The Vietnam War remains one of the most costly and one of the most divisive conflicts in American history.
When America left the wart in 1973, more than 58,200 Americans had lost their lives. In total, the United States sent 543,000 soldiers to fight. Of those, more than 303,000 were wounded.
According to NCPedia, of the more than 216,000 servicemen from North Carolina who served in the Vietnam War, approximately 1,302 were killed in action and approximately 300 died from other causes. Two North Carolinians received the Medal of Honor, including one from Winston-Salem.
Not always respected when they returned, many veterans, according to the Veteran Administration, suffered through PTSD, had higher rates of divorce, suicide, alcoholism and drug addiction than the general public.
America’s involvement in the war started years before any fighting actually started. The United States became involved in 1954 with the strip of land that was under French rule for nearly a century.
It was invaded by Japan during World War II, but the Japanese fled the area at the end of the war and Ho Chi Minh, a follower of Chinese and Soviet communism, founded the Viet Minh, which sought for independence.
But when the Japanese withdrew its forces in 1945, French-educated Emperor Bao Dai was left in control. The Viet Minh rose up seeking a chance to seize control of the country and took over the city of Hanoi in the northern part of the country.
Ho declared the north half of the country the Democratic Republic of Vietnam with Ho as president.
The south half of the country still had French influence. The French backed Bao and set up the state of Vietnam with the city of Saigon as its capital. Both leaders wanted a unified Vietnam. Northern troops defeated French troops at the battle at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, which ended France’s colonial rule in Indochina.
Vietnam was split at the 17th parallel and a reunification date was set for 1956. Those plans changed with anti-communist politician Ngo Dinh Diem pushed Bao out of office to become president of the Government of the Republic of Vietnam, which was known as South Vietnam.
The United States and the Soviet Union were in the middle of a Cold War when then U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower played his support for Diem and South Vietnam in 1955 and endorsed the idea of the “Domino Theory,” which meant if one nation in Southeast Asia would fall to the communists, others would follow.
America sent equipment and training to South Vietnam, and Diem cracked down on Viet Minh sympathizers in the South, which he called the Viet Cong, meaning Vietnamese communist. An estimated 100,000 people were arrested, some tortured and executed.
U.S. President John F. Kennedy sent a team to South Vietnam to report on conditions in the country. They advised a build-up of the military, as well as economic and technical aid to help Diem fight the communists. By 1962, America’s military presence grew to 9,000 troops. In the 1950s, that number was fewer than 800.
Diem was killed by his own generals in a coup de’ tat in 1963 and three weeks later, Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, increased U.S. military and economic support for South Vietnam because of increasing instability in the country, it was reported.
America’s involvement escalated after the Gulf of Tonkin incident. Two North Vietnamese torpedo boats attacked a U.S. destroyer, the Maddox, off the coast of North Vietnam on Aug. 2, 1964. Two days later, the Maddox and another destroyer, the USS Turner Joy, were also attacked.
Johnson ordered air strikes against North Vietnam and Congress responded by passing the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which gave the president war-making powers. It was not an official declaration of war. In fact, there never was an official declaration of war against North Vietnam.
Still, the United States initiated heavy bombing in Laos trying to disrupt a North Vietnamese supply line known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Johnson, with solid support of the American public, sent U.S. soldiers to Vietnam in March 1965. By June, 82,000 troops were sent to Vietnam and military leaders asked for 175,000 more by the end of 1965.
In 1968, the North Vietnamese executed what became known as the Tet Offensive, a massive invasion of several South Vietnam cities during the Vietnamese new-year known as Tet.
The offensive was done in three phases, beginning Jan. 30, 1968. It was some of the most brutal fighting of the war, including the destruction of the city of Hue, where intense fighting lasted a month.
Fighting around the U.S. combat base Khe Sanh lasted for two months.
The communists’ ultimate goal failed as the pro-American forces militarily pushed back the offensive. But the attack also turned the tide of the war toward the communists by turning the American public against the war.
The American public, which had been led to believe that America had the upper hand, started to change its feelings about the war. Disturbing images, such as the one that saw the North Vietnamese capture the American embassy, were broadcast back to the American public.
According to history.com, an anti-war movement had begun on college campuses in the mid-60s. In late 1967, approximately 100,000 protestors gathered at the Lincoln Memorial to protest the war. The anti-war movement also brought about many Vietnam War protest songs including Nina Simone’s “Backlash Blues” and Pete Seeger’s “Bring ‘Em Home.”
The embassy was eventually taken back by American troops, but the images swayed many American viewers.
The war was the central issue of the 1968 presidential election that pitted Vice President Hubert Humphrey against challengers Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy for the Democratic nomination. Both were anti-war candidates, and Kennedy was building momentum toward earning the nomination, but was assassinated in Los Angeles after winning the California primary.
The field was set when President Lyndon Johnson, after giving a televised speech about the progress of the war, announced he would not run for the Democratic Party’s nomination for president.
Humphrey eventually won the nomination for president, but lost to Republican nominee Richard Nixon in the November election.
The Paris Peace Accord was signed by all parties in Jan. 1973, but the fighting continued. As the bombing of the Ho Chi Minh trail stopped, it allowed the North to regroup, to plan another massive offensive scheduled for 1975. The Viet Cong resumed offensive operations, with two clashes that left 55 South Vietnam soldiers dead.
The South Vietnam president, Theiu, said the Paris Peace Accord was void as there were 25,000 South Vietnamese casualties during the peace period.
The American troops were sent home, but the fighting continued. North Vietnamese troops and the Viet Cong reached Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, in 1975, and a final evacuation of the American embassy was executed April 29-30.
South Vietnam president Duong Van Minh surrendered to the North on April 30.
National Vietnam War Veterans Day as a holiday is designated for March 29. The reason for the date is because the last United States combat troops departed from Vietnam on March 29, 1973.