The Vietnam War Timeline
How It All Went Down
Ho Chi Minh Ignored
Following World War I, a young Vietnamese patriot named Nguyen That Thanh (later known as Ho Chi Minh) arrives at the Paris Peace Conference. Responding to American President Woodrow Wilson's promise of "self-determination" for nations, Thanh hopes to free Vietnam from French colonial rule. But Thanh, like many other advocates of colonial independence who descend upon the Paris peace talks, is ignored.
Japan Joins Axis
Japan enters World War II, joining the German-Italian Axis coalition.
Japan Seizes French Indochina
The Japanese take possession of French Indochina (Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam), but retain the pro-Axis French administration.
Viet Minh Founded
The Viet Minh—the League for the Independence of Vietnam—is founded.
Japan sweeps away French rule in Indochina. In Vietnam, it places Emperor Bao Dai in power, creating the illusion of an independent Vietnamese state.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt dies of a cerebral hemorrhage in Warm Springs, Georgia. With the death of President Roosevelt, Vice President Harry S. Truman becomes the 33rd President of the United States.
The United States drops an atomic bomb—the first to be used in warfare—on Hiroshima, killing 75,000 people instantly, and injuring more than 100,000.
A second atomic bomb is dropped in Nagasaki.
Japan surrenders to the Allied Powers, officially ending World War II.
Under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh, the Viet Minh revolts against Emperor Bao Dai, Japan's hand-selected ruler.
Ho Chi Minh Leads Viet Minh
Emperor Bao Dai surrenders leadership to Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh.
Democratic Republic of Vietnam Declared in Hanoi
Viet Minh leaders proclaim the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, with Hanoi its capital and Ho Chi Minh its president. No other countries recognize this regime.
Viet Minh Leaves South
The British land in Saigon to disarm the Japanese and to restore French control south of the seventeenth parallel, in what will become known as South Vietnam. After some fighting, the Viet Minh withdraws.
Ho Chi Minh Asks US Support
Ho Chi Minh pens a letter to President Harry S. Truman, asking him for the support of the United States in gaining independence for Vietnam.
Ho Chi Minh Meets French
Negotiations between French leaders and Ho Chi Minh break down. France refuses to grant Vietnamese independence and declares the southern region of Vietnam a French colony. Ho Chi Minh returns to Hanoi disenchanted.
First Indochina War
The Viet Minh attacks French forces occupying Hanoi in northern Vietnam. The First Indochina War, also called the Franco-Vietnamese War, begins.
Bao Dai Returns
As a reward for his cooperation, the French allow Bao Dai to reclaim leadership of a nominally independent Vietnam, a position that France had denied to Ho Chi Minh two years prior.
US Supports French Vietnam
Under President Harry S. Truman, the United States begins to contribute money and supplies to the French war effort in Vietnam.
President Harry S. Truman is elected to a second term.
Bao Dai signs the Elysée Agreement, which gives Vietnam "independence" within the French Union. Still, the French retain control over all key governmental functions.
China Recognizes Vietnam
The People's Republic of China, now a Communist state, recognizes Ho Chi Minh's government, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.
Soviets Recognize Vietnam
The Soviet Union recognizes Ho Chi Minh's government, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.
US Gives Military Aid
The United States recognizes Bao Dai's government, the Republic of Vietnam, and gives France $15 million in military aid.
US Military Advisors in Saigon
The first group of U.S. military advisors—the U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG)—arrives in Saigon.
Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower is elected President of the United States. Richard M. Nixon is elected as his Vice President.
Eisenhower Rejects Troop Committment
President Eisenhower refuses to commit American troops to the Franco-Vietnamese War. In a press conference he states, "I cannot conceive of a greater tragedy for America than to get heavily involved now in an all-out war in any of those regions."4
Dien Bien Phu Begins
The Viet Minh launches its first assault on French forces at Dien Bien Phu. The battle will rage for over two months.
Eisenhower Debates Intervention
President Eisenhower's administration revisits the question of direct intervention in the Franco-Vietnamese War.
