30 Powerful Photos from the Vietnam War Era
The Vietnam War marked a turning point in United States history. For the first time, images and stories of a war being fought on the other side of the world became accessible to the public nearly instantly. As the conflict in Southeast Asia escalated, tensions within the US followed suit. The hippie, pacifist, and civil rights movements all intersected. They were united by their common disdain for war and disillusionment with their country’s leaders. At the same time, troops fought for their lives on unfamiliar terrain, largely isolated in a foreign land.
Downtime on base
Members of the 11th Armored Cavalry were based out of the Blackhorse Base Camp (code name: Atlanta) and conducted several highly dangerous operations in North Vietnam. Here, a pair of soldiers strum their guitars at a rubber plantation in Loc Ninh and Quan Loi on Oct. 17, 1969.
Back in the States, the anti-war movement was reaching its zenith. The Vietnam War Moratorium Committee had just organized a national work stoppage and massive demonstrations on Oct. 15. Millions of people from all walks of life took to the streets all over the United States of America to call for an immediate stop to the war.
The ‘yippie movement’
Below, a group of “yippies” gather on the steps of New York Public Library during the Vietnam War Moratorium demonstrations on Oct. 15, 1969. Members of the Youth International Movement, or “yippies” as they called themselves, were anti-authoritarian, anti-war, proponents of free speech. They quickly gained infamy among both the political right and the old guard of liberal activists.
Founded by Anita and Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Nancy Kurshan, and Paul Krassner, the movement sought to radicalize the hippies who were disillusioned with both the ongoing war and the system of government.
Rubin and Abbie Hoffman had been arrested along with Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale. Activists David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, John Froines, and Lee Weiner were also arrested in 1968 for allegedly attempting to incite a riot during protests at the Democratic National Convention.
Primetime address to South Vietnam
Here, a group of soldiers gathered around a portable radio, drinking coffee and listening to the president’s Nov. 3, 1969 speech. The speech was the second of 14 to address both South Vietnam and people in the United States. It made an appeal for support from the “silent majority” — American people who did not join in the counterculture and anti-war demonstrations.
To South Vietnamese people, the president stated that they would have the continued backing of the US military. As a result, the US presence would gradually diminish as more South Vietnamese troops were trained to fight for themselves.
“The defense of freedom is everybody’s business not just America’s business,” the president said.
For each year of American involvement in the Vietnam War, there was a ceasefire declared on Dec. 25. There were frequent reports of violations from each side every year, but for the most part, things were quiet. While there were plenty of reasons to despair, troops did their best to lift their spirits on Christmas Day.
Above, we see troops of the 25th Infantry Division singing hymns and taking part in Christmas ceremonies at Củ Chi Base, northwest of Saigon and just south of the infamous Vietcong stronghold, dubbed the Iron Triangle. Parts of the camp actually sat on top of the Củ Chi tunnels — a large network of tunnels that the enemy used to mount attacks and transport supplies.
Bob Hope’s Christmas tours: Part 1
Each year, comedian and singer Bob Hope would give United Service Organization (USO) tours where he and a cast of entertainers would perform for the troops around Christmas time. Hope had some difficulty finding other entertainers to join him during the peak of the anti-war movement, but he was committed to lifting the spirits of the troops through the performances.
“Believe me when I say that laughter up at the front lines is a very precious thing — precious to those grand guys who are giving and taking the awful business that goes on there,” Hope said.
Here, some troops join actress and singer Ann-Margaret onstage for some singing and dancing on Dec. 27, 1968. The iconic starlet said that she was stunned by the reaction to her performances and the warm welcome she received from the soldiers.
Bob Hope’s Christmas tours: Part 2
Below, Bob Hope and actress Raquel Welch, one of Hollywood’s biggest stars at the time, entertain the troops on an outdoor stage somewhere in Vietnam on Dec. 1, 1967. Welch was well-known for her titillating role as “Loana the Fair One” in the 1967 film One Million Years, B.C. The film’s iconic poster, which featured a bikini-clad Welch, was ubiquitous at the time.
Other notable performers included James Brown, Redd Foxx, Connie Stevens, and Lola Falana.
For the few thousand troops that were lucky enough to catch one or more of these Christmas shows, the experience reminded them of home and helped to take their mind off combat, at least for a moment.
Christmas in POW camps
In stark contrast to the jubilant scene shown above, U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander Richard Allen Stratton spent Christmas Day in 1965 tending to a garden in a POW camp somewhere in North Vietnam.
Stratton was forced to eject after he fired a rocket that malfunctioned and struck down his own aircraft behind enemy lines. He was quickly captured and brought to an unknown location.
