Vietnam War, military struggle fought in Vietnam from 1959 to 1975. It began as a determined attempt by Communist guerrillas (the so-called Vietcong) in the South, backed by Communist North Vietnam, to overthrow the government of South Vietnam. The struggle widened into a war between South Vietnam and North Vietnam and ultimately into a limited international conflict. The United States and some 40 other countries supported South Vietnam by supplying troops and munitions, and the USSR and the People's Republic of China furnished munitions to North Vietnam and the Vietcong. On both sides, however, the burden of the war fell mainly on the civilians. The war also engulfed Laos, where the Communist Pathet Lao fought the government from 1965 to 1973 and succeeded in abolishing the monarchy in 1975; and Cambodia, where the government surrendered in 1973 to the Communist Khmer Rouge.

Vietnam (1945-54). The war developed as a sequel to the struggle (1946-54) between the French, who were the rulers of Indochina before World War II, and the Communist-led Vietminh, or League for the Independence of Vietnam, founded and headed by the revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh. Having emerged as the strongest of the nationalist groups that fought the Japanese occupation of French Indochina during World War II, the league was determined to resist the reestablishment of French colonial rule and to implement political and social changes. Following the surrender of Japan to the Allies in August 1945, Vietminh guerrillas seized the capital city of Hanoi and forced the abdication of Emperor Bao Dai. On September 2 they declared Vietnam to be independent and announced the creation of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, commonly called North Vietnam, with Ho Chi Minh as president. France officially recognized the new state, but the subsequent inability of the Vietminh and France to reach satisfactory political and economic agreements led to armed conflict beginning in December 1946. With French backing Bao Dai set up the state of Vietnam, commonly called South Vietnam, on July 1, 1949, and established a new capital at Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City). The following year, the U.S. officially recognized the Saigon government, and to assist it, U.S. President Harry S. Truman dispatched a military assistance advisory group to train South Vietnam in the use of U.S. weapons. In the meantime, the two main adversaries in Vietnam—France and the Vietminh—were steadily building up their forces. The decisive battle of the war developed in the spring of 1954 as the Vietminh attacked the French fortress of Dien Bien Phu in northern Vietnam. On May 8, 1954, after a 55-day siege, the French surrendered. On the same day, both North and South Vietnamese delegates met with those of France, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, the United States, Communist China, and the two other Indochinese states, Laos and Cambodia, in Geneva, to discuss the future of all of Indochina. Under accords drawn up at the conference, France and North Vietnam agreed to a truce. It was further agreed to partition the country temporarily along the 17th parallel, with the north going to the Communists and the south placed under the control of the Saigon government. The agreement stipulated that elections for reunification of the country would be held in 1956. Neither the U.S. nor the Saigon government agreed to the Geneva accords, but the U.S. announced it would do nothing to undermine the agreement. Once the French had withdrawn from Vietnam, the U.S. moved to bolster the Saigon government militarily and, as asserted by some observers, engaged in covert activities against the Hanoi government. On October 24, 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower offered South Vietnam direct economic aid, and the following February, U.S. military advisers were dispatched to train South Vietnamese forces. American support for the Saigon government continued even after Bao Dai was deposed, in a referendum on October 23, 1955, and South Vietnam was made a republic, with Ngo Dinh Diem as president. One of Diem's first acts was to announce that his government would refuse to hold reunification elections, on the grounds that the people of North Vietnam would not be free to express their will and because of the probability of falsified votes (although Diem and other South Vietnamese officials were also accused of fraudulent election practices).

The New War Begins The position taken by Diem won the backing of the U.S. The Communist government in Hanoi, however, indicated its determination to reunify the nation under Hanoi. The truce arranged at Geneva began to crumble and by January 1957, the International Control Commission set up to implement the Geneva accords was reporting armistice violations by both North and South Vietnam. Throughout the rest of the year, Communist sympathizers who had gone north after partition began returning south in increasing numbers. Called Vietcong, they began launching attacks on U.S. military installations that had been established, and in 1959 began their guerrilla attacks on the Diem government. The attacks were intensified in 1960, the year in which North Vietnam proclaimed its intention “to liberate South Vietnam from the ruling yoke of the U.S. imperialists and their henchmen.” The statement served to reinforce the belief that the Vietcong were being directed by Hanoi. On November 10, the Saigon government charged that regular North Vietnamese troops were taking a direct part in Vietcong attacks in South Vietnam. To show that the guerrilla movement was independent, however, the Vietcong set up their own political arm, known as the National Liberation Front (NLF), with its headquarters in Hanoi.

