A Short History of the Vietnam War

The following article, by Dr. Robert D. Wolff, P.E., F.SAME, TME Contributing Editor, is an extended summary of the Education & Training News column that appeared in the November-December 2016 edition of The Military Engineer, Vol. 108, No. 705.


Military education often involves looking back at prior wars for lessons learned and understanding the decisions made and the outcomes achieved.  Many books have been written about the Vietnam War. Many SAME members are too young to have lived through the Vietnam War, and while the TME Vietnam Commemorative Issue published by SAME in summer 2016 provided some excellent articles on the engineer efforts during the war, as well as reflections from some of us who served in Vietnam during the war, I felt it also was important to provide an overarching political-military perspective to complete SAME’s 50th Anniversary commemoration of the War.

To provide a short history of Vietnam, I went to the U.S. Military Academy History Department to learn what book it uses to teach cadets about the war.  The Military Academy has published “The West Point History of Warfare,” a digital interactive textbook that has seven volumes and 71 chapters, four of which are dedicated to Vietnam (*more information at the end of the article). Following is an excerpt from the text of these chapters to provide TME readers with a short history of the Vietnam War, in which the reader may see many parallels to the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. –R.W.


Vietnam, 1954–1965

Peace came to Vietnam in the summer of 1954.  The Geneva Accords, signed on July 21, ended eight years of grueling war between France and its Vietnamese allies on one side and Communist-led revolutionaries known as the Viet Minh on the other.  But peace did not last.  Viewed from the 21st century, the years after the Geneva accords stand out as merely a brief respite in Vietnam’s long history of upheaval and bloodshed.  In 1956, it became clear that elections to reunify the country would not occur, and, by the end of the decade, a new insurgency had erupted below the seventeenth parallel.  Vietnam was once again a nation at war.  Just as in the 1946–1954 conflict, the new fighting was simultaneously a civil war over the nature of the postcolonial state and, increasingly as time passed, an international confrontation that formed part of the global Cold War.  By the mid-1960s, in fact, the conflict had become a major preoccupation of the superpowers.

Above all, the United States became increasingly involved in Vietnam, replacing France as the principal Western power attempting to control the nation’s postcolonial evolution.  As combat turned increasingly in favor of the insurgents in the early 1960s, Washington pumped vast military and economic support to the South Vietnamese regime in Saigon.  But expanded U.S. aid failed to achieve Washington’s goals, and in 1964 many U.S. leaders began to believe that the only way to prevent a Communist victory was to send American combat forces to take charge of the war.  What had begun as a limited guerrilla conflict stood on the verge of becoming something much bigger by the start of 1965.[1]

 West Point History of Warfar, courtesy U.S. Military Academy

Escalation of America’s Involvement in Vietnam, 1965–68

Despite large infusions of money and the assistance of American technical advisors, the government of South Vietnam (GVN) had failed to crush the insurgent threat and build a strong political consensus behind an effective structure of governance.  Indeed, South Vietnam seemed on the verge of a decisive defeat.  The National Liberation Front of Vietnam (NLF) continued to hold the political and military initiative throughout most of the countryside, increasing its influence over the population and intensifying its psychological campaign against GVN supporters and uncommitted civilians.  Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces (RVNAF) casualty rates were higher in December 1964 than in any other month that year.  The government’s pacification program had, according to the U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), been “brought to a virtual standstill.”  

The decision to deploy U.S. ground combat troops to South Vietnam in March 1965 remains one of the most controversial foreign policy decisions in American history.  Having served in an advisory role for over a decade, civilian and military officials believed they had reached their limit of influence in Saigon.  If the GVN was to be saved, Americans would have to assume greater responsibilities. Hanoi had in fact expanded its political activities and military actions throughout the south.  Yet while South Vietnam seemed to be spiraling towards collapse, MACV remained unsure if conventional forces or insurgents presented the greatest threat.  

