FIGHTING IN VIETNAM
Americans fought fiercely and gallantly in Vietnam. The Medal of Honor was awarded to more than 250 individuals. Those taken as prisoners of war were used as propaganda for both sides, and many suffered long after their release. Medevac pilots flew missions of mercy under the worst possible conditions, saving lives and refusing to leave a hot zone without the wounded.
INFOGRAPHIC | Weapons of the war
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Exploring the M16AI
The M16 was originally developed for air base security, not as infantry weapon. The classic assault rifle was developed in the 1950s by Eugene Stoner while he was tinkering at night in his garage. Colt bought the rights and produced the rifle for the U.S. government as the M16.
It entered widespread service in Vietnam in 1966, replacing the 7.62 mm M14 rifle. The M16A1 (shown here) was introduced in 1967. The main difference is the forward assist, installed to prevent the frequent jamming.
Later models can be equipped with sound and flash suppressors, grenade launchers and other extras.
FEATURE REPORT | New war, new weapons
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INTERACTIVE | Exploring the people
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10 key players of the Vietnam War
Every war has key figures who have an outsized effect on how it’s started and waged and ultimately how it’s won or lost.
In a complex conflict such as the one between the United States and North Vietnam – lasting a decade and three presidential administrations – a short list will always come up wanting.
These 10 men, however, had a significant and traceable effect -- good or bad -- on the Vietnam War. In no particular order ...
— Wyatt Olson
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Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap
Aug. 25, 1911 – Oct. 4, 2013
North Vietnam’s foremost military figure, Giap assembled the Vietnamese People’s Army in the 1940s, becoming its first full general and remaining in command for three decades as it morphed into North Vietnam’s armed forces. He masterminded the stunning route of French forces at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Giap’s declaration during that period that the enemy “does not possess the psychological and political means to fight a long drawn-out war” would guide his strategy against the United States years later. Giap biographer Peter MacDonald concluded that Giap “can claim the largest share of the credit for winning two wars.” He employed guerrilla and conventional warfare, although many of the offensives he planned in the Vietnam War were tactical failures and cost dearly in lives. One French general said that “to Giap a man’s life was nothing,” and other observers described him as arrogant and ruthless.
Perhaps Giap’s most significant contribution to the war effort was logistically, with the formation of the Ho Chi Minh Trail supply line that provided manpower and materiel for the fight in the south.
Gen. William Westmoreland
March 26, 1914 – July 18, 2005
Westmoreland once suggested that an engraving of the highlights of his life include a “dramatic spread of activities such as horseman, paratrooper, three wars, teacher, my wife Kitsy, father of three, talking to a Joint Session of Congress, Time man of the year,” according to biographer Lewis Sorley. For all his notable accomplishments, however, the West Point graduate is remembered for commanding all U.S. military operations in Vietnam from 1964-68, leading a force of more than a half million before his promotion to Army chief of staff. His chosen strategy was a war of attrition through a torrent of search-and-destroy missions, with the goal of inflicting so many casualties that the North Vietnamese would give up attacks on South Vietnam. Reviled by the growing anti-war movement, Westmoreland pleaded during a joint session of Congress in 1967 that lawmakers not lose their resolve to continue the fight. Despite the high body count achieved by the strategy, the surprise Tet Offensive in 1968 by communist forces was a stinging rebuttal of Westmoreland’s claims that the enemy’s will had been broken.
Gen. Creighton Abrams
Sept. 15, 1914 – Sept. 4, 1974
Replacing Gen. William Westmoreland in 1968 as commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, Abrams’ approach was radically different. A West Point graduate, Abrams had been a tank commander under Gen. George Patton during World War II and helped lead the relief effort to Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge. Unlike Westmoreland, however, Abrams didn’t rigidly apply lessons from that war to the conflict in Southeast Asia.
Search-and-destroy missions were replaced with a “clear and hold” strategy, in which beefed-up South Vietnamese Territorial Forces would do much of the holding of secured territory, according to biographer Lewis Sorley. Abrams positioned U.S. and South Vietnamese forces among villagers in a strategy of “pacification,” by which troops sought to lessen Viet Cong influence by providing security and assistance to the countryside population – an approach that proved to be successful in itself but failed to turn the tide of negative U.S. public opinion on the war. By the time he was promoted to Army chief of staff in 1972, U.S. troops in Vietnam numbered fewer than 50,000.
