuring U.S. Army Effectiveness and Progress in the Vietnam War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 118–122 .

55. The Chieu Hoi (“Open Arms”) program, begun in 1963, aimed to “rally” Vietcong defectors to the GVN side as part of a larger national reconciliation effort. The plan sought to give former insurgents “opportunities for defection, an alternative to the hardships and deprivations of guerrilla life, political pardon, and in some measure, though vocational training, a means of earning a livelihood.” Jeanette A. Koch , The Chieu Hoi Program in South Vietnam, 1963–1971 (Santa Monica, CA: Rand, 1973), v .

56. Vietnam Lessons Learned No. 73, “Defeat of VC Infrastructure,” November 20, 1968, MACV Lessons Learned, Box 1, RG 472, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland. See also Dale Andradé , Ashes to Ashes: The Phoenix Program and the Vietnam War (Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1990) ; and Mark Moyar , Phoenix and the Birds of Prey: Counterinsurgency and Counterterrorism in Vietnam (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997, 2007) .

57. For an example of the hard fighting still continuing during the Abrams years, see Samuel Zaffiri , Hamburger Hill: May 11–20, 1969 (Novato, CA: Presidio, 1988). On what U.S. advisers were doing as part of Vietnamization, see Jeffrey J. Clarke , Advice and Support: The Final Years, 1965–1973 (Washington, DC: Center of Military History, 1988), 342–343 .

58. On ARVN increases, see in Larry A. Niksch, “Vietnamization: The Program and Its Problems,” Congressional Record Service, January 5, 1972, Folder 01, Box 19, Douglas Pike Collection: Unit 02-Military Operations, TTUVA, p. CRS-21. The best work on the South Vietnamese Army is Robert K. Brigham , ARVN: Life and Death in the South Vietnamese Army (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2006) .

59. “The Laird Plan,” Newsweek , June 2, 1969, 44. On ARVN lacking experience, see James H. Willbanks , Abandoning Vietnam: How America Left and South Vietnam Lost Its War (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004), 51 ; and Samuel Zaffiri , Westmoreland: A Biography of General William C. Westmoreland (New York: William Morrow, 1994), 211 .

60. Vietnamization working in Nixon, RN , 467. On enemy infiltration, see John Prados , The Blood Road: The Ho Chi Minh Trail and the Vietnam War (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1999) . On the incursion, see John M. Shaw , The Cambodian Campaign: The 1970 Offensive and America’s Vietnam War (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2005) , and Keith William Nolan , Into Cambodia: Spring Campaign, Summer Offensive, 1970 (Novato, CA: Presidio, 1990) .

61. On My Lai, see Michael Bilton and Kevin Sim , Four Hours in My Lai (New York: Viking, 1992) , and William Thomas Allison , My Lai: An American Atrocity in the Vietnam War (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012) .

62. Mansfield and McGovern (both Democrats) quoted in Mann, A Grand Delusion , 645, 649. See also Berman, No Peace, No Honor , 76. For an introduction to the antiwar movement and its impact on Nixon, see Melvin Small , Antiwarriors: The Vietnam War and the Battle for America’s Hearts and Minds (Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 2002).

63. Donald Kirk , “Who Wants to Be the Last American Killed in Vietnam?” New York Times , September 19, 1971 . See also “As Fighting Slows in Vietnam: Breakdown in GI Discipline” U.S. News & World Report , June 7, 1971, and George Lepre , Fragging: Why U.S. Soldiers Assaulted Their Officers in Vietnam (Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 2011) . “Fragging,” derived from fragmentation grenade, was the act of fratricide, usually against an officer in a soldier’s chain of command. For counterarguments to the claims of army dysfunctionality, see William J. Shkurti , Soldiering on in a Dying War: The True Story of the Firebase Pace Incidents and the Vietnam Drawdown (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2011 ), and Jeremy Kuzmarov , The Myth of the Addicted Army: Vietnam and the Modern War on Drugs (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2009) .

64. Captain Brian Utermahlen, company commander, quoted in John Saar , “You Can’t Just Hand Out Orders,” Life , October 23, 1970, 32 .

65. “The Troubled U.S. Army in Vietnam,” Newsweek , January 11, 1971, 30, 34. On avoiding risks in a withdrawing army, see Saar, 31. James E. Westheider , The African American Experience in Vietnam: Brothers in Arms (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008) .

66. Troop strengths in Shelby L. Stanton , Vietnam Order of Battle: A Complete Illustrated Reference to U.S. Army Combat and Support Forces in Vietnam, 1961–1973 (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole, 2003), 334 . Kissinger’s concerns in The White House Years , 971.

67. Nguyen Duy Hinh , Lam Son 719 (Washington, DC: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 1979), 8 . On Lam Son 719 being linked to continuing withdrawals, see Andrew Wiest , Vietnam’s Forgotten Army: Heroism and Betrayal in the ARVN (New York: New York University Press, 2008), 199 .

68. Two new works cover the Lam Son 719 operation: James H. Willbanks , A Raid Too Far: Operation Lam Son 719 and Vietnamization in Laos (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2014) , and Robert D. Sander , Invasion of Laos, 1971: Lam Son 719 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2014) .

69. Politburo quoted in Victory in Vietnam , 283. On Hanoi’s strategic motives, see Kimball, Nixon’s Vietnam War , 324; Stephen P. Randolph , Powerful and Brutal Weapons: Nixon, Kissinger, and the Easter Offensive (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 28–29 ; and Ngo Quang Truong , The Easter Offensive of 1972 (Washington, DC: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 1980), 157–158 .

70. Politburo quoted in Victory in Vietnam , 283. On uncertainty over Hanoi’s intentions, see Berman, No Peace, No Honor , 124; Allan E. Goodman , The Lost Peace: America’s Search for a Negotiated Settlement of the Vietnam War (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 1978), 117–118 ; and Anthony T. Bouscaren , ed., All Quiet on the Eastern Front: The Death of South Vietnam (Old Greenwich, CT: Devin-Adair, 1977), 44 . Nixon viewed the invasion “as a sign of desperation.” In RN , 587.

71. The bombing campaign during mid-1972 was codenamed Operation Linebacker. On debates between the White House and MACV over the best use of B-52s, see Randolph, Powerful and Brutal Weapons , 119–120; Kimball, Nixon’s Vietnam War , 314–315; and H. R. Haldeman , The Haldeman Diaries: Inside the Nixon White House (New York: G. P. Putnam’s, 1994), 435 . On the campaign ending with “no culminating battles and mass retreats, just the gradual erosion of NVA strength and the release of pressure against defending ARVN troops,” see Randolph, Powerful and Brutal Weapons , 270.

72. James H. Willbanks argues that “the fact U.S. tactical leadership and firepower were the key ingredients . . . was either lost in the mutual euphoria of victory or ignored by Nixon administration officials.” In The Battle of An Loc (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005), 166.

73. Thieu’s defiance and Hanoi’s intransigence in Robert Dalleck , Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), 443 . Paris agreement in Kimball, Nixon’s Vietnam War , 366–368. See also Kimball, The Vietnam War Files , 276–277.

74. Linebacker II goals in Kimball, Nixon’s Vietnam War , 364–365. Press quoted in ibid. , 366 .

75. Ronald B. Frankum Jr. , “‘Swatting Flies with a Sledgehammer’: The Air War,” in Rolling Thunder in a Gentle Land: The Vietnam War Revisited , ed. Andrew Wiest (New York: Osprey, 2006), 221–222.

76. Westmoreland, A Soldier Reports , 180–181. MACV staff in Sorley, Vietnam Chronicles , 9.

77. Ridgway, The Korean War , 247.

Related Articles

  • Vietnamese Americans in Little Saigon, California

Printed from Oxford Research Encyclopedias, American History. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 24 April 2024

  • Cookie Policy
  • Privacy Policy
  • Legal Notice
  • Accessibility
  • [66.249.64.20|185.80.151.41]
  • 185.80.151.41

Character limit 500 /500

history essay the vietnam war

PODCAST: HISTORY UNPLUGGED J. Edgar Hoover’s 50-Year Career of Blackmail, Entrapment, and Taking Down Communist Spies

The Encyclopedia: One Book’s Quest to Hold the Sum of All Knowledge PODCAST: HISTORY UNPLUGGED

history essay the vietnam war

The Vietnam War: Background and Overview

the vietnam war

Although the history of Vietnam has been dominated by war for 30 years of the 20th century, the conflict escalated during the sixties. When we talk about the Vietnam War (which the Vietnamese refer to as the “American War”), we talk about the military intervention by the U.S. that happened between 1965 and 1973.

Click here to read more articles in this category.

The Vietnam War Background: Fight Against Communism

During the late fifties, Vietnam was divided into a communist North and anti-communist South. Because of the  Cold War  anxiety of the time, the general feeling was that, should the North Vietnamese communists win, the remainder of Southeast Asia would also fall to communism. When President John F. Kennedy took office in 1961, he swore that he would not let that happen.

The more conventionally trained army of South Vietnam was clearly no match for the guerrilla tactics of the North, so in February 1965 America decided to get involved with Operation Rolling Thunder. North Vietnam was supported by China, the Soviet Union, and other communist countries, and the Viet Cong, a South Vietnamese communist group.

The struggle for control of Vietnam, which had been a French colony since 1887, lasted for three decades. The first part of the war was between the French and the Vietminh, the Vietnamese nationalists led by the communist Ho Chi Minh, and continued from 1946 until 1954. The second part was between the United States and South Vietnam on one hand and North Vietnam and the National Liberation Front on the other, ending with the victory of the latter in 1975. The communist side, strongly backed by the Soviet Union and mainland China, sought to increase the number of those who lived behind the Bamboo Curtain.

Both the United States and the Soviet Union regarded the conflict not as a civil war between North and South Vietnam but as a consequential engagement of the Cold War in a strategic region. American leaders endorsed the domino theory, first enunciated by President Eisenhower, that if South Vietnam fell to the communists, other nations in the region such as Laos and Cambodia would also fall.

Vietnam War Summary—A Cold War Quagmire

Five American presidents sought to prevent a communist Vietnam and possibly a communist Southeast Asia. Truman and Eisenhower provided mostly funds and equipment. When Kennedy became president there were fewer than one thousand U.S. advisers in Vietnam. By the time of his death in November 1963, there were sixteen thousand American troops in Vietnam. The Americanization of the war had begun.

