American flag rests against the Vietnam Wall in Washington DC

This year will mark the 49th anniversary of the withdrawal of the U.S. combat forces from Vietnam. In 1974, a year after the end of the war, President Richard Nixon declared 29 March the first Vietnam Veterans Day. The commemorative day was signed into law and declared a U.S. flag code day by President Donald Trump in 2017.

The controversial war spanned the terms of five U.S. presidents (from John F. Kennedy to Gerald Ford) over nearly two decades. More than 500,000 U.S. military personnel served, and 58,220 were killed during that time. On 5 February, 1973, services were held at Arlington National Cemetery for U.S. Army Col. William B. Nolde, the last official American combat casualty before the Vietnam cease-fire took effect the following month.

The sheer volume of military personnel serving overseas during that war is staggering. More than 8.7 million individuals served in the U.S. Armed Forces from 1964 to 1973. Of the 3.4 million troops deployed to Southeast Asia, 2.7 million served in Vietnam. Anyone who served on active duty in those years is considered a Vietnam veteran by the United States of America Vietnam War Commemoration, the group authorized by Congress to honor this distinct group of veterans.

Thousands of service personnel listen to Miss Ann-Margret sing one of her numbers during her show in Danang, Vietnam.
Ann-Margret performs to troops in Danang, Vietnam, 1966. Public Domain via National Archives.

What is now known as Armed Forces Entertainment shined brightly for the Vietnam troops, bringing music, comedy and celebrity visits to their frontline positions in combat zones. Then known as the Armed Forced Professional Entertainment Office (AFPEO), the group brought entertainment to bases around the world and managed USO Camp Shows. By the close of the Vietnam War, the AFPEO had sent thousands of performers, celebrities and dignitaries to entertain military, DoD and DSC personnel living overseas, providing welcome relief from the monotony and stress of the day-to-day activities of service.

A Short Timeline

Active U.S. involvement in the Vietnam war began in 1954, though ongoing conflict in the region had stretched back several decades. By 1962, the U.S. military presence in South Vietnam had reached some 9,000 troops, compared with fewer than 800 during the 1950s.

In March 1965, President Lynden Johnson, with support of the American public, sent U.S. combat forces into battle in Vietnam. By June of the same year, 82,000 combat troops were stationed in Vietnam, and military leaders were calling for 175,000 more by the end of 1965 to aid the struggling South Vietnamese army.

President Lyndon B. Johnson in Vietnam: Decorating a soldier
President Johnson decorates a soldier in Vietnam, 1966. Yoichi Okamato, Public Domain via National Archives.

At the end of July 1965, despite concerns about escalation and the war as a whole, Johnson authorized the immediate dispatch of 100,000 troops, then another 100,000 in 1966. By November 1967, nearly 500,000 U.S. troops were in Vietnam: 15,058 were killed and 109,527 wounded.

From 1965 to 1973, nearly 504,000 soldiers received dishonorable discharges for desertion, and about 500,000 more Americans dodged the draft by fleeing to Canada. President Richard Nixon ended draft calls in 1972, and instituted an all-volunteer army the following year.

In January 1973, the United States and North Vietnam concluded a final peace agreement, ending open hostilities between the two nations. The last U.S. troops returned home in March 1973, although the war between North and South Vietnam continued until South Vietnam surrendered to the North Vietnamese communist forces on April 30, 1975. On that day, the final few Americans remaining in South Vietnam were airlifted out to safety.

Many returning veterans faced negative reactions from opponents of the war as well as supporters who viewed it as a defeat. The veterans also faced life-changing physical injuries, lingering illness from the effects of exposure to the toxic deforestation herbicide Agent Orange, as well as psychological post-traumatic stress syndrome.

In 1982, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was unveiled in Washington, D.C., a dramatic wall inscribed with the names of American men and women killed or missing in the war.

Commemoration Activities for National Vietnam Veterans Day

Vietnam Memorial wreath ceremony, Sgt. James K McCann via DoD

Ceremonies and activities are planned at VA medical facilities across the country. Additional commemorative ceremonies will be held by the National Cemetery Administration, and a wreath laying ceremony will be held at The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

You can participate in the commemoration yourself, wherever you are:

  • Send a message of support on social media using #VietnamWarVeteransDay
  • Take time to thank a Vietnam veteran by visiting a VA hospital near you.
Image of movie posters for films "Vietnam War: A Film" by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick; "Last Days in Vietnam" directed by Rory Kennedy; and "Vietnam Nurses" by Timeline.
  • Immerse yourself in the history of the war by watching documentary films. Among them are The Vietnam War: A Film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick; Last Days in Vietnam directed by Rory Kennedy; and Vietnam Nurses by Timeline.
    
  • Read up on the subject in Vietnam – A History by Stanley Karnow; They Marched into Sunlight: War and Peace, Vietnam and America, October 1967 by David Maraniss and The Quiet American by Graham Green and Robert Stone.

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