Vietnam War Facts, Costs and Timeline

How the Vietnam War Affects You Today

U.S. 1st Cavalry soldier escorts blindfolded Viet Cong 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 North Vietnam launched against South Vietnam in 1959.
  • The United States officially entered the war in 1965 when the North Vietnamese attacked 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.
  • More than 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 to Vietnam veterans and their families.

Causes

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. France had ruled it since 1887, and Japan had ruled the country since 1940.

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.

Timeline 

  • 1887: The roots of the Vietnam War begin when France colonizes the country.
  • 1940 - 1945: Japan beats the French in Vietnam during World War II.
  • 1945: France takes Vietnam back. Communist Ho Chi Minh leads a nationalist guerrilla fight to declare independence.
  • 1950: The Viet Minh and Chinese troops, armed with Soviet military equipment, attack French outposts in Vietnam. President Eisenhower sends military advisors to assist the French in its fight against the spread of communism.
  • 1954: The Viet Minh defeats France. President Eisenhower warns of a domino effect that could propel all of Southeast Asia into a communist rule. The Geneva Accord divides Vietnam on the 17th Parallel. The U.S.-backed democracy governed the South, while Ho Chi Minh led the North.
  • 1959: North Vietnam troops build the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos and Cambodia to supply guerrilla attacks against South Vietnam's government.
  • 1960: President John F. Kennedy sends 400 Green Berets to fight the Viet Cong.
  • 1962: U.S. aircraft begin spraying Agent Orange to defoliate vegetation that hides Viet Cong.
  • 1963-1965: JFK increases U.S. military advisers to more than 16,000. U.S.-backed military coup replaces Ngo Dinh Diem. Twelve more coups occur, destabilizing South Vietnam government.
  • 1964:President Lyndon B. Johnson reports that North Vietnam patrol boats torpedoed USS Maddox and USS Turner Joy in the Gulf of Tonkin. Congress authorizes U.S. military involvement in the Vietnam conflict. There are 23,300 troops in Vietnam.
  • 1965: President Johnson increases troops to 184,300.
  • 1966: U.S. troops in Vietnam increases to 385,300.
  • 1967: LBJ increases U.S. troops to 485,600.
  • 1968: At Khe Sanh, 5,000 Marines hold off 20,000 North Vietnamese for 77 days. Months later, U.S. military leaders abandon the base. North Vietnam launches the Tet Offensive. It attacks 100 cities and outposts in South Vietnam, including the U.S. Embassy. The My Lai massacre further weakens support for the war. Antiwar protests encourage Senators Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy to announce their candidacies for president. LBJ withdraws from the race. Richard Nixon wins the election by promising to end the draft. U.S. troop level hits a peak of 536,100.
  • 1969: U.S. troops conquer Hamburger Hill in a bloody battle, only to abandon it days later. It stirs opposition to the war. Nixon institutes a draft lottery to overcome the perception that wealthier white men are avoiding the draft through deferment. U.S. troops in Vietnam drop to 475,200. Nixon orders the bombing of communist base camps in Cambodia. A recession begins in December.
  • 1970: U.S. troops attack Cambodian base camps. National Guard soldiers kill four students at Kent State University's antiwar protest. U.S. National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger begins secret peace negotiations with North Vietnam representatives in Paris. Troop level drops to 234,600. The recession lasts until November. Unemployment peaks at 6.1% in December.
  • 1971: The New York Times publishes the Pentagon Papers. It reveals the extent of U.S. involvement in Vietnam during the Kennedy administration. It also concludes that heavy bombing of North Vietnam did not reduce the enemy's will to fight. The U.S. troop level falls to 156,800. In August, Nixon ends the gold standard. This sends the dollar plummeting, which increases import prices. He imposes a 10% tariff on imports, which also worsens inflation. He institutes wage-price controls to stop the inflation, but that slows growth. Companies can't lower wages, so they lay off workers to cut costs.
  • 1972: Nixon increases the bombing of North Vietnam civilians while reducing troops to 24,200. Nixon's policies create stagflation.
  • 1973: Draft ends. Paris Peace Accords end the war. Nixon ends the gold standard. The OPEC oil embargo begins in October. The recession begins in November. LBJ dies of a heart attack.
  • 1975: North Vietnam overruns Saigon, and South Vietnam surrenders. The recession ends in March 1975.

Costs

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 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 wartime experiences. 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 33% 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.

Effects

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, Ohio National Guard soldiers 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.