Kennedy chose not to listen to the French president, Charles de Gaulle, who in May 1961 urged him to disengage from Vietnam, warning, “I predict you will sink step by step into a bottomless military and political quagmire.”

A debate continues as to what Kennedy would have done in Vietnam if he had served two terms—widen America’s role or begin a slow but steady withdrawal. We do know that throughout his presidency, Kennedy talked passionately about the need to defend “frontiers of freedom” everywhere. In September 1963, he said “what happens in Europe or Latin America or Africa directly affects the security of the people who live in this city.” Speaking in Fort Worth, Texas, on the morning of November 22, the day he was assassinated, Kennedy said bluntly that “without the United States, South Viet-Nam would collapse overnight. . . . We are still the keystone in the arch of freedom.”

Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, was an ambitious, experienced politician who had served in both the House and the Senate as a Democrat from Texas, and his persona was as large as his home state. He idolized FDR for winning World War II and initiating the New Deal and sought to emulate him as president. Like the three presidents who had preceded him, he saw action in time of war, serving as a naval aide in the Pacific during World War II, and like them he was a Christian, joining the Disciples of Christ Church in part for its focus on good works. Drawing on his political experience, Johnson thought that Ho Chi Minh was just another politician with whom he could bargain—offering a carrot or wielding a stick—just as he had done as the Senate majority leader. Ho Chi Minh, however, was not a backroom pol from Chicago or Austin but a communist revolutionary prepared to fight a protracted conflict and to accept enormous losses until he achieved victory.

Campaigning in 1964, Johnson promised, “We’re not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.” It was a promise he failed to honor. In August of that year, after North Vietnamese patrol boats reportedly attacked two U.S. destroyers, the president got the congressional authority he needed to increase the American presence in Vietnam—the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, passed by an overwhelming margin in the Senate.

Once elected, Johnson steadily increased the troop levels until by early 1968 there were more than half a million American servicemen in Vietnam—a course of action Eisenhower had strongly opposed. Johnson quadrupled the number of bombing raids against North Vietnam but barred any invasion of the North by U.S. or South Vietnamese forces, fearful of triggering a military response from Communist China. Johnson’s fears were misplaced: China was caught up in the bloody chaos of the Cultural Revolution. For a decade, the People’s Liberation Army was busy trying to advance the Cultural Revolution while controlling the Red Guards, the fanatical youth movement that the Cultural Revolution had unleashed.

Why was LBJ so determined to defend South Vietnam? Ever conscious of his place in history, the president compared the risk of Vietnam going communist to the “loss” of China in 1949: “I am not going to lose Vietnam,” he vowed. “I am not going to be the president who saw Southeast Asia go the way China went.” In a nationally televised speech in 1965, he said, “The central lesson of our time is that the appetite for aggression is never satisfied. To withdraw from one battlefield means only to prepare for the next.”

But what if the enemy shows no sign of giving in? By 1968, after three and a half years of carefully calibrated escalation, the Pentagon concluded that the North Vietnamese could continue to send at least two hundred thousand men a year into South Vietnam indefinitely. As one analyst wrote, “The notion that we can ‘win’ this war by driving the VC-NVA [Viet-Cong and North Vietnamese Army] from the country or by inflicting an unacceptable rate of casualties on them is false.”

The Tet offensive of January 1968 seemed to confirm such an analysis. Some eighty-five thousand Viet Cong attacked Saigon and other major cities in the south. In most cases, the military historian Norman Friedman writes, the attackers achieved complete tactical surprise. There were dramatic successes, such as penetration of the U.S. embassy in Saigon and the capture of the old imperial capital Hue. Nevertheless, both the U.S. Army and the South Vietnamese army fought well. The civilian population in the South did not rise up against the Saigon government but rejected the communist invaders. It was estimated that 40 percent of the communist cadres were killed or immobilized. The Viet Cong never recovered.

But the American news media reported the Tet offensive as a U.S. defeat, even a debacle. A frustrated and discouraged President Johnson did not know what to believe—the positive reports of his generals or the negative reporting of the media. The public opted for the latter.

Domestic opposition to the war was fueled by the mounting casualties (more than fifty-eight thousand Americans died in Vietnam). CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite—the “most trusted man in America,” according to a Gallup poll at the time—counseled America’s withdrawal in a widely viewed telecast. The president is said to have told an aide that if they had “lost” Cronkite, they had lost the average citizen. Tens and then hundreds of thousands of anti-war protestors filled the streets of Washington, D.C., chanting, “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”

The inability of the United States to achieve a “final” military victory over the North Vietnamese seemed to confirm Mao’s axiom that peasant armies could triumph over modern armies if they were patient and had the necessary will—qualities North Vietnam had in abundance.

Furthermore, the war in Vietnam was affecting U.S. strategic planning across the board. By 1968, experts argued, it would be difficult for the United States to respond anywhere else in the world because of its commitments in Vietnam.

The Vietnam War, Part  I. 1945-1955

Vietnam war, part  ii: 1945-1955, the vietnam war, part iii: 1955-1963.

But even as the very first American boots stepped onto Vietnamese soil, no one in the Eisenhower administration bothered to reflect on how a peasant army had been able to defeat a major Western power, and they attacked anyone who raised the question as being soft on communism.  Vietnam, they said, was part of the larger struggle with China. Two months later, in the same  Life  magazine interview mentioned in part 2, Secretary Dulles argued that the Indochina war was over, that Vietnamese nationalism was on Diem’s side, and that the American presence in South Vietnam was free from the taint of colonialism.  He could not have been more wrong on all three counts. The Viet Minh emerged from the First Indochina War as a modern, confident force.  It was commanded by men who had been promoted up through the ranks based on ability, regardless of their origins (Unlike the South Vietnamese military being built by the Americans, which reflected class and privilege), and who viewed the nationalist struggle as only half over. The North Vietnamese were fueled by nationalism and had earned the reputation of a nationalist army.  The  Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN)  was nationalist only because the Americans said they were.

When Vietnam was partitioned by the Geneva accords, the Vietnamese people had been encouraged to migrate either north or south, to the side of their preference.  Some did (many Catholics moved from the north to the south), but Vietnamese communists had been urged by their northern comrades to remain in the South to vote in the unification election. To eliminate them as a threat, Diem instituted the Denunciation of Communists campaign in which thousands of these “stay behinds” were executed or sent to concentration camps.  In response, South Vietnamese communists began a low-level  insurgency  against the Diem regime.  Although it is unclear how much these South Vietnamese communists were directed from North Vietnam, evidence indicated they acted on their own, but with the approval of North Vietnam, which was using the time to rebuild its military forces after the long war with the French. They began a land reform program based on the Chinese model, but it went too far and resulted in the execution of some 50,000 small-scale “landlords”.

The Vietnam War, Part IV. 1964-1968

tv

The End of the Vietnam War

Beset at home and abroad, in 1968 Lyndon Johnson decided against running for re-election. In March he banned bombing north of the twentieth parallel, leaving most of North Vietnam a sanctuary. He was succeeded by Republican Richard M. Nixon, who largely limited offensive air operations over the North for nearly four years. One example will suffice: from 1965 through 1968 Navy aircrews downed thirty-three enemy aircraft, but over the next three years tailhookers splashed only one. Meanwhile, “peace talks” trickled out in Paris. The end of the Vietnam War was in sight.

Then, on March 30, 1972, Hanoi launched a full-scale conventional attack against South Vietnam, shattering the dead-end Paris “peace talks.” American airpower responded massively.

Leading  Constellation ’s   Air Wing Nine was Commander Lowell “Gus” Eggert, a cheerful aviator who enjoyed partying with his aircrews. Eggert’s keen intuition told him the 1971–72 cruise might be different from the previous three years. He began training his squadrons for large “Alpha” strikes in addition to the usual close air support in South Vietnam and Laos.

“Connie” completed her six-month deployment, and on April 1 she was in Japan preparing to return to California, when the North Vietnamese spring offensive rolled south. Sailors and aircrews hastily offloaded their new purchases—notably motorcycles—and began loading ordnance. The ship was back in the Tonkin Gulf five days later, joining  Hancock ,  Coral Sea , and  Kitty Hawk . By then the communists had beefed up their air defenses, and on one mission over South Vietnam an Intruder pilot had to abort his attack because a cloud of tracers obscured the reticle of his bombsight.

After further delay, Nixon finally loosed the airmen in order to quicken the end of the Vietnam War. A Phantom pilot recalled, “We had reports of 168 SAMs on the first night after Nixon got serious in May. But that was coordinated with massive B-52 raids supported by three carrier air wings.”

On May 9 a handful of aircraft demonstrated the carrier’s potential for strategic effects with extreme economy of force. While  Kitty Hawk  provided a diversionary strike,  Coral Sea  launched nine jets that turned the war around in two minutes: six Navy A-7Es and three Marine A-6As laid three dozen mines in Haiphong Harbor. The weapons were time-delayed to allow ships to leave North Vietnam’s major port. During the next three days, thousands more mines were sown in Hanoi’s coastal waters, effectively blockading the communists from seaborne replenishment. Commander Roger Sheets’s Air Wing Fifteen, on its seventh Vietnam deployment, shut down Haiphong for almost a year—well beyond the impending “peace” treaty.

The mines were frequently replenished, eventually totaling more than eleven thousand weapons. Sometimes the “reseeding” involved unconventional tactics, as when  Saratoga ’s   Air Wing Three employed Phantoms flying formation on Intruders and Corsairs in what one F-4 pilot called “a one-potato, two-potato” drop sequence, based on when the attack jets released.

Finally Phantom crews could ply their trade again. From January 1972 through January 1973, carrier-based F-4s claimed twenty-five aerial kills—nearly as many as the Navy total in the first six years of the war. The tailhookers’ best day was May 10. That morning a twoplane VF-92 section off  Constellation  trolled Kep Airfield and caught two MiG-21s taking off. The high-speed, low-level chase ended with one MiG destroyed which, with the Air Force bombing the Paul Doumer Bridge in Hanoi, sparked an exceptional response.

That afternoon “Connie” launched thirty-two planes against Hai Duong logistics, producing one of the biggest combats of the war with Phantoms, Corsairs, and MiGs embroiled in a “furball” of maneuvering jets. When it was over, two F-4s fell to flak and SAMs while VF-96 claimed six kills, producing the Navy’s only ace crew of the war. In all, the Navy and Air Force downed a dozen MiGs, which remains an unsurpassed one-day total more than forty years later.

