US Military History


The United States wasn’t always a military superpower. Many wars and battles shaped the military we know today. From the Continental Army led by George Washington to today’s military and the War on Terror, learn about the more than two centuries of military history that have made the United States armed forces what it is today.

The American Revolution

The U.S. military formed on June 14, 1775, during the American Revolution with the country’s first formal fighting force, the Continental Army. The Revolution was fought from 1775 to 1783, with Washington in command. Many important battles during the revolution would shape the nation and its military.

The war began with “the shot heard round the world” at the Battles of Lexington and Concord. With the conclusion of the war and the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, the United States of America won its independence from Great Britain.

About 4,435 U.S. service members died in the American Revolution.

Important Figures and Events of the American Revolution

  • American Revolution Dates: April 19, 1775, to Sept. 3, 1783.
  • George Washington: The first president of the United States, founding father and commander of the Continental Army. Washington also created the Badge of Military Merit, which is the inspiration for today's Purple Heart.
  • Thomas Jefferson: The third president of the United States and founding father who is responsible for writing the Declaration of Independence.
  • Benjamin Franklin: One of the founding fathers who played an important role in the creation of the Declaration of Independence and forming an alliance with France. He was also an inventor and responsible for the creation of universities and the modern-day fire department.
  • Samuel Adams: One of the founding fathers and governor of Massachusetts, Adams played a critical role in coordinating the American resistance and pushing for independence from Britain.
  • Benedict Arnold: Fighting at the Battles of Lexington and Concord, securing Fort Ticonderoga, launching America's first amphibious assault and planning the Battle of Saratoga from Sept. 19 to Oct. 7, 1777, Arnold was considered a military genius. With all of his military success, Arnold was labeled a traitor when he began bargaining with the British in 1779.
  • Battles of Lexington and Concord: The first battles of the American Revolution between the U.S. Minutemen and British on April 19, 1775.
  • Siege of Boston: An eleven-month battle from April 19, 1775, to March 17, 1776, in which the Continental Army captured Boston and drove the British out of the city.
  • Declaration of Independence: July 4, 1776, marked the official separation of America from Britain.
  • Battles of Ticonderoga: Americans captured the fort in 1775, with the British recapturing it in 1777.
  • Battle of Bunker Hill (June 17, 1775): The Americans took Bunker Hill and Breed’s Hill as part of the Siege of Boston, but they later lost the hills after several attacks from the British. Although the British won the battle, it came with a loss of many men that greatly weakened their forces.
  • Battle of Long Island (Aug. 27, 1776): The British captured New York, driving Gen. George Washington and his army out of New York to New Jersey.
  • Battle of Trenton: This battle on Dec. 26, 1776, which defeated German mercenaries, brought morale back to American forces.
  • Battle of Saratoga: A turning point of the Revolution. American forces defeat British Gen. John Burgoyne and his army in New York state. This battle is also where foreign countries began giving support to America.
  • Treaty with France: In 1778, France entered a Treaty of Alliance and began to officially recognize the United States. This gave the US.S. much-needed support.
  • Siege of Charleston: In 1779, after a six-week siege of Charleston, the British captured the South Carolina city.
  • Battle of Camden: In 1780, the British captured another South Carolina city.
  • The Battle of King’s Mountain (Oct. 7, 1780): American forces achieve a morale-boosting victory by defeating British loyalists in South Carolina.
  • The Battle of Cowpens (Jan. 17, 1781): A crucial turning point in 1781 as American forces successfully regained control of South Carolina, leading to the defeat of the British.
  • Battle of Yorktown (Sept. 28 to Oct. 19, 1781): Marking the last major battle, Gen. Charles Cornwallis and his army are captured by the American forces under Washington. This pivotal American victory initiates talks with Great Britain.
  • Treaty of Paris: With the Treaty of Paris in 1783, Great Britain now recognized the independence of the United States, bringing an end to the Revolutionary War.

The Mexican-American War

The U.S. government had developed a more formal military force by the time the Mexican-American War broke out in 1846. The Army had increased to more than 30,000 soldiers, with about 60,000 volunteer troops.

The Mexican-American War began when a detachment of U.S. troops clashed with Mexican forces near the Rio Grande, marking the start of hostilities. With Gen. Winfield Scott in command, the U.S. forces landed in Veracruz in March 1847, leading to the capture of Mexico City six months later.

