Following the surrender of Japan in World War II, France attempted to reassert colonial authority over Vietnam an effort that failed after 7½ years of war against the Viet Minh, a coalition of nationalist and Communist groups. The decisive moment of the French-Indochina war came in 1954, in the 55-day siege of Dien Bien Phu, which sapped France's will to continue.
At the Geneva Conference, Vietnam was temporarily partitioned at the 17th parallel into two nations, the Communist north and the French-backed south. In 1955, the United States recognized South Vietnam and agreed to train its army.
Throughout the next several years, communist insurgents launched attacks in the south and the U.S. gradually increased the number of military personnel in Vietnam. In 1959, Maj. Dale Buis and Sgt. Chester Ovnand become the first Americans to die in the conflict. By July 1963, there were 15,400 U.S. troops in Vietnam.
That year, South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother and chief adviser, Ngo Dinh Nhu, were killed in a military coup. A succession of governments followed.
In August 1964, after U.S. destroyers were reportedly fired on in two attacks by North Vietnamese patrol boats in the Gulf of Tonkin, President Johnson ordered retaliatory air strikes against North Vietnam. Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, giving him the power to take "all necessary measures . . . to prevent further aggression."
The first U.S. combat troops reached Vietnam in March, 1965 two Marine battalions totaling 3,500 men. By year's end, U.S. military personnel numbered 184,300.
By October of that year, antiwar rallies were attracting thousands of demonstrators in the United States; the bitter chant "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many people did you kill today?" was heard in the streets of New York and Berkeley.
In January 1968, with U.S. forces in Vietnam approaching 540,000, the North Vietnamese began a brutal 77-day attack on the U.S. military base at Khe Sanh. Days later, during the Tet holiday, North Vietnam and its guerrilla allies in the south, the Viet Cong launched an offensive that reached all the way to the U.S. Embassy in Saigon and ultimately left roughly 4,000 Americans, 5,000 South Vietnamese, 58,000 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong and 14,000 civilians dead.
On February 27, CBS anchor Walter Cronkite concluded a special report by saying, "It seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate." President Johnson commented that "If I've lost Walter Cronkite, I've lost Mr. Average Citizen."
On March 31, Johnson stunned the nation in a televised address by declaring a partial bombing halt, calling for peace talks and announcing that he would not run for reelection.
The long goodbye
In 1969, President Nixon announced the withdrawal of 60,000 U.S. troops from Vietnam but, in secret, he was expanding the war by ordering the bombing of Viet Cong strongholds in Cambodia. In November, a massive antiwar demonstration drew hundreds of thousands of protesters to Washington.
For the next two years, the pattern continued: Talk of peace even as the war raged on. In 1970, national security adviser Henry Kissinger opened secret talks near Paris with the chief North Vietnamese negotiator, Le Duc Tho. But in 1972, a major offensive by Hanoi was answered by resumption of U.S. mass bombing of North Vietnam and the mining of Haiphong Harbor.
Finally, on Jan. 27, 1973, representatives of the United States, South Vietnam, the Viet Cong and North Vietnam meeting in Paris signed an "Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam," ending 11 years of U.S. fighting there.
The last U.S. ground troops left Vietnam in March 1973, though some military advisers remained, and North Vietnam released 591 U.S. prisoners of war.
The toll: More than 58,000 Americans, 611,000 South Vietnamese and at least 916,000 Viet Cong and North Vietnamese dead.
In April 1975, North Vietnamese troops pushed south and toppled the government in Saigon, unifying the country. The old southern capital was renamed in honor of the late North Vietnamese leader: Ho Chi Minh City.
On Nov. 13, 1982, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a controversial monument of black marble sunk in the earth, was dedicated in Washington during an emotional ceremony attended by 150,000 people. "The Wall" quickly became the most visited of all American war memorials.
Relations with Vietnam thawed slowly. In 1988, the United States and Vietnam conducted the first joint field investigations into the whereabouts of approximately 2,500 American soldiers listed as missing in action. Other teams followed. In 1995, the United States established diplomatic relations with Vietnam.
Compiled by Robin Groom of The Washington Post from Department of Defense documents, the Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War, "Vietnam and the United States," "The Vietnam War: An Eyewitness History" and other sources.
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