Nixon Supports Troop Committment
In a speech before the press, Vice President Richard Nixon explains that "if to avoid further Communist expansion in Asia and Indochina we must take the risk now of putting our boys in, I think the Executive has to take the politically unpopular decision and do it."5
RANGEEND_DIENBIENPHU The French surrender to the Viet Minh. The Geneva Conference on the status of Indochina begins.
Bao Dai Appoints Ngo Dinh Diem
Bao Dai names Ngo Dinh Diem the new leader of what will become South Vietnam.
France and Ho Chi Minh sign the Geneva Accords, in which Vietnam is to be divided at the seventeenth parallel until elections can be held in 1956 to reunify the country. The South Vietnamese government and the United States refuse to sign, though both promise to abide by the agreement.
Some 850,000 North Vietnamese, mostly Catholics, emigrate to South Vietnam; 80,000 residents of the South, primarily Viet Minh sympathizers, move to the North.
Ho Chi Minh in Time
Time magazine features Ho Chi Minh on its cover along with a lengthy feature profiling the new president of North Vietnam. "Ho Chi Minh, dedicated Communist," the article reads, "is a matchless interplay of ruthlessness and guile."6
US Supports Diem
Ngo Dinh Diem, with the help of the United States, consolidates power in Saigon and rejects the Geneva Accords. Fearing (correctly) that he will lose against Ho Chi Minh, Diem refuses to hold countrywide elections. Still, the United States remains committed to his regime.
Ho Chi Minh Land Reforms
Ho Chi Minh, following the communist doctrine, orders sweeping "land reforms" in North Vietnam; thousands of people classified as landowners and wealthy farmers are imprisoned, tortured, or executed. In a mass exodus, many Vietnamese families flee and head to South Vietnam.7
Ngo Dinh Diem begins a campaign to repress those who fought for or sympathized with the Viet Minh.
Dwight D. Eisenhower is reelected to a second term as President of the United States.
Diem Visits Ike
President Ngo Dinh Diem visits the United States. He is welcomed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower and other top government officials.
Ex-Viet Minh forces in the South organize and, with the support of Ho Chi Minh, begin a campaign of guerrilla warfare against Diem's administration.
First American Deaths
Two military advisors are killed by Viet Minh guerilla soldiers in a raid at Bien Hoa in South Vietnam. These are the first American deaths (non-combat) reported in Vietnam.
US Increases Advisors
The United States announces that it will increase the number of military advisors in South Vietnam from 327 men to 685 men.
Democrat John F. Kennedy defeats Republican candidate Richard M. Nixon to become the 35th president of the United States.
South Army Coup Fails
President Ngo Dinh Diem defeats an attempted coup by his own South Vietnamese government forces, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN).
National Liberation Front and Viet Cong Formed
The National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam, also known as the National Liberation Front (NLF) is formed to crush Diem's regime. The insurgent organization and its military wing—the Viet Cong (VC)—will be funded by the North Vietnamese government, and staffed by Ex-Viet Minh guerilla soldiers from the South. (Northern-born troops will join the VC in 1964.)
Johnson Visits South Vietnam
Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson visits South Vietnam and offers military and economic aid to Diem. By the end of the year, the U.S. military presence in Vietnam will reach 3,200 men (although combat units will not be deployed until 1965).
First US Combat Death
An American serviceman dies in Vietnam, the first combat death reported. For many Americans, the death will mark the beginning of the Vietnam War.
South Government Officials Killed
Viet Cong guerrilla fighters kill some 4,000 South Vietnamese officials.
Military Assistance Command Vietnam
The MAAG is replaced by the U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV). United States military advisors are authorized to fire if fired upon. By the end of the year, the U.S. military presence in Vietnam will reach 11,000.
Diem Survives Assassination Attempt
Two South Vietnamese VC pilots bomb Ngo Dinh Diem's presidential palace. Diem escapes the assassination attempt.
Strategic Hamlet Program
The United States and the South Vietnamese government attempt to initiate the Strategic Hamlet Program in an effort to group the peasant population into fortified villages. The program is designed to isolate the rural population from Viet Cong influence and, by providing education and health care, strengthen Diem's hold over the countryside. However, many of the peasants resent being uprooted from their homes and opposition to Diem grows; for this reason, the VC will easily infiltrate the hamlets.
