"AS A NATION THERE IS PLENTY we might learn from Viet Nam," wrote TIME's editor-in-chief Hedley Donovan in 1971 as the war raged on after ten years of fighting and tens of thousands of American soldiers killed. It is important for Americans today to understand the fear of communism that provoked America's initial involvement in Southeast Asia and to be aware of the political decisions and deceptions that shaped the relentless war in Vietnam. Use the TIME Archive to catch up on your history and to ask which lessons learned from the Vietnam War apply today in Iraq.
You had a row of dominoes set up, said Ike [Eisenhower], and you knocked over the first one, and what would happen to the last one was the certainty that it would go over very quickly.... So, said the President, the possible consequences of the loss [of Indo-China] were just incalculable to the free world.
From New Heart for an Old War
Apr. 19, 1954
In the midst of his speech on the Berlin crisis, President John F. Kennedy took time to remind his listeners that the West faced an equally dangerous Communist challenge 5,000 miles away on the other side of the world—in Southeast Asia.
From The Firing Line
Aug. 4, 1961
The U.S. now has 3,600 men in South Viet Nam, piloting planes, tending war dogs used for combat patrols, training Diem's 170,000-man army in anti-guerrilla tactics. Ships of the U.S. Seventh Fleet patrol the South China Sea to prevent Red infiltration by junk and sampan.
From What the People Say
Feb. 9, 1962
It is often impossible to tell who is winning, but there is no end in sight to a decade of fighting. Back to Saigon this week, for the second time in three months, goes U.S. Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara.
From South Viet Nam
Dec. 20, 1963
Such is the war in Viet Nam—a dirty, ruthless, wandering war, which has neither visible front lines nor visible end and in which the U.S. over the past three years has become increasingly involved. Last week the involvement was carried a step further with the revelation that President Lyndon Johnson has ordered thousands of additional American troops into the struggle.
From Toward the Showdown?
Aug. 7, 1964
Johnson also asked the legislators to move swiftly for a resolution expressing congressional approval and support of 'the determination of the President, as Commander in Chief, to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the U.S. and to prevent further aggression.'
From Action in Tonkin Gulf
Aug. 14, 1964
President Johnson decided to make another major increase in American troop levels in the war zone.... And, as another, less-noticed measure of the nation's wider and deeper involvement in Viet Nam's war, the four-year toll of American lives lost in combat passed the 1,000 mark.
From Deeper & Wider
Nov. 19, 1965
By year's end, it was clear that the U.S. had irrevocably committed itself to the nation's third major war in a quarter-century, a conflict involving more than 1,000,000 men and the destiny of Southeast Asia.
From The Guardians at the Gate
Jan. 7, 1966
More than a year after U.S. commanders in the field first urged bombing raids on the North's vital industrial targets, the U.S. last week finally attacked the hitherto-sacrosanct Hanoi-Haiphong complex.
From Ripping the Sanctuary
Jul. 8, 1966
To Americans, who are often troubled by a feeling that 'our Vietnamese don't fight as hard as their Vietnamese,' the Viet Cong's motivations and methods have long had an aura of mystery and mystique.
From The Organization Man
Aug. 25, 1967
The split between antiwar and anti-American factions nearly put last week's Pentagon march out of step before it began....For all the sound and fury, the antiwar spectaculars were a remarkable— if little noted—tribute to the vitality and viability of American society.
From The Banners of Dissent
Oct. 27, 1967
Allied intelligence had predicted that there would be some attempted city attacks during Tet, but the size, the scale and, above all, the careful planning and coordination of the actual assaults took the U.S. and South Vietnamese military by surprise.
From The General's Gamble
Feb. 9, 1968
In a televised address to the nation that may rate as the high point of his career, the President [Johnson] announced: 'I have now ordered that all air, naval and artillery bombardment of North Viet Nam cease.'
From The Bombing Halt
Nov. 8, 1968
Already the longest war ever fought by the U.S., Viet Nam now ranks as its fifth costliest....With the killed-in-action rate running at roughly 200 per week, Viet Nam should move past Korea into fourth place some time this spring—unless the negotiators in Paris make dramatic progress.
From Over the 30,000 Mark
Dec. 20, 1968
Still, declared Nixon: 'The other side doesn't seem to realize it, but I'm in here for another three years and three months. I'm not going to be the first American President who loses a war.'
From Blaming the Critics
Oct. 10, 1969
A lot of war-weary Americans have reached the point where they are no longer troubled by the prospect of a neutralist regime in Saigon dominated by the Communists or even an all-Communist Viet Nam.
