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Vietnam War (1945-1960): Timeline, Facts, and Resources


March 9, 1945: Amid rumors of a possible American invasion, Japanese oust the French colonial government which had been operating independently and seize control of Vietnam, installing Bao Dai as their puppet ruler.

July 1945: Following the defeat of Nazi Germany, WW2 Allies including the U.S., Britain, and Soviet Union, hold the Potsdam Conference in Germany to plan the post-war world. Vietnam is considered a minor item on the agenda.

August 1945: Japanese surrender unconditionally. Vietnam’s puppet emperor, Bao Dai, abdicates. Ho Chi Minh’s guerrillas occupy Hanoi and proclaim a provisional government.

September 2, 1945: Japanese sign the surrender agreement in Tokyo Bay formally ending WW2 in the Pacific. Ho declares himself president of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and pursues American recognition but is repeatedly ignored by President Harry Truman.

September 13, 1945: British forces arrive in Saigon, South Vietnam.

September 22, 1945: In South Vietnam, 1400 French soldiers released by the British from former Japanese internment camps enter Saigon and go on a deadly rampage, attacking Viet Minh and killing innocent civilians including children, aided by French civilians who joined the rampage.

September 24, 1945: In Saigon, Viet Minh successfully organize a general strike shutting down all commerce along with electricity and water supplies. In a suburb of Saigon, members of Binh Xuyen, a Vietnamese criminal organization, massacre 150 French and Eurasian civilians, including children.

September 26, 1945: The first American death in Vietnam occurs, during the unrest in Saigon, as OSS officer Lt. Col. A. Peter Dewey is killed by Viet Minh guerrillas who mistook him for a French officer. Before his death, Dewey had filed a report on the deepening crisis in Vietnam, stating his opinion that the U.S. “ought to clear out of Southeast Asia.”

October 1945: 35,000 French soldiers under the command of World War II General Jacques Philippe Leclerc arrive in South Vietnam to restore French rule. Viet Minh immediately begin a guerrilla campaign to harass them. The French then succeed in expelling the Viet Minh from Saigon.

February 1946: The Chinese under Chiang Kai-shek agree to withdraw from North Vietnam and allow the French to return in exchange for French concessions in Shanghai and other Chinese ports.

March 1946: Ho Chi Minh agrees to permit French troops to return to Hanoi temporarily in exchange for French recognition of his Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Chinese troops then depart.

May-September: Ho Chi Minh spends four months in France attempting to negotiate full independence and unity for Vietnam, but fails to obtain any guarantee from the French.

June 1946: In a major affront to Ho Chi Minh, the French high commissioner for Indochina proclaims a separatist French-controlled government for South Vietnam.

November 1946: After a series of violent clashes with Viet Minh, French forces bombard Haiphong harbor and occupy Hanoi, forcing Ho Chi Minh and his Viet Minh forces to retreat into the jungle.

December 19, 1946: In Hanoi, 30,000 Viet Minh launch their first large-scale attack against the French.

October 7- December 22: The French conduct Operation Lea, a series of attacks on Viet Minh guerrilla positions in North Vietnam near the Chinese border.

March 8, 1949: The French install Bao Dai as puppet head of state in South Vietnam.

July 1949: The French establish the Vietnamese National Army.

October 1949: Mao Zedong’s Communist forces defeat Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Army in the Chinese civil war.

January 1950: The People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union recognize Ho Chi Minh’s Democratic Republic of Vietnam.China then begins sending military advisors and modern weapons to the Viet Minh including automatic weapons, mortars, howitzers, and trucks.

February 1950: The United States and Britain recognize Bao Dai’s French-controlled South Vietnam government.

February 1950: Viet Minh begin an offensive against French outposts in North Vietnam near the Chinese border.

February 7, 1950: In America, the era of ‘McCarthyism’ erupts as Senator Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin gives a speech claiming the U.S. State Department harbors Communists.

June 30, 1950: President Harry S. Truman orders U.S. ground troops into Korea following Communist North Korea’s invasion of the South.

July 26, 1950: United States military involvement in Vietnam begins as President Harry Truman authorizes $15 million in military aid to the French.

