Viet Cong officer is shot in the head, iconic photo taken


Year
1968
Month Day
February 02

Saigon, South Vietnam was a chaotic and bloody place in the winter of 1968. On January 30, North Vietnamese forces struck suddenly and with shocking force at targets throughout the South, taking the South Vietnamese and their American allies by surprise and turning the tide of a war that President Lyndon Johnson had assured his people they were close to winning. As the reeling South Vietnamese army worked to re-establish order in their capital, an American photographer captured an image that would come to symbolize the brutality of the conflict.

The Tet Offensive directly countered the American narrative that the North was incapable of mobilizing in large numbers and was on the retreat. Conventional and guerrilla warriors struck targets and areas that had been considered to be safely under U.S./Southern control. As the Viet Cong overran Saigon in the first hours of the Tet Offensive, a fighter named Nguyễn Văn Lém was part of a death squad that targeted the National Police and their families. According to the South Vietnamese military, Lém’s squad had just killed 34 people associated with the police, at least 24 of whom were civilians, when he was captured on February 1st.

Lém, who had worn civilian clothes as he carried out his alleged war crimes, was brought to Brigadier General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan. Associated Press photographer Eddie Adams saw the prisoner being escorted to the general and decided to take a few pictures. “I prepared to make that picture—the threat, the interrogation,” Adams recalled. “But it didn’t happen. The man just pulled a pistol out of his holster, raised it to the VC’s head and shot him in the temple.”

Adams captured the exact moment when the bullet from Loan’s Smith & Wesson entered Lém’s head at point-blank range. The image, which very much appeared to depict the summary execution of an unarmed civilian by a South Vietnamese military official, ran in newspapers around the world, causing a sensation. The story behind the photo was much more complex, but the shot came to encapsulate Americans’ darkest fears about the war: that it was a haphazard, amoral bloodletting in which the United States’ cruelty rivaled that of its enemies.

Indeed, while Lém was not the innocent victim he appeared to be, it was later concluded that his execution had been a war crime. It was far from the only one committed by American and South Vietnamese forces—just a few months later, on March 16, American troops killed somewhere between 347 and 504 civilians in what came to be known as the My Lai Massacre. “Saigon Execution,” as Adams titled his photo, became a symbol of all that was wrong with American involvement in the war and won the Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography for 1969. Four years later, another AP photographer would win the prize for a similar photo, “Terror of War,” which depicted terrified children fleeing after the South Vietnamese air force mistakenly attacked their village with napalm.

READ MORE: Vietnam War Timeline

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Mass graves discovered in Hue


Year
1968
Month Day
February 26

Allied troops who had recaptured the imperial capital of Hue from the North Vietnamese during the Tet Offensive discover the first mass graves in Hue.

It was discovered that communist troops who had held the city for 25 days had massacred about 2,800 civilians whom they had identified as sympathizers with the government in Saigon. One authority estimated that communists might have killed as many as 5,700 people in Hue.

The Tet Offensive had begun at dawn on the first day of the Tet holiday truce (January 30), when Viet Cong forces, supported by large numbers of North Vietnamese troops, launched the largest and best coordinated offensive of the war. During the attack, they drove into the center of South Vietnam’s seven largest cities and attacked 30 provincial capitals ranging from the Delta to the DMZ. 

Among the cities taken during the first four days of the offensive were Hue, Dalat, Kontum, and Quang Tri; in the north, all five provincial capitals were overrun. At the same time, enemy forces shelled numerous allied airfields and bases. By February 10, the offensive was largely crushed, but resulted in heavy casualties on both sides.

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Operation Ranch Hand initiated


Year
1962
Month Day
January 12

The United States Air Force launches Operation Ranch Hand, a “modern technological area-denial technique” designed to expose the roads and trails used by the Viet Cong.

Flying C-123 Providers, U.S. personnel dumped an estimated 19 million gallons of defoliating herbicides over 10-20 percent of Vietnam and parts of Laos between 1962-1971. Agent Orange–named for the color of its metal containers–was the most frequently used defoliating herbicide. The operation succeeded inn killing vegetation, but not in stopping the Viet Cong. The use of these agents was controversial, both during and after the war, because of the questions about long-term ecological impacts and the effect on humans who either handled or were sprayed by the chemicals.

Beginning in the late 1970s, Vietnam veterans began to cite the herbicides, especially Agent Orange, as the cause of health problems ranging from skin rashes to cancer to birth defects in their children. Similar problems, including an abnormally high incidence of miscarriages and congenital malformations, have been reported among the Vietnamese people who lived in the areas where the defoliating agents were used.

