Vietnam War Facts, Costs and Timeline

How the Vietnam War Affects You Today

U.S. 1st Cavalry soldier escorts blindfolded Vietcong suspect during Operation Irving, 10/3.

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Table of Contents
Table of Contents

The Vietnam War was a military campaign launched by North Vietnam against South Vietnam. The Vietnamese civil war began in 1959. The United States supported the South, while China and Russia supported the North. In 1965, the United States officially entered the war in response to North Vietnam's attack on a U.S. military ship. U.S involvement ended in 1973. The war ended in 1975.

The war killed 58,220 American soldiers and wounded 153,303 more. Another 1,643 were missing in action. North Vietnam lost 1.1 million soldiers while 250,000 South Vietnamese soldiers died. Both sides lost more than 2 million civilians.

Vietnam was the most heavily bombed country in history. More than 6.1 million tons of bombs were dropped, compared to 2.1 million tons in World War II. U.S. planes dumped 20 million gallons of herbicides to defoliate Viet Cong hiding places. It decimated 5 million acres of forest and 500,000 acres of farmland. 

  • The Vietnam War was a civil war that North Vietnam launched against South Vietnam in 1959.
  • The United States officially entered the war in 1965 when the North Vietnamese attacked the USS Maddox, backing South Vietnam.
  • President Eisenhower’s Domino Theory cemented U.S. involvement in Vietnam over the years.
  • The Tet Offensive had the effect of gaining an anti-war movement in the United States.
  • The Paris Peace Accords "officially" ended the war in 1973, but fighting continued until 1975.
  • Over 58,000 Americans died in Vietnam and more than 150,000 were wounded.
  • Basing on the current dollar value, the Vietnam War cost the equivalent of about $1 trillion.
  • The United States pays $22 billion a year in war compensations for Vietnam veterans and their families.


In September 1945, the winners of World War II decided to divide Vietnam instead of unifying it. They believed Vietnam did not have the experience to rule itself. Japan had ruled the country since 1940, and France had ruled it since 1887.

The 17th parallel split Vietnam in half. Ho Chi Minh, backed by China and Russia, took the northern territory. A democracy, backed by the United States, took the southern territory. As a result, North Vietnam became communist and South Vietnam based its economy on capitalism.

But dividing the country had economic consequences. The North had mineral resources and manufacturing industries. Its centrally planned economy focused on industrial expansion at the expense of domestic consumption. The democracy in the South gave its people a higher standard of living by producing personal goods. The South was the rice-surplus area of the country, exporting more than 1 million tons of rice before World War II.


  • 1887: The roots of the Vietnam War began when France colonized the country.
  • 1940 - 1945: Japan beat the French in Vietnam during World War II.
  • 1945: France took Vietnam back. Communist Ho Chi Minh led a nationalist guerrilla fight to declare independence.
  • 1950: The Viet Minh and Chinese troops, armed with Soviet military equipment, attacked French outposts in Vietnam. President Eisenhower sent military advisors to assist the French fight against the spread of communism. 
  • 1954: The Viet Minh defeated France. President Eisenhower warned of a domino effect that could propel all of Southeast Asia into a communist rule. The Geneva Accord divided North and South Vietnam on the 17th parallel. The U.S.-backed democracy governed the South, while Ho Chi Minh led the North.
  • 1959: North Vietnam troops built the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos and Cambodia to supply guerrilla attacks against South Vietnam's government.
  • 1960: President John F. Kennedy sent 400 Green Berets to fight the Viet Cong.
  • 1962: U.S. aircraft began spraying Agent Orange to defoliate vegetation that hid Viet Cong.
  • 1963-1965: JFK increased U.S. military advisers to more than 16,000. U.S.-backed military coup replaced Ngo Dinh Diem. Twelve more coups occurred, destabilizing South Vietnamese government.
  • 1964:President Lyndon B. Johnson reported that North Vietnam patrol boats torpedoed the USS Maddox and USS Turner Joy in the Gulf of Tonkin. Congress authorized U.S. military involvement in the Vietnam conflict. There were 23,300 troops in Vietnam.
  • 1965: President Johnson increased troops to 184,300.
  • 1966: U.S. troops in Vietnam increased to 385,300.
  • 1967: LBJ increased U.S. troops to 485,600.
  • 1968: At Khe Sanh, 5,000 Marines held off 20,000 North Vietnamese for 77 days. Months later, U.S. military leaders abandoned the base. North Vietnam launched the Tet Offensive. It attacked 100 cities and outposts in South Vietnam, including the U.S. Embassy. The My Lai massacre further weakened support for the war. Antiwar protests encouraged Senators Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy to announce their candidacies for president. LBJ withdrew from the race. Richard Nixon won the election by promising to end the draft. U.S. troop level hit a peak of 536,100.
  • 1969: U.S. troops conquered Hamburger Hill in a bloody battle, only to abandon it days later. It stirred opposition to the war. Nixon instituted a draft lottery to overcome the perception that wealthier, white men were avoiding the draft through deferment. U.S. troops in Vietnam dropped to 475,200. Nixon ordered the bombing of communist base camps in Cambodia. A recession began in December.
  • 1970: U.S. troops attacked Cambodian base camps. National Guard killed four students in Kent State University's antiwar protest. U.S. National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger began secret peace negotiations with North Vietnam representatives in Paris. Troop level dropped to 234,600. The recession lasted until November. Unemployment peaked at 6.1% in December.
  • 1971: The New York Times published the Pentagon Papers. It revealed the extent of U.S. involvement in Vietnam during the Kennedy administration. It also concluded that heaving bombing of North Vietnam did not reduce the enemy's will to fight. The U.S. troop level fell to 156,800. In August, Nixon ended the gold standard. That sent the dollar plummeting, which increased import prices. He imposed a 10% tariff on imports, which also worsened inflation. He instituted wage-price controls to stop the inflation, but that slowed growth. Companies couldn't lower wages, so they laid-off workers to cut costs. 
  • 1972: Nixon increased the bombing of North Vietnam civilians while reducing troops to 24,200. Nixon's policies created stagflation.
  • 1973: Draft ended. Paris Peace Accords ended the war. Nixon ended the gold standard. The OPEC oil embargo began in October. The recession began in November. LBJ died of a heart attack.
  • 1975: North Vietnam overran Saigon, and South Vietnam surrendered. The recession ended in March 1975.