September 16, 1950: General Giap begins his main attack against French outposts near the Chinese border.

September 27, 1950: The U.S. establishes a Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) in Saigon to aid the French Army.

January 13, 1951: 20,000 Viet Minh under Gen. Giap begin a series of attacks on fortified French positions in the Red River Delta.

March 23-28: In the second attack, Giap targets the Mao Khe outpost near Haiphong. But Giap withdraws after being pounded by French naval gunfire and air strikes.

May 29-June 18: Giap makes yet another attempt to break through the De Lattre Line, this time in the Day River area southeast of Hanoi. French reinforcements, combined with air strikes and armed boat attacks result in another defeat for Giap with 10,000 killed and wounded.

June 9, 1951: Giap begins a general withdrawal of Viet Minh troops from the Red River Delta.

September 1951: Gen. De Lattre travels to Washington seeking more aid from the Pentagon.

November 16, 1951: French forces link up at Hoa Binh southwest of Hanoi as Gen. De Lattre attempts to seize the momentum and lure Giap into a major battle.

November 20, 1951: Stricken by cancer, ailing Gen. De Lattre is replaced by Gen. Raoul Salan. De Lattre returns home and dies in Paris two months later, just after being raised to the rank of Marshal.

December 9, 1951: Giap begins a careful counter-offensive by attacking the French outpost at Tu Vu on the Black River.

January 12, 1952: French supply lines to Hoa Binh along the Black River are cut. The road along Route Coloniale 6 is also cut.

February 22-26: The French withdraw from Hoa Binh back to the De Lattre Line aided by a 30,000 round artillery barrage.

October 11, 1952: Giap now attempts to draw the French out from the De Lattre Line by attacking along the Fan Si Pan mountain range between the Red and Black Rivers.

October 29, 1952: The French counter Giap’s move by launching Operation Lorraine targeting major Viet Minh supply bases in the Viet Bac region.

November 14-17: The French cancel Operation Loraine and withdraw back toward the De Lattre Line but must first fight off a Viet Minh ambush at Chan Muong.

January 20, 1953: Dwight D. Eisenhower, former five-star Army general and Allied commander in Europe during World War II, is inaugurated as the 34th U.S. President.

March 5, 1953: Soviet leader Josef Stalin dies. The outspoken Nikita Khrushchev succeeds him.

July 27, 1953: The Korean War ends as an armistice is signed dividing the country at the 38th parallel into Communist North and Democratic South.

November 20, 1953: The French under their new commander Gen. Henri Navarre begin Operation Castor, the construction of a series of entrenched outposts protecting a small air base in the isolated jungle valley at Dien Bien Phu in northwest Vietnam.

March 13, 1954: Outnumbering the French nearly five-to-one, 50,000 Viet Minh under Gen. Giap begin their assault against the fortified hills protecting the Dien Bien Phu air base.

March 30-May 1: The siege at Dien Bien Phu occurs as nearly 10,000 French soldiers are trapped by 45,000 Viet Minh. French troops soon run out of fresh water and medical supplies.

May 7, 1954: At 5:30 p.m., 10,000 French soldiers surrender at Dien Bien Phu. By now, an estimated 8000 Viet Minh and 1500 French have died. The French survivors are marched for up to 60 days to prison camps 500 hundred miles away. France proceeds to withdraw completely from Vietnam, ending a bitter eight year struggle against the Viet Minh in which 400,000 soldiers and civilians from all sides had perished.

May 8, 1954: The Geneva Conference on Indochina begins, attended by the U.S., Britain, China, the Soviet Union, France, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, all meeting to negotiate a solution for Southeast Asia.

July 21, 1954: The Geneva Accords divide Vietnam in half at the 17th parallel, with Ho Chi Minh’s Communists ceded the North, while Bao Dai’s regime is granted the South. The accords also provide for elections to be held in all of Vietnam within two years to reunify the country.

October 1954: Following the French departure from Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh returns after spending eight years hiding in the jungle and formally takes control of North Vietnam.

