The eight-year French-Indochinese War concludes with an overwhelming French defeat at the battle of Dien Bien Phu. The ensuing peace conference in Geneva divides Vietnam (formerly Indochina) into a communist-controlled North and an allegedly democratic South.
At his inauguration, President John F. Kennedy promises aggressive support for America’s friends and vehement resistance to its foes.1 Stressing the need for containment of communism in Southeast Asia and citing the domino theory that if one nation falls to communism, neighboring states will follow, Kennedy and his successor Lyndon B. Johnson slowly escalate U.S. military presence in Vietnam.
President Johnson addresses the nation, declaring that while on “routine patrol” in the Gulf of Tonkin, U.S. warships had been deliberately attacked by North Vietnamese torpedo boats. It emerges years later that this attack never actually happened.
President Johnson goes to Congress to ask for permission to use military force in Southeast Asia, without seeking a formal declaration of war.2 The press almost universally applauds his actions, The Washington Post declaring, “President Johnson has earned the gratitude of the free world as well as the nation for his careful and effective handling of the Viet-Nam crisis.”3
Congress passes the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution authorizing the use of conventional military force in Southeast Asia.
I.F. Stone, one of the few journalists to voice skepticism about the resolution and the Gulf of Tonkin incident that prompted it, writes one of the first investigative reports on the attack, raising questions about lack of proof.4 The report begins, “The American government and the American press have kept the full truth about the Tonkin Bay incidents from the American public.”5
Operation Rolling Thunder begins. It is one of the most intense, yet least successful, aerial bombardment campaigns in military history. The operation intends to discourage the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) from any incursion in South Vietnam while simultaneously avoiding the engagement of U.S. ground troops. Operation Rolling Thunder ends four years later after dropping 864,000 tons6 of American bombs on North Vietnam.
The first U.S. ground forces arrive in South Vietnam. Initially, 3,500 Marines are deployed only to defend Air Force bases, but by the end of the year troop levels swell to over 200,000.7 By 1968, there are 537,377 U.S. troops in Vietnam.8
President Johnson makes his case for staying in Vietnam in his State of the Union address. “We do not intend to abandon Asia to conquest,” he states. “The enemy is no longer close to victory. Time is no longer on his side. There is no cause to doubt the American commitment.”9
Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, D-N.Y., criticizes President Johnson’s policy and the resumption of bombing in Vietnam, stating that the bombing “may become the first in a series of steps on a road from which there is no turning back – a road that leads to catastrophe for all mankind.”10
The New York Times reports that much of the economic aid sent to Saigon is stolen or ends up on the black market.11
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman J. William Fulbright, D-Ark., publishes “The Arrogance of Power” criticizing U.S. policy in Vietnam and the stated justifications for the war. The book is based on a statement made before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in which he declared, “Some of our super-patriots assume that any war the United States fights is a just war, if not indeed, a holy crusade, but history does not sustain their view. … I fail to understand what is reprehensible about trying to make moral distinctions between one war and another — between, for example, resistance to Hitler and intervention in Vietnam.”12
Closed-door hearings of the Senate Armed Services Committee begin. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara tells the committee that U.S. bombing would not be enough to stop the flow of supplies from North Vietnam to South Vietnam. The flow, he says, “cannot be stopped by air bombardment – short of virtual annihilation of North Vietnam and its people.”13
North Vietnamese and Vietcong forces launch the Tet Offensive, a massive attack that reaches far into South Vietnam. While the U.S. and South Vietnamese militaries are initially surprised at such a coordinated assault, they secure a tactical victory. Most Americans at home, however, are shocked that a supposedly weakened enemy could conduct such a synchronized attack.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee begins a hearing on what actually happened during the Gulf of Tonkin incident four years earlier. During closed-door testimony not released to the public until more than 30 years later, senators express their regret and anger over authorizing the president to wage war in Vietnam under false pretenses. Even Sen. Stuart Symington, D-Mo., a prominent hawk, decries “this stupid war.”14
After traveling to Vietnam to report on the Tet Offensive, respected CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite calls the Vietnam conflict “a stalemate” and advises a “negotiated peace.”15
The initial effectiveness of the Tet Offensive combined with increasingly critical news coverage contribute heavily to President Johnson’s decision to not seek reelection.