Social and Political Turbulence in South Vietnam In the face of the deteriorating situation, the U.S. restated its support for Saigon. In April 1961, a treaty of amity and economic relations was signed with South Vietnam, and in December, President John F. Kennedy pledged to help South Vietnam maintain its independence. Subsequently, U.S. economic and military assistance to the Diem government increased significantly. In December 1961, the first U.S. troops, consisting of 400 uniformed army personnel, arrived in Saigon in order to operate two helicopter companies; the U.S. proclaimed, however, that the troops were not combat units as such. A year later, U.S. military strength in Vietnam stood at 11,200. The Diem government, meanwhile, proved unable to defeat the Communists or to cope with growing unrest among South Vietnamese Buddhists and other religious groups. Antigovernment agitation among the Buddhists was especially strong, with many burning themselves to death as a sign of protest. Still others were placed under arrest, the government charging that the Buddhist groups had become infiltrated by politically hostile persons, including Communists. Although this contention was supported by outside observers, including a U.S. fact-finding team, religious friction between the Buddhists and the Catholic-led government was at least as powerful a force as political conflict. On November 1, 1963, the Diem regime was overthrown in a military coup. Diem and his brother and political adviser, Ngo Dinh Nhu, were executed. The circumstances surrounding the coup were not fully clear at the time. In the summer of 1971, however, with the publication by the U.S. press of a secret Pentagon study of the war (see Controversy in the U.S. below), it was revealed that the coup had been known to be imminent and that the U.S. was prepared to support a successor government. The government that replaced the Diem regime was a revolutionary council headed by Brigadier General Duong Van Minh. A series of other coups followed, and in the 18 months after Diem's overthrow South Vietnam had ten different governments. None of these proved capable of dealing effectively with the country's military situation. A military council under General Nguyen Van Thieu and General Nguyen Cao Ky was finally created in 1965, and it restored basic political order. Later, in September 1967, elections were held and Thieu became president of South Vietnam.

Deepening U.S. Involvement Unlike conventional wars, the war in Vietnam had no defined front lines. Much of it consisted of hit-and-run attacks, with the guerrillas striking at government outposts and retreating into the jungle. In the early 1960s some North Vietnamese troops, however, began to infiltrate into South Vietnam to help the Vietcong, and supplies sent to Hanoi from the USSR and China were sent south down the so-called Ho Chi Minh Trail. The war began to escalate in the first week of August 1964, when North Vietnamese torpedo boats were reported to have attacked two U.S. destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin. Acting on the resolution passed on August 7 by the U.S. Senate (the so-called Tonkin Gulf Resolution), authorizing increased military involvement, President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered jets to South Vietnam and the retaliatory bombing of military targets in North Vietnam. From 1964 to 1968 General William C. Westmoreland was commander of U.S. forces in South Vietnam; he was replaced in 1968 by General Creighton Abrams. In February 1965, U.S. planes began regular bombing raids over North Vietnam. A halt was ordered in May in the hope of initiating peace talks, but when North Vietnam rejected all negotiations, the bombings were resumed. In the meantime, the U.S. continued to build up its troop strength in South Vietnam. On March 6, 1965, a brigade of American marines landed at Da Nang, south of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that had originally been set up at the time of partition. The marines, the first U.S. combat ground-force units to serve in the country, brought the number in the U.S. military forces in Vietnam to some 27,000. By year's end American combat strength was nearly 200,000. While continuing the military buildup in Vietnam, the United States made another attempt to end the war. In December 1965, President Johnson again halted the bombing of North Vietnam in an effort to achieve a peaceful settlement. Again he was unsuccessful, and the raids were resumed. In June 1966, U.S. planes began bombing major installations near Hanoi and the neighboring port of Haiphong, both of which had heretofore been spared. In October 1966, government representatives from the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, South Korea, and the Philippines—all of which had contributed troops to South Vietnam—met in Manila and pledged their withdrawal within six months after North Vietnam abandoned the war. The offer was rejected by North Vietnam. In June 1967, President Johnson met with Soviet Premier Aleksey N. Kosygin in Glassboro, New Jersey, and sought his help in bringing Hanoi to the peace table. The war, however, dragged on. Two months after the Glassboro meeting, President Johnson announced that U.S. forces in Vietnam would be further increased to 525,000 by 1968. At the same time, U.S. planes extended their bombings of North Vietnam to within 16 km (10 mi) of the Chinese border. Shortly thereafter, President Johnson again offered to stop the bombardment of North Vietnam provided peace talks would follow. As in the past, Hanoi rejected the offer. The war continued, and casualty figures rose. In November 1967, the Pentagon announced that total U.S. casualties in Vietnam since the beginning of 1961 had reached 15,058 killed and 109,527 wounded. The mounting toll was accompanied by a growing sentiment within the U.S. for an end to the war, the cost of which, apart from the loss of life, was estimated by the president at $25 billion per year. The demand for peace became increasingly vocal in many segments of American society.

The Tet Offensive From February 1965 to the end of all-out U.S. involvement in 1973, South Vietnamese forces mainly fought against the Vietcong guerrillas, while U.S. and allied troops fought the North Vietnamese in a war of attrition marked by battles in such places as the Ia Dang Valley, Dak To, Loc Ninh, and Khe Sanh—all victories for the non-Communist forces. During his 1967-68 campaign, the North Vietnamese strategist, General Vo Nguyen Giap, launched the famous Tet offensive (from the name of the Vietnamese lunar new year in mid-February), a coordinated series of fierce attacks on more than 100 urban targets. Despite its devastating psychological effect, the campaign, which Giap hoped would be decisive, failed, and Vietcong forces were ultimately driven back from most of the positions they had gained. In the fighting, North Vietnam lost 85,000 of its best troops. In spite of this U.S. victory, however, by the early spring of 1968 much of the American public had concluded that the war was unwinnable. On March 31 President Johnson announced a halt in U.S. bombings over North Vietnam. The announcement, intended as a new peace gesture, evoked a positive response from Hanoi, and in May peace talks between the United States and North Vietnam opened in Paris. Later in the year, the talks were expanded to include South Vietnam and the Vietcong NLF. The talks, however, made no progress despite the fact that U.S. raids on North Vietnam were completely halted in November.

