Ho Chi Minh (1890–1969) was a Vietnamese communist and revolutionary leader who, throughout much of the 20th century, sought to free his nation from colonial influence. He led Vietnamese insurgents against Japanese, French, and American occupying forces, as well as against rival factions of Vietnamese.
Ho and his Viet Minh forces were victorious against the French in the First Indochina War. In the Second Indochina War, known in the United States as the Vietnam War, he led the North Vietnamese in an effort to expel U.S. forces, crush the South Vietnamese government, and reunify the country.
Asked in December 1966 if he would fight to final victory, Minh stated, "If by 'final victory' you mean the departure of the Americans, then we will fight to final victory. Everything depends on the Americans. If they want to make war for 20 years, then we shall make war for 20 years. If they want to make peace, we shall make peace and invite them to tea afterwards."
He died in 1969, six years before the North declared victory in the Vietnam War and completed the reunification of the country under communist rule.
Vo Nguyen Giap (1912–2013) was a Vietnamese military commander most revered for his role in liberating Vietnam from French colonial rule. Giap also led the armies of North Vietnam during the war against the Americans and the South. After the fall of Saigon in 1975, he served as Vietnam's Minister of Defense and as Deputy Prime Minister.
In 1954, General Giap led the Viet Minh army in the decisive battle at Dien Bien Phu, crushing French colonial forces and bringing an end to the Franco-Vietnamese War. After the war, Giap remained Commander in Chief of the People's Army of Vietnam.
He was largely responsible for the 1968 Tet Offensive, a major catastrophe in which Giap lost some 37,000 fighters. Still, his campaign proved to the United States that communist forces remained aggressively determined to achieve victory.
Bao Dai (1913–1997), born Nguyen Vinh Thuy, was the reigning emperor of Vietnam from 1926 to 1945.
Japanese forces swept away French colonial rule in Indochina in March 1945. The conquerors reinstated Emperor Bao Dai in Vietnam, but kept him powerless, thereby creating the illusion of an independent Vietnamese state.
In August, Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh revolted against Bao Dai, forcing the puppet ruler to surrender leadership to the resistance. The Viet Minh offered Boa Dai a role in the new government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, but instead, the ex-emperor fled to Hong Kong.
Ngo Dinh Diem (1901–1963) was a staunchly anticommunist Vietnamese statesman who refused to ally with Ho Chi Minh after the Franco-Vietnamese War. With the support of the United States government, Diem led South Vietnam from 1954 to 1963, when he was assassinated alongside his brother in a military coup.
Named President of South Vietnam in 1954, Ngo Dinh Diem consolidated power in Saigon and sought to expel, imprison, or execute those who opposed his regime. With the support of the United States, he refused to hold countrywide elections in 1956 (a stipulation of the 1954 Geneva Accords), fearing—almost certainly correctly—that he'd lose to Ho Chi Minh.
Diem was a terribly unpopular leader, known for his paranoia and his ruthlessness. Many South Vietnamese grew to resent and fear his repressive policies, which ultimately contributed to the rise of the NLF and the Viet Cong.
Nguyen Van Thieu (1923–2001) was a military general who served in the French-controlled Vietnamese Army during French colonial rule in Indochina, and later served as President of South Vietnam during the war against the North.
During the Vietnam War, Thieu maintained a powerful role in the South Vietnamese government under President Nguyen Cao Ky. In 1967, he replaced Ky and remained president of South Vietnam until the final days of the war against the North.
Just before the fall of Saigon, Thieu fled to Taiwan.
Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890–1969), a Republican, was the popular 34th President of the United States, serving two terms from 1953 to 1961. Prior to his presidency, Eisenhower was a lifelong military man, commanding the D-Day invasion while serving as Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during World War II.
In February 1954, President Eisenhower refused to commit American troops to the Franco-Vietnamese War. In a press conference he stated, "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."
By April, however, his administration revisited the question of direct intervention in the war. Though he sent no U.S. troops to the region, he authorized military aid to the French. After France surrendered to the Viet Minh, Eisenhower's administration aided anti-communist leader Ngo Dinh Diem in consolidating power in Saigon. Throughout his second term as president, Eisenhower remained committed to Diem's often-tyrannical regime.
John F. Kennedy (1917–1963) was the 35th President of the United States. Elected in 1960 at the age of 43, he became the youngest person ever to be voted into the White House. Kennedy served from 1961 until his assassination in November 1963.
To this day, many Americans remember Kennedy as an idealistic champion of freedom at home and abroad, despite the fact that his policies on civil rights, Vietnam, and Cuba sometimes failed to live up to his soaring rhetoric.
During his years as president, Kennedy tripled the amount of American economic and military aid to the South Vietnamese and increased the number of U.S. military advisors in Indochina. He refused to withdraw from the escalating conflict in Vietnam because, he said, "to withdraw from that effort would mean a collapse not only of South Vietnam, but Southeast Asia. So, we are going to stay there."
