A Dictionary of American History

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Author: Thomas L. Purvis  | Date: 1995

Vietnam War

Vietnam War US civilian and military advisors had served in South Vietnam since 1954 and they numbered 900 when John F. Kennedy’s presidency began. On 1 October 1960, South Vietnamese Communists (Vietcong) formed the National Liberation Front to reunite the South with Ho Chi Minh’s North Vietnam by political unrest and guerrilla warfare, which Ho Chi Minh actively supported. Kennedy approved a counterinsurgency program on 28 January 1961. South Vietnam’s President Ngo Dinh Diem requested more advisors on 9 June and a bilateral defense treaty on 1 October. Kennedy reaffirmed the US commitment to South Vietnamese independence on 15 December 1961.

The Vietcong made rapid gains in rural areas and exploited widespread, often violent, protests against Diem in the cities. A military coup (planned with Kennedy’s knowledge) assassinated Diem on 2 November 1963. South Vietnam’s political instability, corruption, and growing war-weariness frustrated US efforts to build effective local resistance to the Vietcong, who showed remarkable discipline, self-sacrifice, and single-mindedness.

US involvement deepened after Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution (1964). On 2 March 1965, the US began bombing North Vietnam; on 7 May, the first major US combat unit (173rd Airborne Brigade) landed in South Vietnam; on 6 April, Lyndon Johnson directed US troops to conduct offensive operations. During 1965, US forces in Vietnam rose from 23,300 to 184,000 (reaching a peak strength of 543,400 by April 1969). The Vietnam antiwar movement began expanding significantly in 1965.

Ho Chi Minh poured North Vietnamese regulars south via Laos. Except for the Ia Drang Valley and Khe Sanh, the Communists avoided major battles until the Tet offensive of January 1968. Tet was a major military defeat for Ho Chi Minh, but became the conflict’s turning point because Americans were shocked by a sharp rise in US deaths and the ferocity of enemy attacks. Anticipating endless streams of US casualties sustained to prop up a corrupt, incompetent military government, US opinion steadily shifted against the war. When faced with skyrocketing demands to increase US troops in Vietnam, Clark Clifford and other senior officials advised Johnson on 25 March to cease escalating the war and seek a negotiated peace.

Formal peace talks began in Paris on 12 May 1968. The bombing of North Vietnam stopped on 31 October. On 14 May 1970, shortly after massive US protests against his invasion of Cambodia, Richard Nixon proposed mutual force withdrawals by North Vietnam and the US. Nixon pursued a “Vietnamization” policy designed to withdraw US troops as quickly as the poorly trained, poorly armed, and poorly led South Vietnamese forces could be strengthened to face the highly professional North Vietnamese regulars. Bombing of North Vietnam resumed on 26 December 1971, when US strength in the south was 156,800 troops. The Paris peace accords ended hostilities on 27 January 1973, when just 24,000 Americans remained in South Vietnam. Except for US embassy personnel, all US forces were withdrawn in 1973. North Vietnamese forces invaded South Vietnam in 1975 and took Saigon. The last 50 Americans were evacuated on 30 April.

In all, 8,762,000 Americans performed Vietnam-era military service: 4,386,000 army, 794,000 marines, 1,740,000 air force, 1,842,000 navy. About 2,000,000 servicemen served in or offshore Vietnam. US losses: 47,244 battle deaths (30,868 army, 13,065 marines, 1,737 air force, 1,574 navy); 10,751 noncombat deaths (7,270 army, 1,750 marines, 815 air force, 916 navy); 153,329 hospitalized wounded (96,811 army, 51,399 marines, 939 air force, 4,180 navy); 150,375 lightly wounded (104,725 army, 37,234 marines, 2,518 air force, 5,898 navy); 2,483 missing (767 army, 941 air force, 733 navy, 42 civilians). South Vietnamese forces lost 223,748 killed and 570,600 wounded. Communist forces lost up to 660,000 killed. About 300,000 civilians died in South Vietnam and 65,000 in North Vietnam.

The war’s direct expenses amounted to about $106,800,000,000. The US Navy and Air Force flew about 527,000 bombing missions carrying 6,162,000 tons of explosives (three times the tonnage dropped by US bombers in World War II).

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Chicago: Thomas L. Purvis, "Vietnam War," A Dictionary of American History in A Dictionary of American History (Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell Reference, 1995), Original Sources, accessed December 7, 2019, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=7T4H4TMGBQMYTXI.

MLA: Purvis, Thomas L. "Vietnam War." A Dictionary of American History, in A Dictionary of American History, Cambridge, Mass., Blackwell Reference, 1995, Original Sources. 7 Dec. 2019. originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=7T4H4TMGBQMYTXI.

Harvard: Purvis, TL, 'Vietnam War' in A Dictionary of American History. cited in 1995, A Dictionary of American History, Blackwell Reference, Cambridge, Mass.. Original Sources, retrieved 7 December 2019, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=7T4H4TMGBQMYTXI.