If you are an A level History student studying the Vietnam War, then you’ve come to the right place. You may be doing your A level history coursework on Vietnam, or it may be part of your studies on the Cold War or US foreign policy. In any part of the course it can be quite a confusing conflict to study. There are a lot of dates to learn, people to know about and context to be aware of. One of the best ways to start pulling all of this together is with a detailed Vietnam War timeline. That’s exactly what we’ve put together here. Use this timeline to get ahead of the game with your knowledge of the Vietnam War for A level History.
Most resources on the Vietnam war start with the first US combat troops arriving in Vietnam in 1964. Some will go a little further back to the US support provided by presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy. We think you need to properly understand the context of the conflict in Vietnam. That means going back further and looking particularly at the impact of the Second World War and First Indochina War. Our timeline, therefore, starts a little earlier than you may have expected. It then provides all of the details on the war itself. If you can learn this extra context then you’ll be well ahead of most A level History students.
You should use this Vietnam War timeline as your starting point for revising the conflict. You will find explanations of the most important events collected under headings covering the main turning points and periods of the war. Use the headings as the basis for reading further into the details you need for the exams.
Vietnam before 1941
In the late nineteenth century Vietnam was colonised by the French. It formed part of French Indochina – a federation of French-controlled territories including modern Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. French colonial officials held political control over the territory.
Vietnam in the Second World War
The Second World War had a huge impact on the situation in Vietnam. When France fell to the Nazis in 1940, the Vichy French government took control of French Indochina. Then, after the Japanese attacked the Americans and Europeans in Southeast Asia in 1941, Japanese forces effectively took control of Indochina for the rest of the war.
A Vietnamese resistance force – the Viet Minh – began to grow in strength towards the end of the war. Led by Ho Chi Minh, this communist group aimed to get rid of the Japanese and establish an independent, communist Vietnam. They declared independence for Vietnam in 1945, but the allies wouldn’t allow it. They set about reestablishing French control of Indochina. The seeds of further conflict in Vietnam – that would eventually drag in the Americans – were sown.
First Indochina War, 1946-1954
The aftermath of the Second World War kicked off an 8 year conflict between the communist Viet Minh, led by Ho Chi Minh, and French colonial forces. The Americans became increasingly involved in funding and equipping the French. They saw the French as the best chance of stopping the spread of communism in Southeast Asia.
The French were eventually decisively defeated at the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954.
Geneva Conference, 1954
The Geneva Conference in 1954 ended the war between the French and the Viet Minh. The French agreed to withdraw from Vietnam and handover government to the Vietnamese. The peace deal split Vietnam into two countries, North Vietnam and South Vietnam. The North was communist under Ho Chi Minh. The South was capitalist and governed by President Diem (from 1955). This set the scene for further conflict and the USA was watching closely.
Insurgency in South Vietnam, 1954-63
Soon after the division of Vietnam, the Vietcong – a communist insurgency – began fighting against Diem’s regime in the South. They aimed to reunite the country under the communist government in the north.
The USA became increasingly drawn into the tensions in Vietnam through this period. US foreign policy – still fearful of the domino theory – aimed to contain communism within its existing borders. South East Asia was a strategically important part of the world. Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy increased US funding, arms supplies and military advisors for the South Vietnamese. Both refused to commit the US military directly in Vietnam.
Even with US support, the regime in the South was unable to maintain control and the Vietcong dominated much of the countryside. The South Vietnamese leadership was corrupt and divided. Rival generals assassinated Diem during a coup in November 1963. A series of generals then took over in a chaotic succession of coups. Instability in South Vietnam only helped the Viet Cong.
Gulf of Tonkin Incident, 1964
By 1964 there were thousands of US military advisors in South Vietnam and lots of US equipment and military hardware. The potential for a flashpoint triggering direct US military involvement escalated considerably. The flashpoint was the Gulf of Tonkin incident. The incident occurred in August 1964 between a US military ship (the USS Maddox) and three North Vietnamese torpedo boats. The US claimed their ship had been attacked by the North Vietnamese, providing a justification to escalate their involvement in the conflict.
Congress then passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. The resolution gave President Lyndon B Johnson the power to assist any Southeast Asian country threatened with “communist aggression”. This gave President Johnson the legal justification to escalate US military involvement in Vietnam and begin actively fighting the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army (NVA). That’s exactly what Johnson did next.
Growing US military involvement 1964-1968
Following the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, then Americans began a brutal bombing campaign against North Vietnam. The aim was to force North Vietnam to end its support for the Viet Cong, and to boost South Vietnamese morale and support for the government. The Americans thought no one could withstand the full force of their bombing for long. Further bombing campaigns relentlessly targeted the Viet Cong and their supply routes via the Ho Chi Minh trail.
Alongside the bombing, from 1965, the USA began a ground war against the Viet Cong and NVA. The US commanders thought that a combination of heavy bombing and US led ground actions would quickly reverse the situation in South Vietnam and destroy the Viet Cong. They were wrong.
Between 1964 and 1968 the US committed more and more forces to Vietnam. From 1964 to 1968 US troop numbers in Vietnam grew drastically. From 23,300 in 1964 to a high of 536,100 in 1968.
Throughout this period the US government told the American public that they were winning the war in Vietnam. That if just a few more thousand troops went to Vietnam, then the Viet Cong and NVA would be destroyed and the US would be victorious. US journalists on the ground – filming and delivering news reports from the frontline for the first time in a war – told a different story. The story of a war that was looking increasingly difficult to win and of an enemy that was far from beaten. All the while US casualties continued to mount.