Press criticism of the war intensifies. A New York Times editorial states: “A bad war simply cannot produce a victorious peace. This is the truth that the nation confronts over Vietnam.”16
Based on intelligence about the location of the secret North Vietnamese headquarters, the White House authorizes bombing of Cambodia. This expansion of the war into a neutral country is kept secret from the press and the public. “Should the press persist in its inquiries … U.S. spokesman will neither confirm nor deny reports of attacks on Cambodia,” a top military official writes in a cable sent shortly before the bombing begins.17
William Beecher, military correspondent for The New York Times, breaks the news of the Nixon administration’s secret bombings of Cambodia.18 The bombings were planned as retaliation for PAVN/NLF forces’ launch of rocket and artillery attacks against South Vietnam. The bombing mission was not authorized by Congress and had been kept secret from even the secretary and chief of staff of the Air Force.19 In trying to find how information on the bombings had been leaked, the White House authorizes FBI wiretaps on Beecher’s phone along with those of officials on the National Security Council and in the Pentagon.20 One of those whose telephones is tapped is Morton Halperin, a National Security Council staffer who the White House believes – erroneously – is the source of the Cambodia leak. After Nixon’s resignation, Halperin sues the disgraced president and his aides in federal court on the grounds that the wiretap on his home telephone violated his Fourth Amendment rights. A judge rules in his favor, and he is awarded a symbolic $1 in damages.21
Hundreds of thousands of people converge on Washington for a demonstration calling for the end of the war. The event, dubbed the Peace Moratorium, is one of the largest political demonstrations ever held in Washington.22
In the first of a three-part, Pulitzer-winning series, investigative writer Seymour M. Hersh breaks a story about American soldiers’ merciless murders of hundreds of Vietnamese civilians at My Lai. News of the March 16, 1968, massacre horrifies U.S. citizens as many question the behavior of U.S. soldiers in Vietnam as well as the overall purpose of the war. Hersh quotes Sgt. Maj. Michael Bernhardt: “The whole thing was so deliberate. It was point-blank murder and I was standing there watching it.”23 The massacre itself had occurred more than a year earlier, and after Hersh uncovered the truth he says 30 major news organizations rejected his story. “Look [magazine] turned me down … and an editor at Life said it was out of the question,” Hersh states.24
President Nixon finally announces the decision to attack NVA positions in Cambodia. He promises the campaign in Cambodia will be over by June 30.
As domestic opposition to the Vietnam War escalates, widespread demonstrations are organized to protest the U.S. invasion of Cambodia. At Kent State University, the Ohio National Guard shoots into throngs of unarmed student protesters, killing four and wounding nine.25 The Kent State shootings become a microcosm of the social and political divisions present during the Vietnam War.26
John Kerry, representing Vietnam Veterans Against the War and testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, calls for the immediate and unilateral withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam.27 These hearings, chaired by Sen. Fulbright, are instrumental in altering American opinion of the conflict.
Daniel Ellsberg, a former Pentagon aide and a RAND Corporation analyst, leaks a top-secret Department of Defense report on the history of U.S. political and military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967 to Neil Sheehan of The New York Times. The newspaper publishes excerpts from the report, soon known as the Pentagon Papers. The first article begins, “A massive study of how the United States went to war in Indochina, conducted by the Pentagon three years ago, demonstrates that four administrations progressively developed a sense of commitment to a non-Communist Vietnam, a readiness to fight the North to protect the South, and an ultimate frustration with this effort – to a much greater extent than their public statements acknowledged at the time.”28 The report exposes the secret history of the conflict and widens the credibility gap between the Nixon administration and the American people. Incensed and embarrassed, the government attempts to prevent the publication of additional stories based on the Pentagon Papers by, for the first time in U.S. history, trying to use the court system to stop a newspaper from printing. The government succeeds in getting a temporary federal injunction against the Times.
Ellsberg takes the report to The Washington Post. Though extremely worried about retaliation from the administration, the Post begins publishing the Pentagon Papers. The next day, Attorney General William Rehnquist calls the newspaper demanding it halt any further publication. Executive editor Ben Bradlee replies, as had The New York Times, that he “must respectfully decline.”29 Again, the government seeks an injunction from the courts, citing the Espionage Act of 1917. This time the attempts are unsuccessful. Though the courts agree that, in cases of clear national security, a newspaper can be prevented from printing, they rule that the administration had not met the burden of proof for that to occur. In New York, further arguments are heard and the temporary restraining order against the Times is lifted. Judge Murray Gurfein: “The security of the nation is not at the ramparts alone. Security also lies in the value of our free institutions. A cantankerous press, an obstinate press, an ubiquitous press must be suffered by those in authority in order to preserve the even greater values of freedom of expression and the right of the people to know.”30 The report continues to be published, and on June 28, in a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court upholds the newspapers’ right to publish.31
The U.S. and North Vietnam sign the Paris Peace Accords, laying out a formal plan for the end of U.S. military engagement in Vietnam. It took more than five years of on-and-off negotiations, both in public and in secret, to reach an agreement that both countries found acceptable. The agreement allows Nixon to argue that he delivered on his campaign promise of “peace with honor.”32
After 11 years and more than 58,00033 American lives lost (along with the lives of 63 journalists – a number surpassed only by the recent Iraq War34), the last U.S. helicopter leaves Saigon as North Vietnamese forces overrun the South Vietnamese capital. The NVA’s guerrilla tactics and incredible resolve, combined with U.S. domestic opposition, pivotal events such as the Kent State shootings, the Fulbright hearings and the publishing of the Pentagon Papers, bring an end to the American presence in Vietnam.
*DuPont-Columbia Golden Baton Award winner
**Peabody Award winner
* Pulitzer Prize winner