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Vietnam War: Chronology

Learn the key dates during the Vietnam War and get some ideas from the sample essays.

The origins and the first Vietnam War: 1940-1954

Prior to the Second World War, Vietnam was ruled as the French colony Indochina, which also included Cambodia and Laos. This territory was lost to the Japanese whilst French efforts were focused in Europe during WW2 but part of the settlement reached on VJ Day included Japan relinquishing control of any occupied land, leaving the way open for the French to return. However, re-establishing power was to prove difficult because the brutality of Japanese occupation had encouraged the growth of Vietnamese nationalism, and the emergence of the Viet Minh. Although Ho Chi Minh had communist beliefs, his primary aim was Vietnam’s independence and he therefore launched a resistance campaign against the French return, which became known as the First Vietnam War. Despite financial support from America, France struggled to combat the guerrilla tactics of the Vietminh.

Key dates include:

September 1940 – Japan invades and occupies French Indochina

May 1941 - Ho Chi Minh establishes the Viet Minh (League for the Independence of Vietnam)

August 1945 – Japan surrenders to the USA to end WW2 and is forced to release control of Vietnam

September 1945 – Ho Chi Minh declares that Vietnam is an independent country

December 1946 – The First Vietnam War begins

July 1950 – Truman pledges $15million of financial support to the French

The aftermath of French withdrawal: 1954-1959

After eight years of fighting, the French had failed to regain a proper foothold in Vietnam and hoped to draw the Vietminh guerrilla fighters out into a more conventional battle by concentrating their forces in a valley at Dien Bien Phu. Although this plan worked, the strength of the Vietminh had been underestimated and they were soon surrounded and desperately requesting US air strikes. After Eisenhower refused to intervene, the French withdrew from Indochina and the Geneva Accords saw Vietnam split into North and South along the 16th parallel, with the Vietminh controlling the North and Bao Dai remaining as emperor in the South, ruling alongside the US –backed Diem. Planned elections to reunite the country within two years never took place and American financial support was transferred to Diem’s regime, with military and civilian advisors being sent to the South. Diem was unpopular from the outset, with his harsh treatment of the Buddhist majority resulting in public clashes as early as 1955. Within five years, the Vietminh were ready to actively support and develop Southern resistance to Diem, by sending guerrilla fighters and supplies down the Ho Chi Minh trail.

Key dates include:

May 1954 – The Battle of Dien Bien Phu

July 1954 – The Geneva Accords are signed

November 1954 – US Military Mission begins and MAAG is formed

October 1955 - Ngo Dinh Diem is declared president of South Vietnam after rigged elections

March- April 1955 – The Sects Crisis

1956 – The proposed date for Vietnamese elections passes without them being held

January 1959 –The Vietminh approved a ‘people’s war’ on the South

The beginnings of escalation: 1960-1964

By 1960, opposition to Diem in the South had been formalised into the National Liberation Front (NLF) - an umbrella movement of groups and individuals who wanted his removal. America referred to communist guerrilla fighters attached to this group as the ‘Vietcong’ and they were increasingly supplied and assisted by the Vietminh. Although President Kennedy refrained from deploying ground troops in the early 1960s, he appears to have been seriously contemplating this by 1963 and he certainly increased US involvement as Diem’s control deteriorated. US helicopters were sent to assist the ARVN, villagers were herded into guarded hamlets and chemical warfare began; Agent Orange and napalm were both used in an effort to clear vegetation and reveal the location of guerrilla fighters, with devastating consequences for the civilian population. The number of advisors also rose to 16,000 but the strength and morale of the ARVN remained low, as was demonstrated at the Battle of Ap Bac. Before Kennedy’s own assassination, President Diem, was removed in an ARVN coup. When a ship was attacked off the coast of North Vietnam the following year, it was a useful justification for Kennedy’s successor Johnson to obtain the Tonkin Resolution; this allowed him to rectify the situation in Vietnam through ‘any means necessary.’

Key dates include:

December 1960 – The National Liberation Front (NLF) is formed and the 2nd Vietnam War begins

January 1961 - John F Kennedy becomes President of the United States

January 1963 – The Battle of Ap Bac

March 1962 – The Strategic Hamlets Programme begins

Spring – Summer 1963 – The Buddhist Crisis

November 1963 – President Diem and President Kennedy are assassinated

August 1964 – The Gulf of Tonkin Incident and Resolution

Johnson’s ground war and bombing campaign: 1965-1968

After Johnson had been elected in November 1964 and following the Tonkin Resolution, he felt justified in escalating American involvement in Vietnam. The following year, he ordered extensive bombing of the North in an effort to hinder the flow of assistance down the Ho Chi Minh trail and also sent in ground troops to actively assist the ARVN in resisting guerrilla activity in the South. US troops found progress difficult; guerrilla warfare strained them psychologically and they were often unable to identify the ‘enemy’ as they merged with the civilian population. Both these issues resulted in atrocities, the most notorious of which was the massacre of 508 innocent people at Mai Lai. General Westmoreland tried to use body counts as evidence of success but also continued to request increasing troop numbers as Vietnam, with 500,000 fighting by 1968. Despite these numbers, the failure of Johnson’s policies was starkly revealed during the Tet Offensive, when the international media captured the Vietcong’s bold attacks on key cities, including Saigon. Although the communists failed to gain control of these urban areas, the footage proved their strength and determination and suggested an alarming lack of US control.

Key dates include:

February 1965 – Operation Rolling Thunder begins

June 1965 – First US combat troops deployed

November 1965 – Battle of Ia Drang

January 1968 – The Tet Offensive

March 1968 – The Mai Lai Massacre

Nixon’s escalation and withdrawal: 1969-1973

President Nixon’s approach to Vietnam was somewhat contradictory; he began a policy of ‘Vietnamisation’, where control was gradually handed over to the ARVN and US troops withdrawn, but he also escalated the conflict by targeting Laos and Cambodia as well as increasing the bombing campaigns over North Vietnam. Peace talks had already begun in the last year of Johnson’s presidency and these continued, with National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger playing a key role. Détente with the USSR and rapprochement with China also discouraged the two communist superpowers from assisting the North to any greater extent and this triangular diplomacy was an important reason why the North agreed to the Paris Peace Accords in 1973. Initially, the terms seemed to reflect US achievement; although the North remained in communist hands, they were ordered to refrain from military action in the South. However, within two years and largely as a result of popular feeling, the old South Vietnamese regime had fallen and the Vietminh governed the whole of Vietnam.

Key dates include:

July 1969 – The first US troops are withdrawn from Vietnam

September 1969 – Ho Chi Minh dies

April 1970 – The war is extended to Cambodia

March 1972 – The Easter Offensive

January 1973 – The Paris Peace Accords are signed

April 1975 – Saigon falls to Vietminh and Vietcong forces