The Tet Offensive, 1968
The contrast between what the US government told the public and the reality of the war in Vietnam came to a climax in 1968 with the Tet Offensive. The Viet Cong planned a huge coordinated attack against most major cities and bases in South Vietnam. Up to this point most of their actions had taken place in rural areas and the Americans largely thought the Viet Cong incapable of launching large scale conventional attacks against cities or military bases.
The Viet Cong aimed to trigger a mass uprising of the South Vietnamese people, destroy large parts of the South Vietnamese army (ARVN) and ultimately force a US withdrawal. They timed their major offensive to coincide with a national holiday, during which they anticipated many ARVN troops would be on leave.
The Viet Cong organised well coordinated assaults on major cities, towns and military bases across South Vietnam. They initially took the Americans and the ARVN completely by surprise. They had some early successes, including taking much of the city of Hue and even getting soldiers into the US embassy in Saigon. Ultimately the US and ARVN forces regrouped and regained all of the territory taken by the Viet Cong. They also destroyed many Viet Cong units. The North’s hope of a mass uprising in southern cities had not materialised. The urban populations of the south had largely stayed loyal or tried to avoid the conflict.
The Aftermath of the Tet Offensive
In military terms, the Tet Offensive was a failure for the Viet Cong and an overall victory for the US and the ARVN. The US had driven the Viet Cong back, killed a lot of them and reduced their fighting capability for months. That, however, is not what mattered. In reality the very fact that the Viet Cong were able to organise such a massive, sophisticated attack showed their strength and support. People in the US and in South Vietnamese cities did not see it as a victory.
The US media showed images of the fighting and its aftermath on the TV news back in the US. These reports included footage of Viet Cong soldiers fighting into the US embassy and atrocities committed by some ARVN forces in retaliation. The US public felt that their politicians had essentially been lying to them. People saw that the Viet Cong were not nearing defeat and that the war in Vietnam was not nearing an end. The enemy was well organised, well equipped and increasingly confident. As a result, US public opinion began to drastically shift against the war in Vietnam.
Nixon and Vietnamization, 1969-72
The 1968 presidential election took place in this context. The Republican candidate, Richard Nixon, won by promising to end the draft and deliver ‘new leadership’ on Vietnam. After secretly sabotaging Johnson’s own peace negotiations, Nixon claimed to be able to end the war in Vietnam. To do so he implemented a policy of Vietnamization, which gradually handed the war over to the South Vietnamese. There were three strands to this policy: withdrawing US troops; stepping up ARVN training and recruitment; and secretly negotiating with the North Vietnamese.
Initially the Viet Cong and NVA were recovering from the losses of the Tet Offensive, so they returned to the small unit guerrilla tactics of previous years. Meanwhile in the US public opinion continued to turn further against the war, with revelations of atrocities committed by US soldiers, including the My Lai Massacre and the ‘Green Beret Affair’. US public and military morale was in steep decline.
The number of US troops in Vietnam reduced drastically between 1969 and 1973, from a peak of over 500,000 in 1968 to only a few thousand before the final withdrawal. The remaining US troops in Vietnam were largely removed from combat roles, which were taken over by the ARVN. At the same time, Nixon also expanded the war by sending US and ARVN forces into neighbouring Cambodia following a bombing campaign.
The invasion of Cambodia increased anti-war protests in the US even further. In 1970 National Guardsmen killed four students during an anti-war protest at Kent State University in Ohio. This provoked further outrage across the US.
Failures of ARVN led missions in Cambodia and Laos demonstrated many of the shortcomings of the South Vietnamese military and political leadership. It did not bode well for Vietnamization.
Paris Peace Accords, 1973
Nixon won a second election in 1972 promising “peace with honour” in Vietnam. His main advisor, Henry Kissinger, was secretly negotiating with North Vietnamese representatives in Paris. The US, North Vietnam and South Vietnam signed the Paris Peace Accords in January 1973. The South Vietnamese were reluctant to agree, however, as they knew it left them in a weak position. The Americans forced the South Vietnamese into the deal to ensure a quick end to the war.
The peace deal officially ended US military involvement in Vietnam and initiated a ceasefire between North and South Vietnam. The deal also guaranteed the borders established by the Geneva Conference in 1954. However, the deal allowed communist Viet Cong forces to remain in the South. This completely undermined South Vietnam’s position. With the Americans gone the North Vietnamese began planning for a full scale invasion of the South within a few years.
North Vietnamese victory over the South, 1975
In 1974 the Viet Cong increased its activity again. The South Vietnamese economy was also in serious trouble following a global recession and the withdrawal of thousands of US troops who previously spent a lot of money in southern cities. Congress also reduced direct US financial support for South Vietnam. The North took advantage of this weak position and invaded the South in 1975. They quickly overwhelmed the demoralised ARVN and North Vietnamese forces took Saigon in April 1975 to complete their conquest of the South and reunify the country under the communist government. The last US officials fled Saigon in dramatic fashion as the North Vietnamese troops closed in.
This Vietnam War timeline provides an overview of the key events of the war. Hopefully you find this helpful. It is, however, only a starting point for your revision. You need to do much more detailed reading on the areas outlined above. Keep an eye on our A level History tutors page for more great revision resources on the Vietnam War. We’ll be posting shortly. You can find even more great information on the Vietnam War at history.com. Finally, you can also contact us directly to arrange a free A level history consultation where we’ll provide some personalised advice for you.