During Operation Linebacker—the final air campaign over North Vietnam, signally the end of the Vietnam War—American aircrews claimed seventy-two aerial kills versus twenty-eight known losses to MiGs, an overall exchange ratio of 2.5–1. However, the Navy’s intensive fighter training program from 1969 onward produced exceptional results. “Topgun” graduates and doctrine yielded twenty-four MiGs against four carrier planes lost, including a lone Vigilante escorted by fighters. In contrast to the Navy’s 6–1 kill ratio, the Air Force figure was closer to 2–1, approaching parity in some months.

The disparity between the two services was dramatically illustrated in August 1972, when four F-8E Crusaders from  Hancock deployed to Udorn, Thailand, to update Air Force Phantom crews on air combat maneuvering. The senior Navy pilot was already a MiG killer, Commander John Nichols, who noted, “My biggest challenge was keeping my guys from lording it over the blue suiters.”

Throughout the war and up to the end of the Vietnam War, naval aviators shot down sixty enemy aircraft—all by carrier pilots. It was a stark contrast to Korea when barely a dozen communist planes were credited to tailhookers among fifty-four total by Navy and Marine pilots.

In fact, the reason for carrier-based fighters was to establish air superiority so the attack planes could perform their vital mission. Skyraiders, Skyhawks, Intruders, and Corsairs seldom worried about enemy aircraft while placing ordnance on target the length and breadth of Indochina. Few aircrews and probably few admirals realized how far carrier aviation had come since the start of World War II. Long gone was the era when airpower theorists insisted that sea-based aircraft could not compete with land-based planes. If nothing else, Vietnam confirmed that naval aviation was a world-class organization.

On two days in October 1972, Commander Donald Sumner led USS  America  (CVA-66) A-7 Corsairs against Thanh Hoa Bridge, a vital communist transportation target. One of his pilots, Lieutenant Commander Leighton Smith, had first bombed the bridge as a  Coral Sea  A-4 pilot in 1966. The Air Force had badly damaged “The Dragon’s Jaw,” but spans remained intact. With a combination of two thousand-pound TV-guided weapons and conventional one-ton bombs, the naval aviators finally slew the long-lived dragon, more than seven years after the first U.S. efforts.

During the eleven-day “Christmas War” of 1972, carrier aircraft again supported B-52s in bombing an intransigent Hanoi back to the bargaining table. By then Hanoi was nearly out of SA-2 missiles.

The Paris accords among Washington, Saigon, and Hanoi took effect January 27, 1973. They were the diplomatic efforts that signaled the end of the Vietnam War. On that day Commander Harley Hall, a former Blue Angel leader and the commander of an  Enterprise  F-4 squadron, became the last naval aviator shot down in the long war. His Phantom fell north of the Demilitarized Zone, and though his back-seater survived captivity, Hall did not. Long thereafter his widow learned that he had probably lived two or more years in captivity, abandoned by his government with unknown numbers of other men.

This article is part of our larger selection of posts about the Vietnam War. To learn more, click here for our comprehensive guide to the Vietnam War .

This article is also part of our larger selection of posts about American History. To learn more,  click here for our comprehensive guide to American History .

Additional Resources About Vietnam War

Vietnam War Summary

Vietnam War Summary—Overview of the Conflict

When was the vietnam war, what was the gulf of tonkin resolution, battle of dien bien phu.

history essay the vietnam war

Cite This Article

  • How Much Can One Individual Alter History? More and Less...
  • Why Did Hitler Hate Jews? We Have Some Answers
  • Reasons Against Dropping the Atomic Bomb
  • Is Russia Communist Today? Find Out Here!
  • Phonetic Alphabet: How Soldiers Communicated
  • How Many Americans Died in WW2? Here Is A Breakdown

history essay the vietnam war

history essay the vietnam war

  • History Classics
  • Your Profile
  • Find History on Facebook (Opens in a new window)
  • Find History on Twitter (Opens in a new window)
  • Find History on YouTube (Opens in a new window)
  • Find History on Instagram (Opens in a new window)
  • Find History on TikTok (Opens in a new window)
  • This Day In History
  • History Podcasts
  • History Vault

Vietnam War Timeline

By: History.com Editors

Updated: March 29, 2023 | Original: September 13, 2017

American Paratroopers in field Below Helicopters in South Vietnam(Original Caption) 5/31/1965-Bien Hoa, South Vietnam: United States paratroopers spread out after disembarking from helicopters during a co-ordinated exercise, the first in which all elements of the 173rd Airborne were used. Communist forces are reported to be making heavy attacks against units of the South Vietnamese army and have caused heavy casualties.

The Vietnam War started in the 1950s, according to most historians, though the conflict in Southeast Asia had its roots in the French colonial period of the 1800s. The United States, France, China, the Soviet Union, Cambodia, Laos and other countries would over time become involved in the lengthy war, which finally ended in 1975 when North and South Vietnam were reunited as one country. The following Vietnam War timeline is a guide to the complex political and military issues involved in a war that would ultimately claim millions of lives.

Vietnam Background: Uneasy French Rule

•  1887 : France imposes a colonial system over Vietnam, calling it French Indochina. The system includes Tonkin, Annam, Cochin China and Cambodia. Laos is added in 1893.

•  1923-25 : Vietnamese nationalist Ho Chi Minh is trained in the Soviet Union as an agent of the Communist International (Comitern).

•  February 1930 : Ho Chi Minh founds the Indochinese Communist Party at a meeting in Hong Kong.

•  June 1940 : Nazi Germany takes control of France.

•  September 1940 : Japanese troops invade French Indochina and occupy Vietnam with little French resistance.

•  May 1941 : Ho Chi Minh and communist colleagues establish the League for the Independence of Vietnam. Known as the Viet Minh, the movement aims to resist French and Japanese occupation of Vietnam.

•  March 1945 : Japanese troops occupying Indochina carry out a coup against French authorities and announce an end to the colonial era, declaring Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia independent.

•  August 1945 : Japan is defeated by the Allies in World War II , leaving a power vacuum in Indochina. France begins to reassert its authority over Vietnam.

•  September 1945 : Ho Chi Minh declares an independent North Vietnam and models his declaration on the American Declaration of Independence of 1776 in an (unsuccessful) effort to win the support of the United States.

•  July 1946 : Ho Chi Minh rejects a French proposal granting Vietnam limited self-government and the Viet Minh begins a guerrilla war against the French.

When Was the Vietnam War?

•  March 1947 : In an address to Congress, President Harry Truman states that the foreign policy of the United States is to assist any country whose stability is threatened by communism. The policy becomes known as the Truman Doctrine.

•  June 1949 : The French install former emperor Bao Dai as head of state in Vietnam.

•  August 1949 : The Soviet Union explodes its first atom bomb in a remote area of Kazakhstan, marking a tense turning point in the Cold War with the United States.

•  October 1949 : Following a civil war, Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong declares the creation of the People’s Republic of China.

•  January 1950 : The People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union formally recognize the communist Democratic Republic of Vietnam and both begin to supply economic and military aid to communist resistance fighters within the country.

•  February 1950 : Assisted by the Soviet Union and the newly Communist China, the Viet Minh step up their offensive against French outposts in Vietnam.

•  June 1950 : The United States, identifying the Viet Minh as a Communist threat, steps up military assistance to France for their operations against the Viet Minh.

•  March-May 1954 : French troops are humiliated in defeat by Viet Minh forces at Dien Bien Phu . The defeat solidifies the end of French rule in Indochina.

•  April 1954 : In a speech, U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower says the fall of French Indochina to communists could create a “domino” effect in Southeast Asia. This so-called domino theory guides U.S. thinking on Vietnam for the next decade.

history essay the vietnam war

HISTORY Vault: Vietnam in HD

See the Vietnam War unfold through the gripping firsthand accounts of 13 brave men and women forever changed by their experiences.

The Geneva Accords

•  July 1954 : The Geneva Accords establish North and South Vietnam with the 17th parallel as the dividing line. The agreement also stipulates that elections are to be held within two years to unify Vietnam under a single democratic government. These elections never happen.

•  1955 : Catholic nationalist Ngo Dinh Diem emerges as the leader of South Vietnam, with U.S. backing, while Ho Chi Minh leads the communist state to the north.

•  May 1959 : North Vietnam forces begin to build a supply route through Laos and Cambodia to South Vietnam in an effort to support guerrilla attacks against Diem’s government in the south. The route becomes known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail and is greatly expanded and enhanced during the Vietnam War .

•  July 1959 : The first U.S. soldiers are killed in South Vietnam when guerrillas raid their living quarters near Saigon.

•  September 1960 : Ho Chi Minh, facing failing health, is replaced by Le Duan as head of North Vietnam’s ruling communist party.

•  December 1960 : The National Liberation Front (NLF) is formed with North Vietnamese backing as the political wing of the antigovernment insurgency in South Vietnam. The United States views the NLF as an arm of North Vietnam and starts calling the military wing of the NLF the Viet Cong—short for Vietnam Cong-san, or Vietnamese communists.

•  May 1961 : President John F. Kennedy sends helicopters and 400 Green Berets to South Vietnam and authorizes secret operations against the Viet Cong.

•  January 1962 : In Operation Ranch Hand, U.S. aircraft start spraying Agent Orange and other herbicides over rural areas of South Vietnam to kill vegetation that would offer cover and food for guerrilla forces.

•  February 1962 : Ngo Dinh Diem survives a bombing of the presidential palace in South Vietnam as Diem’s extreme favoritism toward South Vietnam’s Catholic minority alienates him from most of the South Vietnamese population, including Vietnamese Buddhists.

•  January 1963 : At Ap Bac, a village in the Mekong Delta southwest of Saigon, South Vietnamese troops are defeated by a much smaller unit of Viet Cong fighters. The South Vietnamese are overcome despite their four-to-one advantage and the technical and planning assistance of U.S. advisers.

•  May 1963 : In a major incident of what becomes known as the “Buddhist Crisis,” the government of Ngo Dinh Diem opens fire on a crowd of Buddhist protestors in the central Vietnam city of Hue. Eight people, including children, are killed.

•  June 1963 : A 73-year-old monk immolates himself while sitting at a major city intersection in protest, leading other Buddhists to follow suit in coming weeks. The United States’ already declining confidence in Diem’s leadership continues to slide.