Vietnamization of the War (1969-71) In 1969, within a few months after taking office, Johnson's successor, President Richard M. Nixon, announced that 25,000 U.S. troops would be withdrawn from Vietnam by August 1969. Another cut of 65,000 troops was ordered by the end of the year. The program, known as Vietnamization of the war, came into effect, as President Nixon emphasized additional responsibilities of the South Vietnamese. Neither the U.S. troop reduction, however, nor the death of North Vietnamese President Ho Chi Minh, on September 3, 1969, served to break the stalemate in Paris; the North Vietnamese delegates continued to insist upon complete U.S. withdrawal as a condition for peace. In April 1970, U.S. combat troops entered Cambodia following the occurrence there of a political coup. Within three months, the U.S. campaign in Cambodia ended, but air attacks on North Vietnam were renewed. By 1971 South Vietnamese forces were playing an increasing role in the war, fighting in both Cambodia and Laos as well as in South Vietnam. At this point, however, the Paris talks and the war itself were overshadowed by the presidential election in South Vietnam. The chief contestants were Nguyen Van Thieu, who was running for reelection, Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky, and General Duong Van Minh. Both Ky and Minh, after charging that the election had been rigged, withdrew, and Thieu won another 4-year term. Through the later months of 1971, American withdrawal continued. It coincided, however, with a new military buildup in North Vietnam, thought to be in preparation for a major drive down the Ho Chi Minh Trail into Laos and Cambodia. Heavy U.S. air attacks followed throughout the Indochina war sector. On the ground, meanwhile, Vietnamese Communist forces had launched massive effective attacks against government forces in South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. It was feared also that Hanoi might launch a major offensive in South Vietnam's central highlands, timing the operating for the Tet observance. Casualty figures in 1971 reflected the intensification of South Vietnam's own fighting efforts against the Communists. While U.S. deaths in Vietnam declined dramatically to 1380, compared to 4221 in 1970, the Saigon forces, on the other hand, suffered about 21,500 dead, some in Cambodia and Laos but the majority in South Vietnam. The South Vietnamese claimed the enemy death toll to be 97,000.

Controversy in the U.S. Before troop withdrawal, U.S. military strength in South Vietnam had peaked at over 541,000 in 1969. In the United States itself, as military involvement increased, the war issue increasingly became highly controversial. A peace movement developed and gathered momentum, organizing marches and moratoriums against the war in major U.S. cities (see PACIFISM). Accelerating this movement was the issue of atrocities committed by U.S. troops in Vietnam. One widely publicized case was the massacre of unarmed civilians at the village of My Lai in 1968. Lieutenant William L. Calley, charged with responsibility for their deaths, was found guilty by a military jury in 1971. A major reinterpretation of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War was spurred by the controversial publication in 1971 in the New York Times and other newspapers of the so-called Pentagon Papers—a collection of classified U.S. government documents concerning the Vietnamese situation. The papers cast a new, and to many, a dismaying, light on the U.S. handling of the war and of the peace negotiations through the 1960s.

Negotiation Impasses On January 25, 1972, President Nixon publicly recounted the many proposals that the administration had secretly put before the North Vietnamese during the last two and one-half years. At the same time, he unveiled a new eight-point plan for peace in Vietnam, including a new presidential election to be held in South Vietnam. The Nixon plan was followed by a revised version of a peace plan submitted by the Vietcong in July 1971. The new version called for the immediate resignation of President Thieu, to be followed by negotiations with the Saigon administration once it had abandoned what the Vietcong described as its policies of waging war and repression. The same insistence on the immediate resignation of the South Vietnamese president was voiced by Hanoi through the North Vietnamese delegation in Paris, which announced that U.S. prisoners of war would be released only when the U.S. had withdrawn its support from the Thieu administration and the war was brought to an end. South Vietnamese forces, meanwhile, conducted three drives into Cambodia during February 1972. The U.S. announced that it would no longer disclose the number of planes involved in raids over North Vietnam. Peace talks were broken off on March 23.

Quang Tri Offensive The tide of the war took an ominous turn for the worse one week later. On March 30 North Vietnam launched a massive offensive south across the DMZ into Quang Tri Province. In April, the U.S. retaliated with the first deep-penetration bombing raids over the north since 1967. On May 8 President Nixon ordered the mining of major ports of North Vietnam, notably Haiphong, to destroy enemy supply routes. Air strikes were directed against North Vietnamese railroad lines, causing, as a Hanoi newspaper admitted, serious economic problems. Quang Tri City, after being held by the Communists for four and one-half months, was recaptured by South Vietnamese forces on September 15.

