Six Key Facts – The Terrible Conflict That Was The Vietnam War

US ACAV and M48 in Convoy During operations in Vietnam.
US ACAV and M48 in Convoy During operations in Vietnam.

The Vietnam War (1 November 1955 – 30 April 1975) was also known as the Second Indochina War. In Vietnam, it was called Kháng chiến chống Mỹ which translates as the “Resistance War against America,” usually shortened to the “American war.”

As the US did not actually declare war on Vietnam but instead intervened and became the major player in a war that was already ongoing it should, strictly speaking, be referred to as a conflict rather than a war. But to most, it remains best known as the Vietnam War.

The Conflict

The conflict was initially between North and South Vietnam but ended up involving many other countries. It was played out not only in Vietnam itself but also in Laos and Cambodia. North Vietnam was a Communist state and had allies among the Soviet Union, China, and other Communist countries.

South Vietnam was supported by anti-communist countries including the United States and the Philippines as well as Vietcong to the south of Vietnam. It lasted almost 20 years and was the longest conflict the US had ever engaged in throughout its entire history.

The United States withdrew its direct military involvement in 1973. The conflict came to an end in April 1975 following the capture of Saigon by North Vietnamese forces. This was soon followed by the surrender of South Vietnam. Just over a year later North and South Vietnam were unified under the Communist regime and the capital city Saigon given its current name Ho Chi Minh City

Interogation of Vietcong activist (Wikipedia)
Interrogation of Vietcong activist.


In total, more than 3 million people were killed during the conflict. This included 58,000 Americans. Almost one million military personnel served in Vietnam. Two-thirds of these were volunteers, not conscripts. A disproportionate number of young soldiers died in the conflict with over 60% of those killed being under the age of 21.

The youngest was 16 while the oldest man killed in action was 62. 240 soldiers received the Medal of Honor for their efforts in the battlefield. Many American soldiers are still unaccounted for, estimated at 1875 in 2004.

B-66 Bombers taking part in Operation Rolling Thunder (Wikipedia)
B-66 Bombers taking part in Operation Rolling Thunder.

Weapons used

The weapons used in Vietnam were more deadly and dangerous than anything that had been used in the past. For South Vietnam and the US, their strength lay in their superior air power, especially their use of American manufactured B2 bombers capable of dropping thousands of pounds of explosives.

To make their bombing campaigns more effective the US wanted to clear large areas of the jungle of vegetation which could provide cover and hiding places. This led to the deployment of chemical weapons in the form of herbicides; in particular the now notorious “Agent Orange.”

This was used in such high concentrations that as well as destroying the foliage it also poisoned crops on the ground leading to famine. Napalm, which had previously been used in WW2 and the Korean War was also used to a huge extent in Vietnam.

Of the more conventional weapons, the Americans had to redesign their M-16 gun to deal with the wet, muddy conditions they encountered in this unfamiliar terrain.

Mỹ Lai Massacre

One of the best known and disturbing events of the Vietnam War was the My Lai Massacre in which between 400 and 500 unarmed civilians were killed by US soldiers.

The massacre took place in two small villages in South Vietnam. Although some of those who were responsible were charged, only the leader of the platoon was found guilty. His punishment for the killing of 22 villagers was to spend three and a half years under house arrest. The rest of the soldiers responsible received no punishment.

Soldiers within the battalion who tried to stop the massacre and had tried to protect civilians were initially denounced as traitors and only thirty years later was their action given the recognition it deserved with one of the soldiers posthumously being awarded a medal for his attempt to shield civilians during the attack.

Unsurprisingly, the news of the My Lai Massacre prompted outrage both at home and abroad and played a role in strengthening the protests against the ongoing conflict both at home and internationally.

Vietnam War Protests, Washington April 1971 (Wikipedia)
Vietnam War Protests, Washington April 1971. By Leena A. Krohn – CC BY-SA 3.0

Protest Movements

The protest movement against the American involvement in Vietnam began among college students but quickly spread into many areas of society. Although the war had been going on for some years, it was not until 1965 that the protests become more widespread.

Although there were many American citizens who volunteered, others objected in principle taking part in the fighting. Among the most well-known protesters who refused to fight was the champion boxer, the late Muhammad Ali who declared himself a conscientious objector.

He was given a prison sentence and banned from boxing for three years although the prison sentence was later overturned and he was released. However, the majority supported the war. Because the protest movements were associated with the wider peace movement with its association with students, hippies and the drug culture, the protest movement was not taken very seriously and had little influence on the course of events.

The Vietnam War in popular culture

The Vietnam war has been a subject of films and books since the beginning of the US involvement up to the present time. During the war, there were some attempts to deal with themes that were relevant without mentioning the war directly. These included Joseph Heller’s novel Catch 22 and Kurt Vonnegut’s The Slaughterhouse Five as well as films such as M*A*S*H and Bonnie and Clyde.

Later films dealt with the subject matter in a more direct way and mostly they did not flinch from portraying the brutality of the war including events such as the My Lai Massacre. Among the most successful of these were Platoon – (Oliver Stone -1987), Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola – 1979) and Full Metal Jacket (Stanley Kubrick -1987)

Films and books also created a popular image of the Vietnam veteran as a damaged outcast unable to reintegrate into society as a result of his experiences in Vietnam. However, statistics show that on average Vietnam veterans are more likely to be employed and less likely to be in prison than the veteran population as a whole.

Elly Farelly

Eileen Farrelly is a freelance writer based in Scotland. She studied philosophy and adult education at The University of Glasgow and worked in teaching and administration before becoming a full time writer. Her main areas of interest are history, education and the arts and always looks for the human interest angle of the story. She also writes poetry and has been published in anthologies and journals in the UK and USA.