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DSST A History of the Vietnam War Study Guide

Updated: Feb 14

DSST Exam Outline

Preparing for the DSST exam on the History of the Vietnam War can be daunting, but with the right resources and guidance, success is within reach.

Our comprehensive study materials are designed to steer you toward success by providing clear direction and valuable insights.

Its primary objectives are to ensure your understanding of the critical concepts and roles played by each party involved in this pivotal historical event.

This study guide serves as a roadmap, offering a detailed overview of the exam content you can expect to encounter.


Table of Contents


1. Before 1940, Vietnam

Map of Vietnam
Before 1940, Vietnam – 5%

Religion and Culture

Religious and cultural traditions play an important role in Vietnamese society.

The country has a long history of Confucianism and Buddhism, and these beliefs still shape the values of many Vietnamese people.

There is also a strong tradition of ancestor worship, reflected in how families take care of their elders and honor their memory.

While Chinese culture has strongly influenced Vietnam, it has also maintained its unique identity.

This was seen in the Vietnam War when the Vietnamese resisted Chinese attempts to dominate them politically and culturally.

Throughout its history, Vietnam has often been invaded by foreign powers.

However, the Vietnamese have always fought back against their invaders, winning independence from the Chinese and the French.


The French

The French conquest of Vietnam was a significant event in Vietnamese history.

The French colonialists ruled Vietnam for over a hundred years, and their impact can still be seen today.

In the 20th century, Vietnam underwent a process of nationalism and communism that led to the country’s independence from France.


Ho Chi Minh

Ho Chi Minh was a crucial figure in this process and is honored as one of Vietnam’s national heroes.


DSST A History of the Vietnam War Trivia Question # 102


2. World War II, the Cold War, and the First Indochina War (1940-1955)

United States soilder in World War two.
World War II, the Cold War, and the First Indochina War (1940-1955) – 9%

Vietnam's Participation

Vietnam's participation in World War II began with the Japanese invasion.

The Vietnamese initially resisted the Japanese occupation, but many collaborated with the Japanese to oust the French colonial government over time.

In March 1945, the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence was issued. However, this was short-lived, as the Allies restored French rule later that year.


The First Indochina War

The First Indochina War broke out in December 1946 when the Viet Minh, a Communist-led revolutionary group, launched an uprising against the French.

The war lasted until 1954 and saw numerous changes in direction as both sides employed different military strategies.


President Truman

In 1950, President Truman committed American troops to support the French effort in Vietnam as part of his policy of global containment.

This position was maintained by President Eisenhower, who also provided economic and military aid to the French.

The war's turning point in early 1954 with the Battle of Dienbienphu.

After suffering a crushing defeat, the French agreed to peace negotiations.


Geneva Conference

These talks led to the Geneva Conference, where Vietnam would be temporarily divided into North and South Vietnam, and elections were held in 1956.

The United States refused to sign the agreement, eventually leading to American involvement in the Vietnam War.


3. The Difficulty of the Political Transition (1955-1963)

Soilder talking on phone in Vietnam.
The Difficulty of the Political Transition (1955-1963) – 10%

The United States Supported South Vietnam

The United States supported South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem because he represented a committed anti-communist Southeast Asian leader who relied on U.S. military and economic assistance.

At the same time, Diem’s regime was viewed as ineffective and corrupt.

The U.S. provided significant military and economic support to South Vietnam, including introducing military advisers in 1955 and economic aid totaling more than $2 billion by 1963.

The growing Southern insurgency posed a severe challenge to the Diem regime, prompting the Kennedy administration to commit additional resources to counter-insurgency efforts.


Buddhist Crisis of 1963

Internal opposition to Diem’s rule, including the Buddhist crisis of 1963, further weakened his position.

In November 1963, a group of South Vietnamese military officers launched a coup that resulted in Diem’s assassination.

The overthrow of Diem marked a significant setback for U.S. policy in Vietnam.


DSST A History of the Vietnam War Trivia Question # 454


4. L.B. Johnson Enforces a Cultural Change in the War (1964-1965)

L.B. Johnson shaking hands with politicians.
L.B. Johnson Enforces a Cultural Change in the War (1964-1965) - 10%

International Conflict

The Vietnam War began as a conflict between the Communist-backed North Vietnamese and the U.S.-supported South Vietnamese.

However, it quickly escalated into a more significant international conflict with the introduction of U.S. combat troops in 1965.