Born April 7, 1931
A Harvard doctoral graduate and former Marine, Ellsberg worked in the Pentagon and several years in South Vietnam for the U.S. State Department in the first half of the 1960s. By 1967, he was working as an analyst for RAND Corp. on a top-secret report on the Vietnam War. “There was no question in my mind that my government was involved in an unjust war that was going to continue and get larger,” Ellsberg said of the epiphany that led him and a colleague to secretly copy the document, according to “The Right Words at the Right Time” by Marlo Thomas.
Excerpts from “the Pentagon Papers” were published by the New York Times in June 1971, a move that came only after the Supreme Court unanimously ruled against the federal government’s attempt to censor publication. The Pentagon Papers made clear to the public that even the officials waging the war doubted it could be won. Ellsberg and his colleague were indicted on 12 federal counts of conspiracy, theft and espionage, but a judge dismissed the case in 1973 because of government misconduct.
Ho Chi Minh
May 19, 1890 – Sept. 2, 1969
Despite the geniality of his nickname, “Uncle Ho,” the top leader of the Vietnamese Communist revolutionaries adopted some of the most brutal tactics used by Communist regimes in the Soviet Union and China, where he spent much of the 1920s and ‘30s. Frail and prone to illness, Ho led the Viet Minh independence movement in an attempt to drive out Japanese occupiers during World War II, continuing the struggle against the colonial French in the 1950s.
After the 1954 Geneva Accords split the country into north and south, Ho became president and prime minister of North Vietnam, suppressing competing political factions through imprisonment, exile and assassination. By the late 1950s, Ho ordered troops and aid to Viet Cong rebels in South Vietnam, and the supply trail to the south would eventually bear his name. After the U.S. began bringing troops in, Ho adopted a national strategy of prolonging the war by avoiding offensives with large, conventional forces, an approach eventually leading to U.S. withdrawal. Today the Communist Party of Vietnam fosters a Ho personality cult that bans criticism of the former leader.
Aug. 27, 1908 – Jan. 22, 1973
Johnson was a president “whom history may well remember as our most reluctant and indecisive wartime commander in chief,” wrote military historian Dave R. Palmer. Johnson had inherited the White House and the Vietnam War with the death of John F. Kennedy in 1963, and the following year Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution giving Johnson carte blanche to use the military in Southeast Asia. But the Texas Democrat would have been far more content to shepherd through his Great Society social reforms than waging war.
He avoided public pronouncements on the conflict, which vastly expanded during his five years in office. His inability or refusal to explain clearly to the nation why young Americans were fighting and dying in Vietnam helped to undermine his wartime leadership, military historian Phillip B. Davidson wrote, and as casualties mounted many Americans saw Johnson as “an indecisive conniver playing politics in the shadows.” Historian Russell Weigley has opined that no “capable” wartime president would have left Gen. William Westmoreland in charge of U.S. forces after years-long failure of his search-and-destroy strategy.
John F. Kennedy
May 29, 1917 – Nov. 22, 1963
Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower committed significant aid to France in its battle against the Viet Minh after World War II, but it was Kennedy, elected in 1960, who expanded that support to about 16,000 military advisers in South Vietnam by the fall of 1961, according to history professor Marc Selverstone. Cold War tensions reached a zenith during Kennedy’s shortened term, and slowing Soviet influence and the spread of socialism permeated U.S. foreign policy and Kennedy’s thinking.
Debate remains over whether Kennedy would have continued to escalate U.S. involvement, with some historians noting that he’d called for a review of all options at the time he was assassinated in November 1963, passing such decisions to Vice President Lyndon Johnson. Historian Richard Reeves quotes Kennedy saying in April 1963, “We don't have a prayer of staying in Vietnam. Those people hate us.” In the next breath, however, Kennedy said that losing any territory to the communist forces would end his chances for reelection in 1964.