As domestic doubt deepened, the Vietcong raised the stakes on Feb. 7, 1965 with a morning mortar attack on the U.S. barracks at Pleiku airfield in the Central Highlands, killing eight Americans and wounding 108.  Less than a week later, President Johnson began Operation Rolling Thunder, a retaliatory air campaign against the North that would last well into 1968.  In the first 18 months of the aerial assault on North Vietnam, U.S. aircraft flew nearly 84,000 sorties and dropped roughly 125,000-T of ordnance.  It was a frightening display of American technological and air superiority.  Yet despite promises of forcing Hanoi leaders to their knees, Rolling Thunder failed to break the enemy’s will. 

In fact, Pleiku marked a turning point in America’s Indochina policy.  National security advisor McGeorge Bundy, wrote the president that the “United States could no longer ‘wait and hope for a stable government’ while the VC expanded its control over the RVN. ”Bundy urged Johnson to “use our military power…to force a change of Communist policy.”  Bundy presumed that South Vietnam’s survival directly affected U.S. national security.  The domino theory of containment remained valid and, Bundy believed, prestige abroad factored heavily into the United States’ ability to win the Cold War.  The national security advisor was not alone in this assessment.  As the Joint Chiefs argued, “a U.S. withdrawal would have serious consequences.”   At the end of July, Johnson announced that 50,000 troops would be dispatched to South Vietnam, raising the total to 125,000.  If needed, more would be sent as requested.[2]


Tet Offensive, 1968

What did happen shocked most all Americans.  Shortly after midnight on Jan. 30, 1968, Vietcong and Peoples Army of Vietnam (PAVN) forces made a nationwide assault on South Vietnam during its most sacred of holidays.  In coordinated attacks, some 84,000 insurgents and PAVN troops struck thirty-six of the forty-four provincial capitals, the U.S. embassy in Saigon, and the six largest cities in South Vietnam.   The scale and initial success of the offensive shattered many civilians’ sense of security. 

General Westmoreland saw an opportunity to break the long war of attrition, and pushed for an expansion of the war into the Cambodian and Laotian sanctuaries and even into North Vietnam proper.  This revised strategy would come with a price, namely a call-up of reserve forces in the United States.  For years, Johnson had balked at such proposals.  Uniformed leaders placed immense faith in the power of “seizing the initiative,” and in the aftermath of Tet, Westmoreland argued forcefully for a chance to crush the enemy once and for all.  “Exploiting this opportunity could materially shorten the war.”

A March 10 Gallup poll found only 33 percent of Americans believed the United Statse was making progress in the war.  For an increasingly isolated president, the collapse of congressional and public support forced painful decisions on the war’s future conduct.  Johnson approved only 10,500 additional troops for Westmoreland and in late March suspended all air attacks over North Vietnam.  When Johnson spoke to the American public on March 31 about his decision to de-escalate the war in a bid for peace, he concluded that “partisan causes” should not interfere with his management of the conflict and as such he would not seek or accept another term as president.

Johnson’s bombshell reverberated through the nation and reignited serious questions about claims of victory in the aftermath of Tet.  If U.S. forces had been so successful, why was the United States bidding for peace and the president departing the oval office?  MACV had failed to convince Americans that its battlefield successes were leading to victory in the war. Tet illustrated, better than any event between 1965 and 1968, that battlefield successes did not translate automatically into larger political progress.[3]


Johnson’s bombshell reverberated through the nation and reignited serious questions about claims of victory in the aftermath of Tet.  If U.S. forces had been so successful, why was the United States bidding for peace and the president departing the oval office? 


De-escalation of the War, 1968–72

On Jan. 20, 1969, Richard M. Nixon was sworn in as the nation’s 37th president.  Nixon wanted an end to the war in Vietnam, in part to concentrate on his larger goals of improving relations with China and the Soviet Union.  The new president’s world view surely molded this objective.  Despite hopes of restructuring global relations, Nixon remained committed to opposing global Communism and winning the Cold War.  Withdrawal from Vietnam required maintaining an image of strength during peace negotiations for the United States to retain credibility as a world power and deterrent to Communist expansion.  To serve these geopolitical interests, Vietnam could not be construed as a United States defeat.