In February 1848, the U.S. and Mexico signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, marking the end of the war. The treaty established the Rio Grande as the southern boundary of Texas and ceded the territories of California, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and Utah, and parts of Colorado, Wyoming, Kansas and Oklahoma to the United States.

Many notable U.S. commanders, such as Ulysses S. Grant, Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee and George McClellan, got their start in the military as officers during the Mexican-American War.

About 13,283 U.S. service members died in the Mexican-American War.

Important Figures and Events of the Mexican-American War

  • Mexican-American War dates: April 25, 1846, to February 2, 1848.
  • Battle of Palo Alto: The first battle along the Rio Grande over the border dispute on April 25. The battle occurred before war was officially declared on May 13, 1846.
  • Veracruz: The beginning of Gen. Winfield Scott's successful push to capture Mexico City.
  • Gen. Zachary Taylor: After fighting a successful war, Taylor was elected as the 12th president of the United States.
  • Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo: The treaty claimed Texas as U.S. territory, along with the Rio Grande being recognized as the U.S. southern border. This also marked the official end to the war.

The Civil War

After Abraham Lincoln won the 1860 presidential election, southern states began declaring their secession from the country, primarily over the issue of slavery. The Civil War officially began in 1861 when the newly established Confederate Army attacked Fort Sumter in South Carolina. Four years of battles and conflict between the Union and Confederate armies followed. Lincoln made ending slavery a goal of the war with the Emancipation Proclamation, which he issued on Jan. 1, 1863.

The war hit a turning point in 1863 at the Battle of Gettysburg, where Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s push north ended. With Ulysses S. Grant taking command, the Union Army attacked the Confederates from all directions.

On April 9, 1865, Lee surrendered to Grant at the Battle of Appomattox Court House in Virginia after the 10-month Siege of Petersburg. This effectively ended the war, abolished slavery and granted civil rights to freed slaves.

With more than 620,000 dead troops, the Civil War is the deadliest in U.S. history, and the conflict produced 1,523 Medal of Honor recipients.

Important Figures and Events of the Civil War

  • Civil War dates: April 12, 1861, to April 9, 1865.
  • Abraham Lincoln: With the election of the country’s 16th president, the southern states began their secession, leading to the Civil War. Lincoln served two terms as president, defeating the Confederacy and abolishing slavery before his assassination in 1865.
  • Battle of Fort Sumter: In Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, the attack on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, was the official start of the Civil War. The battle ended with a Confederate victory when Union Maj. Robert Anderson surrendered to Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard.
  • Battle of Bull Run (Battle of Manassas) (July 21, 1861): The first major battle of the Civil War. There were two Battles of Bull Run, both ending with a Confederate victory.
  • Battle of Shiloh: Fought on April 6-7, 1862, the Union Army claimed victory and pushed into the Mississippi River Valley.
  • Battle of Antietam (Sept. 17, 1862): The bloodiest battle in the history of the United States with 22,717 casualties. Union Gen. George McClellan’s victory over Lee’s forces led to the release of the Emancipation Proclamation.
  • Emancipation Proclamation: On Jan. 1, 1863, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, paving the way for the abolishment of slavery.
  • Siege of Vicksburg (May 18 to July 4, 1863): The Union's victory at Vicksburg split the Confederacy in two, severing the western Confederate states.
  • Battle of Chancellorsville (April 30 to May 6, 1863): Despite a Confederate victory, this battle was marked by Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson's death from friendly fire, overshadowing Lee's perceived perfect battle.
  • Battle of Gettysburg (July 1 to 3, 1863): A famous turning point in the war, representing the last attempt by Lee to push north.
  • Siege of Petersburg (June 9, 1864, to April 2, 1865): Marking more than nine months of trench warfare, this siege concluded with Lee's surrender to Grant near the village of Appomattox Court House, effectively ending the Civil War.
  • Ulysses S. Grant: The 18th president of the United States and commander of the Union Army in the Civil War.
  • Robert E. Lee: Confederate Army general until his surrender to the Union Army in April 1865.
  • Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson: Jackson was known for his military tactics and stand at the First Battle of Bull Run (July 21, 1861). He died from pneumonia after wounds sustained by friendly fire.
  • William Tecumseh Sherman: Gen. Sherman led the March to the Sea (Nov. 15 to Dec. 21, 1864), starting with the Battle of Atlanta and up the coast into the Carolinas, ending with the surrender of Confederate Gen. Joseph Johnston.
  • Gordon Granger: On June 19, 1865, in Galveston, Texas, Union Gen. Granger announced the Civil War was over and that all slaves were now free. This day and emancipation of slavery have become the federal holiday known as “Juneteenth.”

