Online Exhibits

Episodes 1-4

Episode 1: Truman Sides With France

Truman aids France in its war to recolonize Vietnam—the beginning of a 25-year involvement 

We must sacrifice to our last drop of blood to save our country.

Ho Chi Minh, President of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, 1946

At the end of World War II, Ho Chi Minh—the Vietnamese Communist leader—seized an opportunity to escape decades of French rule. Japanese troops had taken control of Vietnam in 1945. The day Japan surrendered to the Allies, Ho Chi Minh declared independence in front of a crowd of exhilarated Vietnamese. In a deliberate appeal for American support, he opened his speech with the words: “All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among them are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

But when France went to war to recolonize Vietnam in 1945, the U.S. government needed its ally’s cooperation to contain the spread of communism in Europe. From 1946 to 1950, it adopted a neutral policy toward the conflict. In 1950 President Harry S. Truman authorized direct financial and military assistance to the French.  

Looking Back

Ho Chi Minh’s long quest for American support

President Truman was not the first American official Ho Chi Minh attempted to befriend, nor was the United States the first nation he approached. He first tried to enlist U.S. support in 1919 at the Paris Peace Conference. He sent an appeal to Soviet Premier Josef Stalin in 1945-46 very similar to the one he sent to Truman. He had long known his small country would need allies to win independence from the French.

Ho Chi Minh made his only successful connection with American officials after he helped a downed U.S. pilot reach safety during World War II. The Office of Strategic Services (OSS) enlisted “Old Man Ho” to broadcast radio reports on weather and Japanese troop movements to U.S. intelligence operatives stationed in China. Later, his Viet Minh guerrillas joined forces with an OSS team. Ho’s bright eyes and calm geniality made a powerful impression on the officers. But in the years to come, many Americans would associate his wispy beard and peasant attire with something sinister.


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Key Dates

April 12, 1945: President Roosevelt dies

September 2, 1945: Japan surrenders and Ho Chi Minh proclaims independence and the formation of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam

December 19, 1946: Start of First Indochina War in North Vietnam

July 2, 1949: Creation of the Associated State of Vietnam (future Republic of Vietnam) led by former emperor Bao Dai  

January, 1950: Communist China and the Soviet Union recognize the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam)

February 7, 1950: United States recognizes the Associated State of Vietnam

June 25, 1950: Korean War begins

July 26, 1950: Truman authorizes $15 million in military aid to France


Episode 2: Eisenhower Backs Diem

Eisenhower commits U.S. support for the new anti-Communist South Vietnamese government

The possible consequences of the loss [of Vietnam] are just incalculable to the free world.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1954

After the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu, the 1954 Geneva Accords called for a temporary partition of Vietnam at the 17th Parallel—creating a Communist state in the North and a French-backed non-Communist state in the South. The agreement called for an election to reunify the two zones in 1956. Eisenhower believed “losing” South Vietnam to communism would be a strategic, economic, and humanitarian disaster. So he pledged support to an emerging leader—Ngo Dinh Diem—a devout Catholic and fervent anti-French, anti-Communist nationalist. Diem faced multiple threats: some members of his inherited government and military were associated with the hated French; mobsters controlled much of Saigon; and French-supported armed religious sects and military officers challenged his leadership.

Against all odds, Diem consolidated power. The “Diem Miracle” would prove to be short-lived, but Eisenhower’s decision to support him set the United States on a course that continued for another 20 years.


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Key Dates

July 27, 1953: Korean War ends

March 13–May 7, 1954: Viet Minh defeat the French at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu

August 1, 1954: End of First Indochina War (the Anti-French Resistance War)

April 28, 1955: Beginning of Battle of Saigon against Binh Xuyen gangsters

November 11, 1955: Military Assistance Advisory Group Vietnam is established (U.S. Government official start date of the Vietnam War)

May 1959: Construction of the Ho Chi Minh Trail begins on territory the North Vietnamese seized in Laos

January 1959: North Vietnam authorizes Southern communist cadres (“Viet Cong”) to engage in low-level insurgency

1960: Sino-Soviet Split: Break of relations between People’s Republic of China and Soviet Union


Episode 3: Kennedy Doubles Down

Kennedy invests in a military solution to a political question:  What type of government will rule a united Vietnam?

Now we have a problem in making our power credible and Vietnam is the place.

President John F. Kennedy, 1961

After the Bay of Pigs defeat in Cuba and the erection of the Berlin Wall, President Kennedy needed a win. “Vietnam is the place,” he told a reporter, convinced the U.S. could restore its Cold War credibility by saving the remote Southeast Asia country from communism.

Kennedy supplied thousands of additional military advisers and equipment to South Vietnam to fight the Communist insurgency. He resisted sending ground troops, against his advisers’ persistent urging.

For a time, American assistance appeared to help stabilize South Vietnam—but in 1963 tensions between the Diem regime and its U.S. ally and resistance from the population escalated to a tragic and bloody climax.

Diem’s downfall

The South Vietnamese President’s  increasingly authoritarian regime ends in a violent coup

The flood of American resources appeared to buoy South Vietnam. But in January 1963 a few hundred “Viet Cong” guerrillas repelled the assault of 2,500 American-equipped South Vietnamese infantrymen in the Battle of Ap Bac. The American press portrayed it as evidence that the South Vietnamese military was incompetent and that President Diem was to blame.

That spring, newspaper images of monks burning themselves in protest against the Diem regime stunned observers around the world. The violence and unrest in Saigon raised blood pressures in Washington. Meanwhile, Diem ignored the Kennedy administration’s increasingly adamant calls for reform.

The Diem experiment came to a bloody end when he and his brother were assassinated on November 23 in the back of an armored personnel carrier.


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Key Dates

April 17–19, 1961: U.S. supports Cuban invasion of the Bay of Pigs

August 13, 1961: Berlin Wall is erected

February 8, 1962: U.S. establishes Military Assistance Command Vietnam

October 14, 1962: Cuban Missile Crisis erupts

January 2, 1963: Battle of Ap Bac begins

August 21, 1963: Government forces crackdown on Buddhist protests in brutal Pagoda Raids

November 1, 1963: Diem is overthrown in a military coup and he and his brother are assassinated the next day

November 22, 1963: Kennedy is assassinated


Episode 4: Johnson Sets the Stage

Congress rushes to give President Johnson war powers

We still seek no wider war.

President Lyndon B. Johnson, 1964

With the post-coup Saigon regime in chaos, North Vietnam sharply escalated the war in hopes of bringing Communists to power before Americans fully intervened. Despite doubts about its significance and winnability, Johnson was “not going to lose Vietnam.”

The 36th President portrayed confrontations between U.S. and North Vietnamese ships off the coast of North Vietnam as unprovoked aggression. When contrary information surfaced, many believed Congress had been conned. It was too late. With little debate, legislators passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, giving Johnson unprecedented power to “take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.”


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Key Dates

April 25, 1964: Johnson appoints General William Westmoreland to command MACV

May 22, 1964: Johnson delivers his “Great Society” speech

July 2, 1964: Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act

August 2, 1964: First Tonkin Gulf Incident

August 4, 1964: Alleged second Tonkin Gulf incident

August 7, 1964: Congress passes Gulf of Tonkin Resolution

October 16, 1964: People’s Republic of China successfully tests atomic bomb

November 3, 1964: Johnson defeats Goldwater in Presidential election

Continue to explore the 12 Critical Episodes of the Remembering Vietnam Exhibition