Reescalation As the war continued into the second half of 1972, secret peace meetings were held at intervals in Paris between Henry Kissinger, assistant to the president for national security affairs, and the North Vietnamese delegate Le Duc Tho, beginning on October 8. A breakthrough was achieved when, for the first time, the Communist side expressed acceptance of a peace plan separating the military from the political settlement of the war, relinquishing its demand for a coalition government in South Vietnam, and agreeing to a formula for simultaneous discussion of the situation in Laos and Cambodia. On October 26 Kissinger disclosed a nine-point peace plan, but technical issues remained unresolved, and President Thieu of South Vietnam called the plan a sellout. With the resumption of talks between Kissinger and Tho on December 4, general anticipation of a final, signed agreement was perhaps the highest it had been since the beginning of the Paris negotiations in 1968. But the talks abruptly collapsed on December 16, and the following day President Nixon ordered further massive bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong. Subsequent night raids by B-52s and attack planes were termed the most severe aerial assaults in all of history, and reaction of both the American people and the world to the sudden reescalation of the bitter conflict was for the most part one of shock. The air attacks also resulted in the loss of 15 B-52s and in the loss or capture of 93 U.S. Air Force personnel.

Temporary Peace Despite the stepping up of U.S. bombing, both sides appeared anxious to salvage the progress made in negotiation. On December 29, the U.S. announced a halt to the bombing above the 20th parallel, effective the next day. With the new year came the resumption of the secret peace meetings in Paris. Sensing progress in the first days, President Nixon ordered a halt to all bombing, mining, and artillery fire in North Vietnam. After six days of conferring, Kissinger and Tho met once again on January 23, 1973, and, on that evening, President Nixon announced over nationwide television that agreement on all terms for a formal cease-fire had finally been reached. On January 27, in Paris, delegations representing the United States, South Vietnam, North Vietnam, and the Provisional Revolutionary Communist Government of South Vietnam signed an Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam. The cease-fire officially went into effect on January 28. Both the U.S. and North Vietnam asserted that there were no secret peace terms. The peace accord called for complete cessation of hostilities; withdrawal of all U.S. and allied forces from South Vietnam within 60 days of the signing; return of all captured military personnel by both sides at 15-day intervals within 60 days; recognition of the DMZ as “only provisional and not a political or territorial boundary”; an international control commission (composed of representatives of Canada, Hungary, Indonesia, and Poland) to oversee implementation of the peace; and provision for an international conference to be held within 30 days. The accord allowed some 145,000 North Vietnamese troops to remain in South Vietnam, but with limitation on their future replacement and supplies.

Cease-Fire Aftermath By the end of March 1973, all U.S. fighting forces had been withdrawn. Although President Nixon had apparently assured the Thieu government that U.S. forces would step in to support them in the event of a major treaty violation, further military assistance to South Vietnam became politically impossible. One of the reasons for this was the concurrent outbreak of the Watergate scandal. Fighting between Vietnamese antagonists died down shortly after the cease-fire, only to be renewed as each side attempted to hold or expand its military positions. During 1974 fighting escalated, with major engagements occurring throughout the year. In December the North Vietnamese and their southern allies launched a major offensive that quickly resulted in unprecedented success. The government of South Vietnam lost control of numerous important cities; and by the time that Hue was captured in mid-March 1975, the war had become a rout. On April 30, the capital city of Saigon was captured, and the Republic of Vietnam surrendered unconditionally to the Provisional Revolutionary Government.

Nature of the War The Vietnam War marked a turning point in the history of modern conventional warfare both in the extent of guerrilla and antiguerrilla combat involved and in the increased reliance on helicopters, which afforded mobility in a difficult terrain. As mentioned at the beginning of this article, the Vietnam War was essentially a people's war; because guerrilla fighters were not easily distinguished from noncombatants and because most civilians were mobilized into some sort of active participation, the civilian populace of Vietnam suffered heavily, in unprecedented numbers. The extensive use of napalm by U.S. forces maimed and killed many thousands of civilians, and the employment of defoliants to destroy heavy ground cover devastated the ecology of an essentially agricultural country.

Summary As a result of more than eight years of these methods of warfare, it is estimated that more than 2 million Vietnamese were killed, 3 million wounded, and hundreds of thousands of children orphaned. It has been estimated that about 12 million Indochinese people became refugees. Between April 1975 and July 1982, approximately 1,218,000 were resettled in more than 16 countries. About 500,000, the so-called boat people, tried to flee Vietnam by sea; according to rough estimates, 10 to 15 percent of these died, and those who survived the great hardships of their voyages were eventually faced with entry ceilings in the countries that agreed to accept them for resettlement. In the Vietnam War U.S. casualties rose to a total of 57,685 killed and about 153,303 wounded. At the time of the cease-fire agreement there were 587 U.S. military and civilian prisoners of war, all of whom were subsequently released. A current unofficial estimate puts the number of personnel still unaccounted for in the neighborhood of 2500. Less measurable but still significant costs were the social conflicts within the U.S. that were engendered by the war—the questioning of U.S. institutions by the American people and a sense of self-doubt.