•  November 1963 : The United States backs a South Vietnam military coup against the unpopular Diem, which ends in the brutal killing of Diem and his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu. Between 1963 and 1965, 12 different governments take the lead in South Vietnam as military coups replace one government after another.

•  November 1963 : President Kennedy is assassinated in Dallas, Texas . Lyndon B. Johnson becomes president.

America Enters the Vietnam War

•  August 1964 : USS Maddox  on an espionage mission is attacked by North Vietnamese patrol torpedo boats in the Gulf of Tonkin . A second attack on the Maddox and another U.S. ship in the Gulf is alleged, but likely never occurred, according to National Security Agency documents declassified in 2005. The incidents lead President Johnson to call for air strikes on North Vietnamese patrol boat bases. Two U.S. aircraft are shot down and one U.S. pilot, Everett Alvarez Jr., becomes the first U.S. airman to be taken prisoner by North Vietnam.

•  August 1964 : The attacks in the Gulf of Tonkin spur Congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution , which authorizes the president to “take all necessary measures, including the use of armed force” against any aggressor in the conflict.

•  November 1964 : The Soviet Politburo increases its support to North Vietnam, sending aircraft, artillery, ammunition, small arms, radar, air defense systems, food and medical supplies. Meanwhile, China sends several engineering troops to North Vietnam to assist in building critical defense infrastructure.

•  February 1965 : President Johnson orders the bombing of targets in North Vietnam in Operation Flaming Dart in retaliation for a Viet Cong raid at the U.S. base in the city of Pleiku and at a nearby helicopter base at Camp Holloway.

•  March 1965 : President Johnson launches a three-year campaign of sustained bombing of targets in North Vietnam and the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Operation Rolling Thunder . The same month, U.S. Marines land on beaches near Da Nang, South Vietnam as the first American combat troops to enter Vietnam.

•  June 1965 : General Nguen Van Thieu of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam Governmental Military (ARVN), becomes president of South Vietnam.

More Troops, More Deaths, More Protests

•  July 1965 : President Johnson calls for 50,000 more ground troops to be sent to Vietnam, increasing the draft to 35,000 each month.

•  August 1965 : In Operation Starlite, some 5,500 U.S. Marines strike against the First Viet Cong Regiment in the first major ground offensive by U.S. forces in Vietnam. The six-day operation diffuses the Viet Cong regiment, although it would quickly rebuild.

•  November 1965 : Norman Morrison , a 31-year-old pacifist Quaker from Baltimore, sets himself on fire in front of the Pentagon to protest the Vietnam war. Onlookers encourage him to release his 11-month-old baby daughter, whom he is holding, before he is engulfed in flames.

•  November 1965 : Nearly 300 Americans are killed and hundreds more injured in the first large-scale battle of the war, the Battle of la Drang Valley. At the battle, in South Vietnam’s Central Highlands, U.S. ground troops are dropped onto and withdrawn from the battlefield by helicopter, in what would become a common strategy. Both sides declare victory.

•  1966 : U.S. troop numbers in Vietnam rise to 400,000.

•  June 1966 : American aircraft attack targets in Hanoi and Haiphong in raids that are among the first such attacks on cities in North Vietnam.

•  1967 : U.S. troop numbers stationed in Vietnam increase to 500,000.

•  February 1967 : U.S. aircraft bomb Haiphong Harbor and North Vietnamese airfields.

•  April 1967 : Huge Vietnam War protests occur in Washington , D.C., New York City and San Francisco .

•  September 1967 : Nguyen Van Thieu wins the presidential election of South Vietnam under a newly enacted constitution.

•  November 1967 : In the Battle of Dak To, U.S. and South Vietnamese forces resist an offensive by communist forces in the Central Highlands. The United States forces suffer some 1,800 casualties.

•  January-April 1968 : A U.S. Marine garrison at Khe Sanh in South Vietnam is bombarded with massive artillery by communist forces from the People’s Army of North Vietnam (PAVN). For 77 days, the marines and South Vietnamese forces fend off the siege.

North Vietnam Shocks America

•  January 1968 : The Tet Offensive begins, encompassing a combined assault of Viet Minh and North Vietnamese armies. Attacks are carried out in more than 100 cities and outposts across South Vietnam, including Hue and Saigon, and the U.S. Embassy is invaded. The effective, bloody attacks shock U.S. officials and mark a turning point in the war and the beginning of a gradual U.S. withdrawal from the region.

•  February 11-17, 1968 : This week records the highest number of U.S. soldier deaths during the war, with 543 American deaths.

•  February-March 1968 : Battles at Hue and Saigon end with American and ARVN victory as Viet Cong guerillas are cleared from the cities.

•  March 16, 1968 : At the U.S. massacre at Mai Lai, more than 500 civilians are murdered by U.S. forces. The massacre happens amid a campaign of U.S. search-and-destroy operations that are intended to find enemy territories, destroy them and then retreat.

•  March 1968 : President Johnson halts bombing in Vietnam north of the 20th parallel. Facing backlash about the war, Johnson announces he will not run for reelection.

•  November 1968 : Republican Richard M. Nixon wins the U.S. presidential elections on the campaign promises to restore “law and order” and to end the draft.

•  May 1969 : At Ap Bia Mountain, about a mile from the border with Laos, U.S. paratroopers attack entrenched North Vietnamese fighters in an attempt to cut off North Vietnamese infiltration from Laos. U.S. troops eventually capture the site (temporarily), which would be nicknamed Hamburger Hill by journalists due to the brutal carnage of the 10-day battle.

•  September 1969 : Ho Chi Minh dies of a heart attack in Hanoi.

•  December 1969 : The U.S. government institutes the first draft lottery since World War II, prompting ever more young American men—later disparaged as “draft dodgers”—to flee to Canada.

Gradual Withdrawal from Vietnam

•  1969-1972 : The Nixon administration gradually reduces the number of U.S. forces in South Vietnam, placing more burden on the ground forces of South Vietnam’s ARVN as part of a strategy known as Vietnamization . U.S. troops in Vietnam are reduced from a peak of 549,000 in 1969 to 69,000 in 1972. 

•  February 1970 : U.S. National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger begins secret peace negotiations with Hanoi politburo member Le Duc Tho in Paris.

•  March 1969-May 1970 : In a series of secret bombings known as “Operation Menu,” U.S. B-52 bombers target suspected communist base camps and supply zones in Cambodia. The bombings are kept under wraps by Nixon and his administration since Cambodia is officially neutral in the war, although The New York Times would reveal the operation on May 9, 1969.

•  April-June 1970 : U.S. and South Vietnamese forces attack communist bases across the Cambodian border in the Cambodian Incursion.

•  May 4, 1970 : In a bloody incident known as the Kent State Shooting , National Guardsmen fire on anti-war demonstrators at Ohio’s Kent State University, killing four students and wounding nine.

•  June 1970 : Congress repeals the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution to reassert control over the president’s ability to use force in the war.

Vietnamization Falters, America Exits

•  January-March 1971 : In Operation Lam Son 719, ARVN troops, with U.S. support, invade Laos in an attempt to cut off the Ho Chi Minh Trail. They are forced to retreat and suffer heavy losses.

•  June 1971 : The New York Times publishes a series of articles detailing leaked Defense Department documents about the war, known as the Pentagon Papers . The report reveals the U.S. government had repeatedly and secretly increased U.S. involvement in the war.

•  March-October 1972 : The People’s Army of Vietnam launches the large-scale, three-pronged Easter Offensive against the Army of the Republic of Vietnam and U.S. forces. While North Vietnam gains control of more territory in South Vietnam, the offensive isn’t the decisive blow its military leaders had hoped for.

•  December 1972 : President Nixon orders the launch of the most intense air offense of the war in Operation Linebacker. The attacks, concentrated between Hanoi and Haiphong, drop roughly 20,000 tons of bombs over densely populated regions.

•  January 22, 1973 : Former President Johnson dies in Texas at age 64.

•  January 27, 1973 : The Selective Service announces the end to the draft and institutes an all-volunteer military.

•  January 27, 1973 : President Nixon signs the Paris Peace Accords , ending direct U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. The North Vietnamese accept a cease fire. But as U.S. troops depart Vietnam, North Vietnamese military officials continue plotting to overtake South Vietnam.

•  February-April 1973 : North Vietnam returns 591 American prisoners of war (including future U.S. Senator and presidential candidate, John McCain ) in what is known as Operation Homecoming.

How Many Were Killed in the Vietnam War?

•  August 1974 : President Nixon resigns in the face of likely impeachment after the Watergate Scandal is revealed. Gerald R. Ford becomes president.

•  January 1975 : President Ford rules out any further U.S. military involvement in Vietnam.

•  April 1975 : In the Fall of Saigon , the capital of South Vietnam is seized by communist forces and the government of South Vietnam surrenders. U.S. Marine and Air Force helicopters transport more than 1,000 American civilians and nearly 7,000 South Vietnamese refugees out of Saigon in an 18-hour mass evacuation effort.

•  July 1975 : North and South Vietnam are formally unified as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam under hardline communist rule.

•  The War Dead : By the end of the war, some 58,220 Americans lose their lives. Vietnam would later release estimates that 1.1 million North Vietnamese and Viet Cong fighters were killed, up to 250,000 South Vietnamese soldiers died and more than 2 million civilians were killed on both sides of the war.

The Vietnam War: The Definitive Illustrated History , created in association with the Smithsonian Institution, published by DK | Penguin Random House, 2017 . The Vietnam War: An Intimate History , by Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns, based on the film series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, published by Penguin Random House, 2017 . Vietnam Profile – Timeline, BBC News, June 12, 2017 . Operation Starlite: The First Battle of the Vietnam War, Military.com . South Vietnam: The Buddhist Crisis, Time . Buddhists – The 1963 Crisis, GlobalSecurity.org . Vietnam, Diem, the Buddhist Crisis, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library The Fall of Saigon, United States History . What Were the Major Battles of the Vietnam War? The Vietnam War . Statistical information about casualties of the Vietnam War, U.S. National Archives . “Feuds and Bad Planning in Saigon Exit Recalled,” The New York Times , May 5, 1975 . “Nixon Again Deplores Leak on Bombing Cambodia,” The New York Times , March 11, 1976 . Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961–1963, Volume III, Vietnam, January–August 1963, The U.S. Department of State, Office of the Historian . “The Truman Doctrine Fades,” The New York Times , May 4, 1975 .

history essay the vietnam war

Sign up for Inside History

Get HISTORY’s most fascinating stories delivered to your inbox three times a week.

