When Did the Vietnam War Start?

Vietnamese home on fire
There are different perspectives on when the Vietnam War actually started.

The Vietnam War is famous for its length and the devastating loss of life on all sides. The United States found itself drawn into a conflict between North and South Vietnam during a time when the spread of communism became a significant fear for the west. It felt like a conflict that would never end as president after president took over command and determined the war’s course. 

The commencement of the Vietnam War is interesting as there are different perspectives and factors at play. The origins of the involvement of the United States go back further than many realize. So, when did the Vietnam War start, when did the United States establish its allegiance with South Vietnam, and when did it begin active warfare?

When did the Vietnam War start?

This is a question with various answers depending on one’s perspective on the conflict. The date of November 1st, 1955, is often cited as the official start of the war. However, some would say that the date is much later based on when American troops were directly involved in the conflict. On the other hand, America’s participation in the conflict between North and South Vietnam began earlier than 1955. 

The timeline of the Vietnam War and the involvement of the United States is complex. The 1940s saw a divide between the two sides and an alliance between South Vietnam and the United States. The 1950s brought an escalation in the conflict between the North Vietnamese army and the South Vietnamese army and fears over the spread of communism and the Soviet Union’s involvement. The 1960s then saw the active involvement of American troops on the ground and the official start from the perspective of the United States government. Finally, it all came to an end in the 1970s. 

America’s Involvement in the Vietnam War

One way to look at the official start of the Vietnam War for America is to focus on the moment of active involvement. There are two key dates here that are long after the start of the conflict in 1955.

US soldier in Vietnam
Over 58,000 US troops lost their lives in Vietnam.

The first is February 28th, 1961, which Congress recognizes as the start of United States involvement. This is when military advisors first accompanied South Vietnamese troops during operations. The other date is August 1964, when the nation’s involvement was publicly declared after North Vietnamese gunboats attacked American destroyers. 

America’s Relationship With Vietnam

While the first American troops may not have engaged in combat until the 1960s, the United States had maintained a strong relationship with South Vietnam for some time. Tensions built between the North and South following the end of the Second World War, and the United States favored those in the South that shared a similar ideological outlook. This led to support in the First Indochina War and the creation of the 17th Parallel. 

The Divide Between North and South Vietnam

The Indochina Wars of the 1940s and 50s saw Ho Chi Minh form the Viet Minh to fight the colonial rule of Japan and France. The United States was an ally to France and provided essential funding, so the nation’s involvement in Vietnam started long before the official start of the war.

Ho Chi Minh City
Modern day Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon.

Eventually, the 17th parallel was created via the Geneva Accords of 1954. This officially separated the region into the Democratic Republic of Vietnam to the North and the State of Vietnam to the South. The North developed its capital of Hanoi with leader Ho Chi Minh, and the South built theirs at Saigon, now officially known as Ho Chi Minh City, under former Emperor Bao Dai and President Diem. Following this split and creating the demilitarized zone, the South built upon their democracy and stirred up further tensions with the communist North. 

Eisenhower and the Fear of Communism Spreading

President Dwight D. Eisenhower still feared the implication of this new communist region to the North. He started an assistance program in the southern state of Vietnam, including the Saigon Military Mission. This program began on June 1st, 1954, under US command to help those in South Vietnam learn about psychological warfare and paramilitary activities. So, while the war between the country was not yet underway, the United States was fully prepared for one. 

Vietnam and the Cold War

Eisenhower would not be the last president to fear the prospect of the spread of communism and communist forces, especially regarding the Soviet Union following World War II. The fight against the Viet Cong of North Vietnam was part of a wider war against their allies – China and the Soviets. This fear continued through the decades with the continuation of the Cold War.

Soviet Union flag painted on wall
The United States feared the spread of communism in South East Asia.

As things escalated in Vietnam, there were also concerns about atom bombs and communists infiltrating the United States government. Even after the end of the Vietnam War, the Cold War continued until the Iron Curtain’s fall and the USSR’s dissolution in 1991. 

The End of the Vietnam War

We can’t discuss the Vietnam War started without mentioning how it finally ended. The war seemed as though it would never end, and the costs for the Vietnamese and American troops were devastating.

Eventually, the United States withdrew from the region in 1973, leaving South Vietnam to fall to a full invasion by the North. Congress considers May 7, 1975, as the official end of the Vietnam War from the perspective of the United States, as this was when President Gerald Ford announced that the ‘Vietnam Era’ had ended. 

It is estimated that as many as 250,000 South Vietnamese soldiers died, and up to two million civilians on either side. On top of that, over 58,200 United States Military personnel also lost their lives. 

President John F Kennedy, President Lyndon Johnson, and President Nixon all oversaw the United States’ involvement in one of the most damaging episodes in American military history.

America’s History With Vietnam Is Long and Complex

The moment that things truly began depends on where we consider America to be involved in the conflict. Was it the moment that troops landed on Vietnamese soil to fight? Was it when the Saigon Military Mission began? Or was it as soon as they picked sides and supported the French? Whatever the official date of the start of the Vietnam War, America was already involved. 

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