This article has been adapted from The Vietnam War: The illustrated history of the conflict in Southeast Asia, edited by Ray Bonds and published by Salamander Books in 1979. The words and illustrations are under license from Pavilion Books and have been published from the 1979 edition without adaptation.
Vietnam had been a colony of France since 1858. The French had extracted large amounts of Vietnam’s raw materials, exploited local labour and suppressed civil and political rights, which had given rise to strong anti-French resistance by the 1930s.
Japan’s invasion and occupation of Vietnam in 1940 later made Vietnam a target of US foreign policy following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour in 1941.
To fight off both Japanese occupiers and its Vichy French colonial administration, Vietnamese revolutionary Ho Chi Minh – inspired by Chinese and Soviet communism – formed the Viet Minh in 1941, a communist resistance movement. Their opposition to the Japanese meant they received support from the US, China and the Soviet Union.
The principle of a country’s right to self-determination (i.e. to freely choose their sovereignty and international political status with no interference) had originally been laid out in Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points in 1918, and had been recognised as an international legal right in the 1941 Atlantic Charter.
After Japan surrendered leaving the French-educated Emperor Bao Dai in control, Ho Chi Minh persuaded him to abdicate and declared an independent Vietnamese state. However, despite the Atlantic Charter, the US remained keen for Vietnam to reinstall French rule, paving the way for the First Indochina War.
9 March – An “independent” Vietnam with Emperor Bao Dai as nominal ruler is proclaimed by Japanese occupation authorities.
2 September 2 – The Communist-dominated Viet Minh Independence League seizes power. Ho Chi Minh establishes Government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (GRDV) in Hanoi.
22 September – French troops return to Vietnam and lash with Communist and Nationalist forces.
6 March – France recognizes the Democratic Republic of Vietnam as a free state within the Indochinese Federation and French Union.
19 December – The Viet Minh initiate the eight-year Indochina War with an attack on French troops in the north.
8 March – France recognizes an “independent” state of Vietnam, Bao Dai becomes its leader in June.
19 July – Laos is recognized as an independent state with ties to France.
8 November – Cambodia is recognized as an independent state with no ties to France.
January – The newly-established People’s Republic of China, followed by the Soviet Union, recognizes the Democratic Republic of Vietnam led by Ho Chi Minh.
8 May – US announces military and economic aid to the pro-French regimes of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.
7 May – The remnants of the French garrison at Dien Bien Phu surrender.
7 July – Ngo Dinh Diem, newly-chosen Premier of South Vietnam, completes the organization of his cabinet.
20-21 July – The Geneva Agreements are signed, partitioning Vietnam along the 17th Parallel and setting up an International Control Commission to supervise compliance with the Agreements
8 September – An agreement is signed at Manila establishing a Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, aimed at checking Communist expansion.
5 October – The last French troops leave Hanoi.
11 October – The Viet Minh formally assume control over North Vietnam.
24 October – President Dwight, D. Eisenhower advises Diem that the US will provide assistance directly to South Vietnam, instead of channeling it through French authorities.
The French left in 1954 and Dwight Eisenhower’s pledge of assistance takes hold.
Victory in the anti-colonial war (fought against the French between 1945 and 1954, and supported by US aid) saw Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia granted independence. Vietnam was split North and South, and by 1958 the communist north (Vietcong) were conducting military operations across the border. President Eisenhower dispatched 2,000 military advisors to coordinate the anti-communist effort in South Vietnam. From 1960 to 1963 President Kennedy gradually increased the advisory force in SV to 16,300.
29 March – Diem launches his successful campaign against the Binh Xuyen and the religious sects.
10 May – South Vietnam formally requests US instructors for armed forces.
16 May – The United States agrees to furnish military aid to Cambodia, which becomes an independent state on 25 September.
20 July – South Vietnam refuses to take part in the all-Vietnam elections called for by the Geneva Agreements, charging that free elections are impossible in the Communist North.
23 October – A national referendum deposes Bao Dai in favour of Diem, who proclaims the Republic of Vietnam.
18 February – While visiting Peking, Cambodia’s Prince Norodom Sihanouk renounces SEATO protection for his nation.
31 March – Prince Souvanna Phouma becomes Prime Minister in Laos.
28 April – An American Military Assistance Advisory Group, (MAAG) takes over the training of South Vietnamese forces, the French Military High Command disbands and French troops leave South Vietnam.