By submitting your information, you agree to receive emails from HISTORY and A+E Networks. You can opt out at any time. You must be 16 years or older and a resident of the United States.

More details : Privacy Notice | Terms of Use | Contact Us

80 Vietnam War Essay Topics & Examples

Looking for Vietnam war essay topics? Being the largest conflict in the US history, Vietnam war is definitely worth analyzing.

  • 🔝 Top 10 Essay Topics
  • 💡 Essay: How to Write
  • 🏆 Best Essay Examples & Topic Ideas
  • 💣 Most Interesting Topics
  • 🔍 Research Topics & Questions

Why did the US lose the Vietnam war? Who won the war and how did that happen? There are many questions about the conflict that wait to be answered. Other options for your Vietnam war essay are to focus on the US involvement or talk about the lessons of the conflict.

Whether you are planning to write an argumentative essay, research paper, or thesis on the Vietnam war, this article will be helpful. Here we’ve collected top Vietnam war research questions, titles. Essay examples are also added to add to your inspiration.

🔝 Top 10 Vietnam War Essay Topics

  • Vietnam war: the causes
  • US involvement in the Vietnam war
  • Vietnam war: the key participants
  • The causes of the conflict in Vietnam
  • Gulf of Tonkin incident and its role in the Vietnam war
  • Why did the US lose the Vietnam war?
  • War crimes in the cause of the conflict in Vietnam
  • Vietnam war: the role of women
  • Weapons and technology in the Vietnam war
  • Vietnam war and its influence on popular culture

💡 Vietnam War Essay: How to Write

Chemical warfare, civilian peace protests, and an overwhelming number of casualties are all central circumstances of a Vietnamese-American 19-year conflict that garnered attention all over the world.

Reflecting all these topics in a Vietnam War essay is essential to writing an excellent paper, as well as other structural and informational points. In the prewriting stages:

  • Research your issue. Doing so will not only help you choose among various Vietnam War essay topics but also help you start assembling a list of sources that can be of use. Compiling a bibliography early on will allow you to gauge how well covered your subject is and whether you can approach it from different viewpoints. Use various book and journal titles to give your work academic credibility.
  • Write a Vietnam War essay outline. This action will help you distribute the weight of your ideas evenly between sub-themes. In turn, doing so will allow you to create a smooth flowing, interconnected narrative of whichever issue you choose.
  • Compose a title for your paper. Vietnam War essay titles should be both reflective of their author’s stance and representative of the chosen methodological approach. Since your title is the first thing a potential reader sees, it should grab their attention in the best way.
  • Read available sample essays to see which tools and techniques may work in your own paper. While plagiarism is punishable in the academic world, there are no repercussions for getting inspiration or pretending to grade an essay for yourself. Good examples may be just the thing you need to write an excellent paper yourself!

Now you are ready to begin writing. Layering your paper with the appropriate information is only one aspect of essay writing, as you should also:

  • Begin your introduction by placing a Vietnam War essay hook in it. This catch can be a remarkable piece of information, a quote from a famous person, or an opposing viewpoint on the subject. Whichever you choose, placing a hook allows you to interest your readers and secure their interest for the duration of your paper.
  • Use appropriate terminology. A war-related paper may call for an in-depth understanding of technology, while an ideology related one requires more event-related knowledge. Choose your words according to the specifics of your issue and use them to write a comprehensive and well-rounded essay.
  • Understand the cause and effect war environment. Clearly define the links between events and make sure your audience understands all the intricacies of the issue. A timeline, written by you or found online, should help you trace these connections, creating an interflowing essay.
  • Recognize the effect of seemingly background events. The recognition of a soldier’s civil rights and the rise of a movement that called for American citizens to return to their home continent is not battlefield-related but greatly impacted politics regarding the issue. Remember that there may be connections between seemingly unrelated problems, and finding them is your goal as an essayist.
  • Stick to your Vietnam War essay prompt and the received instructions. Ignoring the specified word count in favor of drafting a more extensive coverage of the problem is not worth losing a grade on a suburb essay.

Always check the rubric that your instructor provided to receive good grades.

Writing an essay giving your trouble? Zero starting ideas? Head over to IvyPanda and get your essay written in no time!

🏆 Best Vietnam War Essay Examples & Topic Ideas

  • Similarities and Differences Between Korean and Vietnam Wars There were also several differences such as the way of development of the conflicts where the Korean War was during three years, and the Vietnam War was the prolonged struggle, the participation of the Chinese […]
  • Music as a Weapon During the Vietnam War Music to the soldiers in Vietnam acted as a tool to remind all troops of the responsibility that they had taken by being on the battlefield.
  • Why Did the United States Lose the Vietnam War? The Office of the Secretary of Defense had become demoralized due to the events that had taken place; hence, it was unwilling to escalate the war further due to the decline of the army troops […]
  • The Vietnam War in the “Child of Two Worlds” Therefore, in the future, he is like to live in the outside world rather than in the inside one. Therefore, Lam wants to start a new life in the US and forgets his roots, which […]
  • “The Killing Zone: My Life in the Vietnam War” by Downs At the very outset, it was clear to the soldiers that the war in Indochina was not being conducted in terms of the glory myths on which they had been raised. The second part of […]
  • How the Vietnam War Polarized American Society It galvanized the enemy and opponents of the war in both Vietnam and America and led many to question the ethics of the campaigns.
  • Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War The Vietnam War caused unintended consequences for the civil rights movements of the 1960s as it awakened the African-Americans’ consciousness on the racism and despotism that they experienced in the United States.
  • Causes and Effects of the Vietnamese War To the U.S.the war was a loss, because the reunion of South and North Vietnamese citizens marked the end of the war, hence U.S.’s undivided support for the southern region yielded nothing, apart from numerous […]
  • Photos of Vietnam War The role of the media in the Vietnam War also raises issues of what the media ought to censor and report to the public.
  • The Use of Agent Orange in the Vietnam War The Association of American Advancement of science prompted the US government to allow investigations into the effects of Agent Orange in Vietnam in 1968.
  • Protests and Music of the Vietnam War As the public absorbed the announcement, and the truth behind the war, they were angered by the fact that many American lives had been lost in the war, and the fact that the government was […]
  • Vietnam War in the “Platoon” Movie by Oliver Stone In the context of the war, the confrontation between two non-commissioned officers, the cruel-hearted Barnes and the humane Elias, is depicted.
  • How Did the Media Shape Americans’ Perceptions of the Vietnam War? At the heart of this war, the media is believed to have shaped the Americans perception about the war. Technology in this moment made it possible for television to film some incidents in the war […]
  • Political and Social Forces During and After the Vietnam War The political forces in the aftermath of the Vietnam War centered around balancing between the Cold War and the maintenance of public support.
  • Researching and Analysis of the Vietnam War A Chinese leader inspired by the Soviet Union and the Chinese, Ho Chi Minh, formed a union to aid the resistance against the French occupiers in Vietnam and the Japanese.
  • The Vietnam War and the Tet Offensive In this presentation, the discussion of the impact of Tet Offensive on the United States and the role of media in military events will be discussed.
  • The Artistic Legacy of Maya Lin: A Cultural Response to the Vietnam War Major confrontations as the signs of a shift in cultural perspectives and attitudes have always defined the development of art, the Vietnam War being one of the infamous examples of the phenomenon.
  • Vietnam War: History and Facts of War That Began in 1959 The Second Indochina War began in 1959, five years after the division of the country, according to the Geneva Agreement. South Vietnam’s troops failed to substitute American soldiers, and in 1974 the peace agreement was […]
  • The Vietnam War: Diplomatic Mechanisms Connected With the USA The onset of the Vietnam War exposed the vagaries in the American political and administrative systems in terms of issues of diplomacy, presidency, and even in cultural and social matters.
  • “The Green Berets” Film About the Vietnam War According to the plot, one American journalist named George Beckworth is to cover the topic of the military involvement of the USA in this war.
  • Vietnam War: David Halberstam’s “The Making of a Quagmire” In his account, the author of the book The Making of a Quagmire: America and Vietnam during the Kennedy Era, is categorical about the dealings of the Americans in the Vietnamese affair.
  • “A Time of War: The United States and Vietnam” by Robert D. Schulzinger These events relate to the activities and interests of the Americans, the French and Vietnamese which preceded the beginning and the aftermath of the war.
  • Interview Report: Memories of the Vietnam War Locker about the way he happened to take part in the Vietnam War, he said that he was drafted but, anyway, at that time he thought that it was his destiny as he wanted to […]