U.S. Military trains Vietnamese forces.


The overthrow of the Diem government with the assassinations of Diem and his brother Nhu.
President John F. Kennedy is assassinated, Lyndon Johnson becomes President.


Operation Rolling Thunder was the codename for American bombing attacks on strategic targets within North Vietnam. The raids began in an effort to persuade the North Vietnamese to cease their support of the war in the south by forcing them to pay a direct and increasing cost. Since American political leaders hoped to persuade the North Vietnamese quickly and at little cost to either side, President Lyndon B. Johnson rejected a plan for a concentrated sixteen-day campaign and opted instead for a program of gradually escalated raids beginning in March 1965. There were seven phases to the Rolling Thunder campaign, separated by halts to see if the North Vietnamese were willing to begin negotiations, and usually marked by changes in the type and geographic location of the targets being attacked.

Before May 1965, only targets south of the twentieth parallel could be attacked. When Phase II began in May, American pilots were still ordered to hit no targets within 30 miles of Hanoi or the Chinese borders, or within 10 miles of Haiphong. For a brief period in early 1966 American air strikes were once again confined to the area just north of the seventeenth parallel, but in April 1966 the operational area was expanded to all of North Vietnam, while the target list was expanded to include oil storage facilities near Hanoi. Phase Five, which began in February 1967, consisted of intensive bombing attacks on Hanoi area factories, railroad yards, power plants, and airfields. Following another Christmas halt, attacks on Hanoi resumed in January 1968, but American aircraft were hampered by bad weather and by the need to support ground operations in the south in the wake of the Tet Offensive. On April 1,1968, all attacks north of the nineteenth parallel ceased, and all Rolling Thunder raids stopped on November 1. Throughout the Rolling Thunder campaign, target selection was closely controlled by the White House (from a list of potential targets supplied by the Joint Chiefs of Staff). During the entire campaign, American aircraft dropped over 640,000 tons of bombs; 922 American aircraft were lost.

Sources: R. Frank Futrell et a., Aces and Aerial Victories: The U.S. Air Force in Southeast Asia, 1981; John Morrocco, The Vietnam Experience. Thunder From Above: Air Wa,; 1941-1968, 1985.


From February 1965 to the end of all-out U.S. involvement in 1973, South Vietnamese forces mainly fought against the Vietcong guerrillas, while U.S. and allied troops fought the North Vietnamese in a war of attrition marked by battles in such places as the Ia Dang Valley, Dak To, Loc Ninh, and Khe Sanh—all victories for the non-Communist forces. During his 1967-68 campaign, the North Vietnamese strategist, General Vo Nguyen Giap, launched the famous Tet offensive (from the name of the Vietnamese lunar new year in mid-February), a coordinated series of fierce attacks on more than 100 urban targets. Despite its devastating psychological effect, the campaign, which Giap hoped would be decisive, failed, and Vietcong forces were ultimately driven back from most of the positions they had gained. In the fighting, North Vietnam lost 85,000 of its best troops. The Tet Offensive From February 1965 to the end of all-out U.S. involvement in 1973, South Vietnamese forces mainly fought against the Vietcong guerrillas, while U.S. and allied troops fought the North Vietnamese in a war of attrition marked by battles in such places as the Ia Dang Valley, Dak To, Loc Ninh, and Khe Sanh—all victories for the non-Communist forces. During his 1967-68 campaign, the North Vietnamese strategist, General Vo Nguyen Giap, launched the famous Tet offensive (from the name of the Vietnamese lunar new year in mid-February), a coordinated series of fierce attacks on more than 100 urban targets. Despite its devastating psychological effect, the campaign, which Giap hoped would be decisive, failed, and Vietcong forces were ultimately driven back from most of the positions they had gained. In the fighting, North Vietnam lost 85,000 of its best troops.

In spite of this U.S. victory, however, by the early spring of 1968 much of the American public had concluded that the war was unwinnable. On March 31 President Johnson announced a halt in U.S. bombings over North Vietnam. The announcement, intended as a new peace gesture, evoked a positive response from Hanoi, and in May peace talks between the United States and North Vietnam opened in Paris. Later in the year, the talks were expanded to include South Vietnam and the Vietcong NLF. The talks, however, made no progress despite the fact that U.S. raids on North Vietnam were completely halted in November.

"Vietnam War," 1994 Funk & Wagnall's.


Khe Sanh, located 18 miles south of the Demilitarized Zone and 8 miles east of the Laotian border in Quang Tn Province, had been a small Special Forces base since 1962, but General William Westmoreland in 1965 took note of its strategic significance as well. For him Khe Sanh could be used for clandestine operations into Laos or a major invasion of Laos, reconnaissance flights over the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and as a base for cutting off North Vietnamese Army (NVA) infiltration into South Vietnam along Route 9. When NVA infiltration increased in 1966, Westmoreland had a Seabee unit extend the airstrip and had the United States Marines send a battalion (1st Battalion, 3rd Marines) to Khe Sanh. In the spring of 1967 Khe Sanh was garrisoned by the 1st Battalion of the 26th Marines. Intelligence estimates also began pointing a massive increase in traffic along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and American military officials assumed the North Vietnamese were planning a large-scale invasion, with Khe Sanh a key point in the attack.