The following timeline outlines some key events that led to the increase in U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

1964: Political instability in South Vietnam leads to the introduction of North Vietnamese Army troops.

1965: The Tonkin Gulf Incident led to the passage of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, authorizing President Johnson to take whatever actions he deemed necessary to protect U.S. forces in Vietnam.

1965: The U.S. air campaign over Vietnam escalates, with President Johnson ordering the bombing of North Vietnamese targets ("Rolling Thunder").

1965: In response to increasing violence in South Vietnam, President Johnson orders the deployment of U.S. combat troops (March through April). By July, the number of troops had increased to more than 100,000.


5. America Takes Charge (1965-1967)

U.S Soilder in war with Vietnam.
America Takes Charge (1965-1967) – 10%

Strategy of Attrition

America Takes Charge is a 1965-1967 strategy of attrition.

It is a military strategy that aims to win a war by forcing the enemy to collapse.



Westmoreland first used the strategy in the Vietnam War.

The measures of success are the number of enemy soldiers killed, the amount of territory controlled, and the number of civilian casualties.

The continuing air war uses aerial bombing to destroy enemy infrastructure and supply lines.

The impact of the war on Vietnamese society is the increase in poverty, homelessness, and unemployment.


The Saigon Regime

The stabilization of the Saigon regime is establishing a stable government in South Vietnam.

America's army in Vietnam is the largest ever committed to a foreign war.


War Without Fronts

The combat experience is fighting in small units with no defined front lines.

Search and destroy La Drang Valley is an operation in which American troops search for and destroy enemy forces in the La Drang Valley.


DSST A History of the Vietnam War Trivia Question # 683


6. Home Front USA (1963-1967)

Vietnam War U.S helicoper.
Home Front USA (1963-1967)– 8%

The Great Society

As the United States continued to recover from the Great Depression and World War II in the early 1960s, President Lyndon B. Johnson laid out his vision for the future in his "Great Society" speech.

The Great Society sought to reduce poverty and racial inequality, expand education and healthcare access, and protect the environment.

However, with the country still embroiled in the Cold War, Johnson's domestic agenda was quickly overshadowed by defense spending.


Guns vs. Butter

This "guns vs. butter" debate came to a head in 1965 when Johnson decided to send troops to Vietnam.

The decision was deeply unpopular with many Americans, who began questioning their government's credibility.

This led to dissent in Congress, television pundits, and the press.


New Left

Meanwhile, the civil rights movement was gaining momentum, and a new generation of activists began forming what would become known as the "New Left."

As tension mounted at home and abroad, young men faced the possibility of being drafted into military service.

Many resisted, leading to further divisions within an already divided country.


7. Tet (1968)

Vietnam War soilders landing from a plane.
Tet (1968) – 9%

The Tet Offensive

In early 1968, the North Vietnamese began preparations for a major offensive against the South Vietnamese government and its American allies.

The Communists hoped the offensive would trigger a popular uprising to overthrow the government and reunify the country.

The Tet Offensive began on January 30th, when Viet Cong forces attacked more than 100 cities and towns in South Vietnam.

The fighting was heaviest in the imperial capital of Huế, where Communist troops held control of parts of the city for more than three weeks.

In other areas, the fighting lasted only a few hours or days. Despite initial setbacks, the Tet Offensive was a military disaster for the Communists.

Over 40,000 Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers were killed, and hundreds of thousands more were captured or fled back to the north.

The offensive also failed to trigger a popular uprising.

Many South Vietnamese turned against the Communists as a result of the bloodshed. In Washington, D.C., the Tet Offensive was a turning point in the war.


Public Opinion

Public opinion shifted against the war effort, and President Lyndon B. Johnson decided not to seek re-election in 1968.

To bring peace, Johnson ordered a halt to the American bombing of North Vietnam in early 1968.

These peace talks dragged on for years without real progress, but they resulted in American troops' withdrawal from Vietnam by 1973.


8. Vietnamizing the War (1969-1973)

President Nixon Addressing the Vietnam War
Vietnamizing the War (1969-1973) – 10%

President Richard Nixon

President Richard Nixon implemented a series of policies collectively known as Vietnamization to extricate the United States from the quagmire of Vietnam.

The main goal of Vietnamization was to increase the South Vietnamese military's capabilities so they could eventually take over the war effort, with the ultimate goal of withdrawing all U.S. troops.

To this end, Nixon increased military aid to South Vietnam and implemented pacification programs to win over the civilian population.

