The Vietnam War shook America's military self-confidence to the core. More than 58,000 U.S. soldiers died fighting a war in which their seemingly all-powerful nation suffered a humiliating defeat.
But the human cost for the Vietnamese themselves was truly terrible: an estimated 2 million civilians died, along with around 1.1 million North Vietnamese forces and between 200,000 and 250,000 South Vietnamese forces.
Like many 20th-century conflicts, the Vietnam War had it roots in the fag-end of colonialism. In 1945, France, the colonial power in the region, tried to reassert control over Vietnam. But communist insurgents, led by Ho Chi Minh, fought a long campaign to remove the French and gain control of the whole country. In 1954, French forces abandoned the struggle, leaving Ho at the head of a communist regime in North Vietnam. He was committed to overthrowing the weak, pro-Western government in South Vietnam.
Washington, meanwhile, was determined to halt the spread of communism in Asia. It began sending weapons and increasing numbers of military advisers to South Vietnam. By 1962, there were around 9,000 U.S. military advisers helping the South Vietnamese army battle a powerful and committed North Vietnamese force of regular soldiers and Viet Cong guerrillas.
In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson, authorised the despatch of 200,000 U.S. soldiers. Over the next few years, Washington sent more and more troops to Vietnam (around 550,000 at its height) but, despite their awesome firepower, they achieved little on the battlefield. Viet Cong units had infiltrated large tracts of rural South Vietnam. U.S. troops would push them back in one location only to find they popped up elsewhere.
By the late 1960s, U.S. public opinion was turning against involvement in Vietnam. Anti-war protests erupted across the country. In 1969, President Richard Nixon ordered a scaling down of troop numbers. The last U.S. combat units left in 1973. Two years later, North Vietnam launched a massive, largely unopposed attack on the south. Saigon fell and the county was united under communist rule.