When America’s war in Vietnam began is a complicated question with no simple answer.
The short answer is “sometime between 1950 and 1965.” But it’s more accurate, perhaps, to describe the conflict’s beginning as a process, not an event.
The first American who fell in Vietnam was Lt. Col. Peter Dewey of the Office of Strategic Services, who was ambushed and killed by communist Viet Minh soldiers Sept. 26, 1945.
Some say this marked the beginning of active United States involvement in Vietnam, but according to an information paper released by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, that’s not quite accurate — it was a case of mistaken identity, not an act of aggression against America.
The Viet Minh personnel killed Dewey, the Historical Office says, because they believed he was French. The United States was not involved in any conflicts in the region, and nothing of consequence came of Dewey’s death. As tragic as it was, it didn’t kick off America’s Vietnam conflict.
Open conflict between France and the Viet Minh began the following year, but even then, the United States took a hands-off approach. But as the 1940s drew to a close, leaders in the United States began to see the Viet Mihn as an important piece of a global communist puzzle.
By early 1950, President Harry S. Truman and his administration were actively working with France to see how they could take a more hands-on role in the region. In September of the same year, the U.S. established its first official presence — the Military Assistance Advisory Group, Indochina — in Saigon.
The U.S.’s official position was that, unlike France, it had no colonial interest in southeast Asia. But it needed French support and cooperation to help contain the spread of communism in Europe — and increasingly, it appeared that the price of that support was backing France against communists in Vietnam.
And while France happily accepted American funding and support, it drew the line at allowing U.S. personnel to take an active role in strategy or training of south Vietnamese troops. America was in the game, but it wasn’t yet a major player.
France lost its war against Vietnamese communists in 1954, and gave up its role in the advisory group the following year. That’s when the United States stepped in as the principal anti-communist Western presence in the region.
Some say Nov. 1, 1955, is the day America’s war in Vietnam began. And indeed, according to Department of Defense guidelines, that’s the earliest date that qualifies a soldiers who died in Vietnam for formal recognition on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
But it’s still not quite that simple. The choice of that date as a cutoff was established retroactively in November 1998. Officially, President Dwight Eisenhower’s policy was still one of limited advice and support, and military advisory staff never exceeded 1,000. Throughout the rest of the ‘50s, hostilities in Vietnam were limited to the Vietnamese themselves: the communist North and the non-communist South.
By the early 1960s, President John F. Kennedy stepped up the amount of military support to South Vietnam. A memorandum dated Nov. 22, 1961, stated “The U.S. Government is prepared to join the Vietnam government in a sharply increased joint effort to avoid a further deterioration in the situation on South Vietnam.”
The United States Navy Ship Core arrived in South Vietnam on Dec. 11, 1961, bringing with it 33 helicopters and 400 air and ground crewmen. Within two weeks, the helicopters were providing combat support to South Vietnamese forces, and more shipments of men and equipment were close behind.
For the first time, American forces took a dramatically different approach from Eisenhower’s policy of advice, training and support. Some call this the official start of the conflict, but others disagree — the U.S. military presence remained small and limited.
On Aug. 7, 1964, North Vietnamese boats attacked an American destroyer, the USS Maddox, off the coast of North Vietnam. The resulting Tonkin Gulf Resolution, proposed by President Lyndon Johnson and approved overwhelmingly by Congress, stated that “Congress approves and supports the determination of the president, as commander in chief, to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.”
The resolution’s strong wording led some to view it as a de facto declaration of war, thus marking official start of the Vietnam War.
It would take another year, however, before America reached its full commitment into the war. An expeditionary force of 9,000 Marines arrived in Vietnam in March 1965 — an important step, but not the full implementation — of Johnson’s more aggressive policy.
That didn’t come until a little later that year. With South Vietnamese forces falling at an alarming rate, Gen. William C. Westmoreland, the U.S. military commander in Vietnam, believed South Vietnam would collapse entirely within six months if America didn’t intervene in full force.
“I see no course of action open to us except to reinforce our efforts in (South Vietnam) with additional U.S. ... forces as rapidly as is practical in the weeks ahead,” Westmoreland wrote in his request for additional battalions. “Additionally, studies must continue and plans developed to deploy even greater forces, if and when required,to attain our objectives or county enemy initiatives.”
Westmoreland’s request became the driver for discussions involving Johnson and his advisers at the State Department, the Department of Defense, the National Security Council and the Central Intelligence Agency over the following weeks.
On July 28, 1965, Johnson held a press conference at which he stated, “We are in Vietnam to fulfill one of the most solemn pledges of the American nation. Three presidents — President Eisenhower, President Kennedy and your present president — over 11 years have committed themselves to help defend this small and valiant nation.”
Johnson acknowledged Westmoreland’s request and vowed to meet it — committing to an open-ended strategy toward winning the war in Vietnam.
While arguments can be made at several points in the years leading up to July 28, 1965, it was this date that marked the beginning of the United States’ full-scale military involvement in the Vietnam conflict.
Source: Information paper released by the Office of the Secretary of Defense