Timeline March 1965

The French colonized Vietnam in 1867, and the Vietnamese resisted them from that point on. In 1930-31, the French suppressed a peasant uprising, killing 10,000 and deporting 50,000 Vietnamese. During World War II, the Japanese took over Vietnam but left French collaborators in charge. Vietnamese nationalists, including the communists led by Ho Chi Minh, went underground and formed a coalition called the Viet Minh. The Viet Minh liberated northern provinces of Vietnam from the Japanese at the end of World War II. After the war, the United States set up the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) to protect South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos from the Viet Minh.

Throughout the 1950's, the United States aided the non-communist government of South Vietnam while China and the Soviet Union aided North Vietnam. The government of South Vietnam jailed 20,000-30,000 suspected communists. Taking advantage of the anti-government sentiment in South Vietnam, the Viet Minh in North Vietnam organized the National Liberation Front in the south in 1960. The South Vietnamese government dubbed them the Viet Cong, or Vietnamese communists.

The United States saw the unrest in South Vietnam as communist aggression from Chinese and Soviet-backed North Vietnam. (Ironically, U.S. intelligence revealed later that 80-90% of the Viet Cong were from South Vietnam.) In 1956, then-Senator Kennedy had called South Vietnam "the cornerstone of the Free World in Southeast Asia, the keystone in the arch, the finger in the dike." Kennedy agreed with President Eisenhower's "domino theory." He believed that if one country in Southeast Asia fell to communism, the others would topple--like a line of dominoes, each falling and knocking the next over. As president, Kennedy said, "We have a very simple policy in Vietnam. We want the war to be won, the communists to be contained, and the Americans to go home." The United States had already sent Green Berets and other military "advisors" to Vietnam.

On August 4, 1964, two U.S. destroyers reportedly tangled with North Vietnamese torpedo boats in the Gulf of Tonkin. On August 7, Congress passed almost unanimously the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which authorized the President to "take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression." The open-ended language of the resolution gave President Lyndon Johnson considerable war-making power. (President Johnson himself said the resolution "was like Grandma's nightshirt--it covered everything." Congress repealed the resolution in 1970.) In December 1964, President Johnson approved bombing raids against North Vietnam. In March 1965, the first U.S. combat troops were sent to Vietnam. By the end of 1965, 184,314 American troops were in Vietnam. Within a year, that number grew to 385,000.