Stratton was photographed for Life magazine for the article “North Vietnam Under Siege.” The highly circulated image showed him bowing deeply in prison garb — evidence, many said — that the Vietcong were employing sophisticated brainwashing tactics on American prisoners. In truth, Stratton’s acquiescence was the result of torture. He hoped the story would publicize the mistreatment of POWs in North Vietnam.
The Lieutenant was eventually released after spending over six years imprisoned, earning several medals for his leadership and bravery.
The Buffalo Nine
On Aug. 19, 1968, nine protesters were arrested after police raided the Unitarian Universalist Church in Buffalo, New York. The group — who came to be known as the Buffalo Nine — were charged with draft evasion and assaulting an officer. The trial gained national attention as the University of Buffalo erupted into a series of demonstrations and protests.
In the picture above, a young man holds a sign in support of the Youth Against War and Fascism (YAWF) organization, in which Buffalo Nine member Jerry Gross was Chairman. The military police on the right are carrying blackjacks, weapons that had been used by police to beat resisters when they stormed the church.
Three of the nine were eventually convicted and sentenced to three years in prison. Protests exploded into violence when the verdicts were given.
As the war dragged on, it became increasingly unpopular. Demonstrators participated in a number of tactics to show their disapproval for the ongoing fighting, such as staged walkouts, campus protests, and the burning of draft cards. On May 1, 1971 (May Day), protesters engaged in acts of civil disobedience across Washington D.C.
Here, a couple of demonstrators are arrested for their actions. Though clearly not happy to be heading to jail, the look on their faces is not one of regret. A young woman flashes the peace sign while being corralled against a bus that will transport them to booking.
Gallantry takes many forms
Army Specialist 6 Lawrence Joel became the first medical corpsman to receive the Medal of Honor in the Vietnam War on March 9, 1967. He earned it by bravely attending to other troops that were injured under heavy machine gunfire, despite being wounded himself. Below, his wife admires the medal just after the ceremony.
Joel was shot in the leg but didn’t let that stop him. He quickly treated his own wound and continued to aid others, shouting words of encouragement to his fellow injured soldiers as he moved from one man to another, treating the wounded. It was well over 24 hours before the battle finally ended and he and the rest of the troops could be safely evacuated.
Suspected Vietcong prisoners
Operation Cedar Falls was the largest ground operation of the war. The objective was to destroy the Iron Triangle, the notorious Vietcong stronghold northwest of Saigon. Many North Vietnamese troops fled the onslaught or hid within the complex system of underground tunnels. “Tunnel rats” had the unenviable job to try to infiltrate these tunnels.
Though Operation Cedar Falls marked a victory for the South Vietnamese and their allies, it ultimately did not succeed in permanently crippling the stronghold. In a matter of days, the Vietcong returned in droves.
Above, suspected North Vietnamese soldiers are imprisoned behind barbed wire in a partially destroyed building in Saigon shortly after the campaign. The paper pinned to their clothes is to mark them for later interrogation.
Patrol boats on the Saigon River
When civilians picture the fighting in Vietnam, they often have the image of thick trees and tunnels, but that’s only part of the story.
Monitor Swift boats, like the one manned by the gunner photographed below, were frequently involved in firefights along the Saigon river. Usually, the combat escalated during efforts to disrupt the transportation of North Vietnamese weapons.
Boats also brought infantry and equipment to and from combat, providing much of the transportation into the deepest reaches of the Project DELTA, which involved tactical operations far beyond enemy lines.
Swift boats were retired by the US Navy after the war.
Yoko and John
Yoko Ono and John Lennon were vocal members of the anti-war movement. Yoko’s sign reads “War is Over! (If you want it),” which was a campaign launched by the pair in 1969 for an eponymous benefit concert in London for UNICEF.
Lennon holds a “bag of laughter” — inside is a voice recorder that plays laughter. They are attending the Vietnam War peace conference in Montreal. Later that year, the pair would hold their famous “Bed-In for Peace,” where they invited people to witness them clad in pajamas, surrounded by flowers and messages of peace. Activists and artists Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, and Dick Gregory were in attendance at the Amsterdam hotel room.
North Vietnamese propaganda
Graffiti and leaflets denouncing American involvement in the war were a fairly common sight in North Vietnam. Due to the scarcity of materials available to the Vietcong, propaganda was often printed on whatever they could get their hands on.
The National Liberation Front frequently distributed depictions of Vietcong victories and communist iconography. Above, members of the 1st Cavalry Division relax in front of propaganda scrawled on a destroyed building on March 13, 1968. The village was a former Vietcong supply base.
Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden
Actress and sex symbol Jane Fonda became increasingly active in the anti-war and anti-racist movement during the late 1960s and early 1970s, showing support for the Black Panther Party and Native American cultural causes. She also formed the “Free the Army” campaign, a direct response to Bob Hope’s USO tours. While Hope’s tours sought to entertain the troops, Fonda attempted to convert them to pacifism.