💣 Most Interesting Vietnam War Topics

  • Ho Chi Minh’s Influence in the Vietnam War He was the leader of the Vietnam independence movement and established the Democratic Republic of Vietnam which was governed by the communists.
  • “Vietnam War Generation Journal” by Aaron Over the years, the American people realized that the lived of the US soldiers were wasted for achieving the ambitious goals of the American leaders.
  • How the Vietnam War Influenced the Iraq War? During the Vietnam era, the neo-conservatism movement expanded due to the political polarization occurring in the country between the anti-war, anti-American sentiments of the counterculture and neo-cons who championed blind patriotism.
  • Impact of the Vietnam War and Results of the Cold War It galvanized the enemy and opponents of the war in both Vietnam and America and led many to question the ethics of the campaigns.
  • The Vietnam War in American History Since early fifties the government of the United States began to pay special attention to Vietnam and political situation in this country, because, it was one of the most important regions in the Southeast Asia.
  • How TV Showed the Vietnam War At the dawn of television media emergence, the coverage of the Vietnam War was subjective as the opinion of the public was manipulated by the government to get the desired reaction from the Americans to […]
  • Vietnam War on Television Thus, the research paper will be written in accordance with the following working thesis statement: At the dawn of television media emergence, the coverage of the Vietnam War was subjective as the opinion of the […]
  • Vietnam War Overview in Media Since the defeat of Saigon in April 1975, two opposing representations, the mirror theory, and the elitist opinion theory have appeared to clarify how the media impacted the results of the war.
  • French Involvement in Vietnam War Even though in the overwhelming majority of cases, the author focuses attention on the history of Vietnam since the Involvement of the French troops in the nineteenth century, he also gives background information as to […]
  • Vietnam War Perceptions of African American Leaders Externally, the country was embroiled in an unpopular war in Vietnam and internally, rejection of the ‘establishment’ typified by the ‘Counter-culture movement’ and the Black Civil rights movement was gaining momentum.
  • Vietnamese Culture and Traditions: The Role in Vietnam War It was this division that left America with little understanding of how the rest of the world lives and how the country can effectively help others even in times of war.
  • My Lai Massacre During Vietnam War American soldiers of Company assaulted the hamlet of My Lai part of the village of Son My in Quang Ngai province of South Vietnam on 16 March 1968.
  • American Government’s Involvement in the Vietnam War According to John Kerry, although the main idea behind the decision made by the U.S.government at the time seemed legitimate given the rise in the threat of communism taking over democracy, the execution of it […]
  • American History During the Vietnam War In the quest to figure out the events that took place in the history of America, I had an opportunity to interview a close family friend who was one of the African American soldiers during […]
  • The Vietnam War on the Network Nightly News This evidence refuting the use of attrition by the American troops indicate that the strategy was ineffective and as such, it gave their enemies a leeway to capitalize on it and intensify the combat.
  • China-Vietnam Opposition or the Third Vietnam War The Korean War, numerous military operations in the Middle East, and the Vietnam War were preconditioned by the clash of ideologies and parties unwillingness to make a compromise.
  • Vietnam War vs. War on Terror in the Middle East The starting point for the War on Terror is considered to be the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and other locations which led to the deaths of thousands.
  • The Vietnam War and Its Effects on the Veterans Although numerous books and articles contain memories of those who lived to tell the tale, the best way to learn about the Vietnam War and to understand how war changes people is to talk to […]
  • Vietnam War: The Results of Flawed Containment The neo-orthodox perspective on the war in Vietnam consisted of criticism towards United States policies in the sense that civilian and military leaders of the country were unsuccessful in developing achievable and realistic plans with […]
  • Vietnam War and American Revolution Comparison Consequently, the presence of these matters explains the linkage of the United States’ war in Vietnam and the American Revolution to Mao’s stages of the insurgency.
  • Vietnam War in “A Path to Shine After” by James Post The author uses the contrast between a peaceful life of the veteran and his experience as a soldier to highlight the senselessness and cruelty of war.
  • Vietnam War Experiences in David Vancil’s Poems For these reasons, the majority of the works devoted to the given issue tend to demonstrate the horrors of war and factors that impacted people.
  • America in Vietnam War: Effects of Involvement However, the involvement of America in the war has made other countries around the world to question its principle of morality.

🔍 Vietnam War Research Topics & Questions

  • African American Soldiers During Vietnam War In the 1960s and 70s, African Americans battled racial discrimination at home in the United States but also faced similar if not the same tension as a member of the Armed Forces while fighting in […]
  • Contribution of Women in the Vietnam War Special emphasis will be given to nurses because without their contribution, so many soldiers would have lost their lives or suffered from deteriorating conditions in the War Some of the nurses in the Vietnam War […]
  • The American Strategic Culture in Vietnam War Spector further emphasizes that the involvement of the United States in both phases of the Vietnam War was due to Harry Truman, the then president of the United States, who did not support communism, but […]
  • Hanoi and Washington: The Vietnam War The Vietnam War was a conflict that was military in nature, occurred between the years 1954 and 1975, and was between the communists and the non-communists.
  • America’s Failure in Promoting Its Politic in Vietnam Existing literature purports that, part of America’s agenda in Vietnam was to stop the spread of communism and in other literature excerpts, it is reported that, America was persuading North Vietnam to stop supporting the […]
  • Vietnam War in the Book “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien The Irony of being at war is that Peace and conflict are both inevitable; it is the way we handle either of the two that determines our opinion of life in general both in the […]
  • Anti-War Movement and American Views on the Vietnam War The fact that people started to take part in demonstrations and openly protest any drafting and involvement of the United States in the war, created even more attention towards the Vietnam Conflict.
  • The Vietnam War: Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy Leadership Roles On November 1, 1995, Eisenhower’s action to give military training to the government of South Vietnam marked the official start of the U.S.involvement in the Vietnamese conflict.
  • The Vietnam War Causes The aftermath of the Second World War had the South Vietnam controlled by the French and the North Vietnam controlled by Viet Minh.
  • The Vietnam War: A Clash of Viewpoints With the help of the most realistic descriptions and the vivid pictures of woes that soldiers had to take in the course of the battles, the author makes the people sink into the mind of […]
  • China’s Support for North Vietnam in the Vietnam War As of the time of the war, the capital city of South Vietnam was Saigon while that of the North was Hanoi.
  • The Role of Women in the Vietnam War For example, women in the Navy Nurse Corps and Army Nurse Corp were sent to take part in the Vietnam War and the Korean War.
  • Appy, C. and Bloom, A., Vietnam War Mythology and the Rise of Public Cynicism, 49-73 The first myth is that the intervention of the US in the Vietnam War was devoid of any political interests and colonial based ambition contrary to that of the French.
  • Vietnam Women Soldiers in the Vietnam War and Life Change After the War In 1968, the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong forces attacked all the major cities of South Vietnam and even the US embassy followed where the war could not stop but in the year 1973 […]
  • Vietnam War: The Battle Where There Could Be No Winners Inflamed by the ideas of the patriotic behavior and the mission of protecting the interests of the native land, the American soldiers were eager to start the battle.
  • The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution of 1964 Is a Turning Point in Vietnam War The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that occurred in August 7, 1964, was one of the major turning points in the United States military involvement into the flow of the Vietnam War.
  • The Vietnam War’s and Student’s Unrest Connection An example of such protests were held by the by the University of Washington during the national strikes that took an approximate one week as a reaction to the Kent University shootings and a culmination […]
  • Vietnam War: John Kerry’s Role Kerry’s actions during the Vietnam war that eventually led to his acquisition of the Purple Heart is a as a result of his ability to stop the actions of the enemy as evident in their […]
  • Views on Vietnamese War in the Revisionism School Though United States did not involve itself into the war in order to break the dominance of Soviet Union, it wanted to gain politically and economically.
  • Stories From the Vietnam War In the dissonance of opinions on the Vietnam War, it appears reasonable to turn to the first-hand experiences of the veterans and to draw real-life information from their stories.
  • Concepts of the Vietnam War The fear to go to Vietnam and participate in a war that many believed America will inevitably lose, continued to engulf their life even more.
  • Analysis of the Vietnam War Timeline 1961-64 In essence, the analysis of JWPs in this war would entail critical exploration of the jus in bello, with the aim of determining the combatants and non-combatants, and this is important in the sense that […]
  • Politics in the 1960s: Vietnam War, Bay of Pigs Invasion, Berlin Wall However, in recent years following the collapse of the Soviet Union between1980 1990 and the opening of Vietnam to the outside world in the same period it is possible to understand the motives of both […]
  • The Vietnam War Outcomes The Vietnam War was and is still considered the longest deployment of the U. In conclusion, both the U.S.and the Vietnam governments have a lot to ponder regarding the outcome of the Vietnam War.
  • Chicago (A-D)
  • Chicago (N-B)

IvyPanda. (2024, March 1). 80 Vietnam War Essay Topics & Examples. https://ivypanda.com/essays/topic/vietnam-war-essay-examples/

"80 Vietnam War Essay Topics & Examples." IvyPanda , 1 Mar. 2024, ivypanda.com/essays/topic/vietnam-war-essay-examples/.

IvyPanda . (2024) '80 Vietnam War Essay Topics & Examples'. 1 March.

IvyPanda . 2024. "80 Vietnam War Essay Topics & Examples." March 1, 2024. https://ivypanda.com/essays/topic/vietnam-war-essay-examples/.

1. IvyPanda . "80 Vietnam War Essay Topics & Examples." March 1, 2024. https://ivypanda.com/essays/topic/vietnam-war-essay-examples/.

Bibliography

IvyPanda . "80 Vietnam War Essay Topics & Examples." March 1, 2024. https://ivypanda.com/essays/topic/vietnam-war-essay-examples/.

  • Communism Topics
  • World War 1 Research Ideas
  • Socialism Ideas
  • Civil War Titles
  • US History Topics
  • Cold War Topics
  • Totalitarianism Questions
  • Iraq War Research Ideas
  • World War 2 Essay Topics
  • Afghanistan War Essay Topics
  • World History Topics
  • Revolutionary War Essay Ideas
  • Genocide Essay Titles
  • Conflict Research Topics

Read the TIME Essay That Advocated for the Vietnam War

US Marines landing in Da Nang.  (Photo b

I t’s easy to forget now, 40 years after the Fall of Saigon and freshly removed from the prospect of Iraq and Afghanistan lapsing into “ another Vietnam ,” that there was a time when many believed that escalation in Vietnam was the right thing to do. Among the prominent voices who felt that way were the editors of TIME who, 50 years ago today, on May 14, 1965, published an influential essay backing the President’s decision to step up the ground campaign in Asia. It was, the headline proclaimed, “The Right War at the Right Time”:

Obviously, after overcoming his early hesitation, Lyndon Johnson will not allow the U.S. to be pushed out of Viet Nam. For if that were to happen, Americans would only have to make another stand against Asian Communism later, under worse conditions and in less tenable locations. As Demosthenes said about expansionist Macedonia in the 4th century B.C.: “You will be wise to defend yourselves now, but if you let the opportunity pass, you will not be able to act even if you want to.” Despite all its excruciating difficulties, the Vietnamese struggle is absolutely inescapable for the U.S. in the mid-60s—and in that sense, it is the right war in the right place at the right time.

Anticipating counterarguments, the essay swatted away objections. An American offensive wouldn’t be interfering with a civil war because Communism was a worldwide issue. South Vietnam’s continued fighting was indication that they wanted help. Once Communism was entrenched, it was nearly impossible to get rid of. A Communist Vietnam would seek to dominate the region. There was no evidence that U.S. involvement would draw in China or Russia. Events in Asia did matter to American interests. And, finally, there was no value in negotiating with Communists. All in all, the essay concluded, the critics of the war had no ground on which to stand.