Spanish-American War

In full support of Cuba’s independence from Spain and after the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana’s harbor, the United States declared war on Spain in April 1898. The U.S. looked to bring stability back to Cuba after years of conflict between the island and Spain.

With Spain rejecting an ultimatum from the United States, President William McKinley placed a naval blockade on Cuba. On June 22, U.S. troops landed at Guantanamo Bay and Santiago. After U.S. warships and ground forces defeated Spanish forces, the war ended with a cease-fire signed on Aug. 12.

The U.S. and Spain signed the Treaty of Paris in December 1898, which ceded territories including Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines from Spain to the United States and guaranteed the independence of Cuba.

One hundred and twelve Medals of Honor were awarded to soldiers who fought in the conflict.

About 2,446 U.S. service members died in the Spanish-American War.

Important Figures and Events of the Spanish-American War

  • Spanish-American War dates: April 25, 1898, to Dec. 10, 1898.
  • USS Maine: The U.S. Navy battleship was sunk in Havana Harbor, one of the events that led to the U.S. declaring war with Spain and the start of the Spanish-American War.
  • Rough Riders: The 1st Volunteer Cavalry Unit. The regiment was also nicknamed “Wood's Weary Walkers” after their commander, Col. Leonard Wood. The unit is best known for its efforts at the Battle of San Juan Hill.
  • Battle of San Juan Hill (July 1, 1898): The most famous battle of the Spanish-American War in which the Rough Riders climbed the hill, claiming victory over Spanish forces.
  • Theodore Roosevelt: Roosevelt was a colonel in the Army and part of the volunteer cavalry unit called the Rough Riders. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions at San Juan Hill. At 42 years old, Roosevelt later became the 26th president of the United States.
U.S. military history: soldiers march during WWI

World War I

In 1914, 30 countries declared war on one another following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, launching World War I. The conflict involved many of the world's great powers, with the Allies on one side and the Central Powers on the other. The alliances included several countries on each side. The Allies included France, Russia/the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, Italy, the United States, Serbia, Belgium and Japan. The Central Powers were Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria.

The war was characterized by trench warfare, significant technological advancements in weaponry, and large-scale mobilization of military forces.

At the start of the war, the United States remained neutral. But in April 1917, following many attacks on U.S. ships by Germany in attempts to isolate Britain, President Woodrow Wilson declared war. In the following months, U.S. troops prepared to go overseas as American industries shifted gears to support the war effort.

With new technology, the battlefield had changed drastically. These improvements allowed for reconnaissance photos of enemy positions, radio intelligence and a better understanding of the battlespace. New, more effective weapons increased the ability to kill the enemy in their trenches. U.S. Navy warships took on German U-boats in the Atlantic and Mediterranean, while Capt. George Patton and the U.S. Army Tank Corps saw its first action alongside French tank units. This was also the first time seeing major combat for the Army Air Service (the precursor to the Army Air Corps).

The armistice that ended “The Great War” was signed on Nov. 11, 1918, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. This day is commemorated as Armistice Day or Remembrance Day in various countries.

On June 28, 1919, the Treaty of Versailles was signed, marking the official end of World War I. The treaty imposed significant financial reparations on Germany for the damages caused during the war. It also included the controversial "war guilt" clause, placing the blame for the conflict on Germany and its allies.

For their heroism, 121 U.S troops were awarded the Medal of Honor.

About 116,516 U.S. service members died in World War I.

Important Figures and Events of WWI

  • World War I dates: July 28, 1914, to Nov. 11, 1918.
  • Archduke Franz Ferdinand: In 1914, Franz Ferdinand’s assassination caused 30 countries to declare war on one another, starting WWI.
  • Second Battle of Ypres (April 22 to May 25, 1915): Germans use chemical weapons in the first successful gas attack.
  • The Lusitania (May 7, 1915): A German U-boat sinks the passenger ship, killing 128 Americans.
  • The SS Aztec (April 1, 1917): Germany sinks the U.S. cargo ship.
  • The United States declares war on Germany (April 2, 1917): President Woodrow Wilson gets passage of the war resolution by the House and Senate.
  • The Selective Service Act (May 18, 1917): The first military draft since the Civil War is passed by Congress.
  • Gen. John J. Pershing (May 26, 1917): John “Black Jack” Pershing is named commander of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF).
  • 1918 Pandemic: The first cases of “Spanish Influenza” are reported from Camp Funston at Fort Riley, Kansas. About 45,000 soldiers died from influenza by the end of 1918.
  • Battle of Cantigny (May 28 to 31, 1918): The U.S. military's first major battle of WWI.
  • Battle of Saint-Mihiel (Sept. 12-16, 1918): Pershing’s first major operation with the AEF.
  • Meuse-Argonne Offensive (Sept. 26 to Nov. 11, 1918): The allied attack with American and French troops on German forces that would ultimately bring the war to an end.
  • Treaty of Versailles (June 28, 1919): The treaty marked the official end of World War I and set military limitations on Germany.
A U.S. veteran observes the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor.
Ronald G. Scharfe, a World War II veteran, observes the USS Arizona Memorial during a World War II veterans harbor tour as part of the 80th anniversary Pearl Harbor remembrance on Dec. 7, 2021. (Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Sean La Marr/U.S. Navy photo)

