Virtual Museum of the Vietnam War

War in a land very far away 1959 - 1964

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At the beginning of 1959 Ho Chi Minh declared a "People's War" to unite all of Vietnam. Thus the Second Indochina War begun, also known as Vietnam War. In May the construction of a supply network begun. This network, later known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail led from North Vietnam through Laos, Cambodia to South Vietnam. In July, 4 000 Viet Minh Guerillas born in the south were sent to infiltrate South Vietnam. At July 8th, Major Dale Buis and Master Sargeant Chester Ovnard, were killed by Viet Minh guerrillas at Bien Hoa, South Vietnam - first American victims of Second Indochina War.


From the beginning of 1960 talks about sending Special Forces soldiers to Vietnam were held. The job of these soldiers would be to train the South Vietnamese civil guard in anti-guerilla tactics. Both the Vietnamese with president Diem, as well as the Americans saw the necessity of such training, however a problem existed, as the number of American soldiers in Vietnam was limited by the Geneva Agreements. In April North Vietnam announced universal military conscription and begun sending infiltration cadres to the South. In May Americans decided to raise the number of American soldiers in Vietnam above the limit set by the Geneva Agreements. On November 9th John F. Kennedy won the presidential election in the USA. Two days later South Vietnamese paratroopers staged a failed coup d’état against President Ngo Dinh Diem. As a reaction to this president Diem begun a harsh campaign against all perceived "enemies of the state". Over 50,000 people were arrested by police controlled by Diem's brother Nhu with many innocent civilians tortured then executed. This resulted in further erosion of popular support for Diem. Thousands of people, fearing arrest fled to North Vietnam. Many would be later sent back to work against the government of South Vietnam. In December the National Liberation Front was established, supported by the communists. Its goal was overthrowing president Diem and unifying the country. President Diem called them "Vietnamese communists" - Vi?t Nam C?ng S?n, commonly abridged to Viet Cong. Ho's guerrillas blended into the countryside, to become indistinguishable from South Vietnamese, while working to undermine Diem's government. At the end of the year there were approximately 900 U.S. Military personnel in South Vietnam.


On January 21st, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was inaugurated as the 35th U.S. President. Also in January the soviet prime minister, Nikita Khrushchev pledged support for "wars of national liberation" throughout the world. His statement greatly encouraged Communists in North Vietnam to escalate their actions against the government of South Vietnam. In June president Diem asked for American military assistance in the training of the Army of Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). "Green Berets" - the soldiers of the Special Forces - were sent, initially training ARVN in anti-guerilla warfare, later organizing CIDG (Civilian Irregular Defense Groups), consisting of Montagnards - highlanders belonging to ethnical minorities of Vietnam. The conflict spread, when 26 000 Viet Cong guerillas successfully mounted series of attacks on the ARVN. President Kennedy sent transport helicopter units to Vietnam, to support the ARVN but at the same time he engaged American soldiers in actual combat. At the end of the year 3,205 U.S. military personnel were serving in Vietnam. The cost for America to support one day of South Vietnamese military operations has rose to one million dollars.


In February MAAG was replaced by MACV - Military Assistance Command for Vietnam. Also in February two renegade South-Vietnamese pilots bombed the presidential palace in Saigon. President Diem and his brother Nhu escaped unharmed.

In March the operation Sunrise begun - resettlement of people from rural areas of South Vietnam to so called strategic hamlets, which were supposed to ensure security to the peasants and isolate them from communists, but drastically failed in achieving those objectives. In short time about 50 of the strategic hamlets were infiltrated by Viet Cong which tried to take control over them. As result president Diem ordered bombing strategic hamlets which were suspected of being under communist control. Air strikes were executed by South Vietnam Air Force, but supported by American airmen who, de facto did some of the bombing. Civilian casualties of these bombings further eroded the popularity and support for president Diem but also increased peasant hostility against the Americans, who are blamed for resettlement and bombings.

In May president Kennedy sent 5000 Marines and 50 jet fighters to Thailand in response to growing communist influence there. In July, the USA attempted to stabilize the situation in Laos, where the communist forces (supported by North Vietnam) fought with the nationalist forces (supported by the USA). In Geneva, during an international conference, the USA and 13 other countries reviewed the arrangements from 1956, concerning the neutrality of Laos, through which the Ho Chi Minh trail ran.

In August a Special Forces Camp at Khe Sanh was established, to monitor the traffic on the Trail. In October the Cuban crisis broke out. At the end of the year, there were 11 300 American soldiers in Vietnam.


The Viet Cong's victory in the battle of Ap Bac made headlines all over the world in the beginning of January. A major ARVN unit, armed and supported by Americans was defeated by Viet Cong partisans. Three american airman died.