The de-escalation signaled impending changes to U.S. military strategy and a change in MACV’s mission statement.  Formulated in early July, MACV’s revised mission backed away from defeating the enemy and forcing his removal from South Vietnam.  The Americans instead would provide “maximum assistance” to ARVN forces while supporting pacification and targeting enemy supply areas.  A change in mission could not concede initiative to the enemy.  The new U.S. objective thus defined success as assuring the South Vietnamese people’s right “to determine their future without outside interference.” 

This complicated balancing act between political and military realities underscored one of the core problems with relinquishing the war to the South Vietnamese.  Under certain circumstances, the ARVN might fight well in the field, yet corruption, desertions, and a paucity of skilled technicians wracked the army’s organizational foundation.  Officers had been unable to keep pace with the influx of new recruits, many of whom were paid less than Saigon garbage collectors.  Of greater significance, many ARVN soldiers lacked faith in their government, often leading young recruits to question the war effort.  Thus, while U.S. advisors worked on tactical and operational weaknesses impacting combat effectiveness, the root causes of the ARVN’s poor performance remained largely outside American influence.

Nixon and Henry Kissinger realized that despite the previous year’s bombing of Cambodia, the North Vietnamese were expanding their sanctuaries and merging them into a “liberated zone.”  Supplies continued to flow uninterrupted down the Ho Chi Minh Trail.  This strategic supply route, in use since the French-Indochina War, ran along the Laotian-Vietnamese border and terminated in the eastern part of Cambodia flanking South Vietnam.  The trail’s complex system of jungle paths and mountain trails had been sustaining Hanoi’s war effort in the south for years, a point not lost on MACV planners.  In 1969 alone, U.S. bombers dropped more than 433,000-T of munitions on the trail.  Still, the supplies continued to move southward, on bicycles and ox carts if necessary.  By 1970, the trail was supporting truck convoys of forty to sixty vehicles.  There seemed little choice.  The war had to be widened to declare victory and peace.[4]


Expanding the War to Cambodia

On April 30, 1970, the president announced that U.S. combat troops were fighting in Cambodia.  The purpose, Nixon stated, was to “protect our men who are in Vietnam and to guarantee the continued success of our withdrawal and Vietnamization programs.”  Nixon affirmed that this was not an invasion, but a limited “incursion” to drive out the enemy and destroy his military supplies.

The Cambodian incursion’s political effects offered greater cause for concern.  At home, protests erupted in the wake of Nixon’s address.  Ohio National Guardsmen fired into a demonstration at Kent State University on May 4, leaving four students dead.  A wave of campus antiwar rallies swept the nation closing nearly 450 colleges and universities.  In Paris, Hanoi suspended negotiations.  In South Vietnam, MACV noted that pacification was making gains but “most 1970 programs fell short of their goals.” Perhaps worst of all, allied operations in Cambodia left behind a path of homeless refugees, further destabilizing the countryside.


Of greater significance, many ARVN soldiers lacked faith in their government, often leading young recruits to question the war effort.  Thus, while U.S. advisors worked on tactical and operational weaknesses impacting combat effectiveness, the root causes of the ARVN’s poor performance remained largely outside American influence.


Throughout the summer and fall, stalemated discussions in Paris rivaled the military standoff in 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 PAVN units to remain in South Vietnam and granting legal status to the Provisional Revolutionary Government (PRG).  On Oct. 24, Thieu pronounced his objections to the South Vietnamese National Assembly and refused to sign any agreement.  “They want to offer this remaining South Vietnamese land to the Communists on a golden platter,” cried Thieu.

By December 1972, 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.  The president hoped to illustrate to both sides that he would intervene in any civil war potentially looming on the horizon.  The press reacted strongly, referring to the bombing as “war by tantrum” and an act of “senseless terror.”   On Dec. 26, however, 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.  North Vietnamese units were allowed to remain in the south and the PRG was recognized in the signing procedures.  One month later, on Jan. 27, 1973, the United States, North and South Vietnam, and the PRG signed the Paris Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam.