World War II

World War II began on Sept. 1, 1939, with Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland. The war involved many of the world's nations, with the Allies led by the United States, United Kingdom, Soviet Union and China; and the Axis led by Germany, Italy and Japan. The war lasted until Sept. 2, 1945, when Japan formally surrendered aboard the USS Missouri, marking the official end of the conflict. The war had various theaters of operation, including Europe, the Pacific, Africa and Asia, and resulted in significant geopolitical changes and the formation of the United Nations in an effort to prevent future global conflicts.

On Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese launched an attack on Pearl Harbor naval base in Hawaii. After the devastating attack, President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared war on Japan and its allies, Germany and Italy. Five months later, after discovering Japan’s plan to invade the Solomon Islands, the U.S. intercepted the Japanese Navy. The Battle of the Coral Sea (May 4-8, 1942) was the first modern naval engagement in history. The Japanese succeeded in this four-day battle between aircraft carriers, but the cost of this victory stopped Japan from occupying other areas of the South Pacific.

The U.S. Navy and Japanese Navy would have another major engagement at the Battle of Midway one month later. U.S. Navy codebreakers deciphered Japanese communications about planning an attack on Midway. With information about the attack, Adm. Chester Nimitz developed a plan to stop the Japanese invasion. The three-day battle ended with the U.S. losing two ships, 145 aircraft and roughly 360 service members, and Japan losing nearly 3,000 men and five ships. The U.S. victory was a turning point for the Allies and stopped further expansion into the Pacific for Japan.

With German and Italian troops surrendering in North Africa, the Allies turned their attention to Italy. The British launched Operation Mincemeat, creating a diversion that allowed Gen. George Patton and the Allies to move into Sicily. As the Allies moved to the Italian mainland, Prime Minister Benito Mussolini’s government collapsed in July 1943, and the new government under Pietro Badoglio began negotiations for an armistice. On Sept. 3, the Italian government surrendered to the Allies. Despite this, the Allies' advances through Italy were very slow due to Britain and the U.S. moving their focus to Normandy, France.

On June 6, 1944, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower and the Allies launched Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normandy. The beach landing at Normandy is one of the largest amphibious assaults in history. The invasion took place on five beaches with 156,000 troops. The landing on Omaha Beach resulted in 2,400 casualties. Along with the beach landings, 13,000 paratroopers were dropping behind enemy lines to break German supply lines and secure key areas for the Allies. With the Germans being driven out of northwestern France and Paris, the Allied forces claim victory in Normandy.

Mounting his last major offensive on Dec. 16, 1944, Adolf Hitler and the German troops attempted to split the Allied forces. The Battle of the Bulge lasted for six weeks, resulting in more than 100,000 casualties for the U.S. Army. On Christmas Day, Allied forces began airstrikes on German positions.

With Eisenhower and Patton restoring the Allied front alongside the 101st Airborne Division, Allies claimed victory in the Battle of the Bulge on Jan. 25, 1945. As the Allies made advances from the west and the Soviet forces closed in from the east, Nazi Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945, marking VE Day.

As the war unfolded in Europe, U.S. Marines made an amphibious landing at the Japanese island of Iwo Jima on Feb. 19, 1945. The island was considered a tactical staging point for a possible invasion of mainland Japan. Just four days into the battle, Mount Suribachi was captured by U.S. Marines. Battles continued across the island until March 25, 1945, when Tadamichi Kuribayashi, a Japanese general, launched his final attack. After American forces declared the capture of Iwo Jima, soldiers spent weeks searching the island for Japanese troops who refused to surrender.

