Vietnam War Timeline: Causes

Vietnam War 1965-1975

United States Military Involvement 1955-1973

          In earlier centuries, any discussion of Indochina was casual. It suggested that life on a rubber or tea plantation was a civil relationship between the beneficent European owner and a recognized permanent native under class. Society was harmonious and romantic. This illusory tranquility, occasionally interrupted by monsoons, masked the strong undercurrent of nationalist sentiment as early as World War I. Even earlier, there had been minor revolts and resistance in the 19th century.

          The independence of India in 1947, another regional south Asian country, stimulated the call for freedom from foreign domination. However, the conflicting philosophies for the activists on the Indochina peninsular chose a different path to gain their liberty. The coda of Indian non violence was not an acceptable strategy to wrest control from France.

          France had inserted its interest in Indochina in the mid 19th century, and by 1887 gained total control of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. They divided the region into a federation of administrative provinces that took scant notice of the diverse languages and cultures.

          We will examine the facts in a timeline that caused America’s intervention, then the nuts and bolts of the war itself, and ultimately you may conclude that this war was synonymous with “quagmire”.

After your review of this Vietnam War timeline, we call your attention to the additional links located below this table detailing the diverse elements of this war.

Vietnam War Timeline: Historical Causes
1802 Vietnam War timeline commences at this early date establishing that remote facts may ultimately control the future. French bishop, a leader of Catholic missions in Tonkin (northern Vietnam), allies with Nguyen nobles to capture Hanoi and install a Nguyen who creates a new imperial dynasty. French commercial interests have a stake in a stable Vietnam.
1858-1861 Napoleon III desires to expand French colonial empire and covets Vietnam (known by the French as Cochin-China). Using the pretext of punishing the Vietnamese for abusing Catholic missionaries, his military invades Vietnam. The defeated government ceded 3 southern provinces to France.
1863 French forces enter Cambodia and declare a French protectorate.
1887 French control completed includes Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. They install governments with local administrators subservient to French governor. This is another early and remote cause in the Vietnam War timeline that affects the South Asian history for almost the next 100 years.
1925 Phan Chau creates national conversation to oust the French. His spiritual leadership halted by his capture and imprisoned by the French.
Bao Dai succeeds his father as Emperor of Vietnam.
1930 era Nguyen Ai Quoc emerges as a new voice to unite Vietnam and oust the French. After years in contact with the Communist parties in China and the Soviet Union he believes their ideology is the model to follow to gain independence. Nguyen Ai Quoc will be known as “Ho Chi Minh” whose vision is a prophesy of the future and an indelible cause of the Vietnam War timeline..
1939 No Vietnam war timeline is complete without introducing the European experience. World War 2 pits Germany against France and Great Britain.
1940 France falls to Germany and sets up Vichy government under German control. No Vietnam War timeline could omit this cause that furnished a template for Japan for administering Vietnam after its invasion of that country.
Japan invades Vietnam (first campaign) under the guise of pursuing their commercial interests in South Asia which they called” Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere”. This thin veil did not hide Japanese intentions to set up a barrier to supplies entering through Vietnam to aid Chinese battling with Japan. Nominal imperial ruler (Nguyen family) Bao Dai collaborates with Japanese. Japan allows French Vichy (having capitulated to Germany in Europe) government to maintain local administrations.
1941 Japan invades Vietnam (second campaign) and dismisses French administration. Ho Chi Minh maintains a guerilla operation against the Japanese and receives aid from American CIA in exchange for enemy intelligence.
Ho forms Vietminh, a nationalist movement seeking an independent Vietnam and essentially communist dominated.
Dec 1941 United States at war with Japan and Germany. A critical factor in any Vietnam War timeline because it cemented a relationship, and common cause, between Germany and Japan (Axis powers) that stretched the resources and supply lines of the United States.
April 1945 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) dies and succeeded by Vice President Harry Truman. Roosevelt had expressed a rejection of French hegemony in Indochina. The Vietnam War timeline would be remiss if it failed to point out that there was a significant difference of opinion between the presidents as to their view of the communist threat to United States security. FDR believed Stalin would be satisfied with the acquisitions and controls gained at the Yalta Conference (Feb 1945). At this conference, the Soviet Union obtained concessions that included control over Poland and split Germany into 4 zones controlled by each Allied country. Soviets control over its zone lasted until 1990. Truman sensed that Soviet ambitions far exceeded Yalta. It sought a territorial growth to insure its world domination.
May Germany surrenders to Allies in Europe.
July Potsdam Conference under auspices of Truman, Stalin and new British P.M. Attlee. Secret understanding divides Vietnam at 16th Parallel North: Chinese to accept Japanese surrender in the north, and British to accomplish the same in the south. When causes are ranked in a Vietnam War timeline this provision is critical. We note that many salient causes occur on continents far removed from Indochina.
