1945: Japan occupies French Indochina, the present-day countries of Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, which had been under French rule since the late nineteenth century. France reasserts control of Indochina after the war, but the anti-French independent movements of Khmer Issarak (Free Khmer), the Lao Issara (Free Lao) and the Viet Minh communist/nationalist coalition begin fighting France for independence of Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, respectively.
1946: The First Indochina War begins between France and the independent movements in French Indochina.
1954: The First Indochina War ends when the Viet Minh defeat the French at Dien Bien Phu after a 57-day siege. At the Geneva Conference, France agrees to leave Indochina. The Kingdoms of Cambodia and Laos become independent. Vietnam is divided at the 17th parallel with a plan for national election to unify the country. Ho Chi Minh leads the Viet Minh-controlled government in the north while an increasingly-unpopular and corrupt republican government governs South Vietnam.
U. S. President Dwight Eisenhower, concerned about the spread of communism in Southeast Asia, sends American military advisors to Vietnam, a policy that President John F. Kennedy continues. The U.S. also begins sending money to the Royal Lao government through resources such as the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
1958: The communist Pathet Lao win a majority of the seats in the Laotian coalition government. The U.S. secretly begins working against them.
1961: The CIA makes an agreement with Vang Pao, a young Hmong officer in the Royal Lao Army, to recruit soldiers against North Vietnamese communists in Laos. A fervent anti-communist, Vang leads his fighters on sabotage and espionage missions. The recruitment and ongoing U.S. aid are kept secret because the 1962 Geneva Accords mandate that all foreign troops leave Laos.
1964: North Vietnamese ships fire on the USS Maddox while it is in international waters in the Gulf of Tonkin. In response, the U.S. Congress passes the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, enabling the president to send troops to Vietnam. Though war is never formally declared, the Resolution begins the Second Indochina War (Vietnam War).
1964-1973: The United States conducts 580,000 bombing missions over Laos in an effort to attack both the Pathet Lao and disrupt the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The Trail is a major conduit for North Vietnamese troops and supplies to the Viet Cong, communist insurgents in South Vietnam. It runs through Laos and Cambodia. The bombing campaigns often miss their targets, leaving cratered landscape and killing civilians. In total, the U.S. air force drops more than 2 million tons of explosives on Laos alone, including cluster bombs which remain a hazard to the present.
1965: The first U.S. troops arrive in Vietnam.
1967: More than half a million U.S. troops are in Vietnam.
1968: The Viet Cong launches the Tet Offensive against South Vietnam and American forces. The Tet Offensive is ultimately a North Vietnamese defeat, but it shocks the American public and leads to declining support for sending U.S. troops to Vietnam.
1969: Vang Pao's "secret army" reaches 40,000. Up to a quarter of Hmong soldiers will be killed, and as the war stretches on, increasing numbers of Vang’s soldiers are boys of twelve or thirteen.
1969-1970: The United States drops 108,823 tons of bombs on Cambodia in an effort to wipe out the Ho Chi Minh trail and attack North Vietnamese soldiers who had retreated to Cambodia. The number of Cambodian civilians killed numbers somewhere between 50,000 to 150,000.
1970: One in four Laotians- 600,000 people- are displaced by war. The American war in Laos finally comes to public attention.
1975: On April 30, Saigon falls to North Vietnamese forces and ends the Second Indochina War. The Southeast Asian refugee crisis, however, is only beginning.
When the defeat of the South Vietnamese government becomes imminent, the U.S. government begins a major evacuation of U.S. citizens as well as South Vietnamese likely to be persecuted after a communist victory. At its height, 7,500 people are evacuated daily by U.S. airplanes and helicopters. 73,000 more Vietnamese flee the country by boat. The initial South Vietnamese refugees are quickly taken to U.S. processing centers and resettled.
The civil war between the U.S.-supported Cambodian government and the Khmer Rouge communist insurgency ends when the Khmer Rouge takes the capital of Phnom Penh on April 17. The Khmer Rouge forces the city’s two million citizens out of the city. Forced labor, starvation, illness, torture, and mass executions directed at former government officials, the educated, urban dwellers, those practicing a religion, and ethnic minorities kill an estimated 1.7 million people over the next three and a half years.
Emboldened by communist victories in Vietnam and Cambodia, the Pathet Lao advances across the country during 1975. On August 23rd, the Pathet Lao declares a new transition government in Vientiane, the capital. The King of Laos, Sisvang Vattana is forced to abdicate, ending centuries of Lao monarchy. Individuals who served in the Royal Lao Armed Forces or those considered a threat to the new government are subsequently arrested and set to re-education camps in rural Laos. 200,000 Lao refugees escape to Thailand between 1975 and 1986.
The Pathet Lao also persecute Hmong in Laos for their alliance with the United States. The CIA airlifts Vang Pao and his officers out of Laos, bringing them to the United States. Tens of thousands of other Hmong, however, are left behind, where they face imprisonment, starvation, torture, and attack by chemical weapons. To flee the country, many make the perilous crossing of the Mekong River into Thailand.
The 1975 U.S. Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act grants special authorization and support to resettle refugees from Vietnam and Cambodia.
By December 31, the U.S. admits approximately 130,000 Southeast Asian refugees. This "first wave" of refugees includes approximately 126,000 refugees from Vietnam, 4,600 from Cambodia, and 800 from Laos.
1976: Refugees from Laos are included in the Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act.
1978: In December, Vietnam invades Cambodia and topples the Khmer Rouge. Fighting continues until 1991. While few people had been able to leave Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, war and starvation drive hundreds of thousands of people to seek refugee in Thailand.
1979: China, which has supported the Khmer Rouge, invades Vietnam in February in retaliation for the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia. More than a half million Cambodians flee and attempt to enter Thailand, where they experience growing hostility and violence.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees creates the Orderly Departure Program (ODP). More than 625,000 Vietnamese refugees resettle in 30 countries through this program between 1980 and 1997, including more than 450,000 in the United States.
1980: The U.S. Refugee Act of 1980 establishes the first comprehensive U.S. refugee policy. Among its provisions, the U.S. creates uniform resettlement policy and adopts the United Nations' definition of a refugee.