January 1955: The first direct shipment of U.S. military aid to Saigon arrives. The U.S. also offers to train the fledgling South Vietnam Army.

May 1955: Prime Minister Diem wages a violent crackdown against the Binh Xuyen organized crime group based in Saigon which operates casinos, brothels and opium dens.

July 1955: Ho Chi Minh visits Moscow and agrees to accept Soviet aid.

October 23, 1955: Bao Dai is ousted from power, defeated by Prime Minister Diem in a U.S.-backed plebiscite which was rigged. Diem is advised on consolidating power by U.S. Air Force Col. Edward G. Lansdale, who is attached to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

October 26, 1955: The Republic of South Vietnam is proclaimed with Diem as its first president. In America, President Eisenhower pledges his support for the new government and offers military aid.

December 1955: In North Vietnam, radical land reforms by Communists result in land owners being hauled before “people’s tribunals.” Thousands are executed or sent to forced labor camps during this period of ideological cleansing by Ho Chi Minh. In South Vietnam, President Diem rewards his Catholic supporters by giving them land seized from Buddhist peasants, arousing their anger and eroding his support among them. Diem also allows big land owners to retain their holdings, disappointing peasants hoping for land reform.

January 1956: Diem launches a brutal crackdown against Viet Minh suspects in the countryside. Those arrested are denied counsel and hauled before “security committees” with many suspects tortured or executed under the guise of ‘shot while attempting escape.’

April 28, 1956: The last French soldier leaves South Vietnam. The French High Command for Indochina is then dissolved.

July 1956: The deadline passes for the unifying elections set by the Geneva Conference. Diem, backed by the U.S., had refused to participate.

November 1956: Peasant unrest in North Vietnam resulting from oppressive land reforms is put down by Communist force with more than 6000 killed or deported.

January 1957: The Soviet Union proposes permanent division of Vietnam into North and South, with the two nations admitted separately to the United Nations. The U.S. rejects the proposal, unwilling to recognize Communist North Vietnam.

May 8-18: Diem pays a state visit to Washington where President Eisenhower labels him the “miracle man” of Asia and reaffirms U.S. commitment. “The cost of defending freedom, of defending America, must be paid in many forms and in many places…military as well as economic help is currently needed in Vietnam,” Eisenhower states.

October 1957: Viet Minh guerrillas begin a widespread campaign of terror in South Vietnam including bombings and assassinations. By year’s end, over 400 South Vietnamese officials are killed.

June 1958: A coordinated command structure is formed by Communists in the Mekong Delta where 37 armed companies are being organized.

March 1959: The armed revolution begins as Ho Chi Minh declares a People’s War to unite all of Vietnam under his leadership. His Politburo now orders a changeover to an all-out military struggle. Thus begins the Second Indochina War.

May 1959: North Vietnamese establish the Central Office of South Vietnam (COSVN) to oversee the coming war in the South. Construction of the Ho Chi Minh trail now begins.

July 1959: 4000 Viet Minh guerrillas, originally born in the South, are sent from North Vietnam to infiltrate South Vietnam.

July 8, 1959: Two U.S. military advisors, Maj. Dale Buis and Sgt. Chester Ovnand, are killed by Viet Minh guerrillas at Bien Hoa, South Vietnam. They are the first American deaths in the Second Indochina War which Americans will come to know simply as The Vietnam War.

April 1960: Universal military conscription is imposed in North Vietnam. Tour of duty is indefinite.

April 1960: Eighteen distinguished nationalists in South Vietnam send a petition to President Diem advocating that he reform his rigid, family-run, and increasingly corrupt, government. Diem ignores their advice and instead closes several opposition newspapers and arrests journalists and intellectuals.

November 1960: A failed coup against President Diem by disgruntled South Vietnamese Army officers brings a harsh crackdown against all perceived ‘enemies of the state.’ Over 50,000 are arrested by police controlled by Diem’s brother Nhu with many innocent civilians tortured then executed. This results in further erosion of popular support for Diem.

December 20, 1960: The National Liberation Front is established by Hanoi as its Communist political organization for Viet Cong guerrillas in South Vietnam.