“We had won the war militarily and politically in Vietnam,” recalled Richard Nixon.  “But defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory because we lost the war politically in the United States.”  The U.S. Army echoed this argument as the war drew to a close.  Based on their assessments, many officers and soldiers believed they successfully had completed their task.  On March 29, 1973, the last U.S. combat troops departed South Vietnam.  In a large sense, the answer could come only when the GVN stood alone against both its internal and external enemies.  It appeared in early 1973, however, that the best the United States could achieve in Vietnam was an uncomfortable stalemate against a committed nationalist-Communist enemy.[5]


Vietnam Following U.S. Withdrawal

In 1973, all U.S. troops were withdrawn from South Vietnam; but the war was not over for the Vietnamese.  It would continue for two more years and result in the fall of Saigon and the reunification of Vietnam under Communist control.  The South Vietnamese forces handled themselves reasonably well immediately following the departure of U.S. troops, but soon found themselves under intensifying pressure.  When the North Vietnamese launched what turned out to be their final offensive, the South Vietnamese forces collapsed in just fifty-five days.  The United States failed to achieve its national interests in Vietnam and the war nearly destroyed the U.S. Army.  In the years since the fall of Saigon, a very contentious debate has grown around how and why this all happened. 

As the fighting continued into 1974, the South Vietnamese began to experience severe shortages in ammunition, fuel, spare parts, and other war material; an increasingly embattled Nixon was powerless to make good on his promises of continued United States support, but the South Vietnamese, assuming that the American president would be able to honor his commitment, made no effort to adopt procedures to conserve supplies and continued to use them up at their usual rate of consumption.  On Aug. 9, 1974, the South Vietnamese were dealt a devastating blow by the resignation of President Nixon. His successor, Gerald Ford, sent assurances that Nixon’s promises of support would be honored, but the new president was not in a position to make good on these promises.  This became apparent in October when Congress appropriated only $700 million in military and economic aid for the year ending June 30, 1975, a significant reduction from the $1 billion originally requested. The one-two punch of Nixon’s resignation and the subsequent reduction in military aid had a devastating impact on South Vietnamese morale. 

Ford proved unable to come to Thieu’s aid.  Congress had effectively washed its hands of Vietnam.  The president insisted that the supplemental aid to Saigon “must be swift and adequate” and that failure to act would only lead to “deeper disaster.” These arguments fell on deaf ears; Congress denied the president’s request.

On April 22, Thieu proclaiming, “The United States has not respected its promises.”  He then announced his decision to resign and turn over the government to Vice President Tran Van Huong.  As the North Vietnamese were making final preparations for the assault on Saigon, President Huong officially stepped down in a ceremony at Independence Palace.  He was replaced by Duong Van Minh.

In the early morning hours of April 29, the North Vietnamese began a rocket attack on Tan Son Nhut airfield.  After much discussion, Ford directed the implementation of the final phases of Operation Frequent Wind, the American evacuation of Saigon.

Over the next several days, U.S. helicopters airlifted some 7,100 American and South Vietnamese military and civilian personnel out of the Saigon embassy.  Navy ships ferried more than 70,000 South Vietnamese to American vessels in the South China Sea.  Just after 0500 hours on April 30, Ambassador Graham Martin, carrying the furled American flag that he had taken from his office, departed by CH-46 helicopter for the USS Blue Ridge, standing off the coast in the South China Sea. 

That day, President Duong Van Minh announced the unconditional surrender of the Republic of Vietnam.  At that moment, the Republic of Vietnam ceased to exist as a sovereign nation and, for the first time in its history, the United States lost a foreign war.[6]


Evaluating America’s Involvement in Vietnam

Despite the passage of time, the debate about the outcome in Vietnam continues.  There has still been no general agreement about what went wrong; but it is clear that the United States, although never defeated in the military sense, failed to prevent a Communist takeover in South Vietnam.  The reasons why are complex and include elements of each of the major arguments.  It is true that the enemy better harnessed the energies of Vietnamese nationalism, but that does not mean that the South Vietnamese government could not have done the same had there been a more effective effort on Saigon’s part.  In the end, Vietnam was a different kind of war that required different approaches and methods.  Its complexity lay in the compound nature of the conflict; it was both an insurgency and a conventional war. 


On Aug. 9, 1974, the South Vietnamese were dealt a devastating blow by the resignation of President Nixon. His successor, Gerald Ford, sent assurances that Nixon’s promises of support would be honored, but the new president was not in a position to make good on these promises. 