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National Liberation Front formed


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Year
1960
Month Day
December 20

North Vietnam announces the formation of the National Front for the Liberation of the South at a conference held “somewhere in the South.” This organization, more commonly known as the National Liberation Front (NLF), was designed to replicate the success of the Viet Minh, the umbrella nationalist organization that successfully liberated Vietnam from French colonial rule.

The NLF reached out to those parts of South Vietnamese society who were displeased with the government and policies of President Ngo Dinh Diem. One hundred delegates representing more than a dozen political parties and religious groups–both communists and non-communists–were in attendance at the conference. However, from the beginning, the NLF was dominated by the Lao Dong Party Central Committee (North Vietnamese Communist Party) and served as the North’s shadow government in South Vietnam. The Saigon regime dubbed the NLF the “Viet Cong,” a pejorative contraction of Viet Nam Cong San (Vietnamese Communists).

The NLF’s military arm was the People’s Liberation Armed Forces (PLAF). In February 1965, the PLAF attacked U.S. Army installations at Pleiku and Qui Nhon, which convinced President Lyndon B. Johnson to send the first U.S. ground troops to South Vietnam a month later. Ultimately, more than 500,000 U.S. troops were sent to Vietnam to fight the PLAF and the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN, or North Vietnamese Army).

The NLF reached the height of its power during the 1968 Tet Offensive, when the communists launched a massive coordinated attack against key urban centers throughout South Vietnam. Although the Viet Cong forces were soundly defeated during the course of the offensive, they achieved a great psychological victory because the attack prompted many long time supporters of the war to question the Johnson administration’s optimistic predictions.

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Pol Pot overthrown


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Year
1979
Month Day
January 07

On January 7, 1979, Vietnamese troops seize the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, toppling the brutal regime of Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge.

The Khmer Rouge, organized by Pol Pot in the Cambodian jungle in the 1960s, advocated a radical Communist revolution that would wipe out Western influences in Cambodia and set up a solely agrarian society. In 1970, aided by North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops, Khmer Rouge guerrillas began a large-scale insurgency against Cambodian government forces, soon gaining control of nearly a third of the country.

By 1973, secret U.S. bombings of Cambodian territory controlled by the Vietnamese Communists forced the Vietnamese out of the country, creating a power vacuum that was soon filled by Pol Pot’s rapidly growing Khmer Rouge movement. In April 1975, the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, overthrew the pro-U.S. regime, and established a new government, the Kampuchean People’s Republic.

As the new ruler of Cambodia, Pol Pot set about transforming the country into his vision of an agrarian utopia. The cities were evacuated, factories and schools were closed, and currency and private property was abolished. Anyone believed to be an intellectual, such as someone who spoke a foreign language, was immediately killed. Skilled workers were also killed, in addition to anyone caught in possession of eyeglasses, a wristwatch, or any other modern technology. In forced marches punctuated with atrocities from the Khmer Rouge, the millions who failed to escape Cambodia were herded onto rural collective farms.

Between 1975 and 1978, an estimated two million Cambodians died by execution, forced labor, and famine. In 1978, Vietnamese troops invaded Cambodia, capturing Phnom Penh in early 1979. A moderate Communist government was established, and Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge retreated back into the jungle.

In 1985, Pol Pot officially retired but remained the effective head of the Khmer Rouge, which continued its guerrilla actions against the government in Phnom Penh. In 1997, however, he was put on trial by the organization after an internal power struggle ousted him from his leadership position. Sentenced to life imprisonment by a “people’s tribunal,” which critics derided as a show trial, Pol Pot later declared in an interview, “My conscience is clear.” Much of the international community hoped that his captors would extradite him to stand trial for his crimes against humanity, but he died of apparently natural causes while under house arrest in 1998.

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Tet Offensive halted


Year
1968
Month Day
February 24

On February 24, 1968, the Tet Offensive ends as U.S. and South Vietnamese troops recapture the ancient capital of Hue from communist forces. Although scattered fighting continued across South Vietnam for another week, the battle for Hue was the last major engagement of the offensive, which saw communist attacks on all of South Vietnam’s major cities. In the aftermath of Tet, public opinion in the United States decisively turned against the Vietnam War.

As 1968 began–the third year of U.S. ground-troop fighting in Vietnam–U.S. military leadership was still confident that a favorable peace agreement would soon be forced on the North Vietnamese and their allies in South Vietnam, the Viet Cong. Despite growing calls at home for an immediate U.S. withdrawal, President Lyndon Johnson’s administration planned to keep the pressure on the communists through increased bombing and other attrition strategies. General William Westmoreland, commander of U.S. operations in Vietnam, claimed to see clearly “the light at the end of the tunnel,” and Johnson hoped that soon the shell-shocked communists would stumble out of the jungle to the bargaining table.