The magazine would later change its perspective. In recent conversations about the war, former TIME Saigon bureau chief Peter Ross Range said that he sensed a shift after the Tet Offensive in 1968. “We were all news reporters, but I think there was a shared attitude, a widely shared attitude especially among younger correspondents like me, that the war was not a good thing,” he said. “It was never discussed openly at the magazine but if you read the magazine over time, over the last year before I went, you would get very much the same feeling.”

Years later, after the end of the Cold War, another TIME essay revisited the idea, positing that though the Cold War may have been the right war, Vietnam was the wrong battle—and, the piece concluded, the consequences of that wrong decision would continue to be felt for many years to come.

Read the full 1965 essay, here in the TIME Vault: The Right War at the Right Time

See the Most Iconic Photos of the Vietnam War

An American 1st Air Cavalry helicopter airlifts supplies into a Marine outpost during Operation Pegasus in Vietnam in 1968.

More Must-Reads From TIME

  • The 100 Most Influential People of 2024
  • The Revolution of Yulia Navalnaya
  • 6 Compliments That Land Every Time
  • What's the Deal With the Bitcoin Halving?
  • If You're Dating Right Now , You're Brave: Column
  • The AI That Could Heal a Divided Internet
  • Fallout Is a Brilliant Model for the Future of Video Game Adaptations
  • Want Weekly Recs on What to Watch, Read, and More? Sign Up for Worth Your Time

Write to Lily Rothman at [email protected]

Home — Essay Samples — War — Vietnam War — The Vietnam War Historical Analysis

test_template

The Vietnam War Historical Analysis

  • Categories: Vietnam War

About this sample

close

Words: 502 |

Published: Jan 30, 2024

Words: 502 | Page: 1 | 3 min read

Table of contents

Historical context, causes of the vietnam war, progression of the war, opposition to the war, impact of the war.

  • BBC News. "Vietnam War: History." https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-16220030
  • National Archives. "The Vietnam War and American Involvement." https://www.archives.gov/research/military/vietnam-war
  • History. "Vietnam War." https://www.history.com/topics/vietnam-war/vietnam-war-history

Image of Dr. Charlotte Jacobson

Cite this Essay

Let us write you an essay from scratch

  • 450+ experts on 30 subjects ready to help
  • Custom essay delivered in as few as 3 hours

Get high-quality help

author

Prof Ernest (PhD)

Verified writer

  • Expert in: War

writer

+ 120 experts online

By clicking “Check Writers’ Offers”, you agree to our terms of service and privacy policy . We’ll occasionally send you promo and account related email

No need to pay just yet!

Related Essays

1 pages / 562 words

2 pages / 1047 words

3 pages / 1427 words

5 pages / 2648 words

Remember! This is just a sample.

You can get your custom paper by one of our expert writers.

121 writers online

Still can’t find what you need?

Browse our vast selection of original essay samples, each expertly formatted and styled

Related Essays on Vietnam War

In conclusion, "Where The Domino Fell" offers a comprehensive analysis of the Vietnam War that is both enlightening and accessible. Through its examination of historical context, military strategy, social movements, and [...]

Juxtaposition is a powerful literary technique that involves placing contrasting elements side by side to create a deeper understanding or meaning. In Tim O'Brien's novel "The Things They Carried," juxtaposition is used to [...]

“On the Rainy River” by Tim O’Brien thoroughly illustrates the emotional burdens of war, especially the fear and shame felt by many men who were forcibly drafted into the Vietnam War. When examining this text using a formalist [...]

In the short story "The Things They Carried" by Tim O'Brien, the author effectively captures the predicaments faced by soldiers during the Vietnam War. Each soldier carries both literal and symbolic objects that serve as a link [...]

The American forces in Vietnam had trouble dealing with North Vietnamese troops and the Viet Cong for numerous reasons. These reasons include the North Vietnamese determination to never give up on the war, the South Vietnamese [...]

The Vietnam War has been a topic of heated debate for decades, with many people arguing that it was unjustified and unnecessary. Others, however, believe that the war was a necessary and justifiable conflict. In this essay, I [...]

Related Topics

By clicking “Send”, you agree to our Terms of service and Privacy statement . We will occasionally send you account related emails.

Where do you want us to send this sample?

By clicking “Continue”, you agree to our terms of service and privacy policy.

Be careful. This essay is not unique

This essay was donated by a student and is likely to have been used and submitted before

Download this Sample

Free samples may contain mistakes and not unique parts

Sorry, we could not paraphrase this essay. Our professional writers can rewrite it and get you a unique paper.

Please check your inbox.

We can write you a custom essay that will follow your exact instructions and meet the deadlines. Let's fix your grades together!

Get Your Personalized Essay in 3 Hours or Less!

We use cookies to personalyze your web-site experience. By continuing we’ll assume you board with our cookie policy .

  • Instructions Followed To The Letter
  • Deadlines Met At Every Stage
  • Unique And Plagiarism Free

history essay the vietnam war

history essay the vietnam war

The Vietnam War (1955-1975) essay

The Vietnam War is considered to be one of the most important events in the history of the United States. This event influenced the lives of millions of Americans because many citizens of the United States were enrolled in the army. According to statistical data, “Hundreds of thousands of U.S. soldiers were wounded and traumatized, and tens of thousands lost their lives” (Friedrichs 131). The war began in 1955 and ended in 1975. This historical period was the era of the Cold War, which was characterized by a lot of tension between the United States and Soviet Union. The Vietnam War took place in Vietnam, and was extended in Laos and Cambodia.

The Vietnam War is also known as Vietnam Conflict and Second Indochina War. It was a prolonged struggle between nationalists aimed at unifying the territories of South and North Vietnam under a communist government and the United States with the South Vietnamese assistance aimed at preventing the spread of communism (Friedrichs 131). North Vietnam was backed by the People’s Republic of China, while South Vietnam was backed by the United States and defiant communist allies. American involvement in the Vietnam War can be explained as a way to prevent a communist takeover not only of South Vietnam, but also other countries.  In other words, the U.S. strategy was aimed at preventing the further spread of communism across the world (Friedrichs 131). The leaders of North Vietnam and the Viet Cong wanted to reunify Vietnam under communist government. As a result, they considered the military conflict as an example of the colonial war, which was fought initially against France, then against the United States as France was backed by the U.S.A. and, finally, against South Vietnam, which was the U.S. puppet state (Bostdorff  & Goldzwig 520). According to Morena Groll, “it was the longest military conflict, which on top of everything ended in defeat for the Americans”(2). The United States was engaged in a war that many military and political experts analyzed as unnecessary war because of having no way to win. The U.S. political leaders lost the national support for the war because the U.S. citizens were against the war actions in Vietnam. Since the end of the Vietnam War, this event has become a benchmark for the U.S. leaders signifying what they should not do in all future U.S. foreign conflicts. According to researchers, “wartime disagreements about foreign policy persisted in the postwar period as Americans debated the proper ‘lessons’ of the war”(Hagopian 23).

Thesis statement: Although the Vietnam War caused by the U.S. desire to stop the spread of communism had negative consequences on Americans, including social, economic and political consequences, this event helped to shape Modern World History.

  • The Vietnam War: background information

The Vietnam War has been widely discussed in the media and academic sources. In order to assess the role of the Vietnam War in shaping the Modern World History, it is necessary to refer to the causes, consequences and solutions to the military conflict. Special attention should be paid to the U.S. President’s policy. According to Denise M. Bostdorff  and Steven Goldzwig, “Kennedy’s rhetoric on Vietnam serves as an exemplar of how presidents balance idealistic arguments, which apply principles of genus to public problem-solving, and pragmatic arguments, which emphasize the efficacy or practicality of politics” (515). The idealistic appeals of President Kennedy provided legitimate support to his Vietnam policy, representing him as a “principled leader” (Bostdorff  & Goldzwig 515). In other words, the U.S. President’s appeals helped him to avoid criticism of his foreign policy and explain the causes of slow progress.

  • The major causes of the war

North Vietnam was under the communist government and South Vietnam wasn’t. Ho Chi Minh, the leader of the North Vietnam, wanted to spread communism in the whole Vietnam, uniting North Vietnam and South Vietnam. The leaders of the South Vietnam opposed the spread of communism. The United States took the side of South Vietnam, bringing the war in a different level (Hagopian 73). Thus, the major causes of the Vietnam War include three causes:

  • To stop the spread of communism in Vietnam;
  • As the French soldiers pulled out of war for a number of reasons, the U.S. was ready to take their place in the military conflict;
  • The U.S. foreign policy was based on providing support to friend countries.

There were several players in the Vietnam War: South Vietnam, North Vietnam, the USA, South Korea, People’s Republic of China, Russia.

  • The major consequences of the war

The Vietnam War had an enormous impact on the life of Americans, including various spheres of public and private life. The consequences of the military conflict contributed to considerable changes in the U.S. foreign policy. Although the United States is considered to be the world’s greatest superpower, there are some negative effects of the U.S. President’s decision regarding the solutions to the Vietnam conflict. According to researchers, the United States “had entered Vietnam as a powerful, united nation certain of its cause and of victory” (Wiest 83). The defeat in the Vietnam War made millions of Americans reconsider and reassess the established beliefs and values. Besides the above mentioned facts, the country was left battered and depressed because of the uncertainty in the future policy, especially in the face of the complex challenges caused by the Cold War (Wiest 83).

            Moreover, the Vietnam War shaped the relations between the role of the political opinion of the public and the politics that was influenced by the media functioning during the military conflict in Vietnam. The legacy of the Vietnam War can be assessed by means of the statistical data, which affected the public opinion regarding the war. According to statistical data, “during the war in Vietnam the French lost some 76,000 dead and 65,000 wounded – while their allies lost 19,000 dead and 13,000 wounded, while American forces lost some 58,000 dead and over 300,000 wounded” (Wiest 83). The U.S. foreign policy was criticized during the war.

            In addition, many historians, politicians and journalists indicted the established government policy, providing radically different opinions regarding the major causes of war and its consequences. The most popular journalists and historians were Bernard Fall, Robert Shaplen, John Lewis, George McT. Kahin and others. They provided severe criticism of the war’s efficiency (Marolda 767). The American movement against the Vietnam War promoted anti-war ideas and encouraged Americans to protest against American involvement in this military conflict. This movement influenced the decisions of Johnson’s administration, leading to the policy reversal in 1968. According to researchers, “during the Nixon administration, it hastened the U.S. troops withdrawals, continued to restrain the war, fed the deterioration in the U.S. troop morale and discipline” (Marolda 758).