Aug Ho Chi Minh declares an independent Vietnam, “Democratic Republic of Vietnam” and invokes the preamble of the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Emperor Bao Dai “prompted” to abdicate and signals end of Nguyen dynasty. One historian states that the Japanese surrendered their weapons to the new entity rather than the Chinese (authority not cited). Ho seizes the opportunity to fill the current vacuum and occupies Hanoi.
Sept French forces, with British assent, enter Saigon and seize power in the south. French believe that Indochina is part of their heritage. A privilege earned.
United States imposes unconditional surrender terms on Japan aboard battleship U.S.S.Missouri which incorporates terms of Potsdam agreement including loss of all occupied territory and restricting Japan to their home islands subject to United States occupation.
1946 French forces attack North Vietnam and thus begin the war between France in the south and the northern Communist forces, Viet Minh.
Peace talks ineffective.
1947 Truman Doctrine of Containment which is directed against communist expansion (domino theory-when a Communist regime successfully attacked a neighboring country that was a prelude to the fall of another country and thus compared to the fall of standing dominoes.) prompts grants of large amounts of United States economic aid to France which continues through 1954. This well intentioned "doctrine" intended to defend the security of the United States, but opened the door to costly foreign ventures. Thus it holds a paramount position in this Vietnam War timeline. Chinese have their own doctrine and funnel aid to northern Communist forces.
1949 French resurrect ex Emperor Bao Dai as Head of State.
1954 North Vietnam inflicts final defeat on French forces at Dien Bien Phu.
United States imports from American exile Ngo Dinh Diem and installs him as Prime Minister.
1954 Geneva Accords frame a temporary solution that divides north (under Ho Chi Min) and south (under Ngo Dinh Diem) at the 17th Parallel and preparations for elections to unify the country. This 1954 geopolitical error agreed to by Soviet Russia, Peoples Republic of China, United States, United Kingdom, France was a repeat of the same "temporary division" strategy that set the stage for the Korean War. Separation of belligerents along map coordinates--"parallels" unique in South Asia wars. French forces leave Indochina. United States with its handpicked prime minister subvert the accord fearful that a unification election would be subjected to communist intimidation. As much as any other cause listed in the Vietnam War timeline, this "Accord" was a plan for failure at its inception.
1955 Referendum in the south pits American backed Diem against Bao, Head of State under the French rule. In an election with questionable results, Diem is the victor and declares himself as president of Republic of Vietnam with Saigon as capital of the nation.
1956 Diem repudiates Geneva accords and rejects a national referendum on unifying north and south Vietnam.
1957 National Liberation Front commences guerilla actions in the south against Diem government. Known as the Viet Cong to differentiate themselves from their communist allies in the north.
1959 Viet Cong actively supported by Ho Chi Minh in the north aimed at liberating the south and unification under communist rule.
1960 Northern supply route firmly established to support Viet Cong (VC) in the south with military supplies. Route famously named “Ho chi Minh Trail” was barely detectable as it traced its geography through jungle and mountain and included partial intrusion into Laos. Soviet Union furnishes economic aid to the north.
Guerilla warfare highly effective against southern forces particularly in the countryside. Diem army known as ARVN---Army of the Republic of Vietnam.
1961 John F. Kennedy sworn in as 35th president after election in 1960.
Kennedy increases advisors in South Vietnam to support Diem government. This policy was in effect through 1963. Advisors are authorized to return fire on Viet Cong when attacked.
1963 Kennedy disenchanted with the corruption in the Diem government and years of harsh, autocratic rule authorizes coup led by CIA against Diem. Diem assassinated while in custody. Historical documents does not support Kennedy or his administration involved in the murder. They do disclose that Kennedy brother, Robert, dissented from coup plan. Diem succeeded by military junta.
Nov 22 President Kennedy 4th U.S. president to be assassinated.
Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson sworn in as 36th president of the United States.
1964 Soviet Union increases aid to North Vietnam includes military materiel and advisors.
North Vietnam attacks U.S. destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin. Subsequent disclosures raised doubts about the validity of the attack whether it was actually provoked by North Vietnamese action. Nevertheless, Congress responds with Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that authorized the use of armed forces to protect its alliance. (We quote at length a portion of the Resolution because of its significance in granting the president the right to engage in armed conflict at a future date,) “Consistent-----with its obligations under South East Asia Collective Treaty, the United States, is, therefore, prepared as the President determines, to take all necessary steps, including the use of armed force, to assist any member --------in defense of its freedom”.
1965 “Operation Rolling Thunder”----United States bombs North Vietnam.
United States troops enter South Vietnam.
Nguyen Van Thieu assumes presidency of South Vietnam.

We have chosen to view each of the American wars as machines driven by diverse parts. Some of these elements are significant because of their evidently large size and others are insignificantly small. Nevertheless, there is an interdependence of the parts which we display as a wheel and spokes (links) that is integral to the operation of the war machine. The wheel is particularly apt in describing the vagaries of strategies and tactics of war that have gone awry by noting that, as in the Korean conflict, “the wheel(s) have come off “.

Vietnam War Weapons

Vietnam War Facts

Vietnam War Protests

Air Forces in the Vietnam War

Vietnam War Casualties

Return from Vietnam War Timeline