The Vietnam War was fought over the two competing social and political ideals of the Cold War: communism and capitalism. But it also caused great divisions in American society back home.

France had controlled much of Southeast Asia since the late 19th century, but they struggled to maintain that control after World War II. Wanting independence, communist-leaning nationalist groups in Vietnam began fighting the French, finally defeating them in 1954. The peace agreement divided the country, with the nationalists establishing a Communist government in the north, and the election of a president in the South. Eager to stop the spread of communism in the region, the United States sent military advisers and money to South Vietnam. At the same time, northern Communists decided to use armed force to overthrow the South’s government.

People in North and South Vietnam and their allies began to fight over how their country should be ruled – by a communist regime like those in the Soviet Union and China, or by a government similar to the United States. The United States committed to supporting South Vietnam because its leaders were concerned that if the North won, other countries in the region would also become communist. They based this fear on a Cold War concept called the "Domino Theory."

"The domino theory… was the primary factor motivating the actions of both the Kennedy and the Johnson administrations, without any qualification. It was put forward by President Eisenhower in 1954, very succinctly: If the West loses control of Vietnam, the security of the West will be in danger; 'the dominoes will fall' in Eisenhower’s words… The loss of Vietnam would trigger the loss of Southeast Asia, and conceivably even the loss of India, and would strengthen the Chinese and the Soviet position across the world, weakening the security of Western Europe and weakening the security of North America."

Robert McNamara, Former U.S. Secretary of Defense, 1996

But the U.S.’s military advisors and financial aid were not enough to stop the Communists. On March 8, 1965, the first American combat troops arrived in Vietnam to join the fight on the ground, in the water, and in the air. The North’s Viet Cong fighters proved difficult to beat, however, and both combat and civilian deaths kept increasing.

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