June 9, 1916 – July 6, 2009
America’s longest-serving defense secretary, McNamara was the architect of America’s approach to turning back the North Vietnamese insurgency under two presidents before resigning in November 1967. President John Kennedy hired McNamara — who during World War II was with the Office of Statistical Control — from Ford Motor Co., where he and a group of colleagues had been dubbed the “Whiz Kids” for their sophisticated use of analytical management.
McNamara approached his new job with the same diagnostic style, an approach that dovetailed with the ultimately disastrous strategy of success-by-body-count championed by Gen. William Westmoreland. McNamara believed that “graduated pressure” — military force not intended to conquer but to convey U.S. resolve and alter the enemy’s behavior — would “achieve maximum political payoff with minimal investment of military force,” wrote military historian H.R. McMaster. McNamara and his Whiz Kids were “arrogant” and “disparaged military advice because they thought that their intelligence and analytical methods could compensate for their lack of military experience,” McMaster wrote. Almost 30 years after resigning as defense secretary, McNamara wrote a memoir confessing that by the end of his tenure he’d lost faith that America could prevail, telling the Associated Press at the time, “We were terribly wrong.”
Born May 27, 1923
Secretary of state and national security adviser during the Nixon administration that began in 1969, Kissinger was a proponent of realpolitik diplomacy, which called for handling foreign affairs pragmatically rather than through ideology or ethics. Even before becoming secretary, Kissinger saw no value in continued U.S. fighting in Vietnam but believed American “credibility” could only be preserved through a “decent interval” between U.S. withdrawal and the inevitable collapse of South Vietnam.
Kissinger brokered the 1973 peace accord that “brought the nation’s misadventure in Vietnam to an end” and secured a cease-fire between North and South that “at least for the moment, curtailed the killing,” wrote biographer Walter Isaacson. A Defense Department assessment of the war years later quotes Kissinger: “We found more than half a million American troops in Vietnam when we came into office, and we got them home without destroying those who had relied on us.”
Richard M. Nixon
Jan. 9, 1913 – April 22, 1994
Elected president in 1968 as the antiwar movement reached its height, Nixon had promised to bring “peace with honor,” but the war slogged on into his second term under policy that became “a crazy quilt of threats, bombing spasms and inexorable withdrawals,” wrote biographer Walter Isaacson. Nixon pinned his hopes on turning the battle over to the South Vietnamese Army, a strategy dubbed “Vietnamization,” while at the same time escalating bombing to keep pressure on North Vietnam with fewer U.S. troops on hand. Nixon’s policies in Vietnam were dictated not primarily by requirements there, but by “the need to assuage anti-war dissidents” in the U.S., wrote military historian Phillip B. Davidson. Around the time of a massive peace rally in Washington, D.C., in the fall of 1969, Nixon broadcast an appeal to the “silent majority” of Americans for patience as the administration negotiated with Hanoi and prepared Saigon. The peace accord was signed in January 1973, officially ending U.S. military involvement, but much of Nixon’s remaining time in office would be consumed with the Watergate scandal that led to his resignation in August 1974.
INTERACTIVE MAP | Vietnam's conflicts
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The key battles: 3 experts weigh in
Stars and Stripes asked three experts on Vietnam to each compile a list of the 10 key battles in the war. Seems straightforward? Not so much. Like the war itself, the lists are complex. They include ground actions; politically significant efforts and battles that represent the experience of the men and women who were there. The battles are listed in order of significance, from the most important to the least important.
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Andrew Wiest, Ph.D.
- The Battle of Ia Drang
- Can Giouc
- Battle of An Loc
- US Embassy attack/Tet
- Hamburger Hill
- Battle of Ban Me Thuot
- Battle for the Citadel/Tet
- The Burning of Cam Ne
- Operation Lam Son 719
- Hamlet Evaluation System
David Anderson, Ph.D.
- Tet Offensive - Saigon
- Cambodian Incursion
- Con Thien
- My Lai
- Ia Drang
- Khe Sanh
- Cedar Falls and Junction City
- Dewey Canyon I
- Hamburger Hill
Bill Allison, Ph.D.
- Ap Bac
- Tet Offensive
- Operation Linebacker I, II
- Ia Drang Valley
- Lam Son 719
- Operation Rolling Thunder
- Gulf of Tonkin
- Dien Bien Phu
- Invasion of Cambodia
- Operation Ranch Hand