With the capture of Iwo Jima, American forces moved their focus to the island of Okinawa. On April 1, 1945, U.S. troops landed on the beaches of Okinawa with little resistance. As American troops moved across Okinawa, they encountered resistance in Southern Okinawa. Throughout the battle, both sides took heavy casualties. The Japanese took their final stand on the southern coast of Okinawa. With certain defeat coming, Japanese Gens. Mitsuru Ushijima and Isamu Cho committed suicide, ending the Battle of Okinawa on June 22.

Capturing the island of Okinawa gave the Allied forces a tactical strong point to launch attacks on the Japanese home islands. Wanting to end the war quickly ahead of a costly invasion of Japan, President Harry Truman dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, with a second bomb dropped on Nagasaki three days later. World War II ended with the surrender of Emperor Hirohito and Japan on Aug. 14, 1945. On Sept. 2, 1945, Japan signed its formal surrender, marking VJ Day and the official end of the war.

Throughout World War II, 473 U.S. troops received the Medal of Honor.

About 405,399 U.S. service members died in World War II.

Important Figures and Events of WWII

  • World War II dates: Sept. 1, 1939, to Sept. 2, 1945.
  • Attack on Pearl Harbor (Dec. 7, 1941): The Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, prompting the U.S. to declare war on Japan and its allies.
  • Adm. Chester Nimitz: Commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet.
  • Battle of Midway (June 4 to 7, 1942): A key turning point in the war, stopping Japanese forces from further expansion into the Pacific.
  • Gen. George Patton: Commander of the U.S. Seventh Army during the invasion of Sicily.
  • Gen. Dwight Eisenhower: Commander of the Allied forces leading the invasion of Normandy (D-Day; June 6, 1944). Eisenhower would become the 34th president.
  • Tuskegee Airmen: The first Black aviation unit. The Tuskegee Airmen played a critical role, flying more than 15,000 missions in World War II.
  • Invasion of Normandy: (D-Day; June 6, 1944): The landing on the beaches of Normandy was the largest amphibious assault in history.
  • VE Day (May 8, 1945): The official end of WWII in Europe.
  • Battle of Iwo Jima (Feb. 19 to March 26, 1945): The U.S. Navy and Marines take Iwo Jima as a strategic area to launch attacks on the mainland of Japan.
  • Mount Suribachi: Site of the famed U.S. Marine flag-raising on Feb. 23, 1945.
  • President Harry Truman: The 33rd president, Truman ordered the use of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima (Aug. 6, 1945) and Nagasaki (Aug. 9, 1945), ending WWII.
  • Hiroshima and Nagasaki: The cities where the first atomic bombs were dropped, ending WWII.
  • VJ Day: The official end of WWII in Japan on Aug. 15, 1945.

The Korean War

The Korean War is often referred to as the "Forgotten War" due to its overshadowing by other major conflicts, such as World War II and the Vietnam War.

The war began on June 25, 1950, when North Korean forces, supported by the Soviet Union and China, invaded South Korea. The conflict was the result of the division of Korea along the 38th parallel, the ideological differences between the Communist North and the democratic South, and a desire to contain the spread of communism in the region. The United States and other Western nations intervened to support South Korea, while the Soviet Union and China backed North Korea.

With the North Korean Army pushing further into the south, Gen. Douglas MacArthur launched an amphibious assault on Inchon. The assault on the west coast of Korea led to recapturing the South Korean capital of Seoul.

After disobeying presidential orders and pursuing a plan to expand the Korean War into China, MacArthur was relieved of his command. He was replaced by Gen. Matthew Ridgway, who held off the Communist north while peace negotiations dragged on.

With President Dwight Eisenhower taking office, negotiations continued until July 27, 1953, when an armistice agreement was signed. The Korean Armistice Agreement led to a cease-fire and the establishment of the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) along the 38th parallel, which remains one of the most heavily fortified borders in the world. However, a formal peace treaty was never signed, and the two Koreas technically remain in a state of war.

Throughout the Korean War, 146 U.S. troops received the Medal of Honor.

About 36,574 U.S. service members died in the Korean War.