  • The major solutions to the war

The major solutions to the war are based on the fact that the Vietnam War was the most significant military conflict of the 20-th century. Although the war in Vietnam was rather small as it involved limited action of the United States, the “9 years of official American involvement in the war over 2 million Vietnamese and 58, 219 Americans lost their lives” (Wiest 5).

In addition, the key military operations during the war were influenced by the relationships between the military and the civilians. Vietnam was the center of Cold War strategy. Different operations conducted during the Vietnam War were related to the tactics of the limited war. This strategy was criticized by the leaders of civilian society. There were limits set on the spread of the military conflict in Vietnam. Although the senior members of the U.S. military forces recommended expanding the scope of the military conflict, the U.S. presidents and their administrations opposed the expansion of freedom of action. Both the U.S. President John F. Kennedy and President Lyndon Johnson used democratic solutions to the war (Hagopian 24).

  • The importance of the event in Modern World History

The Vietnam War plays an important role in Modern World History. This event has changed the minds of millions of people regarding the perception of war and the role of the U.S. involvement in the military conflict. According to researchers, “the Vietnam War and its perception were unprecedented in their entire dimension,” because of the considerable social and political changes that occurred during the military conflict (Groll 2). More specifically, there were changes in the media perception due to the emergence of television as an effective tool of political thought and political socialization. During this period, television expanded and turned into the most influential source of information for all people. Television offered massive opportunities for the U.S. leaders, including the war coverage and the public perception. The Canadian philosopher of communication theory, Marshall McLuhan, states that “television brought the brutality of war into the comfort of the living room. Vietnam was lost in the living rooms of America – not on the battlefields of Vietnam”(qtd. in Groll 2).

In fact, the Vietnam War is considered to be one of the most disliked wars in the history of United States. According to researchers, “the cost of this war was the death of 60 thousands Americans and 2 to 4 million Vietnamese deaths” (Rahman & Marjan 23).  The considerable changes in the development of journalism during the period of Vietnam War led to the changed public perception of the war. According to researchers, “the story of Vietnam and how pictures of bloody fights, American casualties, and killed Vietnamese civilians turned around American public opinion and, eventually, led to the withdrawal of American troops, has become a classic” (Rahman & Marjan 23). The majority of reporters provided cynical representation of the war. As a result, the mass media produced confusion among the U.S. citizens because people began to express political distrust to the government (Rahman & Marjan 24).

The Vietnam War (1955-1975) essay part 2

Do you like this essay?

Our writers can write a paper like this for you!

Order your paper here .

IMAGES

  1. Introduction To The Vietnam War History Free Essay Example

    history essay the vietnam war

  2. Vietnam War Essay

    history essay the vietnam war

  3. Vietnam War Outline: Timeline and Facts

    history essay the vietnam war

  4. The Vietnam War Essay

    history essay the vietnam war

  5. History Unit 2 on the Vietnam War

    history essay the vietnam war

  6. Write an essay on vietnam war in english

    history essay the vietnam war

VIDEO

  1. The Vietnam War: Between Conflict and Social Awareness

  2. Vietnam War in 60 Seconds

  3. Stories: The Vietnam War

  4. Vietnam war Essay

  5. War & Pacifism in Vietnam; Against the anti-war narrative

  6. Vietnam war Grade 12 history

COMMENTS

  1. Vietnam War: Causes, Facts & Impact

    The Vietnam War was a long, costly and divisive conflict that pitted the communist government of North Vietnam against South Vietnam and its principal ally, the United States. The conflict was ...

  2. Vietnam War

    In 1975 South Vietnam fell to a full-scale invasion by the North. The human costs of the long conflict were harsh for all involved. Not until 1995 did Vietnam release its official estimate of war dead: as many as 2 million civilians on both sides and some 1.1 million North Vietnamese and Viet Cong fighters.

  3. The Vietnam War (article)

    The origins of American involvement in Vietnam date back to the end of the Second World War, when the Vietnamese were struggling against the continued French colonial presence in their country. Ho Chi Minh, the leader of the Viet Minh (Vietnamese Independence League) and the founder of Vietnam's Communist Party, successfully blended ...

  4. Vietnam War: Background, Summary Of Events, and Conclusion

    The Vietnam War was a long, costly and divisive conflict that pitted the communist government of North Vietnam against South Vietnam and its principal ally, the United States. The conflict was intensified by the ongoing Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. More than 3 million people (including over 58,000 Americans) were ...

  5. The Vietnam War (1945-1975): Brief Overview

    The Vietnam War has roots in Vietnam 's centuries of domination by imperial and colonial powers—first China , which ruled ancient Vietnam, and then France, which took control of Vietnam in the late 1800s and established French Indochina. In the early 1900s, nationalist movements emerged in Vietnam, demanding more self-governance and less ...

  6. The Vietnam War

    The Vietnam War was one of the most disruptive and divisive conflicts of the 20th century. The struggle for Vietnam dates back centuries, to when Vietnam was ruled by its powerful northern neighbour China. Viet rulers regained control in the 10th century and maintained their autonomy for almost 800 years. By the 19th century, however, the tide ...

  7. The Vietnam War (1945-1975): Suggested Essay Topics

    Suggested Essay Topics. 1 . Did the United States win or lose the Vietnam War? Justify your answer. 2 . How did U.S. objectives differ from the objectives of Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese Communists during the war? 3 . Compare and contrast Johnson's and Nixon's respective Vietnam War strategies. 4 .

  8. The Vietnam War and American Military Strategy, 1965-1973

    An excellent collection of essays can be found in both David Anderson's The Columbia History of the Vietnam War (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011) ... Hastings argued that the "Korean War occupies a unique place in history, as the first superpower essay of the nuclear age in the employment of limited force to achieve limited ...

  9. Vietnam War: Dates and Timeline

    1973. 1968. 1970. 1970. 1968. The Vietnam War lasted about 40 years and involved several countries. Learn about Vietnam War protests, the Tet Offensive, the My Lai Massacre, the Pentagon Papers ...

  10. The Vietnam War: Background and Overview

    The Vietnam War Background: Fight Against Communism. During the late fifties, Vietnam was divided into a communist North and anti-communist South. Because of the Cold War anxiety of the time, the general feeling was that, should the North Vietnamese communists win, the remainder of Southeast Asia would also fall to communism.

  11. Vietnam War Essay

    Vietnam War Essay: The Vietnam War is considered to be one of the most memorable and long-standing conflicts that involved the U.S., with a major role to play in it.The Vietnam War was primarily the consequences of the U.S. anti-communist foreign policy in the year 1960. It was the military conflict between communist North Vietnam and their allies, against South Vietnam and other countries ...

  12. Vietnam War Timeline

    Both sides declare victory. • 1966: U.S. troop numbers in Vietnam rise to 400,000. • June 1966: American aircraft attack targets in Hanoi and Haiphong in raids that are among the first such ...

  13. Vietnam War

    FULRO fought an insurgency against both South Vietnam and North Vietnam with the Viet Cong and was supported by Cambodia for much of the war. The Vietnam War (also known by other names) was a conflict in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia from 1 November 1955 [A 1] to the fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975. It was the second of the Indochina Wars and was ...

  14. Vietnam War Essay • Examples of Hooks, Thesis, Topics

    The United States' Role in The Vietnam War. Essay grade: Good. 5 pages / 2648 words. The Vietnam War started in 1954 as a war between the government of South Vietnam and the communist government of North Vietnam. The latter was aided by communist forces in South Vietnam, known as the Viet Cong.

  15. Vietnam War

    Lists covering some of the major causes and effects of the Vietnam War. The conflict had its roots in Vietnam's colonial history and erupted following the end of the French Indochina War. By the time the Vietnam War drew to a close, more than three million people had perished in the conflict.

  16. 80 Vietnam War Essay Topics & Examples

    The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution of 1964 Is a Turning Point in Vietnam War. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that occurred in August 7, 1964, was one of the major turning points in the United States military involvement into the flow of the Vietnam War. The Vietnam War's and Student's Unrest Connection.

  17. Vietnam War essay questions

    Vietnam to World War II. 1. Describe the politics, economics, social structures and culture of medieval Vietnam. How did ordinary Vietnamese people live prior to the arrival of Europeans? 2. Discuss Vietnam's contact and relationship with the West, up to 1850. How did this contact shape or affect Vietnamese society? 3.

  18. PDF Exploring the Vietnam War

    Graham Greene, The Quiet American (1955)1. he purpose of this essay is to provide classroom instructors and other interested parties with a review of a range of read-ings, films, and documentaries about the Vietnam War. The eight areas presented explore the conflict in its complexity, from background to culture to the legacy for US foreign policy.

  19. Vietnam War History: Read the TIME Essay That Supported the War

    Read the full 1965 essay, here in the TIME Vault: The Right War at the Right Time See the Most Iconic Photos of the Vietnam War An American 1st Air Cavalry helicopter airlifts supplies into a ...

  20. The Vietnam War (1945-1975): Study Guide

    Overview. Historical Background: 900-1900. Vietnamese Nationalism and the First Indochina War: 1900-1954. U.S. Involvement and the Cold War Context: 1947-1955. Diem and the Republic of Vietnam: 1955-1960. Kennedy and the First U.S. Involvement: 1961-1963. Johnson and Escalation: 1964-1966. Quagmire and the Tet Offensive: 1966-1968.

  21. The Vietnam War Historical Analysis: [Essay Example], 502 words

    The Vietnam War Historical Analysis. The Vietnam War, which lasted from 1955 to 1975, was a complex and significant conflict that had far-reaching implications for both Vietnam and the United States. This essay will provide a detailed examination of the causes, progression, opposition, and impact of the war, with a focus on providing evidence ...

  22. The Vietnam War (1955-1975) essay

    This event influenced the lives of millions of Americans because many citizens of the United States were enrolled in the army. According to statistical data, "Hundreds of thousands of U.S. soldiers were wounded and traumatized, and tens of thousands lost their lives" (Friedrichs 131). The war began in 1955 and ended in 1975.

  23. Vietnam-Essay-Note

    History Grade 12 Vietnam essay failed to stop the expansion of communism in do you agree with this statement? substantiate your answer analyzing the causes and. ... Substantiate your answer by analyzing the causes and the consequences of America's involvement in the Vietnam War. SYNOPSIS When the USA became involved in Vietnam; it was for all ...