The Vietnam War was rooted in the United States Cold War policy of containment that escalated during the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations. Both Presidents made strategic military and diplomatic maneuvers to hold back the possible incursion of Soviet and Chinese Communism into nations in which it did not already exist. By the end of the Korean War in 1953, the battle lines of this struggle reached from Eastern and Central Europe to the shores of South East Asia. It was within this context that American military interests in Vietnam slowly grew.1
The United States began its involvement as one of several Western financial backers for the French colonial war against the Vietminh from 1946-1954. By the end of that conflict the United States contributed 75 percent of the financial resources going into the French war against Vietnamese Nationalist leader Ho Chi Minh. Although the French, representatives of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam along with China, the Soviet Union and Great Britain, chose to reach an agreement in 1954 splitting Vietnam along the 17th parallel, representatives from South Vietnam and the United States did not comply. The Eisenhower administration saw the acceptance of a two Vietnam solution at the Geneva Accord as a slippery slope towards greater Communist expansion. The United States government took the position that the loss of one state in Southeast Asia would result in the fall of other nations, an ideology known as the Domino Theory.2
The initial impetus for the civil war between North and South Vietnam occurred in 1955. The South Vietnamese government refused to hold reunification elections and proceeded to murder between 20,000 and 75,000 members of the Vietminh, also known as the Viet Cong. Ho Chi Minh, the leader of the North Vietnamese government, retaliated by establishing a network of arms distribution to Viet Cong guerilla fighters in South Vietnam. Conflict continued, and by 1961, 3,200 American military personnel were stationed in South Vietnam in an advisory capacity. Unfortunately conflict progressed unabated in the South where the native population actively sided with the Viet Cong in an organized nationalist movement that the American government little understood.3
Major escalation occurred in August of 1964 when the USS Maddox mistakenly reported being fired upon by Viet Cong patrol boats in the Gulf of Tonkin. On August 7, 1964 President Lyndon Johnson asked for a congressional resolution to actively begin bombing North Vietnamese patrol boat bases and escalating the defensive tactics of American forces controlling important hamlets. The North Vietnamese only increased terrorist activity. The United States responded with Operation Rolling Thunder, a three year continuous air bombardment in North Vietnam.4 The Southern insurgency flourished and American soldiers were forced to accept their position of defensive conflict, which resulted in no decisive victories and continued attrition on all sides. In accord with the defensive objective, American soldiers where forced to carry out search and destroy missions, attacking Viet Cong in hiding and seeking out those South Vietnamese friendly to the communist forces. All the while South Vietnamese military forces floundered and more and more American troops began fighting for a foreign nation in South East Asia, seemingly without end.5
In 1967 485,000 American troops were stationed in South Vietnam where they anticipated a full on assault of communist forces. The American military command did not expect that the Viet Cong had infiltrated most major cities and provincial capitals waiting for a massive offensive to storm each from the ground up. On January 31, 1968, during the Tet New Year celebration, Viet Cong forces sprung into attack seizing urban and governmental centers and storming the American Embassy in Saigon. This watershed moment was a huge blow to American sense of feasible victory in Vietnam and proved a public relations nightmare for the Johnson administration. By 1968, only 25 percent of American people polled agreed with continued American involvement in Vietnam. Johnson responded by establishing the Paris peace talks and dropped out of the Presidential race under the assumption that the war itself had crippled any hope for his re-election.6 President Richard Nixon continued the peace talks while at the same time escalating bombing campaigns and withdrawing troops.
In 1970 Nixon brought the Vietnam War to Cambodia hoping to crush the Viet Cong arms network and further American goals in Paris. By 1972 there were fewer than 200,000 American troops in Vietnam, however the bombing campaign in Cambodia and North Vietnam continued unabated. On January 27, 1973, the Nixon administration forced both the North and South to a peace agreement, which meant the full withdrawal of American forces and the exchange of prisoners.7 On April 29, 1975, North Vietnamese forces finally reunified Vietnam by forcing the unconditional surrender of South Vietnamese military forces. The American war in Vietnam lasted over 15 years and cost 58,000 American and 2 million Vietnamese lives, with 900,000 of those in the North and the rest in the South. Both Laos and Cambodia, two countries subject to American bombing campaigns, would also subsequently collapse into chaos and military imposed communism.8