Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

The Vietnam War

America's Longest, Most Expensive War

The Vietnam War | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeAerial view of flock of U.S. Marine helicopters in the sky over Vietnam. One of the dark green and yellow helicopters is in the foreground. Four others trail close behind.

U. S. Helicopter Flock, 1962

Aerial view of flock of U.S. Marine helicopters in the sky over Vietnam. One of the dark green and yellow helicopters is in the foreground. Four others trail close behind. View the original source document: WHI 86877

The Vietnam War was the longest, most expensive war in American history. More than 58,000 Americans died and more than 300,000 were wounded. The United States entered the war incrementally between 1950 and 1965, when President Lyndon Johnson began bombing North Vietnam and sent U.S. Marines to defend South Vietnam.

The war pitted the North Vietnamese and the National Liberation Front — NLF, or Vietcong — against the United States and the South Vietnamese. From 1946 to 1954, the Vietnamese had fought for their independence from France. At the end of the struggle, the country was divided into two parts. North Vietnam was allied with the Soviet Union and China. It was governed by Vietnamese Communists who wanted to build a Communist government in Vietnam like in China. South Vietnam was allied with the United States and wanted a Democratic Capitalist society.

The two governments fought constantly after 1954. The United States supplied more and more aid and soldiers to South Vietnam. When it appeared the North might win in 1965, the U.S. sent many more troops to save the South. More than 500,000 U.S. soldiers were stationed in Vietnam. Another 1.2 million more were positioned throughout Southeast Asia.

Wisconsin

More than 57,000 Wisconsinites served in Southeast Asia; 1,239 never returned. The average American soldier in Vietnam was 19 years old. In World War II, the average had been 26. GIs who served in Vietnam also came disproportionately from rural and urban working-class backgrounds. Because the army had a policy of rotating servicemen into Vietnam for a year at a time, soldiers returned home individually; the comradery of military units in earlier wars was gone.

Many Americans supported the war. But as the Johnson administration increased U.S. involvement, Americans began protesting the war, especially on college campuses. Antiwar sentiment increased following the Tet Offensive in 1968 and after President Richard M. Nixon escalated U.S. involvement. Protests grew after the invasion of Cambodia in 1970 and the Christmas Eve bombing of Hanoi in 1972. Almost every American university soon had an organized student movement led by the left-wing "Students for a Democratic Society" (SDS) or an allied group.

Dangers at Home

EnlargeAuthorities review debris

Authorities Review Debris, 1970

Authorities review debris of the van at the scene of the bombing. Some of the damage to Sterling Hall can be seen in the background of the photograph. The engine section indicated by the red circle is now in the Historical Society's Museum. Source: WHI-33886 View the original source document: WHI 33886

The University of Wisconsin-Madison gained a reputation as one of the nation's most radical campuses. Students and professors began to organize teach-ins on the in 1965. The teach-ins were forums for discussion between students and faculty about the war. Students marched to protest the war, burned draft cards and confronted army recruiters. In October of 1967, UW students protested against the Dow Chemical Company — the manufacturer of napalm — when it recruited at the Madison campus. The police action and violent confrontations that followed radicalized many previously apathetic students.

But the most important anti-war event in Madison took happened on August 24, 1970. A group of young men known as "The New Years Gang" detonated a bomb outside the east wing of Sterling Hall, killing physics researcher Robert Fassnacht and injuring four others. The building was home to the Mathematics Research Center. The center was funded by the U.S. Army. Many activists believed the center contributed to the death and destruction in Vietnam. Many feared that the bombing would escalate tensions and encourage further violent protests. But the bombing actually helped discredit and weaken the peace movement on campus.

As the war continued, North Vietnamese and Vietcong forces occupied more and more territory in the South. Facing constant failure in Vietnam and the disappointment of the American people, the U.S. signed peace negotiations in January of 1973. U.S. troops withdrew two months later. Hostilities ended in April, 1975, when the southern capital of Saigon — now Ho Chi Minh city — fell to the Communists. The U.S. ultimately failed to support the South Vietnamese government. The country was reunified as the Social Republic of Vietnam. Congress never officially declared war.

Learn More

[Sources: The History of Wisconsin vol 6 (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin); Kasparek, Jon, Bobbie Malone and Erica Schock. Wisconsin History Highlights: Delving into the Past (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2004); Stevens, Michael, ed. Voices from Vietnam. (Madison, Wis.: The State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1996)]