The first official American combat troops arrived in Vietnam in 1965, but the roots of the conflict go back many decades earlier. In the nineteenth century, France expanded its colonial empire by taking control of Vietnam as well as neighboring Cambodia and Laos, rechristening the entire region as French Indochina. French rubber production in Vietnam yielded such riches for the colonizers that the latex oozing from rubber trees became known as “white gold.” The ill-paid Vietnaese workers, laboring on the plantations in harsh conditions, called it by a different name: “white blood.”
By the early twentieth century, anger at the French had developed into a nationalist movement for independence. Its leaders found inspiration in communism, specifically the example of Russian Bolshevism and Lenin’s call for national revolutions in the colonial world. During World War II, when Vietnam was occupied by the imperial Japanese, the country’s main anticolonial organization — officially called the League for the Independence of Vietnam, but far better known as the Viet Minh — launched a guerrilla war against the Japanese forces and the French administrators running the country. Under the leadership of the charismatic Ho Chi Minh, the Vienamese guerrillas aided the American war effort. In return they received arms, training and support from the US Office of Strategic Services, a forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency. In 1945, with the Japanese defeated, Ho proclaimed Vietnam’s independence, using the words of the US Declaration of Independence as his template.
“All men are created equal,” he told a crowd of half a million Vietnamese in Hanoi. “The Creator has given us certain inviolable rights: the right to life, the right to be free and the right to achieve happiness.” As a young man Ho had spent some years living in the West, reportedly including stretches in Boston and New York City, and he hoped to obtain American support for his vision of a free Vietnam. In the aftermath of World War II, however, the United States was focused on rebuilding and strengthening a devastated Europe, as the Cold War increasingly gripped the continent. The Americans saw France as a strong ally against any Soviet designs on Western Europe and thus had little interest in sanctioning a communist-led independence movement in a former French colony. Instead, US ships helped transport French troops to Vietnam, and the administration of President Harry Truman threw its support behind a French reconquest of Indochina.
Soon, the United States was dispatching equipment and even military advisers to Vietnam. By 1953, it was shouldering nearly 80 percent of the bill for an ever more bitter war against the Viet Minh. The conflict progressed from guerrilla warfare to a conventional military campaign, and in 1954 a Gallic garrison at the well-fortified base of Dien Bien Phu was pounded into surrender by Viet Minh forces under General Vo Nguyen Giap. The French had had enough. At an international peace conference in Geneva, they agreed to a temporary separation of Vietnam into two placeholder regions, the north and the south, which were to be rejoined as one nation following a reunification election in 1956.
That election never took place. Fearing that Ho Chi Minh, now the head of the communist Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the north, was sure to sweep any nationwide vote, the United States picked up where its French partners had left off. It promptly launched efforts to thwart reunification by arming its allies in the southern part of the country. In this way, it fostered the creation of what eventually became the Republic of Vietnam, led by a Catholic autocrat named Ngo Dinh Diem.
From the 1950s on, the United States would support an ever more corrupt and repressive state in South Vietnam while steadily expanding its presence in Southeast Asia. When President John Kennedy took office there were around 800 US military personnel in South Vietnam. That number increased to 3,000 in 1961, and to more than 11,000 the following year. Officially listed as advisers involved in the training of the South Vietnamese army, the Americans increasingly took part in combat operations against southern guerrillas — both communist and noncommunist — who were now waging war to unify the country.
After Kennedy’s assassination, President Lyndon Johnson repeatedly escalated the war with bombing raids on North Vietnam, and unleashed an ever more furious onslaught on the South. In 1965 the fiction of “advisers” was finally dropped, and the American War, as it is known in Vietnam, began in earnest. In a televised speech, Johnson insisted that the United States was not inserting itself into a faraway civil war but taking steps to contain a communist menace. The war, he said, was “guided by North Vietnam … Its goal is to conquer the South, to defeat American power, and to extend the Asiatic dominion of communism.” To counter this, the United States turned huge swaths of the South Vietnamese countryside — where most of South Vietnam’s population lived — into battered battlegrounds.
At the peak of US operations, in 1969, the war involved more than 540,000 American troops in Vietnam, plus some 100,000 to 200,000 US troops participating in the effort from outside the country. They were also aided by numerous CIA operatives, civilian advisers, mercenaries, civilian contractors and armed members of the allied “Free World Forces” —South Korean, Australian, New Zealand, Thai, Filipino and other foreign troops. Over the entire course of the conflict, the United States would deploy more than 3 million soldiers, marines, airmen and sailors to Southeast Asia. (Fighting alongside them were hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese troops: the Army of the Republic of Vietnam would balloon to a force of nearly 1 million before the end of the war, to say nothing of South Vietnam’s air force, navy, marine corps and national police.) Officially, the American military effort lasted until early 1973, when a cease-fire was signed and US combat forces were formally withdrawn from the country, though American aid and other support would continue to flow into the Republic of Vietnam until Saigon fell to the revolutionary forces in 1975.