In this picture, she sits with her fiance at the time, Tom Hayden, a prominent anti-war activist and future California State Senator. This was after the pair met with North Vietnamese negotiators in Paris, France. When a reporter asked about their wedding plans, Hayden and Fonda got up and left abruptly.
‘Hanoi Jane’ controversy
Fonda drew intense criticism from many Americans after she was photographed meeting with North Vietnamese troops at a POW camp. Some even called for “Hanoi Jane” to be prosecuted for treason. It was later revealed that Fonda had been a target of United States’ surveillance efforts between 1967 and 1973.
For her part, Fonda complained that the highly circulated photo of her smiling while sitting near a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun had been taken out of context. She had also met with American POWs that she said showed support for the anti-war movement back in the United States.
Since she was barred from visiting US troops, Fonda spoke on Vietnamese radio to beseech American troops to resist their commands and cease the bombings.
Life in the tents: Part 1
Troops stationed closer to the action had to go without many of the amenities afforded to troops further south. Here, a soldier must make use of a makeshift bathroom mirror and a helmet doubling as a water basin to shave.
While soldiers on the front line and support soldiers fought on the same side, their daily lives were often in stark contrast to one another. Soldiers entrenched in combat sometimes went months without bathing and fumed when they witnessed the relative comfort and safety their compatriots in the rear bases enjoyed. Several troops wrote the president complaining of the disparity in the distribution of amenities between bases.
Life in the tents: Part 2
Below, soldiers of the 1st Air Cavalry Division get more use out of a helmet-turned-bucket during a lull in the fighting outside the Phu My Province in South Vietnam on Dec. 7, 1966. The division participated in The Battle of Ia Drang, which was the first major battle Americans engaged in at the start of their involvement.
Both sides were able to claim victory at the internecine Battle of Ia Drang, as it was fought at two separate helicopter landing zones and each side suffered heavy casualties. The battle would become the subject of the best-selling book We Were Soldiers Once… And Young, which was later made into the 2002 film We Were Soldiers.
Relaxation and Celebration
Below, a group of Marines set to depart Vietnam celebrate by posing next to a life-sized doll dressed in Marine clothing in Quảng Trị, the northernmost province of South Vietnam in 1968.
Quảng Trị was the backdrop of two major battles.
The first battle lasted a week in late January to early February 1968, when Vietcong forces attacked several major cities in South Vietnam. It was one of the major victories for the allied forces during the Tet Offensive.
The second battle occurred in 1972 after the gradual withdrawal of US troops had begun. It lasted 81 days, claiming thousands of North and South Vietnamese lives.
War expands into Cambodia
In 1970, US forces performed several secret operations in East Cambodia aimed at neutralizing communist Vietnamese forces that had set up bases in the area. When the sitting Cambodian government was overthrown by the US-backed Khmer Republic, the US pounced at the opportunity to stamp out the hostile threat to the South Vietnamese army.
The incursion invigorated anti-war protests in the United States, as many saw this as further expansion of an unpopular war that seemed to have no end in sight. US Government representatives were also kept largely in the dark in regards to the invasion, and several members of the National Security Council resigned in protest. The congressional response was to swiftly rescind the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which had enabled the president to approve military expeditions in Vietnam without declaring war.
Fighting a war in Southeast Asia presented many difficult problems for foreign armies to grapple with. The unfamiliar terrain often put American troops at a disadvantage, a weakness which the North Vietnamese proficiently exploited.
Employing guerrilla tactics, the Vietcong transported supplies through a complex network of underground tunnels to move supplies and stage attacks. The subterranean network was hidden from aerial view, which made it difficult to pinpoint the Vietcong’s position.
Above, a group of soldiers discovers one such tunnel and checks it for the enemy. Exploring the tunnels must have been terrifying for the “tunnel rats,” who would search and clear them.
A soldier of Co. 2/502 101st Airborne Division does his best goat impression for the camera. This picture was taken on Nov. 10, 1967, shortly after he and his companions took part in Operation Wheeler — a series of search and destroy missions aimed at weakening the People’s Army of Vietnam’s 2nd Division. This soldier remains in good spirits after being relieved from the dangerous operation a month prior.
The operation succeeded in crippling the effectiveness of the 2nd Division, but ultimately the success was temporary — thousands of reinforcements arrived in 1969, when both the Quảng Nam and Quảng Tín provinces remained largely hostile.
The ‘USS Constellation’
On the USS Constellation, work was nearly constant. Below, the crew gets a much needed day of rest and recreation after numerous seven day work weeks have taken their toll. There was no airstrike scheduled until the following morning and no supply shipments inbound, so they were given the day off.