However, on January 30, 1968, the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese launched their massive Tet Offensive all across South Vietnam. It was the first day of Tet–Vietnam’s lunar new year and most important holiday–and many South Vietnamese soldiers, expecting an unofficial truce, had gone home. The Viet Cong were known for guerrilla tactics and had never launched an offensive on this scale; consequently, U.S. and South Vietnamese forces were caught completely by surprise.

In the first day of the offensive, tens of thousands of Viet Cong soldiers, supported by North Vietnamese forces, overran the five largest cities of South Vietnam, scores of smaller cities and towns, and a number of U.S. and South Vietnamese bases. The Viet Cong struck at Saigon–South Vietnam’s capital–and even attacked, and for several hours held, the U.S. embassy there. The action was caught by U.S. television news crews, which also recorded the brutal impromptu street execution of a Viet Cong rebel by a South Vietnamese military official.

As the U.S. and South Vietnamese fought to regain control of Saigon, the cities of Hue, Dalat, Kontum, and Quangtri fell to the communists. U.S. and South Vietnamese forces recaptured most of these cities within a few days, but Hue was fiercely contested by the communist soldiers occupying it. After 26 days of costly house-to-house fighting, the South Vietnamese flag was raised again above Hue on February 24, and the Tet Offensive came to an end. During the communist occupation of Hue, numerous South Vietnamese government officials and civilians were massacred, and many civilians died in U.S. bombing attacks that preceded the liberation of the city.

In many respects, the Tet Offensive was a military disaster for the communists: They suffered 10 times more casualties than their enemy and failed to control any of the areas captured in the opening days of the offensive. They had hoped that the offensive would ignite a popular uprising against South Vietnam’s government and the presence of U.S. troops. This did not occur. In addition, the Viet Cong, which had come out into the open for the first time in the war, were all but wiped out. However, because the Tet Offensive crushed U.S. hopes for an imminent end to the conflict, it dealt a fatal blow to the U.S. military mission in Vietnam.

In Tet’s aftermath, President Johnson came under fire on all sides for his Vietnam policy. General Westmoreland requested 200,000 more troops to overwhelm the communists, and a national uproar ensued after this request was disclosed, forcing Johnson to recall Westmoreland to Washington. On March 31, Johnson announced that the United States would begin de-escalation in Vietnam, halt the bombing of North Vietnam, and seek a peace agreement to end the conflict. In the same speech, he also announced that he would not seek reelection to the presidency, citing what he perceived to be his responsibility in creating the national division over Vietnam.

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Tet Offensive ends


Year
1968
Month Day
February 22

The American war effort in Vietnam was hit hard by the North Vietnamese Tet Offensive, which ended on February 22, 1968. Claims by President Lyndon Johnson that the offensive was a complete failure were misleading. Though the North Vietnamese death toll was 20 times that of its enemies, strongholds previously thought impenetrable had been shaken. The prospect of increasing American forces added substantial strength to the anti-war movement and led to Johnson’s announcement that he would not seek re-election.

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Pol Pot renames Cambodia


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Year
1976
Month Day
January 05

On January 5, 1976, Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot announces a new constitution changing the name of Cambodia to Kampuchea and legalizing its Communist government. During the next three years his brutal regime sent the nation back to the Middle Ages and was responsible for the deaths of an estimated 1 to 2 million Cambodians.

Pol Pot, who was born Saloth Sar in 1925 to a relatively well-off Cambodian family, became involved in the Communist movement as a young man studying in Paris. After he returned home to Cambodia, which gained its independence from France in 1954, he rose through the ranks of his homeland’s small, underground Communist Party. Influenced by China’s Mao Zedong, by the mid-1960s, Pol Pot, also known as Brother Number One, was heading up Cambodia’s Communist movement and living in a remote part of the country with a band of supporters.

Cambodia’s ruler, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, was overthrown in a pro-American coup in 1970 and the Khmer Rouge, with initial help from Vietnamese Communists, then waged a civil war against the new government of Lon Nol. At the same time, the U.S. launched a bombing campaign and sent in soldiers to Cambodia to hunt down North Vietnamese Communist troops operating there.