That was just what the North Vietnamese wanted them to assume. They were actually planning the Tet Offensive for 1968, and as a preliminary to that offensive they wanted to draw American troops away from the major population centers of South Vietnam to diversionary battles in remote areas. In October and November NVA soldiers attacked the marines at Con Thien as well as Loc Ninh and Song Be near Saigon, and Dak To in the Central Highlands. Late in 1967, military intelligence indicated that the NVA 325C Division was northwest of Khe Sanh; the 304th Division was southwest; and elements of the 324th and 320th divisions were close enough to provide reinforcements. In all it appeared that 25,000 to 40,000 NVA regulars were prepared to engage American forces in a head-on military confrontation. In response, General Westmoreland prepared Operation Niagara, an armada of more than 5,000 aircraft and helicopters to pulverize NVA troops in an unprecedented artillery bombardment. He also had 6,000 U.S. Marines sent in to defend KHE Sanh. The NVA siege of Khe Sanh began on January 21,1968.


Formal discussions between representatives of the United States and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam began in Paris on May 13,1968, and continued intermittently until January 25,1973, when Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho signed the Paris Peace Accords ending the war. The talks developed out of a painful reassessment of American policy by President Lyndon B. Johnson in the aftermath of the Communist Tet Offensive in 1968. After receiving Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford's report in mid-March that the United States could not win the war, Johnson stunned a nationwide audience on March 31,1968, announcing he would seek peace in Vietnam and not seek renomination or reelection in 1968. After several weeks of preparatory talks, the Paris peace talks commenced on May 13,1968.

From the outset, the talks were fraught with difficulties. The chief American negotiator was W. Averell Harriman until January 1969 and then Henry Cabot Lodge. Le Duc Tho headed the North Vietnamese delegation throughout the negotiations. Nguyen Thi Binh headed the National Liberation Front (N LF; see Vietcong) delegation. During Johnson's presidency, the United States approached the talks believing it held the advantage in Vietnam and thus continually insisted on mutual withdrawal of American and North Vietnamese forces, leaving the Saigon government in control. The North Vietnamese and NLF, of course, refused to accept an arrangement. The impasse in the two negotiating positions was symbolized by a month-long debate over the size and shape of the table the two sides would sit at once formal negotiations began. Later, during the Nixon administration, the United States operated from a belief that, whether it held the advantage or not, it had to remain firm to impress the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China that the United States had not lost its will to resist Communist aggression. Meanwhile, the North Vietnamese remained unyielding in their negotiating position. They wanted all foreign military forces removed from Indochina, and they would not admit to any division of Vietnam. Eventually this test of wills would prove uneven: the United States would weaken while the North Vietnamese leadership would accept tremendous losses in manpower and devastation of their homeland to stay the course.

By 1971 Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon had decided to pursue secret negotiations to end the war. The Paris peace talks were too public, and since the United States was willing to make concessions to the North Vietnamese and NLF point of view, Kissinger and Nixon felt secret negotiations would better preserve American credibility. Those secret negotiations reached fruition in the fall of 1972 and the final arrangement was signed on January 25,1973.

Sources: Allan E. Goodman, The Lost Peace: America's Search for a Negotiated Settlement of the Vietnam War; 1978; WaIter Scott Dillard, Sixty Days to Peace, 1982.


Hamburger Hill was the nickname for Dong Ap Bia, a mountain in the A Shau Valley area of South Vietnam, southwest of Hue near the Laotian border. In May of 1969, units of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and the U.S. 101st Airborne Division fought against soldiers of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) in Operation Apache Snow. The battle of Dong Ap Bia lasted from May 10 to May 20. It was atypical of the combat in the Vietnam War since it involved large troop units on both sides and because the enemy did not use the tactic of maneuver but instead chose to defend his positions on Dong Ap Bia. The result was a very bloody battle with high casualties sustained by all units, thus prompting American troops to call the objective "Hamburger Hill."

While the enemy's tactics were atypical, the United States characteristically emphasized firepower, including heavy artillery, napalm, and B-52 "Arc Light" air strikes. However, the enemy's defensive skills against this tactic, together with his tenacity, meant that eventually his positions had to be assaulted by infantry, and the result was fierce combat, often hand to hand. After eleven days, the enemy retreated to sanctuaries in Laos. One week later, Hamburger Hill was abandoned by the victorious American troops. This was a normal consequence of battle in Vietnam, especially in areas like the A Shau Valley which were remote and sparsely populated. The basic strategy of both sides was attrition (see War of attrition), not occupation of captured territory.