South Vietnamese Protests
South Vietnamese police fire shots into a crowd of Buddhist monks demonstrating against President Diem's regime. The event will inspire others to protest.
Buddhist Monks Self-Immolate
Thich Quang Duc, a 66-year-old Buddhist monk, sets himself afire in protest of the South Vietnamese government, its religious intolerance, and discriminatory policies; in following months, other Buddhists will follow his example and self-immolate to demonstrate against the regime. Quang Duc's suicide, captured in an iconic Life magazine photograph, shocks—and confuses—many Americans. For some, the event will underscore the problems with American support for the South Vietnamese government.
Vietnam Linked to Southeast Asia
In a press conference, President John F. Kennedy speaks of the war in Vietnam; he declares, "to withdraw from that effort would mean a collapse not only of South Vietnam, but Southeast Asia. So we are going to stay there."8
U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara tells the press that the Kennedy administration intends to withdraw most American forces from South Vietnam by the end of 1965. The gap widens between information released by the U.S. government and the actual situation in Vietnam.
With U.S. encouragement, South Vietnamese General Duong Van Minh overthrows the Diem regime, and the following day he orders the execution of Diem and his brother. General Duong's military rule is recognized by the United States.
While riding in a motorcade through Dallas, Texas, President John F. Kennedy is shot and killed. Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson assumes the presidency.
Students Burn Draft Cards
Some 1,000 students gather in New York City to protest the Vietnam War. Twelve burn their selective service registration cards—draft cards—in a symbolic gesture of opposition to the war.
North Vietnam Complains
North Vietnamese officials in Hanoi file a formal complaint with a commission set up by the Geneva Accords, declaring that under the protection of American destroyers, South Vietnamese vessels had bombarded northern ports.
Responding to raids on northern ports, North Vietnamese gunboats attack the USS Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin; the Maddox suffers little damage and no casualties are reported. The U.S. declares that its destroyer was on routine patrol in international waters and that it did nothing to provoke the attack, nor did it play any part in the South Vietnamese raids. Four years later, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara will admit that the U.S. had in fact cooperated with the South.
First North Vietnam Bombing
The USS Maddox reports a second assault by North Vietnamese gunboats, though evidence of such an attack is inconclusive. President Lyndon B. Johnson orders retaliatory strikes. The U.S. bombs North Vietnam for the first time.
Gulf of Tonkin Resolution
The U.S. Congress passes the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which gives President Lyndon Johnson the power to take whatever actions he sees necessary to defend South Vietnam against Viet Cong forces.
North Vietnamese Troops In South
The first unit of North Vietnamese troops is sent to the South; by May 1965 they will number 6,500.
Lyndon B. Johnson wins the presidential election in a tremendous landslide.
Viet Cong Attack Pleiku
The Viet Cong attack a U.S. Air Force base at Pleiku, South Vietnam, killing eight Americans and wounding more than 100.
Operation Rolling Thunder
Responding to a VC assault on the U.S. Air Force base at Pleiku, South Vietnam, President Johnson authorizes Operation Rolling Thunder. The operation is a bombardment campaign meant to cripple North Vietnam's transportation system and its industrial centers in order to halt the flow of men and supplies into the South.
First US Combat Units
The first U.S. combat units arrive in Vietnam.
The Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) hold the first anti-war teach-in at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Students, faculty, and local citizens participate in debates, lectures, and film presentations meant to challenge assumptions about the Vietnam War.
SDS Rally in DC
In Washington D.C., thousands attend a protest rally organized by the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).
Over 30,000 people attend a three-day anti-war teach-in at U.C. Berkeley. Among those in attendance are novelist Norman Mailer, socialist leader Norman Thomas, philosopher Alan Watts, civil rights activist Bob Moses, and Mario Savio, a prominent leader of the Free Speech Movement. The event, organized by the Vietnam Day Committee (VDC), will be the largest of its kind held during the Vietnam War.