The Vietnam War cost $168 billion or $1 trillion in today's dollars. That included $111 billion in military operations and $28.5 billion in aid to South Vietnam. 

Compensation benefits for Vietnam veterans and families still cost $22 billion a year. Surviving spouses qualify for lifetime benefits if the veteran died from war wounds. Veterans' children receive benefits until age 18. If the children are disabled, they receive lifetime benefits. Since 1970, the post-war benefits for veterans and families have cost $270 billion.

Vietnam veteran costs are higher than other wars for three reasons.

First, they are the first vets who were diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Called shell-shock in earlier wars, PTSD was recognized as a treatable disorder that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs should pay for. Vietnam vets are more likely to suffer from PTSD because they were not honored upon their return like vets in earlier wars. Instead, many clammed up about their war-time experience. As many faced retirement, their PTSD took center stage and required treatment.

Another illness unique to Vietnam vets is the effects of Agent Orange. This defoliant caused health problems in 3 million Vietnamese, according to the Vietnamese Red Cross. The chemical dioxin causes cancer, diabetes, and birth defects. A joint panel has asked for $300 million to clean up sites and treat people.

More than 2.5 million U.S. soldiers were exposed to Agent Orange. The Veterans Affairs Department studied 668,000 Vietnam veterans with Agent Orange exposure. Those who handled the chemical were a third more likely to have children with birth defects. Settlement Fund federal officials approved diabetes a decade ago as an ailment that qualifies for cash compensation.  It is now the most compensated ailment for Vietnam vets.

The VA also recently included heart disease among the Vietnam medical issues that qualify. Since it is the nation's leading cause of death, it will further increase compensation costs in the years to come.


U.S. gross domestic product by year reveals that the war boosted the economy out of a recession caused by the end of the Korean War in 1953.

Spending on the Vietnam War played a small part in causing the Great Inflation that began in 1965. But so did spending on the War on Poverty and other LBJ social programs. In 1964, Congress approved a tax cut. The top marginal rate fell from 91% to 70%. That boosted economic growth enough to reduce the level of deficit spending. In 1965, Johnson signed the law creating Medicare. It helped create a heavy reliance on hospital care, causing rising health care costs. In its support of full employment, the Federal Reserve hesitated to raise interest rates. 

Year Deficit Growth Inflation Unemployment
1965 $1B 6.5% 1.9% 4.0%
1966 $4B 6.6% 3.5% 3.8%
1967 $9B 2.7% 3.0% 3.8%
1968 $25B 4.9% 4.7% 3.4%
1969 -$3B 3.1% 6.2% 3.5%
1970 $3B 0.2% 5.6% 6.1%
1971 $23B 3.3% 3.3% 6.0%
1972 $23B 5.2% 3.4% 5.2%
1973 $15B 5.6% 8.7% 4.9%

The Vietnam War accelerated the mechanization of the agricultural industry. In 1970, 25% of the U.S. population lived on farms or rural communities. Of those, 2.25 million men left to fight in Vietnam. Farms compensated by buying larger machines and concentrating on one main crop.

Controversy over drafting 18-year old men who could not vote led to two changes. In 1971, the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18. In 1973, the draft ended and the Department of Defense began relying on an all-volunteer force. 

The war created distrust between the American people and the federal government. Several events related to the war revealed how the government lied. First, the premise for the war may have been fabricated. In 1964, President Johnson declared that the Vietnamese had attacked a U.S. ship in the Gulf of Tonkin. In 1968, U.S. soldiers killed 500 unarmed civilians in the My Lai massacre. In 1970, the Ohio National Guard shot four Kent State students who were protesting the Vietnam War. In 1969, President Nixon secretly bombed Cambodia. As a result, the American people no longer trusted government leaders. The 1972 Watergate scandal only confirmed this sentiment.