Important Figures and Events of the Korean War

  • Korean War dates: June 25, 1950, to July 27, 1953.
  • Inchon Landing (Sept. 15, 1950): Led by Gen. MacArthur, U.S. and South Korean forces land at the port of Inchon, forcing the North Korean Army to retreat up the Korean peninsula.
  • Operation Ripper (March 1951): The fourth and final Battle of Seoul. The battle began with the largest artillery strike of the war. The capital of Seoul was liberated on March 14, 1951.
  • Battle of Heartbreak Ridge (September to October 1951): A monthlong battle with a massive amount of artillery and airstrikes.
  • Gen. Douglas MacArthur: Led the United Nations forces during the Korean War.
  • Gen. Matthew Ridgway: Replaced MacArthur and took command of the forces in Korea.

The Cold War

World War II had ended, but by 1948, tensions between the U.S. and Soviet Union began to build. In June 1950, with support from the Soviets, North Korea invaded South Korea, leading to the start of the Korean War. The United States, believing the conflict signaled the start of communism spreading across the world, intervened. America used a containment strategy for dealing with the Soviet Union: Be patient and watch Russia to prevent its expansion of communism.

The U.S. strategy of containment set the stage for a deadly arms race with the Soviets. As the United States was developing more atomic weapons, the Soviets also were testing their own. Both countries continued developing increasingly destructive weapons, eventually leading to the development of the hydrogen bomb.

Not only did the Cold War take place on Earth, but it gave way to the Space Race. With the Soviets launching Sputnik, the U.S. launched its first satellite, Explorer I, in 1958. The same year, President Dwight Eisenhower created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA.

The Space Race pushed the U.S. into launching manned space missions. The first American in space was Alan Shepard, shortly followed by the Apollo 11 mission putting Neil Armstrong on the moon. The U.S. effectively won the Space Race with those first steps on the moon.

Tensions between the countries calmed when President Richard Nixon took office. Nixon looked to use diplomacy instead of the U.S. military to solve the issues between the countries. This approach led to the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT), which was a first step in reducing the nuclear arsenal. Even with Nixon’s efforts, the tensions later rose again with President Ronald Reagan taking office. Reagan’s policies led to more conflict in Central America.

Tensions began to ease once again when Mikhail Gorbachev took office in 1985. With his new policies, Russia looked toward a new relationship of political openness with the rest of the world. In November 1989, the Berlin Wall was destroyed, and the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, ending the Cold War.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial rededication ceremony
Ray Smith, a retired major general who served during the Tet Offensive in 1968 and participated in combat operations at Ue, Khe Sahn, the Rockpile, Con Thien and Dodge City south of Danang, speaks during the Vietnam Veterans Memorial rededication ceremony at Lejeune Memorial Gardens in Jacksonville, North Carolina, May 31, 2014. (Cpl. Jackeline M. Perez Rivera/U.S. Marine Corps photo)

Vietnam War

The conflict was rooted in the Cold War struggle between the Communist forces of North Vietnam, supported by the Soviet Union and China, and the non-Communist forces of South Vietnam, backed by the United States and other anti-Communist allies. The war saw significant U.S. military involvement, with American troops fighting alongside South Vietnamese forces against the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong.

After the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam claims its independence at a peace conference in Geneva. At this point, Vietnam was divided into the Communist North and the anti-Communist South. By 1958, the Viet Cong began using guerrilla tactics in the South.

U.S. involvement was limited until August 1964, when North Vietnamese boats attacked the USS Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin. President Lyndon Johnson ordered airstrikes in retaliation, which ended with U.S. pilot Everett Alvarez Jr. becoming a prisoner of war. The U.S. Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, allowing President Johnson to take all necessary measures to use military force in Southeast Asia, including responding to attacks against U.S. forces and preventing any further aggression in the region.

In March 1965, U.S. troops entered Vietnam. Operation Rolling Thunder began the continuous bombing of North Vietnam and the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Over the next year, the U.S. continued to increase the number of troops in the region. After many battles, the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Minh began the Tet Offensive in January 1968. Attacks were launched in cities across South Vietnam, including Saigon and the invasion of the U.S. Embassy. The Tet Offensive marked the turning point in the war and began the gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam.

After taking backlash about the war, Johnson withdrew from the election. With promises of ending the draft and restoring peace, Richard Nixon took the presidency in November 1968. As Nixon took office, the U.S. pushed for "Vietnamization," giving South Vietnam more responsibility in the war.

In January 1973, U.S. troops withdrew from Vietnam and POWs were released when an agreement was reached, effectively ending the war for the U.S. The war concluded with the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, leading to the reunification of North and South Vietnam under Communist control.

Throughout the Vietnam War, 261 U.S. troops received the Medal of Honor.

About 58,220 U.S. service members died in the Vietnam War.

