(2) Timeline: The Vietnam War (1955-1975)
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On October 23, 1955, Ngô Đinh Diệm wins a referendum and becomes president of the Republic of Việt Nam, removing Emperor Bảo Đại. Although Ngô Đinh Diệm is praised for his handling of northern refugees, for his crackdown of corrupt religio-military sects in South Việt Nam and for his call for the elections of a national assembly, he is influenced by his corrupt family and becomes increasingly unpopular after issuing oppressive measures.
Land reform in North Việt Nam reaches its most radical phase as landlords go before "people's tribunals." Meanwhile, in July 1955, Hồ Chí Minh visits Moscow and accepts aid from the Soviet Union, having earlier negotiated in Beijing for assistance from China.
In 1956-1957, Ngô Đinh Diệm uses emergency powers to crackdown on Việt Minh suspects and other dissidents in South Việt Nam. On 6 May 1959, Diệm signs the infamous Law 10/59, authorizing intense repression of Communist suspects and other dissidents.
Meanwhile, Communist insurgent activity in South Việt Nam begins, with the decision to organize thirty-seven armed companies in the Mekong Delta (southern Việt Nam). During 1957, guerillas assassinate more than four hundred minor South Vietnamese officials.
On 20 December 1960, North Việt Nam leaders form the National Liberation Front for South Việt Nam, or Việt Nam Cộng Sản (Vietnamese Communists). The US. and South Vietnamese governments begin to use the contraction, "Việt Cộng" to name the Communist insurgents.
On 2 November 1963, Ngô Đinh Diệm and his chief aide and brother, Ngô Đinh Nhu, are assassinated in Sài Gòn by Diệm’s own generals in a military coup d'etat, with U.S. approval. Political confusion ensues for the next several years with a succession of individuals assuming political leadership, General Nguyễn Văn Thiệu and Air Marshal Nguyễn Cao Kỷ emerge four years later as the country's president and vice president, respectively.
On 2 August 1964, President Lyndon Johnson charges that the North Vietnamese has attacked American battleships in the Gulf of Tongkin. Five days later, on 7 August 1964, Congress passes the Gulf of Tongkin Resolution authorizing the president to take military actions against any armed attacks on American forces in the area. The United States enters the Second Indochina War. American aircraft bomb North Việt Nam for the first time.
On 2 March 1965, the U.S. Air Force starts Operation Rolling Thunder, the wide-scale American bombardment of North Việt Nam which continues until 2 November 1968. During these three-and-a-half years, more than twice as many bombs are dropped over North Việt Nam than were dropped during the entire World War II.
On 31 January 1968, during national celebration of the Tết, Lunar New Year, North Việt Nam and the Việt Cộng launch a major offensive on all the main cities and towns of South Việt Nam. The Tết Offensive proves to be a military failure for North Việt Nam, but it has a tremendous impact on U.S. politics. Washington questions the potential costs of continuing the war as the American public sees on television the devastation that was occurring in Việt Nam. During a televised address on 31 March 1968, President Lyndon Johnson decides to de-escalate involvement in Việt Nam. American troop strength in Việt Nam at year's end is 540,000.
On 16 March 1968, approximately 450 unarmed South Vietnamese civilians in Mỹ Lai village are killed by U.S. troops. Known as the Mỹ Lai Massacre, this incident was reported to the U.S. public on 12 November 1969. Along with many other significant events in Việt Nam and in the United States, the massacre escalates American public opposition to U.S. involvement. Anti-war movements continue to grow. The U.S. troops in Mỹ Lai were under the command of Lieutenant William Calley, who is later convicted of the mass murder in 1971 and sentenced to life in prison. However, on 9 November 1974, Calley is released on parole after many legal appeals.
In March 1969, President Richard Nixon begins the policy of "Vietnamization," slowly withdrawing U.S. troops, while building up South Vietnamese troops and beginning to secretly bomb Communist supply lines in Cambodia and Laos.
The United States begins a covert carpet bombing campaign called Operation Menu (18 March 1969—26 May 1970). Although the missions were supposed to take place in South Vietnam, many of the planes crossed over into Cambodia. Such cluster bomb campaigns continued with Operation Freedom Deal until 15 August 1973. Overall, more than half a million tons of bombs were dropped on Cambodia. President Richard Nixon denied that these bombing campaigns took place.
There were numerous protests in the United States against the expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia. The most famous protest occurred at Kent State, where on 4 May 1970 the Ohio National Guard opened fire and killed four student protesters.
On 21 February 1970, U.S. National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger begins secret talks in Paris with North Vietnamese Lê Đức Thọ regarding a cease-fire agreement.
American and South Vietnamese forces attack Communist sanctuaries in Cambodia and Laos, and South Vietnamese forces begin incursions into Laos against the Hồ Chí Minh Trail in Operation Lam Sơn 719 (8 February-25 March 1971).
Henry Kissinger and Lê Đức Thọ meet several times to again discuss a ceasefire, reaching an agreement on 8 October 1972 which eventually leads to the Paris Peace Accords.
North Việt Nam launches Easter Offensive (30 March-22 October 1972) across the demilitarized zone.
American bombing of areas near Hà Nội and Hải Phòng begins in May (Operation Linebacker, 9 May-23 October 1972) and intensifies in December (Operation Linebacker II, 18-29 December 1972, aka the Christmas Bombings).
On 27 January 1973, the United States and North Việt Nam sign cease-fire agreements, called the Paris Peace Accords, which provide, among other things, for the withdrawal of US. troops, the return of prisoners of war, and the ceasefire. President Nguyễn Văn Thiệu of South Việt Nam rejects the agreement, as he had not been party to the talks. By the end of March, the remaining U.S. combat troops begin withdrawing from Việt Nam. By year end, the war between South Việt Nam and North Việt Nam resumes, although the level of military operations is low-key on both sides.
President Nguyễn Văn Thiệu declares on 4 January 1974 that the war has begun again. The Communist buildup of troops and supplies in South Việt Nam proceeds in June, culminating in the 1975 Spring Offensive (19 December 1974-30 April 1975).
During the week leading up to 30 April 1975, hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese attempt to escape Việt Nam under chaotic conditions before the Communist takeover. North Việt Nam launches a sudden aid major military offensive and ends the civil war, capturing Sài Gòn on 30 April, a date significant to both Vietnamese and Vietnamese Americans today.
For a more detailed description of events leading up to and during the war (1954-1975), please see the Timeline for PBS's Battlefield: Vietnam.
Adapted by Sylvia Chong from Vietnamese Americans : lessons in American history : an interdisciplinary curriculum and resource guide, by the Orange County Asian and Pacific Islander Community Alliance and the Vietnamese American Curriculum Project Committee (Garden Grove, CA: The Alliance, 2001).