However, the indiscriminate nature of these programs led to widespread civilian casualties, eroding support for the war effort at home and abroad.

Moreover, the U.S. military was in a state of decline, plagued by drug use and low morale.

As a result, the Vietnam War continued until 1973, when the Paris Peace Accords were finally signed, ending American involvement in the conflict.


9. The War at Home (1968- 1972)

Protesters at Washington DC
The War at Home (1968- 1972) – 8%

The War at Home

The War at Home refers to the social and political turmoil in the United States during the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The Vietnam War (1964-1975) was a significant source of contention, as protesters demanded an end to U.S. involvement in the conflict.

Campus unrest was rampant as students staged sit-ins and takeovers to voice their opposition to the war.


Peace Activists

Peace activists organized moratoria, or temporary ceasefires, to bring about a diplomatic resolution to the conflict.

The Miami and Chicago conventions were major flashpoints, as antiwar protesters clashed with police in both cities.

The counterculture, the antiwar movement, and the silent majority were all key players in this turbulent period.

The Pentagon Papers, a series of leaked documents that revealed the true extent of U.S. military involvement in Vietnam, further inflamed tensions and helped to end the war.


10. Cambodia and Laos

Children in Cambodia.
Cambodia and Laos – 8%

Geneva Accords

In 1954, the Geneva Accords were signed, providing a ceasefire in Indochina and the partition of Vietnam into North and South.


Laos and Cambodia

Laos and Cambodia were declared neutral countries.

However, this arrangement was soon threatened by the rise of the communist Ho Chi Minh regime in North Vietnam.

To stem the communist tide, the United States began providing military aid to Laos and Cambodia.

This increased after 1961 when President John F. Kennedy approved a covert operations program against the communists in Laos.

These operations continued even after Kennedy's assassination in 1963. In addition, the United States began secretly bombing Laos in 1964 to disrupt the supply flow along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which ran through Laos into South Vietnam.

This secret war continued until 1973, when all parties finally agreed to cease.

Unfortunately, this truce did not last long. In 1975, communist forces seized control of Cambodia and Laos, leading to the eventual fall of both governments.


11. “A Decent Interval”

Protesters against Nixon.
“A Decent Interval” – 8%

Cease-fire Violations

The cease-fire violations were the first in a series of events that led to the fall of Saigon.

The North Vietnamese violation of the 1973 Paris Peace Accords began a new phase of the war, which resulted in increased American support for South Vietnam.


Watergate Scandal

The Watergate scandal and Nixon’s resignation damaged American morale and trust in the government, making it difficult to sustain public support for the war.


Congressional passage of the War Powers Act

The Congressional passage of the War Powers Act limited the president’s ability to commit troops to combat, making it more difficult to prosecute the war.


Great Spring Offensive

The Great Spring Offensive was a military campaign by the North Vietnamese that ultimately led to the fall of Saigon.

These factors created an untenable situation for South Vietnam, which eventually fell to the Communist forces.


12. U.S. Legacies and Lessons

Woman holding wall at Vietnam memorial.
U.S. Legacies and Lessons - 5%

United States

The Vietnam War significantly impacted the United States at home and abroad.

The war led to a sharp increase in government spending and a significant expansion of the military-industrial complex.

The war also significantly changed how the media covered conflict, with a new emphasis on accuracy and objectivity.



Additionally, the war profoundly affected the lives of returning veterans, many of whom experienced physical and psychological injuries that lasted for years.

Abroad, the war left America's reputation tarnished and ushered in a new era of skepticism and mistrust toward the government.

The "Vietnam Syndrome" significantly impacted American foreign policy in the following years, as policymakers were reluctant to commit troops to another costly and controversial conflict.

Finally, the war also took a heavy toll on Vietnam, leaving the country devastated by years of fighting.

While the consequences of the war were far-reaching, they also served as a powerful reminder of the human costs of conflict.


13. Conclusion

Woman holding peace sign.

DSST A History of the Vietnam War

In conclusion, the DSST A History of the Vietnam War exam is a college-level, two-hour exam that covers each party's key concepts and roles.

This blog post has outlined what you can expect on the test, but you'll need to study more to ensure a passing score.

We recommend investing more time learning about the Vietnam War and taking practice exams geared towards passing this test.

Try a free DSST History of the Vietnam War practice exam and see how well you do.

Good luck with your exam!


14. Student Resources


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