Important Figures and Events of the Vietnam War

  • Vietnam War dates: Nov. 1, 1955, to April 30, 1975.
  • Ho Chi Minh: The Communist leader of North Vietnam.
  • Ngo Dinh Diem: The U.S.-backed leader of South Vietnam.
  • Ho Chi Minh Trail: North Vietnam supply routes that supplied supporters and guerrillas in South Vietnam.
  • Operation Ranch Hand (1962-1971): U.S. aircraft spray Agent Orange across South Vietnam in attempts to remove any food or cover for North Vietnamese guerrillas.
  • Gulf of Tonkin Incident (Aug. 2, 1964): North Vietnam boats attack the USS Maddox.
  • Operation Rolling Thunder (1965-1968): President Lyndon Johnson's campaign of sustained bombing of North Vietnam.
  • Operation Starlite: (August 1965): The first U.S. ground offensive, in which Marines engaged with the Viet Cong.
  • Battle of Ia Drang (Nov. 14-18, 1965): The U.S. Army inserted troops by helicopter to battle the North Vietnamese Army.
  • Battle of Khe Sanh (Jan. 21 to July 9, 1968): A 77-day attack on U.S. Marines at the base in Khe Sanh. Operation Pegasus put an end to the battle.
  • Tet Offensive (Jan. 30 to Sept. 23, 1968): North Vietnamese Army and Viet Minh carry out attacks on South Vietnam. This was a turning point in the war and began the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
  • Hamburger Hill (May 10-20, 1969): In the battle at Ap Bia Mountain, U.S. troops stopped North Vietnamese forces from moving into Laos.
  • Paris Peace Accord (Jan. 27, 1973): Signed by President Richard Nixon, it ended U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
  • Fall of Saigon: The North Vietnamese Army took the south capital of Saigon on April 30, 1975, ending the war.

The Gulf War

The Gulf War, also known as the Persian Gulf War, had profound geopolitical implications and marked a major conflict in the post-Cold War era. It began in August 1990, when Iraqi forces, led by Saddam Hussein, invaded Kuwait. The international response to this aggression was swift, and a coalition of nations, led by the United States, initiated Operation Desert Shield to deter further Iraqi advances.

Defying the U.N., Hussein prompted President George H.W. Bush to launch Operation Desert Storm on Jan. 17, 1991. The coalition employed new military technology in its swift-moving offensive against Iraqi forces. On Feb. 24, coalition forces began Operation Desert Sabre. U.S. and coalition forces took back Kuwait and defeated Iraqi forces. A cease-fire was declared on Feb. 28, 1991, ending the Gulf War and liberating Kuwait from Iraqi occupation.

No Medals of Honor were awarded to U.S. troops during the Gulf War.

Important Events of the Gulf War

  • Gulf War dates: Aug. 2, 1990, to Jan. 17, 1991.
  • Operation Desert Sabre (Feb. 24-28, 1991): A ground offensive by coalition forces to recapture Kuwait.
  • Battle for Jalibah Airfield (Feb. 27, 1991): U.S. 2nd Brigade, 24th Infantry Division, captured the Jalibah Air Base.
  • Battle of Medina Ridge (Feb. 27, 1991): A two-hour tank battle outside Basra, Iraq, between the U.S. 1st Armored Division and the Iraqi Republican Guard. This was the largest tank battle of the war.

The Global War on Terror

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, left nearly 3,000 people dead and sent shock waves across the United States. After the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon, President George W. Bush announced the Global War on Terror in an address to the nation. Nations across the globe -- including the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, Germany, France, Italy, Turkey and several other NATO and non-NATO allies -- joined in the campaign to combat terrorism.

The first targets in the War on Terror were Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida in Afghanistan, who were responsible for carrying out the attack on American soil. Other targets were the Taliban regime, as well as terrorist training camps and other insurgent and militant groups in Afghanistan.

The War in Afghanistan

Operation Enduring Freedom began on Oct. 7, 2001, with U.S. and British airstrikes on al-Qaida and the Taliban. Special operations forces also began striking targets around the country. With sustained airstrikes and ground forces attacking key areas, Mazar-e-Sharif, Kabul and Kandahar were quickly taken by the U.S. and coalition forces. As the Taliban was pushed from key areas of Afghanistan, the first elected president, Hamid Karzai, took office.

