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Casualties of the Vietnam War: Causes & Statistics

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  • 0:04 Conflict in Southeast Asia
  • 0:50 First Indochina War
  • 2:07 The Vietnam War
  • 3:00 Aftermath of the Vietnam War
  • 5:42 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Christina Boggs

Chrissy has taught secondary English and history and writes online curriculum. She has an M.S.Ed. in Social Studies Education.

While many people are familiar with the key events of the Vietnam War, few truly understand the colossal impact that the war had on both the United States and Vietnam. This lesson explores casualty statistics and causes.

Conflict in Southeast Asia

You're likely familiar with key events and outcomes of the Vietnam War, but how much do you know about the events leading up to the devastating conflict? To start, for over half a century, Vietnam wasn't its own sovereign country. During the 1800s, many European countries made land and power grabs around the world. Countries like Great Britain, Germany, and France carved out colonies and territories in Africa and Asia. One of France's most prized protectorates was French Indochina, an area made up of Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. France controlled the region from the 1880s until World War II, when Japan occupied French Indochina and the French collaborated with their rule. Vietnamese opposition to this was led by a communist revolutionary named Ho Chi Minh.

First Indochina War

Japan occupied the region until its surrender in August 1945. That September, Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam's independence, but the French quickly returned to regain control. In 1946, Ho Chi Minh and his communist forces began a guerrilla war that lasted nearly eight years.

Fearful of losing French Indochina, France poured troops and resources into the area, but to no avail. On July 21, 1954, Vietnam was divided along the 17th parallel, effectively creating two states: a communist North Vietnam and a U.S.-backed South Vietnam. This initial conflict, the First Indochina War, proved not only destructive but laid the groundwork for the Vietnam War that began in the 1960s.

Estimated casualties during the First Indochina War are nebulous at best. French estimates dating back to 1955 differ from modern estimates. Anywhere from 92,000 to over 110,000 French troops were lost during the First Indochina War. This includes not only French citizens, but also French troops pulled from Africa, as well as native Vietnamese who fought alongside the French. Meanwhile, anywhere from 300,000 to 500,000 Vietnamese lost their lives over the course of the war.

The Vietnam War

Following the First Indochina War, the United States assumed a significant presence in the region. As the main supporter of the South Vietnamese government, the U.S. had a vested interest in the success of a democratic country in Southeast Asia. Through the late 1950s and into the 1960s, pro-communist sentiments in South Vietnam continued to grow, leading to an influx of American troops.

The Vietnam War was fought from 1964 to 1975. During that time, nearly three million Americans served in Vietnam. Of that number, just over 58,000 lost their lives. More than 40,000 men were killed in action. An additional 9,000 were killed or injured in accidents, while 5,000 men eventually died of injuries. This chart details the staggering casualty rates on both sides of the Vietnam War:

Vietnam War Casualty Estimates
U.S. troops 58,220*
North Vietnamese troops 1.1 million**
South Vietnamese troops 200,000 - 250,000**
Vietnamese civilians 2 million**

Sources: *National Archives, **Encyclopedia Britannica

Aftermath of the Vietnam War

Although the United States officially pulled troops from Vietnam in 1975, the war was not truly over. Americans and Vietnamese alike suffered in the aftermath.

PTSD

One of the most prevalent concerns facing American troops returning home was post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Soldiers who had witnessed horrifying acts of violence and had endured trying conditions were haunted by what they had seen. For many dealing with PTSD, flashbacks, nightmares, and severe depression disrupted their daily lives.

Vietnamese Refugees

After U.S. troops left Vietnam, South Vietnam ultimately fell to communist North Vietnam. Although the U.S. government evacuated over 100,000 Vietnamese civilians to refugee camps and safe havens in the United States, countless others were subject to lingering conflict and violence. Between 1975 and 1995, nearly three million Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian migrants fled the region seeking safety and new opportunities.

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