The battle of Hamburger Hill was similar to other engagements during the war. Enemy losses were much higher than American casualties, the enemy resolved the battle by retreating without pursuit by American or ARVN forces, and the battlefield was abandoned shortly after the cessation of hostilities. However, its timing made it newsworthy, and it attracted considerable media attention. In 1969, the new president, Richard Nixon, was implementing Vietnamization, a policy to reduce American ground combat involvement (and casualties) and shift that responsibility to the ARVN. Hamburger Hill, reported extensively by the print and broadcast media, seemed to contradict the intent of Vietnamization. It also came to symbolize the frustration of achieving an overwhelming battlefield success without any indication that the war being won. To many, this frustration suggested that such battles were discrete, mutually exclusive, isolated events which were unrelated to any ultimate policy goal. Hamburger Hill became the subject of intense public debate, focusing on the decision to capture Ap Bia regardless of the casualties and irrespective of its marginal significance in terms of the reasons why the United States was in Vietnam.

Sources: Samuel Lipsman et al., The Vietnam Experience: Fighting for Time, 1983; Shelby L. Stanton, The Rise and Fall of an American Army' U.S. Ground Troops in Vietnam, 1965-1973, 1985.


Haiphong is the major port and third largest city in North Vietnam. The bulk of North Vietnam's imports arrive through the port of Haiphong, which is connected by railroad with Hanoi. During the Vietnam War, Haiphong was a major supply depot and was heavily bombed from 1965 until 1968, when bombing was curtailed by President Johnson. During the attacks, much of the population was evacuated and the industry dispersed.

In 1972, the Nixon administration sparked a major controversy when the president ordered the renewal of bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong (April 16) and the mining of Haiphong Harbor as well as other harbors and inland waterways in North Vietnam (May 9). Also, U.S. naval forces intensified raids against coastal installations and put into effect a naval blockade of the North Vietnamese coastline. In a televised speech to the nation on May 8,1972, Nixon justified his escalation of the air and sea war as necessary to cut off the flow of supplies to North Vietnamese troops fighting in the South and to protect the lives of American forces still in Vietnam. In addition, Nixon contended that the raids and the minings were intended to pressure the North Vietnamese government into resuming serious negotiations to achieve peace in Vietnam.

In Congress, most Republican conservatives defended the president's actions, but moderate Republicans joined with the Democratic majority's criticism of the escalation. Resolutions were introduced to end all U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia (see War Powers Resolution 1973). Across the country, Nixon's actions revived the dormant antiwar movement, and protest demonstrations were renewed.

Source: Facts on File, April-May 1972.


In the aftermath of the so-called Christmas bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong in December 1972, American Henry Kissinger and North Vietnamese Le Duc Tho resumed peace talks on January 8 in Paris and after two weeks of intensive negotiations finally settled on an agreement on January 23. Two days later, on January 25, 1973, cease-fire agreements were formally signed in Paris, and another chapter in the fighting in Indochina had closed.

The agreement of January 1973 differed little from an abortive one of October 1972 which had been unacceptable to South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu. The agreement called for a cease-fire, American troop withdrawal, prisoner exchanges (especially of the American pilots shot down over North Vietnam), but permitted Vietnamese troops on both sides to remain in place. That tacit recognition of Communist military strength meant that the South Vietnamese government had to maintain its territorial integrity without American ground support against an enemy with more than 100,000 main force troops in the south. The agreement also called for an eventual compromise government reflecting the military balance in the south.

Years later the North Vietnamese claimed that the United States reneged on the agreement, for they claimed in secret protocols, for which there is no proof save for their claims, that Richard Nixon agreed to supply billions of dollars in economic assistance to rebuild the North. Still it is clear that the North Vietnamese never intended to live by the agreements, merely waiting for the propitious time to invade the South. Nixon accepted the agreement and felt he could intervene with air power and military supplies. Such intervention would maintain the balance of power in Vietnam.

Sources: Allan E. Goodman, The Lost Peace: America's Search for a Negotiated Settlement ofthe Vietnam War, 1978; Walter Scott Dillard, Sixty Days to Peace, 1982; Seymour Hersh, The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House, 1983.


The question of American prisoners of war (POWs) in Southeast Asia was one of the most difficult and controversial of the war. Return of the POWs was a central demand in the American negotiating position with the North Vietnamese and Vietcong between 1965 and 1972, and North Vietnam exploited that bargaining chip for all it was worth. Eventually, the United States compromised on its opposition to a coalition government in South Vietnam and its insistence on a withdrawal of North Vietnamese troops, but continued to insist on the return of all American POWs. That was arranged in the 1972 Paris Peace Accords, and between February and April 1973, North Vietnam returned 566 American military POWs and 25 civilian POWs. Although the Democratic Republic of Vietnam said it agreed with the 1949 Geneva Convention on treatment of prisoners of war, the American POWs were subject to torture, malnutrition, inadequate medical treatment, political manipulation, and generally inhumane treatment.