Some historians allege that just weeks before Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, he supported a military coup that overthrew and murdered South Vietnam President Ngo Dinh Diem.
Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973) was the 36th President of the United States, assuming the office after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963. Prior to serving as Kennedy's vice president, Johnson had long represented Texas in the United States Senate.
When Vice President Johnson assumed the presidency, he inherited the escalating crisis in Vietnam. Despite promises to bring a swift end to American involvement in Indochina, Johnson steadily increased the number of U.S. troops deployed to Vietnam, hoping to ensure a U.S. victory before withdrawing forces. No American president had yet "lost" a war, and Johnson hoped he wouldn't be the first.
By the end of his second term as president, his approval rates had plummeted and his hopes for bringing an end to the war in Vietnam had dissolved. On March 31st, 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War, Johnson announced to the American people that he wouldn't seek reelection.
Richard M. Nixon (1913–1994) was a Republican senator from California and the 37th President of the United States. Prior to his presidency, he also served as Dwight Eisenhower's vice president from 1953 to 1961. Ultimately, his presidency ended in disgrace, with Nixon 's 1974 resignation in the midst of the Watergate scandal.
In his first term as president, Richard Nixon promised the American public that he would reduce U.S. troop levels in Vietnam. He pursued a plan he called "Vietnamization," whereby the U.S. would gradually withdraw from the war, leaving the South Vietnamese army to shoulder the bulk of the fighting.
Despite his pledge to bring American GIs home, American ground troop levels in Vietnam remained high and the Nixon administration expanded the war into the neighboring countries of Laos and Cambodia. In 1973, during Nixon's final year in office, the last U.S. combat soldiers left Vietnam, but military advisors and some Marines remained.
Robert McNamara (1916–2009) was an American business executive, statesman, and diplomat. In 1960, he left his seat as president of the Ford Motor Company to accept an invitation from President Kennedy to become U.S. Secretary of Defense. A key adviser to the president during the Cuban Missile Crisis, McNamara is most famous—or infamous—today as the prime architect of the disastrous American intervention in the Vietnam War.
During Kennedy's administration, McNamara supported the president's decision to increase American involvement in Vietnam. Under President Johnson, however, he began to suspect that American aims in the growing war were futile and urged the President and his advisors to seek a peaceful solution to the conflict.
Under pressure to win the war before withdrawal, Johnson asked McNamara to step down in 1967. McNamara later published a number of books, including his memoir entitled In Retrospect, in which he reflects on American foreign policy mistakes in Vietnam.
William Calley, Jr. (1943–) is the former lieutenant of the United States Army during the Vietnam War. In 1971, Calley was found guilty of murder for ordering the killings of hundreds of South Vietnamese civilians in the My Lai (pronounced "mee-lye") Massacre.
In March 1968, Lieutenant William Calley led his platoon into the hamlet of My Lai in South Vietnam. Suspecting the presence of Viet Cong fighters, Calley ordered his men to eliminate all inhabitants. Hundreds of civilians—mostly women, children, and elderly men—were killed, some of the women raped, and others mutilated.
Three years later, a military court sentenced Calley to life in prison for 22 of these murders. He appealed the conviction and was able to receive a reduced sentence. He was released from prison in 1974.
Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929–1968) was the young pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama who rose to prominence during the Civil Rights Movement. He remains to this day a symbol of the non-violent struggle against segregation.
On April 15th, 1967, King led thousands of demonstrators to the United Nations building in New York where the civil rights leader delivered a speech attacking U.S. foreign policy in Vietnam. Over 100,000 people attended the rally.
General William Westmoreland (1914–2005) was an American general who commanded U.S. military operations in Vietnam during the height of the war, from 1964 to 1968. He later served as the Chief of Staff of the Army.
Throughout much of his tenure as commander of U.S. military operations, General Westmoreland expressed optimism in his public statements about the war, reporting that American airpower and ground forces were successfully wearing down the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong.
By 1967, however, Westmoreland noted in private that there seemed no end in sight to the war. The massive Tet Offensive of 1968, a turning point in the war, undermined his public assessments of American progress.
Neil Sheehan (1936–) is an American journalist who worked as a reporter for the New York Times during the Vietnam War.
In 1966, he became the newspaper's Pentagon correspondent and also reported on the White House. He's best known for obtaining and publishing the top-secret documents in the "Pentagon Papers."
In 1971, Sheehan obtained a top-secret study of American strategies in Vietnam. Daniel Ellsberg, a U.S. military analyst, leaked the "Pentagon Papers" to Sheehan and several other news correspondents, but it was Sheehan who first published the secret government documents in the pages of the New York Times. The publication of the Pentagon Papers greatly accelerated the erosion of public support for the war.