In 1954, Ho Chi Minh's guerilla forces decisively defeated French troops at the battle of Dien Bien Phu (dyen byen foo). The defeat forced France to end its efforts to reclaim Indochina. Cambodia, and Laos meanwhile, had won independence separately.
By 1954, the struggle in Vietnam had become part of the Cold War. At an international conference that year, Western and communist powers agreed to a temporary division of Vietnam.
Ho and the communists ruled North Vietnam. A fierce anti-communist government, led by Ngo Dinh Diem (ngoh dee EM) and supported by the United States, ruled South Vietnam.
The agreement called for elections to be held to reunite Vietnam within a year. The elections never took place, however, largely because the Americans and Diem feared the communists might win.
Although prodded by the United States, Diem refused to undertake needed reforms, and his increasingly dictatorial rule and corrupt government alienated many South Vietnamese. By 1959, South Vietnam was facing a growing challenge from both communist guerrillas and rising discontent with Diem.
Why did Vietnamese guerrillas fight the French in Indochina?
American officials believed in the domino theory, which held that a communist victory in South Vietnam would cause noncommunist governments across Southeast Asia to fall to communism—like a row of dominoes. To prevent such a disaster, the United States stepped in to shore up the Diem government.
However, there were limits to what American power could achieve in Vietnam. President John F. Kennedy realized that the United States alone could not prop up the unpopular Diem government in South Vietnam. In an interview, he noted:
I don't think that unless a greater effort is made by the Government to win popular support that the war can be won out there…. We can help them, we can give them equipment, we can send our men out there as advisors, but they have to win it, the people of Vietnam, against the Communists.
—President John F. Kennedy
Diem was overthrown and killed in early November 1963 by South Vietnamese military leaders. After Diem's death, the United States became more deeply involved in Vietnam, working with the ruling generals against the growing threat from communist rebels.
In North Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh was determined to reunite the country under communist rule. He helped the Viet Cong, the communist rebels trying to defeat South Vietnam's government. At first, the United States sent only supplies and military advisers to South Vietnam. But as the Viet Cong won control of more areas, the United States was dragged into the fighting, turning a local struggle into a major Cold War conflict.
In August 1964, the Maddox, an American warship in the Gulf of Tonkin, reported attacks by North Vietnamese torpedo boats in retaliation for South Vietnamese commando raids nearby. Without mentioning the commando raids, President Lyndon Johnson used the attacks to win congressional approval for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. It authorized the president to take all necessary measures to prevent further aggression.
U.S. soldiers search for Viet Cong hideouts in the jungle northeast of Saigon.