In April 1975, following five years of fighting, Pol Pot’s guerillas seized power in the Cambodian capitol of Phnom Pehn. Exhausted by years of conflict, many of the city’s 2 million residents initially welcomed the Khmer Rouge as liberators who would bring about a social revolution. Instead, Pol Pot’s inept attempt at building a peasant-based agrarian utopia became a nightmarish reign of terror and genocide. Cambodians were forced into the countryside to work in communes, anyone with education or wealth was killed and schools, newspapers, hospitals, culture, religion and private property were abolished. Tens of thousands of Cambodians died of starvation while countless others succumbed to disease and forced labor or were murdered.

In December 1978, following clashes over territory, Vietnam invaded Cambodia. Pol Pot fled to Thailand and spent almost two decades hiding out in jungle camps there and in northern Cambodia, protected by guerillas and the Thai military. In 1997, following an internal power struggle, Pol Pot was arrested by members of his own party on charges of treason. He died of natural causes on April 15, 1998, without ever having to face justice for his crimes.

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Vietnamese villagers killed by U.S. soldiers in My Lai Massacre

Year
1968
Month Day
March 16

On March 16, 1968, a platoon of American soldiers brutally kills as many as 500 unarmed civilians at My Lai, one of a cluster of small villages located near the northern coast of South Vietnam. The crime, which was kept secret for nearly two years, later became known as the My Lai Massacre

In March 1968, a platoon of soldiers from Charlie Company received word that Viet Cong guerrillas had taken cover in the Quang Ngai village of Son My. The platoon entered one of the village’s four hamlets, My Lai 4, on a search-and-destroy mission on the morning of March 16. Instead of guerrilla fighters, they found unarmed villagers, most of them women, children and old men.

READ MORE: How the Army’s Cover-Up Made the My Lai Massacre Even Worse

The soldiers had been advised before the attack by army command that all who were found in My Lai could be considered VC or active VC sympathizers, and were told to destroy the village. They acted with extraordinary brutality, raping and torturing villagers before killing them and dragging dozens of people, including young children and babies, into a ditch and executing them with automatic weapons. The massacre reportedly ended when an Army helicopter pilot, Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, landed his aircraft between the soldiers and the retreating villagers and threatened to open fire if they continued their attacks.

The events at My Lai were covered up by high-ranking army officers until investigative journalist Seymour Hersh broke the story. Soon, My Lai was front-page news and an international scandal.

READ MORE: How the Vietnam War Ratcheted Up Under 5 US Presidents

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Viet Cong attack U.S. Embassy


Year
1968
Month Day
January 31

On this day in 1968, as part of the Tet Offensive, a squad of Viet Cong guerillas attacks the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. The soldiers seized the embassy and held it for six hours until an assault force of U.S. paratroopers landed by helicopter on the building’s roof and routed the Viet Cong.

The Tet Offensive was planned as a massive, simultaneous attack on the major cities and provincial capitals of South Vietnam. It was scheduled to take place during Tet, the Vietnamese lunar New Year celebration, which was traditionally a time of decreased fighting. In December 1967, following an attack on the U.S. Marine base at Khe Sanh, 50,000 American troops were sent in to defend the area, thereby weakening U.S. positions elsewhere. This American response played into the Viet Cong’s strategy to clear the way for the surprise Tet Offensive, in which Communist forces attacked Saigon, Hue (the imperial capital) and over 100 other urban areas.

The timing and magnitude of the attacks caught the South Vietnamese and American forces off guard, although they quickly recovered and recaptured the occupied areas. Militarily, the Tet Offensive was a disaster for the Communists, who suffered devastating losses. However, while the offensive was a crushing military defeat, the Communists scored a huge psychological victory that would ultimately help them win the war. The graphic images of U.S. casualties suffered during the offensive helped stoke anti-war sentiment among the American people, who had grown tired of the long conflict (active U.S. combat troops had been in Vietnam since 1965; the U.S. first sent in military advisers in 1961). The public was disillusioned by earlier overly optimistic reports of progress in the war and disenchanted with President Lyndon Johnson’s handling of it.

Johnson, frustrated with his inability to reach a solution in Vietnam, announced on March 31, 1968, that he would neither seek nor accept the nomination of his party for re-election. General William Westmoreland, commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, requested an additional 206,000 troops to finish off the weakened enemy forces. Johnson denied Westmoreland’s request and replaced him with General Creighton Abrams. In May 1968, the U.S. and North Vietnamese began peace talks in Paris and reached a formal agreement in January 1973. Fighting between the North and South continued in Vietnam before the war finally ended on April 30, 1975, when Saigon fell to the Communists and the last Americans left Vietnam.

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