In may series of protest actions and riots by buddhists happened, because they were denied the right to display their religious symbols on the birthday of Buddha. In Hue South Vietnamese Troops shot at Buddhist demonstrators, resulting in the deaths of one woman and eight children. This caused political pressure to mount on the Kennedy administration to take more distance from Diem's repressive, family-run government. Meanwhile Buddhist demonstrations spread. Several Buddhist monks publicly burned themselves to death as an act of protest. The events were captured on film by news photographers and shocked the American public as well as President Kennedy. Diem responded to the deepening unrest by imposing martial law. South Vietnamese special forces, originally trained by Americans and now controlled by Diem's younger brother Nhu violently pacified Buddhist sanctuaries in Saigon, Hue and other cities. Conflict escalated.

In July some of South Vietnamese military leaders started preparations for a coup d'etat, informing the Americans about that fact. The coup itself was carried out in November 1st, general Duong Van "Big" Minh led the rebels. On the next day, November 2nd, Diem And Nhu were assassinated. The fall of the government was an opportunity for Viet Cong to increase their influence in South Vietnam, especially in the rural areas.

Also in November, on 22nd, President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in as the 36th president of United States. He continued his predecessor's politics toward Vietnam. At the end of the year, there were 16 300 American soldiers in Vietnam. South Vietnam also received $500 million dollars in U.S. aid during 1963.


In January MACV-SOG (Studies & Observations Group) was formed. Contrary to its name, it was a covert operations special forces team, operating deep behind enemy lines, including territories outside the South Vietnamese border. Also in January general Minh was ousted in a bloodless coup, led by general Nguyen Khanh, the new leader of South Vietnam. In April North Vietnamese Army regular units begun to infiltrate South Vietnam. On 20th of June, general William Westmoreland, the most well known American general of Vietnam War, took command of MACV. On 6th of July Viet Cong attacked special forces camp at Nam Dong. For this battle the first Medal of Honor for an American fighting in Vietnam was awarded (for Captain R.C. Donlon, camp commander).

In the beginning of August the so called "Tonkin Gulf incident" happened. Reacting to increased communist forces activity, South Vietnamese commandos took actions against military targets along the coast of North Vietnam. They were supported by the US Navy, conducting, among others, also the electronic surveillance mission. One of ships conducting that mission was the destroyer USS Maddox. On 2nd of August North Vietnamese PT boats attacked this destroyer, ten miles from the coastline, firing machine guns and three torpedoes. Only one machine gun bullet struck the American ship, causing no casualties. US Navy fighters from USS Ticonderoga attacked the PT boats, sinking one and damaging two of them. President Johnson decided against retaliatory strikes, sent a warning to Hanoi, threatening "serious consequences" in case of further "unprovoked" attacks, at the same time ordering USS Maddox to resume it's actions in the region where the attack occurred. On the fourth of August, the Maddox accompanied by another destroyer, USS C. Turner Joy, vividly maneuvered in the Gulf of Tonkin, eight miles from the coast of North Vietnam. After sunset the weather deteriorated, impairing the operation of electronic equipment of the destroyers, which crews came to believe they have been attacked again. The destroyers opened fire and called in air support. There was no visual contact to the attacking craft. Despite serious doubts, if the second attack really happened, the US government decided in favor of the retaliatory strikes, conducted by US Navy aircraft. During these strikes Navy lost 2 aircraft, and Lt. Everett Alvarez became the first American P.O.W. On 7th of August American Congress overwhelmingly passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution allowing the President "to take all necessary steps, including the use of armed force" to prevent further attacks against U.S. forces. The Resolution, passed unanimously in the House and 98-2 in the Senate, granted enormous power to President Johnson to relatively liberally use U.S. armed forces in Vietnam without officially declaring a war.

In the end of August in South Vietnam, protests of students and Buddhists against general Khanh's government broke out. Consequently, general Khanh shared his power with generals Minh and Khiem. On 26th of September Phan Khac Suu became the president of Republic of Vietnam, Tran Van Huong - the prime minister, but general Khanh still was very powerful as the commander of the armed forces. The instability of government of South Vietnam resulted in chaos and violence on the streets of South Vietnamese cities. In mid-September two generals staged an unsuccessful coup d'etat. At the beginning of November a mortar strike hit the Bien Hoa airbase. Five Americans and two Vietnamese died, about 100 people were injured. On 3rd of November Lyndon B. Johnson was elected President of the United States of America.

On 20th of December another coup d'etet occurred in Republic of Vietnam. This time general Khanh and young officers led by Nguyen Cao Ky and Nguyen Van Thieu took power from the elder generals, including general Minh. US Ambassador in Vietnam, Taylor, summoned the young officers to the U.S. embassy and expressed his dissatisfaction over the instability and intrigues plaguing South Vietnam's government. The Vietnamese responded accusing ambassador Taylor of "colonialism". At the end of the year, there were about 23 000 American soldiers in Vietnam.

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