Search and Destroy Missions
American ground forces engage the Viet Cong in direct fighting for the first time. Platoons are sent to "search and destroy," that is, to ambush enemy forces and then withdraw immediately (rather than fortify and hold hostile territory). The highly aggressive "search and destroy" military strategy will be employed throughout Gen. Westmorland's tenure.
For the second time, Time magazine features Ho Chi Minh on its cover. In its cover article entitled "The Jungle Marxist," Time magazine asks, "What makes kindly old 'Uncle Ho' so hard-nosed?"9
Penalties for Draft-Dodging
The U.S. Congress passes an amendment to the Selective Service Act that will criminalize the destruction of draft cards—notices to individual (male) citizens of required service in the U.S. military; President Johnson signs it into law. Those committing the act will now be subject to a five-year prison sentence and up to $10,000 in fines.
First Mass Demonstration Against Vietnam
In the U.S., the first mass public demonstrations against American involvement in the war in Vietnam take place.
First Draft Burning Conviction
Pacifist David J. Miller, 24, becomes the first person convicted for burning a draft card under a new law signed by President Johnson in August 1965.
In an attempt to spur negotiations with North Vietnam, President Johnson orders a halt in the bombing. The pause will last just over a month.
Troop Levels in 1965
By the end of 1965, the U.S. troop strength in Vietnam exceeds 200,000.10
Students Burn Cards
Student David O'Brien and three friends burn their draft cards on the steps of the South Boston Courthouse in protest of the war in Vietnam.
POW’s Mobbed in Hanoi
U.S. prisoners of war (POWs) are led through the streets of Hanoi, where they are attacked by angry mobs.
Troop Levels in 1966
By the end of 1966, American troops stationed in Vietnam number 389,000. More than 6,000 Americans have been killed and 30,000 wounded in 1966 alone.11
King Demonstrates Against War
Martin Luther King, Jr. leads thousands of demonstrators to the United Nations building in New York, where he delivers a speech attacking U.S. foreign policy in Vietnam. Over 100,000 people attend the rally.
Westmoreland's Conflicting Assessments
At the request of President Johnson, General William Westmoreland, commander of American troops in Vietnam, expresses optimism in his public statements about the war. In private, Westmoreland reports that he sees no end in sight to the combat.
Robert McNamara Expresses Doubt
In a private letter to President Johnson, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara expresses grave concern about the war in Vietnam. "The picture of the world's greatest superpower killing or seriously injuring 1,000 noncombatants a week," he writes, "while trying to pound a tiny backward nation into submission on an issue whose merits are hotly disputed, is not a pretty one."
Robert McNamara Admits Futility
Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara publicly acknowledges the futility of bombing North Vietnam and the grave repercussions of this strategy at home and abroad.
March on the Pentagon
Thousands march to the Pentagon to demonstrate against the war in Vietnam.
President Johnson "releases" Robert McNamara from his duties as Secretary of Defense. Johnson offers McNamara, who has grown increasingly pessimistic about U.S. progress against the North Vietnamese, a position as head of the World Bank.
Troop Levels in 1967
By the end of 1967, the U.S. military presence in Vietnam has increased to 485,000.
Beginning on the Vietnamese Tet holiday, Viet Cong forces shock U.S. troops with a wave of attacks supported by North Vietnamese troops. Heavy fighting will continue for months. Ultimately, the Tet Offensive will be a catastrophe for the NLF and the Viet Cong, which lose 37,000 fighters. But it is also a serious blow for the United States, which loses 2,500 men. Public support for the war in the U.S. plummets.
More Troops Requested
General Westmoreland requests 206,000 more troops.
American soldiers, including the "Charlie" Company, a platoon led by Second Lieutenant William Calley, massacre hundreds of civilians—mostly women, children, and elderly men—in the hamlet of My Lai (pronounced "MEE LEYE") in South Vietnam.
Johnson Seeks End
President Johnson meets with his military advisors who urge him to find a way to end the war in Vietnam.