From What Withdrawal Would Really Mean
Oct. 24, 1969
Men in American uniforms slaughtered the civilians of My Lai, and in so doing humiliated the U.S. and called in question the U.S. mission in Viet Nam in a way that all the antiwar protesters could never have done.
From My Lai: An American Tragedy
Dec. 5, 1969
Military men have often said that they were asked to fight the Viet Nam War with one hand tied behind their back. If the goal had been clearly defined as less than a knockout, leaving the ring now would assuredly be easier.
From The Army and Viet Nam: The Stab-in-the-Back Complex
Dec. 12, 1969
Nixon and his aides carefully argued that this was not an invasion of Cambodia.... The President insisted that the U.S. move was merely a tactical extension of the Viet Nam conflict.
From Raising the Stakes in Indochina
May. 11, 1970
In Saigon last week, the Army admitted that some of its units have been using Agent Orange despite the suspension. The man who dug up the evidence—and then passed it on to TIME—was Ronald Ridenhour, the former Army Ranger whose letters to Congress started the investigation into the My Lai massacre.
From The Agent Orange Affair
Nov. 2, 1970
I would say now, though I did not see it then, that we went on in 1966 and 1967 to expand the U.S. effort far out of proportion to our original purposes, and that this enlarged commitment then began to take on a life of its own and even to work against our original purposes. It took me the better part of those two years to begin to see that. I wish I had been wiser sooner.
From Coming to Terms With Viet Nam
By Hedley Donovan, Editor-in-Chief
Jun. 14, 1971
The most massive leak of secret documents in U.S. history had suddenly exposed the sensitive inner processes whereby the Johnson Administration had abruptly escalated the nation's most unpopular—and unsuccessful—war.
From Pentagon Papers: The Secret War
Jun. 28, 1971
In pursuit of peace in Viet Nam, Nixon disclosed, Kissinger had made twelve furtive trips to Paris to meet with representatives of North Viet Nam over the past 30 months. In baring the clandestine diplomacy, Nixon admitted the failure to settle anything.
From The Pursuit of Peace and Power
Feb. 7, 1972
In October, Kissinger euphorically reported to the world that 'peace is at hand' in Viet Nam. Then, as it has so many times before in America's longest and strangest war, the peace proved once again elusive. As the Paris negotiations dissolved in a fog of linguistic ambiguities and recriminations, Richard Nixon suddenly sent the bombers north again.
From Nixon and Kissinger: Triumph and Trial
Jan. 1, 1973
With unmistakable pride, President Nixon appeared on TV to claim that he had finally won all the terms needed to achieve what he had sought for four years: 'Peace with honor.'... The ultimate vagueness of the settlement is that it enables the contesting parties to read it as they see fit.
From Paris Peace in Nine Chapters
Feb. 5, 1973
The peace that President Nixon boasted about is one year old this week. In South Viet Nam, however, no special observance of the anniversary is planned. Instead, fighting will probably continue as it has every day since the signing of the cease-fire agreement....The Vietnamese fatalities since the cease-fire exceed the total number of Americans killed in the course of the war (45,941).
From A Hollow First Anniversary
Feb. 4, 1974
Hue . . . Khe Sanh . . . Once these places were proclaimed essential to the survival of South Viet Nam and, in the view of successive U.S. Administrations, to the ultimate security of America. Now, in a stunning and unexpected move, the South Vietnamese were pulling out.
From South Viet Nam: The Final Reckoning
Mar. 31, 1975
It is now almost universally conceded that the American intervention in Viet Nam was a mistake—a mistake that involved four Presidents, many of the nation's top statesmen. Once they had followed the French into the wrong war for the wrong reasons, they failed to heed the evidence that—short of the notorious suggestion to bomb the country back into the Stone Age—the Viet Nam War could never be 'won' in the traditional sense.
From TIME Essay: How Should Americans Feel?
Apr. 14, 1975
The U.S. presence in Viet Nam can be said to have ended last Wednesday morning at 7:52 local time when a helicopter pilot radioed the final official message from Saigon.
From Last Chopper Out of Saigon
May. 12, 1975
Did the Vietnam War, tragedy though it was, provide the time and security from the communist threat for Asia to develop its present independence and booming free-market prosperity?
From Lessons From The Lost War
Apr. 24, 1995
Vietnam has come to define the way we ought not to fight our wars. The main lesson is to take no American casualties, to fight only if victory is assured. But Bob Kerrey's story reminds us that there is another lesson, one far harder to follow.
From The Fog Of War
May. 07, 2001
For more about the Vietnam War see the TIME Archive W.C. Westmoreland Collection