Though France had started to invade Indochina in the mid 1850s, by the middle of the 19th Century, the Vietnamese Resistance had become a serious threat to the colonial power structure. In 1883, France imposed a 'protectorate' on Vietnam, but ended up losing nearly 50,000 troops to the cause by the end of World War II. In the United States, the Truman Administration recognized the importance of maintaining France as an ally, and decided to support the French effort in Indochina. Despite the influx of American dollars, though, the French troops were forced to surrender to North Vietnamese Communist forces at Dien Bien Phu on May 7, 1954.
In the early 1960s, the Saigon government was not faring much better against the North Vietnamese Communists. At the time, General Maxwell Taylor, a Korean War veteran, was President Kennedy's Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of staff and his closest military advisor. Taylor told Kennedy that losing Vietnam to communist control would put the entire region in jeopardy (Cowie 141). Kennedy, meanwhile, was interested in building up the presence of Green Berets in Vietnam. These special forces were trained in guerilla warfare, and often used questionable tactics, believing that their missions were the key to maintaining the American way of life and suppressing the Communist threat. (The fictional Kurtz was modeled after these soldiers.) They also tended to operate outside the normal confines of diplomacy. However, Kennedy was reluctant to unleash a full-on deployment of American troops.
After Kennedy's untimely death, Lyndon B. Johnson took over the Oval Office. America continued to support Saigon with military advisors and huge amounts of money, but it soon became clear that the ARVN were out-maneuvered against the Viet Cong. President Johnson felt that he had no choice - he could either deploy American Combat troops into Vietnam or watch the entire region fall into communist hands.
Nobody could have predicted the disastrous outcome of the mobilization. After all, it was the height of the Cold War, shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the American psyche was generally healthy after the Allies' resounding victory during World War II. Although World War II had certainly taken a major toll on the American population and resources, the public saw it as "A war which had climaxed with the GIs feted as they liberated the capitals of Europe, and with the unforgettable rapture of the victory parades, was immortalized in movies as yet another step towards America's manifest destiny" (Bilton & Sim, 27).
However, despite the American military's prediction that the Viet Cong would back down from the first glimpse of the American military machine, the VC's style of guerilla warfare kept them at arm's length from all of America's high-tech killing tools. Military commanders could not find their enemy most of the time, much less vanquish the entire movement.
By 1967, "more than a million tons of supplies a month were flowing into Vietnam to maintain the US military presence" (Cowie 142). Major press manipulation was crucial in allowing the American administration to maintain support for the war at home, which was quickly falling apart. In January of 1968, both North and South Vietnam announced a 2-day ceasefire because of the Tet Lunar New Year celebrations. However, on January 30th, the first day of the Tet ceasefire, the Communists launched a major well-coordinated attack, with more than 80,000 troops attacking more than 100 towns and cities. The Tet Offensive was the largest military operation that had occurred on either side by that point in the war, and had a profound effect on the American morale, both on the ground and at home. It became clear that the military presence in Vietnam was having little to no effect, and the nation became completely polarized over it.
After the My Lai Massacre, when American soldiers killed more than 500 innocent civilians, the American public was in a state of frenzied outrage. More than 30,000 American lives had been lost, for reasons that seemed less clear day by day. Reports of outrage flooded American television screens on a daily basis. It is in this environment that John Milius and the Zoetrope team were inspired to make Apocalypse Now, and many of the characters and events in the film are based on real events and people.
When Nixon reached office in 1969, troops had been on the ground in Vietnam for nearly 7 years, and 300 American soldiers were dying every week. In the United States, students organized to protest drafts, burning their draft cards in demonstration on university campuses. A round of peace talks in Paris fell apart due to ongoing communist attacks in South Vietnam. Eventually, in the early 1970s, Nixon started pulling back the American military presence and the Paris Peace Accords were signed in 1973. The truce between North and South Vietnam lasted for a brief time after the American withdrawal, but the conflict flared up again and the North conquered the South in 1975.