How long was America’s longest war?

Posted by in Best Of, Questions

An old issue came up recently for me in conversation: a little while ago, USA Today published an article which called out Afghanistan as “America’s longest war.”  History buffs were quick to cry fowl; America’s longest war would clearly be the Vietnam War, they said!  Every high school student of history knows that (or so we thought).  However, how long was the Vietnam War, really?  Turns out there isn’t an easy answer.

[1] In the USA Today article, the author listed the length of the Vietnam War as 8 years, 7 months by counting only from the Gulf of Tonkin resolution on Aug 7, 1964 to the official withdrawal of ground combat troops in March 1973.

However, I disagree with this assessment of the start and end dates of the war. For example, even though the US withdrew the bulk of their combat troops following the Paris Peace Accords in January 1973, fighting continued, including some American casualties; the last American casualties on the ground occurred on April 29, 1945.  Even after the withdrawal of the bulk of American ground troops, the US continued to be heavily involved, spending billions of dollars supporting South Vietnam until Saigon finally fell on April 30, 1975.

So what are some other estimates for the length of the war?

[2] The Vietnam Service Medal is given for military service in the theater between the following dates: November 15, 1961 and April 30, 1975 which comes out to about 13 years, 6 months. This seems to me to be the best metric of the “official” length of the war, as this is the period of time that produced official Vietnam War veterans.

[3] For what it’s worth, the Wikipedia page “Length of US official participation in major wars” lists the Vietnam war as lasting for 14 years.

[5] The Vietnam War Memorial contains names from spanning from June 1956 until May 1975, a period of 18 years, 11 months. The first name was actually an American member of the MAAG training group in Vietnam who was murdered by another American; and the last names on the wall were actually executed by the Khmer Rouge.  The first American names on the wall put there directly by the Vietcong follow the first name by three years: July 8, 1959, when the Vietcong machine-gunned a group watching a movie in a mess hall. The first American battlefield casualty was another two years later, Dec 22, 1961.

[4] The Wikipedia page for the Vietnam War lists the entire war length as 1 November 1955 – 30 April 1975 (19 years, 6 months). These dates represent the date that president Eisenhower first deployed a Military Assistance Advisory Group to train South Vietnamese until the Fall of Saigon.

[5] However, it’s important to keep in mind that the French were fighting the First Indochina War in Vietnam from December 19, 1946 – August 1, 1954 (7 years, 7 months), with official US support starting in 1950, according to the Wiki page for that war. If you include US involvement in the First Indochina War, the US was involved in Vietnam for 25 years at least.

[6] However, if you measure US involvement by casualties in the region, the first American recorded as killed in action in Vietnam was on May 12, 1942, during WWII. At this time, we were actually fighting on the same side as the Vietcong, against the Japanese. The first American casualty after WWII was September 26, 1945, during unofficial US support for France in the First Indochina War (the American was mistaken for a French officer by Viet Minh guerrillas). These two deaths are usually included in WWII and the First Indochina War, respectively.  However, if you want to count the length of time that American servicemen were dying because of our involvement in Vietnam, that would put a total length of involvement at almost exactly 32 years.

Of course such a conversation is very Amero-centric; it’s important to not lose sight of the fact that the greatest burdens of this war were born by other nations and peoples.  Even after the US declared the war “over” and pulled out the last American, the NVA slaughtered 200,000 more South Vietnamese and sent up to an additional 2.5 million to concentration camps.  And while the US suffered “only” 58,220 dead, the total dead in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia during the decades of war probably exceeded 4,000,000.

–Interesting fact to leave you with: During Ho Chi Min’s speech establishing his new country of Vietnam, he started his remarks by paraphrasing the Declaration of Independence: “all men are created equal”.  At that time, the US was not yet involved in Vietnam; however, these words became ironic in the following years of communist Vietnam’s own Revolutionary War.  They serve as a reminder, especially to American students of history, of the importance of keeping an independent perspective on all historic events.