The crew spent this Sunday in 1966 on the Gulf of Tonkin in cutoffs and swim shorts. They were playing catch with footballs and softballs, eating fried food, and throwing talent shows. The Constellation, or “Connie” as she was nicknamed, was there at the start of the Vietnam War, deployed the first day of the Gulf of Tonkin Incident on Aug. 2, 1964.
As people took to the streets to protest the war, many who supported the conflict were willing to meet them. Cuban immigrants, many of whom were vehemently anti-communist, express their disdain for the anti-war movement in the photograph below, which was taken in August of 1967, near the zenith of US involvement in Vietnam.
Los Angeles became the home of many Cuban refugees during the 1960s. Many were vocal about their concern about the spread of communism, which they had fled Cuba to escape.
The city in the ’60s was frequently tense — several violent riots and police confrontations occurred, often springing from racial tension and protests.
Operations on the delta
Below, members of the 9th Division try to stay comfortable in a leech-infested rice paddy field in Tan An Delta, Vietnam. Rice paddy fields were frequent sites of ambush by the Vietcong, who used the terrain for camouflage when surprising US troops.
The 9th Division operated along the Mekong Delta, frequently behind enemy lines in numerous major battles and thousands of smaller conflicts.
The 9th Division’s tactics became the basis for many counter-guerrilla measures the US military uses today.
One notable member of the 9th Infantry Division is former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. In the popular fictional film Forest Gump, Tom Hanks’ iconic character is a member of the 9th Division (4th Platoon, Company A, 2nd Battalion, 47th Infantry).
Operation Homecoming finally realized the release of 561 American Prisoners of War held in North Vietnam. The operation began in 1973 after the signing of the Paris Peace Accords. The treaty, formally called the Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Viet Nam, called for the withdrawal of American troops in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, a cease to the fighting, and the return of all American POWs.
Here, POWs salute USAF Col. A.J. Lynn at Gia Lam Airport in Hanoi, North Vietnam on Feb. 12, 1973. They’re undoubtedly relieved and overjoyed to be out of the prison camps and on their way home.
The US withdraws
US military involvement in Vietnam officially ended on Aug. 15, 1973, even though all US military personnel had withdrawn as of March that year. After the president had threatened that Vietcong hostility during the ceasefire would prompt the US to reenter the war, Congress voted to pass the Case-Church Amendment. This forbade the president from authorizing intervention in the region without congressional approval.
Above, an unidentified American Air Force Sergeant (left) shakes hands with Lieutenant Colonel Bui Tin, a representative of the North Vietnamese delegation. This happens as the last American troops depart the region.
Though the fighting was over for the United States, the ceasefire between the North and South Vietnamese was broken shortly after the treaty was signed. The war continued until Saigon fell to Vietcong forces in 1975.
Just before the fall of Saigon, as the city was being shelled by the North Vietnamese, many babies — mostly orphans — were evacuated out of the country by airplane.
The first official flight of the operation ended in a terrible tragedy. While leaving Tan Son Nhut Airport, the plane malfunctioned, resulting in a crash that killed around half the passengers and crew. 78 children died in the crash.
Thankfully, all of the other flights (approximately 40 in total) were successful. The operation lasted nearly a month before conditions became too dangerous to allow flights to leave the airport. Many of the evacuated orphans were brought to the United States where they were adopted.
A non-profit organization, Operation Reunite, currently provides DNA testing to reunite adoptees with their families in Vietnam.
The fighting in Vietnam displaced thousands of civilians. Below, a group of children is posing for the camera while adjusting to life in a refugee camp. They had been forced to flee the conflict in their home city in April of 1967.
When Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese in 1975 (US troops withdrew from Vietnam in 1973), it marked the beginning of one of the largest refugees crises in history. Hundreds of thousands fled the country, mostly by boat, in search of safety. A large amount of the refugees were former South Vietnamese officials and fighters, who feared retribution from the forces they had fought against. Many were relocated to the United States — around 50,000 were brought to military bases like Camp Pendleton in California.
Vietnamese ‘boat people’
The boat voyage out of Vietnam was extremely dangerous. An estimated 800,000 refugees attempted the trek between 1975 and 1995, but a large number didn’t survive the journey. The refugees risked drowning and violence from pirates scouring the region for the overcrowded boats.
Above, a smiling, young Vietnamese refugee raises his hand in celebration after his vessel is rescued in the middle of the night on Sept. 20, 1978. He and his friends are soaking, cold, and exhausted — overjoyed to be alive.
September of 1978 marked the beginning of the mass exodus from Vietnam. Around 1,200 people were unloaded from the Southern Cross on Indonesian shores before being relocated to western countries. Because many countries in the region refused the refugees from entry, many people began fleeing in small fishing boats to avoid detection.