WASHINGTON - Late in 1961, President John F. Kennedy dispatched a handful of U.S. military advisers to assist a pro-Western regime fighting Communist insurgents in a small, hot country most Americans had never heard of.
That country was South Vietnam, and Kennedy's move set the United States on a track that would convulse society and lead to the deaths of 58,152 Americans.
President Clinton's planned visit to Vietnam, the first by a U.S. president since the war, is seen as a landmark in a healing process that many believe began with the release of American prisoners by North Vietnam in 1973 or dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington in 1982.
In the annals of war, a quarter-century is not a long time to turn from bloody enemies into tentative friends. But for the United States the Vietnam War holds a unique place, the one war the nation did not win.
Washington established "normal" diplomatic ties with Hanoi in 1995, and Clinton's visit is expected to further bridge gaps between the countries. But relations between the United States and Vietnam won't be truly normal for decades or centuries.
A little-remembered irony is that the United States once had close relations with the predecessors to Vietnam's present regime.
During World War II, guerrilla leader Ho Chi Minh sought out U.S. Lt. Gen. Claire Lee Chennault in China to ask for help in fighting the Japanese. Chennault sent U.S. intelligence operatives into Vietnam to train Ho's fighters, recounts Stanley Karnow in "Vietnam: A History."
After the war, alliances between Communists and the Western democracies collapsed in Asia. Ho's enemy again became France, which sought to reclaim its colony, and U.S. support dried up as Washington sided with Paris.
Ho's insurgents, the Viet Minh, soon gained the upper hand in a three-way war against the French and non-Communist nationalists. A stunning French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 led to a peace conference in Geneva that marked the end of French rule and a partitioning of Vietnam.
With Communists from the north making incursions across the line, the peace didn't last. In 1961, South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem sought Kennedy's help. Washington was anxious to halt what was perceived as the spread of communism, but administration officials said later that when they approved sending advisers in 1961, they didn't dream that within a few years more than a half-million U.S. troops would be fighting in Vietnam.
Backed increasingly by the Soviet Union as well as Hanoi, Viet Cong guerrillas terrorized the countryside of South Vietnam, perplexing U.S. advisers accustomed to conventional warfare.
The war, still with small-scale U.S. involvement, became an issue in the 1964 presidential campaign. Republican Barry Goldwater favored a vigorous response to Vietnam's Communists, but Democratic incumbent Lyndon B. Johnson counseled restraint, saying: "We don't want our American boys to do the fighting for Asian boys."
Johnson won, but American boys did end up doing much of the fighting. Empowered by the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, in which Congress ceded much of its war-making authority, Johnson started the U.S. bombing of North Vietnam and assigned U.S. Marines to defend critical areas in March 1965. In July the president decided to send up to 125,000 combat troops to Vietnam, and the totals escalated from there.
As Vietnam was being devastated by war, the United States was torn by anguish. A generation of young Americans was coming of age and questioning almost everything taught by its elders. Nothing seemed more questionable than the idea of sending U.S. boys to die on the other side of the world for a cause many could not understand.
Vietnam became a catalyst and focal point for rebellion. Universities seethed with discontent. Protesters marched on Washington. The streets outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968 turned to chaos.
A key turning point was the massive Tet Offensive mounted by the guerrillas, now known as Viet Cong, and North Vietnamese army units in early 1968. The Communists would later admit that, in being repulsed, they suffered huge losses and a strategic setback. But their deep incursion into South Vietnam and, in particular, their attack on the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, discouraged the American public and was later deemed a watershed in U.S. sentiment.
Broken by the war, Johnson declined to run for another term in 1968. Republican Richard M. Nixon won the presidency. He pledged to gradually withdraw U.S. troops and turn over most of the fighting to the South Vietnamese. But shortly after his term began, U.S. troop strength in Vietnam reached its highest level at 543,000.
Washington's escalation of the war succeeded in bringing North Vietnam to the negotiating table, but talks that began in Paris in May 1968 produced little progress.
American soldiers continued to die - 4,483 in 1970. Back home, the protests continued. The most bitter domestic episode occurred on May 4, 1970, when Ohio National Guard troops fired on protesters at Kent State University, killing four and wounding nine.
The next year, Nixon continued withdrawing ground troops but provided air and sea power to support South Vietnamese forces. In January 1973, negotiators in Paris finally reached an accord that would provide for the return of American prisoners and the end of direct U.S. military involvement.
Saigon fell on April 30, 1975, prompting flight by tens of thousands of pro-American Vietnamese and a two-decade silence between the United States and Vietnam.
The ensuing years have seen gradual healing; a memorial in Washington intended to foster catharsis and reconciliation; visits to Hanoi by former U.S. prisoners of war; repatriation of the remains of U.S. servicemen; normalization of diplomatic relations; improved economic ties; expanded tourism; and now Clinton's visit.
In Vietnam these days, "it's positively chic to be American," said Karnow. "Half the population is under 25. Nobody wants to talk about the war."