5 August – Souvanna Phouma and the Communist Prince Souphanouvong agree to a coalition government in Laos.
3 January – The International control Commission declares that neither North Vietnam nor South Vietnam has carried out the Geneva Agreements.
29 May – Communist Pathet Lao attempt to seize power in Laos.
June – The last French training missions leave South Vietnam.
September – Diem is successful in South Vietnamese general election.
January – Communist guerrillas attack a plantation north of Saigon.
April – A branch of the Lao Dong (Worker’s Party of Vietnam), of which Ho Chi Minh became Secretary General in 1956, is formed in the South, and Communist underground activity increases.
May – The US Commander in Chief, Pacific, begins sending the military advisers requested by the South Vietnamese government.
June-July – Communist Pathet Lao forces attempt to gain control over northern Laos, receiving some Vietnamese Communist assistance.
8 July – Communist South Vietnamese wound American advisers during an attack on Bien Hoa.
31 December – General Phourni Nosavan seizes control in Laos.
5 May – MAAAG strength is increased from 327 to 685 members.
9 August – Captain Kong Le occupies Vientiane and urges restoration of a neutral Laos under Prince Souvanna Phourna.
11-12 November – A military coup against Diem fails.
December – The Communist National Liberation Front (NLF) of South Vietnam is formed.
16 December – The forces of Phoumi Nosavan capture Vientiane.
4 January – Prince Boun Oum organizes a pro-Western government in Laos, North Vietnam and the USSR Send aid to the Communist insurgents.
11-13 May – Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson visits South Vietnam.
16 May – A 14-nation conference on Laos meets at Geneva.
1-4 September – Viet Cong forces carry out a series of attacks in Kontum province, South Vietnam.
18 September – A Viet Cong battalion seizes the provincial capital of Phuoc Vinh, some 55 miles (89km) from Saigon.
8 October – The Lao factions agree to form a neutral coalition headed by Souvanna Phouma, but fail to agree on the apportionment of cabinet posts.
11 October – President John F, Kennedy announces that his principal military adviser, General Maxwell D. Taylor, USA, will go to South Vietnam to investigate the situation.
16 November – As a result of the Taylor mission, President Kennedy decides to increase military aid to South Vietnam, without committing US combat troops.
3 February – The “Strategic Hamlet” program begins in South Vietnam.
7 February – American military strength in South Vietnam reaches 4,000, with the arrival of two additional Army aviation units.
8 February – The US MAAG is reorganized as the US Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), under General Paul D. Harkins, USA.
27 February – President Diem escapes injury when two South Vietnamese aircraft attack the Presidential Palace.
6-27 May – Phoumi Nosavan’s forces are routed, paving the way for a settlement in Laos.
August – First Australian Aid Forces (MAF) Vietnam.
2 January – Battle of Ap Bac ARVN with US advisers is defeated.
April – Inception of the Chieu Hoi (“Open Arms”) amnesty program, aimed at rallying VC to support of the government.
8 May – Riots in Hue, South Vietnam, when government troops try to prevent the celebration of Buddha’s birthday, country-wide Buddhist demonstrations continue into August.
11 June – The first of seven Buddhist monks to commit suicide by fire in protest against repression dies in Saigon.
October – President Kennedy supported the South Vietnam’s military’s overthrow of President Diem and his regime. Ngo Dinh Diem had operated a regime that favoured the Catholic minority at the expense of the Buddhist majority, de-stabilising the country and threatening to enable a Communist takeover. Diem was murdered in the process of the coup, and although JFK did not support this – in fact the news is said to have infuriated him – his assassination means one can never know whether he would have escalated the conflict as President Johnson would do.
1-2 November – A military coup overthrows Diem, he and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu are murdered.
6 November – General Duong Van Minh, leading the Revolutionary Military Committee, takes over leadership of South Vietnam.
15 November – Following a prediction by Defence Secretary McNamara that the US military role will end by 1965, the US government announces that 1,000 of the 15,000 American advisers in South Vietnam will be withdrawn early in December.
22 November – President Kennedy is assassinated as he rides in a motorcade through Dealey Plaza in downtown Dallas, Texas. In the final weeks of his life, President Kennedy had wrestled with the future of America’s commitment in Vietnam.