Despite the return of the POWs, there were still another 2,483 Americans still unaccounted for during the Southeast Asian conflict. They were either captured or killed, or were deserters somewhere in North Vietnam, South Vietnam, Laos, or Cambodia. By mid, 1986, North Vietnam had returned the remains of 104 Americans who allegedly died during captivity or in aircraft crashes and firefights. The problem of these Americans listed as missing in action (MIA) continues to remain a controversial issue for two reasons. (1) There are continuing rumors of Americans still held captive in Vietnam, Laos, or Cambodia, and the American public, as well as the families of those listed as missing in action, maintains pressure for a resolution of the issue. Groups such as the National League of Families of American POWs and MIAs in Southeast Asia keep political pressure on government officials to demand cooperation from the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. (2) The large discrepancy between the number missing and the number of prisoners actually returned leaves a huge question about just how many American POWs died during confinement in North Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian, or Vietcong prisons, how many died of starvation, torture, murder, and neglect.

Sources: Reader's Digest, POW' A DefinItive History ofthe American Prisoner of War Experience in Vietnam, 1964-1973, 1976; Guenter Lewy, America in Vietnam, 1978; Department of Defense, POW-MIA Fact Book, 1985.


Under the direction of General Van Tien Dung, the Ho Chi Minh Campaign was the final assault on Saigon between April 26 and April 30,1975. During late March and early April, Dung moved eighteen North Vietnamese Army (NVA) divisions into place within a 40-mile radius of Saigon. Poised due east of Saigon were the 3rd, 304th, 325th, and 324B divisions, with the objective of taking out the ARVN (see Army of the Republic of Vietnam) 1st Airborne Brigade at Ba Ria and the 951st ARVN Ranger Group and 4th Airborne Brigade near Long Thanh. Northeast of Saigon, Dung placed the 6th, 7th, and 314th divisions and assigned them the assault on Bien Hoa. To the north, the 320B, 312th, and 338th divisions were assigned the conquest of the ARVN 5th Division at Ben Cat and the ARVN 9th Ranger Brigade at Lai Thieu. Northwest of Saigon, Dung had the 70th, 316th, 320th, and 968th divisions ready to pounce on ARVN 25th Division at Trang Bang and Cu Chi. In the west, the 3rd, 5th, 9th, and 16th North Vietnamese divisions were charged with an assault on the ARVN 22nd Division at Tan An and Ben Luc and with a direct attack on the ARVN 7th and 8th Ranger brigades outside of Saigon. In the southwest, the NVA 8th Division prepared to attack the ARVN 7th Division at My Tho. Dung's attack plan worked flawlessly. The fighting was intense, but ARVN units kept falling back into an increasingly tight circle around Saigon. On April 29 the city was coming under intense artillery barrages, and NVA units had entered the outskirts of the city. The last Americans were evacuated on April 30, and the North Vietnamese took control of Saigon. The Ho Chi Minh Campaign, and the war, was over.

Sources: Alan Dawson, 55 Days: The Fall of South Vietnam, 1977; David Butler, The Fall of Saigon: Scenes from the Sudden End of a Long War, 1985.


After watching the film The Deer Hunter in 1979, Vietnam veteran Jan C. Scruggs first conceived of the idea for a Vietnam War Memorial. Scruggs had little success promoting the idea until "CBS Evening News" did a prime-time spot on the campaign. Robert Doubek and John Wheeler, two attorneys in Washington, D.C., who were both veterans, heard the spot and soon organized the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund to raise money and construct the memorial. With the assistance of Senator Charles Mathias, Jr., of Maryland, they formed a National Sponsoring committee which included Bob Hope, former president Gerald Ford, Rosalynn Carter, Senator George McGovern, and General William Westmoreland on April 30,1980, the Senate unanimously approved a bill setting aside two acres on the mall near the Lincoln Memorial. The House approved the measure more than a month later, and on July 1,1980, President Jimmy Carter signed the bill into law.

A national competition for memorial designs received 1,421 entries by the deadline of March 31, 1981, and the winner was Maya Lin, a Yale architecture student. Her proposal for a black granite sculpture, rising out of the ground and then descending back again in angular form, with the names of more than 58,000 dead or missing American soldiers inscribed on it, soon raised a storm of protest. Some Vietnam veterans resented the fact that an Asian-American woman had designed it, while others thought it memorialized the shame of the war. Still, by January 4,1982, more than 650,000 people had donated more than $5 million, and Secretary of the Interior James Watt issued a building permit after a compromise agreement to include a sculpture of three soldiers by Frederick Hart. Hart's sculpture was finished on September 20,1982, and the entire memorial was dedicated on November 13, 1982. At the time a total of 58,022 names were on the memorial. In 1986, another 108 names were added, 95 servicemen killed on combat missions outside the formal war zone and 13 others who died of wounds after leaving the war zone.

Sources: Joel L. Swerdlow, "To Heal a Nation," National Geographic 167 (May 1985), 555-73; Jan C. Scruggs and Joel L. Swerdlow, To Heal a Nation: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, 1985. Robert L. Shadle

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, war memorial in Washington, D.C., was built 1982. Designed by American sculptor and architect Maya Ying Lin, it is a sloping, V-shaped, 493-ft (150-m) black granite wall that descends 10 feet (3.05 meters) below grade level at its vertex; the wall is inscribed with names of the more than 58,000 Americans killed or missing during the VIETNAM WAR. Nearby are sculptures of three soldiers by Frederick E. Hart (erected 1984) and of three nurses and a wounded soldier by Glenna Goodacre (erected 1993).

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