Focusing on the conventional side virtually relegated countering the insurgency to a lesser effort, but on the same hand, the United States could not ignore the hordes of North Vietnamese troops streaming down the Ho Chi Minh Trail to join the fight.  It is also true that pacification and the effort to improve the combat capacity of the South Vietnamese armed forces enjoyed some success at the end of the war, but the emphasis on the efforts to bolster the ARVN began too late. Additionally, it must be recognized that the war was won by conventional North Vietnamese troops and thus the pacification effort proved irrelevant in the long run.  Hanoi may have been the center of gravity for the other side, but the Cold War context meant that there were sound political restrictions that precluded striking that center of gravity directly. 

A conventional attack on the North might have led the Chinese or the Soviets to intervene more directly and substantially, which not only would likely have negated any gains achieved by the offensive, it would also have increased the risks of escalation to nuclear holocaust.  As historian Dale Andrade writes, “The ultimate advantages held by the Communists—off-limits base areas, a plentiful manpower pool in the North, and a relatively weak South Vietnamese government and military—were perhaps too formidable to overcome.”  Perhaps the war could have been won, but it could not be won at a price the American people were prepared to pay

While the contentious debate about the outcome in Vietnam continues, there is no doubt that the Vietnam War had a devastating impact on the U.S. military, especially the Army. Although the Army entered the war as a trained and disciplined force, it emerged from the conflict deeply scarred by the Vietnam experience, and it took over 20 years to overcome the corrosive effects of the war.[7]


*About WPHW and How to Access:

The West Point History of Warfare is a 71-chapter enriched digital interactive textbook that was developed by the Department of History at the U.S. Military Academy, together with Rowan Technology, to teach military history to cadets. It is now used to teach military history at dozens of colleges, universities, high schools, and libraries nationwide, and recently won the Society for Military History’s 2016 award for the use of digital technology in teaching military history. For more information on use in your classroom, please email ltrowan@rowan.nyc.

Certain sub-volumes are periodically released to the public as well and can be purchased or gifted at https://shop.westpointhistoryofwarfare.com. Currently available volumes include The West Point History of the Civil War and The West Point History of World War II, Volume 1. The second World War II volume will be released in November 2016, and the Vietnam volume quoted above will be released in Spring 2017.



[1] Mark Atwood Lawrence, “Revolutionary War in Southeast Asia, 1954–1965,” chapter eds. Clifford J. Rogers and Gail E. S. Yoshitani, in The West Point History of Warfare (hereafter cited as WPHW), eds. Clifford J. Rogers and Ty Seidule (New York: Rowan Technology Solutions, 2016), paras. 63.2–4 of Web Reader edition, https://reader.rowan.nyc/#/read/47/page/6391.

[2] Gregory Daddis, “American Escalation in Vietnam, 1965–1967,” ch. eds. Clifford J. Rogers and Gail E. S. Yoshitani, in Rogers and Seidule, WPHW, paras. 64.4–10, https://reader.rowan.nyc/#/read/47/page/6403.

[3] Daddis, “American Escalation,” paras. 64.51–59, https://reader.rowan.nyc/#/read/47/page/6411.

[4] Gregory Daddis, “American De-escalation in Vietnam, 1968–1972,” ch. eds. Clifford J. Rogers and Gail E. S. Yoshitani, in Rogers and Seidule, WPHW, paras. 65.9–14, 65.25, and 65.40, https://reader.rowan.nyc/#/read/47/page/6417.

[5] Daddis, “American De-escalation,” paras. 65.41–45 and 65.56–58, https://reader.rowan.nyc/#/read/47/page/6422.

[6] James H. Willbanks, “Victory and Defeat in Vietnam,” ch. ed. Clifford J. Rogers and Gail E. S. Yoshitani, in Rogers and Seidule, WPHW, paras. 66.2, 66.7, and 66.41–49, https://reader.rowan.nyc/#/read/47/page/6428.

[7] Willbanks, “Victory and Defeat,” para. 66.64–66, https://reader.rowan.nyc/#/read/47/page/6434.