I'm not going to get into the politics of the war and whether it was right or wrong. The real world is never that clear cut; not now and not 50 years ago. Whatever the morality of the war was (and is), it's germane here only in so far as it does to some extent affect how miniatures are depicted. More on that in Part 2.
If you already know the basics, please forgive me if this first part is a brief history lesson to bring any newcomers up to speed. For a number of years, I taught a 400/500-level senior undergrad/graduate class entitled "The Vietnam Quagmire". If you remember the Vietnam War clearly, as I do (the latter part), you can skip ahead to Part 2.
Although it was Franklin Roosevelt who began America's interest in Vietnam by supplying the precursor of the Vietminh in their war of attrition against the Japanese, it was Harry Truman who first sent US "advisors" to Indochina in 1950 and supplied the French so that they could hold on to their colony. Dwight Eisenhower escalated the numbers of US military advisors in the new Republic of Vietnam in 1956, along with supplying a large amount of financial aid and military equipment.
Although Eisenhower and then John F. Kennedy increased the involvement and numbers of US advisors (to 23,000), the "war" as it is now popularly perceived didn't begin until early 1965, when Lyndon Johnson, in response to the Tonkin Gulf Incident, increased American forces in South Vietnam, as well as drastically changing the nature of the war, by sending 5000 Marines ashore at Da Nang.
US Forces continued to increase until January 1969, when there were 550,000 in South Vietnam and large numbers in Thailand and aboard ship in Southeast Asian waters, as well as US troops in The Philippines, Guam, and Okinawa in support roles.
As wargamers, we can break the war down into five distinct phases:
1) Advisors: 1961 through early-1965, when US troops mainly guarded the airbases they used and ARVN troops did most of the fighting in the field, accompanied by small numbers of US advisors.
2) Escalation: mid-1965 through the end of 1968, when US troops took over the bulk of the fighting in the field and there was still optimism that the war could be ended successfully.
3) Disillusionment: 1969 through mid-1970, when US troops and the American public both realized that there was no successful end to the war in sight.
4) Vietnamization and withdrawal: late-1970 through mid-1973, when the US handed the prosecution of the war back to the South Vietnamese. US troops were (mostly) withdrawn and those that remained return to an advisory and training role.
5) Final Collapse: late-1973 through April 1975, the US washed its hands of the whole situation and walked away, cutting off all military aid to South Vietnam, which then rapidly disintegrated under invasion from the North.
Obviously, all of the above is in very broad strokes, as the Vietnam War is too huge, too long, too convoluted, too divisive, and still too provocative of very strong emotions even 40 years later, to be able to do any justice to the subject on a little-read hobby blog.
As an aside, as you read through all of the above, I hope it will all sound very familiar to you, given that you've heard it all again over the last 14 years and we're again in Phase 4.
Each of the war's phases saw changes in attitude among US, Allied, and ARVN troops in the field, which in turn influenced the appearance of uniforms and vehicles and how we depict them on the tabletop. Part 2 of this post will begin discussing those changes. Stay tuned!