Johnson Declines Reelection
President Johnson states in a nationwide television broadcast, "We are prepared to move immediately toward peace through negotiations. So tonight, in the hope that this action will lead to early talks, I am taking the first step to deescalate the conflict [in Vietnam]." He also announces that he will not seek reelection in 1968.13
Preliminary Talks Begin
Ho Chi Minh's government declares it is prepared to talk about peace. Preliminary talks will begin in May, yet the U.S. troop level in Vietnam will continue to rise.
Martin Luther King, Jr. is assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. His assassin, James Earl Ray, pleads guilty and is sentenced to 99 years in prison.
American Casualties in 1968
The total of American combat deaths in Vietnam reaches 22,951.14
Draft Card Burning Ruled Free Speech
In United States v. David Paul O'Brien, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that the criminal prohibition of draft card burning does not violate the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech.
1968 Deaths Exceed 1967
The U.S. command in Vietnam announces that American battle deaths in the first six months of 1968 exceed the total in 1967.
America’s Longest War
The war in Vietnam—its beginning marked by the first death of an American serviceman reported on 22 December 1961—becomes the longest war in American history.
Chicago Convention Ends in Riots
At the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Hubert H. Humphrey wins the presidential nomination; meanwhile anti-war protestors clash with police in the streets outside the convention. Chicago's Democratic mayor, Richard Daley, authorizes officers to use any force necessary to clear the protests. Hundreds of people are arrested, and dozens of demonstrators, reporters, police, and bystanders are injured in the chaos.
Republican Richard Nixon is elected president of the United States.
Troop Levels in 1968
By the end of 1968, U.S. troops in Vietnam number 535,100; the ARVN claims some 820,000 fighters; VC and northern soldiers top 600,000. During the year, more than 14,500 Americans die in the war, the highest annual toll thus far.15
Peace Talks Begin in Paris
Peace talks are held in Paris. Representatives from the U.S., the South Vietnamese government, and the NLF are present.
American Casualties in 1969
American combat deaths in Vietnam exceed 33,629, the number lost in the Korean War.
The number of U.S. troops in Vietnam peaks at 543,000. President Richard Nixon announces his plan for "Vietnamization" of the war—that is, training and transitioning South Vietnamese troops to assume the roles that have been fulfilled by American troops—and promises to withdraw 25,000 American soldiers.
Life magazine prints the portraits of the 242 Americans killed in action in Vietnam during a single week in May, a week identified by the magazine as "average for any seven-day period during the war." Twelve pages feature the faces of young people, mostly working-class black and white men, some in uniform, some posing for high school graduation in cap and gown.16
Ho Chi Minh Dies
At the age of 79, six years before his armies seize Saigon, Ho Chi Minh dies. Rather than cremate his body, as Minh had specified in his will, Minh's family has the leader embalmed and put on display in a mausoleum.17
Nixon Promises Withdrawal
President Nixon promises to withdraw 35,000 additional troops from the war in Vietnam.
DC Anti-War Protest
Some 600,000 Americans attend an anti-war protest rally in Washington, D.C.
Nixon Promises More Troops Home
President Nixon promises to bring home 50,000 troops from Vietnam by April 1970.
Troop Levels in 1970
Over 420,000 American soldiers remain in Vietnam. President Nixon promises to withdraw another 150,000 within the next year.
In a nationally televised broadcast, President Nixon announces that American and South Vietnamese units have invaded Cambodia to destroy bases that have provided aid to the NLF.
Kent State Demonstration
Students at Kent State University in Ohio organize a massive public demonstration against the American invasion of Cambodia.
National Guard Called to Kent State
On the second day of anti-war demonstrations at Kent State University students torch the R.O.T.C. building on campus. In response, the mayor of Kent, Ohio asks the governor to call in the National Guard.18
Kent State Killings
The Ohio National Guard attempts to disperse the growing crowd on the fourth day of anti-war protests at Kent State University. When demonstrators refuse to follow orders, chaos ensues. Members of the Guard shoot into the crowd, killing four and wounding nine; one student is paralyzed for life. Of the four killed, two had been protesting while the other two had been walking to class. College campuses all across the country shut down. Photographs of the dead and wounded are printed worldwide, intensifying growing sentiment against American aggression in Cambodia and the war in Vietnam.
