After France's attempted recolonization of Indochina was defeated in 1954 by the Viet Minh at the battle of Điện Biên Phủ, an agreement to temporarily partition the country in two with a de-militarized zone (DMZ) was reached at the Geneva Conference (1954). The Vietnam War ostensibly began as a civil war between feuding governments. Being Western-oriented and perceived as less popular than Hồ Chí Minh's northern government, the South Vietnam government fought largely to maintain its governing status within the partitioned entity, rather than to "unify the country" as was the goal of the North. Fighting began in 1957 and with U.S. and Soviet-Chinese involvement would steadily escalate and spill over into the neighboring Indochinese countries of Cambodia and Laos.
The Geneva partition was not a natural division of Vietnam and was not intended to create two separate countries. But the South government, with the support of the United States, blocked the Geneva scheduled elections for reunification. In the context of the Cold War, and with the recent Korean War as a precedent, the U.S. had feared that a reunified Vietnam would elect a Communist government under the popular Hồ Chí Minh, either freely or fraudulently.
South Vietnam and its Western allies portrayed the conflict as based in a principled opposition to communism —to deter the expansion of Soviet-based control throughout Southeast Asia, and to set the tone for any likely future superpower conflicts. The North Vietnamese government and its Southern dissident allies (NLF) viewed the war as a struggle to reunite the country and to repel a foreign aggressor —a virtual continuation of the earlier war for independence against the French.
After fifteen years of protracted fighting and massive civilian and military casualties, major direct U.S. involvement ended with the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in 1973. Fighting between Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) forces against the dominant combined People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) and NLF forces would soon bring an end to the RVN and the war on April 30, 1975. With the Northern victory, the country was reunified as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV) with a communist-controlled government based in Hanoi.
A precise timeline of the Vietnam War is difficult to determine. Some consider the Vietnam War to have been a continuous conflict beginning with the French attempt to reestablish colonial control in 1946 and continuing until the fall of Saigon in 1975. Others divide the conflict into two separate wars, the First Indochina War between the French and the Viet Minh and the Second Indochina War between North Vietnam on the one side and South Vietnam and its allies, most importantly the United States, on the other. Many experts consider the Vietnam War to have just been one front in the larger Cold War.
The First Indochina War may be said to have begun in 1946 with the writing of the Vietnamese constitution and to have ended in 1954 with the Geneva Peace Accord. The U.S. involvement in the conflict is less distinct. The United States had supported Vietnamese guerrillas against the Japanese during World War II, and provided aid to the French in the early 1950s. A US military presence was established in South Vietnam following the 1954 Peace Accord. As US advisors were drawn into battles between North and South Vietnamese forces the US involvement escalated. Many US citizens view the Vietnam War as beginning with the Gulf of Tonkin Incident in 1964. The Vietnam War Memorial reports American casualties as early as 1957.
The ground war was fought in South Vietnam and the border areas of Cambodia and Laos (see Secret War). The air war was fought there and in the strategic bombing (see Operation Rolling Thunder) of North Vietnam. Commando raids or secret operations were conducted by US or South Vietnamese forces in the north but there was never any full-scale ground fighting north of the 17th parallel (For more details of the events during the war, see: Timeline of the Vietnam War.) A coalition of forces fought for South Vietnam, including its army the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (or ARVN), the United States, South Korea, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand, and the Philippines. Participation by the South Korean military was financed by the United States, but Australia and New Zealand fully funded their participations. The United Kingdom and Canada did not participate in the war militarily, although a few of their citizens volunteered to join the US forces and Canada led peace talks between the two countries for years. The Spanish government sent a small group of military medical personnel from 1966 to 1971. The North Vietnamese government directed the fighting against that of South Vietnam, using forces including their People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN, better known in the U.S. as the NVA) and the guerrilla forces of the National Liberation Front, better known as the Viet Cong. The USSR provided military and financial aid, along with diplomatic support to the North Vietnamese as did the People's Republic of China. Czechoslovakia, East Germany, and North Korea provided minor assistance through provision of supplies and armor. North Vietnamese pilots and other specialized members of the PAVN often received training in the USSR or in North Korea, as did many of their Southern counterparts in Arizona or Hawaii.
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