On May 2, 2011, Operation Neptune Spear began. In the early morning hours, U.S. Black Hawks left Afghanistan bound for Abbottabad, Pakistan. The target was Osama bin Laden. Navy SEALs landed at the Abbottabad compound to carry out this mission. As the SEALs moved through the compound, they located and killed bin Laden on the third floor. SEALs also discovered valuable intelligence in the compound. The 40-minute operation carried out by SEAL Team Six was a success.

NATO then began withdrawing troops, ending the organization’s combat operations in December 2014. But about 9,800 U.S. troops remained in Afghanistan as part of the Resolute Support Mission, as the U.S. and Afghan governments looked for a diplomatic end to the conflict. The number of U.S. troops fluctuated through the years.

However, for several years, Afghan security forces faced persistent threats from insurgent groups. Despite extensive training and support from the international community, the Afghan forces had trouble maintaining territorial control and countering the resurgent Taliban.

In February 2020, the U.S. and Taliban reached an agreement and signed a peace deal. This agreement required the U.S. to leave Afghanistan within 14 months. As the U.S. began withdrawing troops, the Taliban quickly started taking areas of the country and regaining rule of Afghanistan.

The last U.S. troops departed Kabul on Aug. 30, 2021, ending nearly 20 years of military engagement in Afghanistan and marking the end of America's longest war. The withdrawal, however, was marred by scenes of chaos and heightened tensions. The desperate attempt of Afghan citizens to flee the country before the Taliban takeover resulted in a frenzied and overcrowded Kabul airport. Tragically, on Aug. 26, 2021, a suicide bombing near the airport's Abbey Gate claimed the lives of numerous Afghan civilians and U.S. service members.

Throughout the war in Afghanistan, 25 U.S. troops received the Medal of Honor.

About 2,300 U.S. service members died in the War in Afghanistan.

Important Events of the War in Afghanistan

  • War in Afghanistan dates: Oct. 7, 2001, to Aug. 30, 2021.
  • Battle of Tora Bora (Dec. 12-17, 2001): A mission launched by the U.S. in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan to capture al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
  • Operation Anaconda (March 2-18, 2002): A military operation to destroy Taliban and al-Qaida forces in the Shahi-Kot Valley and Arma Mountains. This was the first major military battle since Tora Bora.
  • Operation Red Wings (June 28, 2005): An operation launched to disrupt Taliban and anti-coalition militias to regain stability in the region for the National Assembly of Afghanistan elections.
  • Extortion 17 (Aug. 6, 2011): Insurgents shot down a U.S. military helicopter, which had the call sign "Extortion 17," during a night mission in the Tangi Valley of Wardak Province. Thirty U.S. service members, including 22 Navy SEALs from SEAL Team Six, were killed. It was one of the deadliest single events for U.S. forces during the conflict.

The Iraq War

With intelligence suggesting Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction, U.S. and coalition forces moved into Iraq on March 20, 2003. Within three weeks, coalition forces captured the major cities. President George W. Bush ended combat operations in May 2003. Despite the declaration of military victory, a persistent guerrilla war waged on for years following the initial combat operations.

In December 2003 in Iraq, Saddam Hussein was found hiding in a hole in ad-Dawr. Without resisting, he was arrested by U.S. soldiers. In November 2006, Saddam was found guilty of crimes against humanity. He was executed on Dec. 30, 2006. In December 2011, the U.S. declared an end to the war in Iraq.

Despite this, the situation in Iraq became increasingly complex. The sectarian insurgency, fueled by tensions between Shiite and Sunni communities, intensified. On top of that, the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the mid-2010s posed a significant threat. In response, the United States implemented a troop surge in 2007, with the goal of stabilizing the country and curbing the escalating violence.

Throughout the war in Iraq, six U.S. service members received Medals of Honor.

About 4,424 U.S. service members died in the Iraq War.

Important Events of the War in Iraq

  • Iraq War dates: March 20, 2003, to Dec. 15, 2011.
  • Mosul Raid (July 22, 2003): A U.S. military operation that led to the death of Uday and Qusay Hussein, the sons of Saddam Hussein.
  • Battle of Baghdad (April 5 to April 10, 2003): U.S. and coalition forces take the capital of Baghdad and declare victory.
  • Battle of Fallujah (April 4 to April 30, 2004): The first battle of Fallujah was aimed to capture or kill militants who killed and mutilated U.S. contractors.

Want to Learn More About Military Life?

Whether you're thinking of joining the military, looking for post-military careers or keeping up with military life and benefits, has you covered. Subscribe to to have military news, updates and resources delivered directly to your inbox.

Daily Military Trivia