Jackson State Deaths
Police shoot and kill two students during anti-war protests at the historically black Jackson State College in Mississippi. Though the incident is similar to the shootings at Kent State, it receives far less attention from the press.
Neil Young Pens Ohio
Immediately after seeing the photos of the Kent State tragedy, published in today's issue of Life magazine, musician Neil Young takes a walk in the woods and then sits down to compose the song "Ohio," with the chorus line: "Four dead in Ohio" (lyrics below). It is performed by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, and becomes the protest anthem of a generation. David Crosby cries when the group finishes recording the song in the studio.
Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,
We're finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drumming,
Four dead in Ohio.
Gotta get down to it
Soldiers are cutting us down
Should have been done long ago.
What if you knew her
And found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know?
William Calley Sentenced for My Lai
A military court sentences First Lieutenant William Calley to life in prison for the murders of 22 Vietnamese civilians in the My Lai village in 1968.
Washington Protest March
Some 200,000 people march in Washington, D.C. to protest the war in Vietnam.
The Pentagon Papers
The New York Times begins publishing portions of the "Pentagon Papers." Daniel Ellsberg, an American military analyst with an extremely high-level security clearance and a former employee of the RAND Corporation, has leaked the documents to reporter Neil Sheehan. They contain top-secret information collected by the Department of Defense about U.S. political and military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967.
Congress Votes to Withdraw Troops
The House and the Senate vote to withdraw all U.S. troops in Vietnam by year's end.
Twenty-Sixth Amendment Ratified
The 26th Amendment is ratified, lowering the national voting age from 21 to 18.
President Nixon orders massive bombing of North Vietnam in response to a major attack (the Easter Offensive) launched by the NLF in South Vietnam.
Five men are caught burglarizing the headquarters for the Democratic National Committee, located at the Watergate hotel in Washington, D.C. Their arrests will set into motion the events that will eventually result in President Nixon's resignation.
American Ground Forces Leave
The last U.S. ground troops leave Vietnam. Thousands of airmen, advisors, and support personnel remain.
Nixon defeats Democratic candidate Senator George McGovern in the presidential election. McGovern has run on an anti-war platform that would grant amnesty to draft evaders who have left the country, and would exchange American withdrawal from Vietnam for the return of American prisoners of war (POWs).
Vietnam Ceasefire Signed
Representatives from South Vietnam, North Vietnam, and the United States sign a peace agreement in which a ceasefire is declared, the U.S. agrees to withdraw combat troops, and the government of South Vietnam promises to hold free elections to allow its people to decide their future.
American POWs Released
North Vietnam releases nearly 600 American POWs.
Vietnam War Officially Ends
The Vietnam War is officially over for the United States. The last U.S. combat soldier leaves Vietnam, but military advisors and some Marines remain. Over 3 million Americans have served in the war, nearly 60,000 are dead, some 150,000 are wounded, and at least 1,000 are missing in action.
Congress Prohibits US Intervention
Despite renewed fighting between the NLF and the South Vietnamese, the U.S. Congress votes to prohibit any further U.S. combat role in Vietnam.
Congress Rejects Vietnam Aid
The ceasefire in Vietnam is officially over. The U.S. Congress rejects President Nixon's request for increased military aid to South Vietnam.
President Nixon resigns amidst the Watergate scandal; his vice president Gerald Ford takes office.
Thousands Flee Saigon
The New York Times features an image of hundreds of South Vietnamese civilians scrambling to board a single U.S. helicopter. During the final weeks of April, an invasion of Saigon by the North Vietnamese has become certain, and thousands attempt to flee the region.
The North Vietnamese take Saigon; the war in Vietnam ends.
Time Declares Ho Chi Minh "The Victor"
Just days after the government of South Vietnam surrendered to the VC and North Vietnamese armies, Ho Chi Minh appears on the cover of Time magazine, this time with the heading, "The Victor."19