The Southeast Asia War: Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia

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A product of the Cold War, the Southeast Asia War (1961-1973) began with communist attempts to overthrow non-communist governments in the region. United States participation in the Southeast Asia War resulted from the policy of "containment," which aimed to prevent communism from expanding beyond its early Cold War borders. The containment strategy seldom led to major combat, but as with the Korean War (1950-1953), the US committed large military forces to protect an allied, non-communist government.

The main U.S. goal in the Southeast Asia War was to protect South Vietnam -- initially from a local communist insurgency and later from conquest by communist North Vietnam. The U.S. also hoped to prevent the spread of communism to other nearby countries. Although popularly known as the Vietnam War, U.S. efforts included military action not only in South and North Vietnam, but also in neighboring Southeast Asian countries.

For many years in the early 20th century, the people of Southeast Asia struggled for independence from France. The U.S. gave France military assistance in fighting insurgents.

After the French defeat in 1954, Indochina was divided into North Vietnam, South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. A demilitarized zone formed the border between North and South Vietnam. North Vietnam, under Ho Chi Minh, became a communist nation. Concurrently, the U.S. sponsored the creation of the eight-nation Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) to protect Cambodia, Laos and South Vietnam from the spread of communism.

North Vietnam soon declared its intention to reunite with South Vietnam -- by military means if necessary. In 1959 it began supplying a terrorist campaign in South Vietnam carried out by southern Vietnamese communist Viet Cong guerillas. Later, North Vietnam also began supporting communist guerillas in Laos.

What started as a small U.S. program to train the South Vietnamese army in 1961 grew into a massive military effort. U.S. combat operations began in South Vietnam, and eventually spread to North Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. The increasing U.S. commitment aimed to combat local communist insurgents, North Vietnamese troops, and the flow of supplies supporting them.

Click on the following links to learn more about the Southeast Asia War.

Tonkin Gulf Resolution: Authority for War

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