The Vietnam War
John F. Kennedy was elected president of the United States in 1961 and through the fear of the “domino effect”—which would have caused countries in Southeast Asia to fall to the communists one by one—he brought the containment of communism to the forefront of U.S. foreign policy. In 1965, the United States dramatically raised the number of men and the amount of equipment involved and sent in the first official combat troops, rather than j ust the military advisers they had previously claimed to be using.
In 1964, the war had spread from South Vietnam to include the North as well. Over a 10-year period, more than 10 million military personnel were sent to the country. Most were American but Koreans, Thais, Australians, New Zealanders and non-combat support staff from over 30 other countries were included too.
By the mid-1960s, however, support for the war by the American people was falling dramatically and the economic strain was being felt. In 1968, the long-drawn peace negotiations started. Ho Chi Minh, the North’s venerated leader, died the following year. 1969 also saw the start of U.S.bombing raids into Cambodia in an effort to break the north-south trail and the beginning of a gradual U.S. military with¬drawal. The withdrawal accelerated after the 1973 Paris Peace Agree¬ments, leaving only a few advisers in South Vietnam. The North seized the opportunity and broke its ceasefire agreement, with Viet Cong tanks breaking through the gates of the presidential palace in Saigon on April 30, 1975. It was an image seen by millions on television screens across the world and marked the success of the communists in finally uniting Vietnam under their banner.
The next year, nationwide elections were held and the country formally took on the name of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. The current government structure is outlined in the Resources chapter at the end of this book.
A Short Peace
Despite unification, economic progress was not forthcoming. The country struggled to consolidate itself and the re-education process to socialism began for the south. Many refugees fled the country as “boat people” seeking a better life elsewhere. By the end of 1978, Vietnam¬ese troops were again fighting, this time in neighbouring Cambodia, as they sought to oust Pol Pot’s genocidal regime and his Khmer Rouge forces. They achieved this goal but became embroiled in regional politics again when the Chinese invaded their northern borders in 1979. The Chinese were supporting the Khmer Rouge forces and sought to teach Vietnam a lesson for meddling in Cambo-dia’s politics. With China’s encouragement, Vietnam became ostra¬cised internationally for its role in the Cambodian war. Led by the United States, an economic embargo was placed on the country.
The joint impact of the trade embargo and the draining effect of deploying troops in Cambodia further weakened Vietnam economi¬cally. Enormous technological and economic support had been pro¬vided by the USSR but this dried up as the Soviet Union dissolved. Vietnam realised it had to make dramatic changes to restructure its economy. By September 1989, all troops in Cambodia had been withdrawn as part of the “road-map to normalisation” that had been developed in conjunction with the international community. As glasnost and perestroika altered the course of the USSR’s economy, Vietnam realised it needed to follow suit.
After the Sixth Party Congress in December 1986, wide-ranging economic reforms, known collectively as Doi Moi (Renovation), were introduced, making foreign investment and the stimulation of the economy national priorities. Most Western nations have now normalised relations with Vietnam. Wary of the rapidly destabilising changes that have occurred in the former USSR, the Vietnamese government has continued on a cautious path of improving free market trade while maintaining its communist objectives.
But while the Vietnam War changed the psyche of Americans and many others—and political analysts see it as a turning point in the way the United States dealt with foreign affairs—to the Vietnamese, it was just one more war in a long history of wars. They have spent thousands of years struggling for freedom and peace and are finally being rewarded. The Vietnamese take great pride in knowing that they have defeated the Chinese, French, Japanese and, finally, the United States and its allies. They are proud of their resilience and show more confidence in their own abilities than many other Asian races. In older people, this may manifest itself quietly; despite short-term setbacks, they do not give up their goal or long-term commitment towards achieving a task. Younger people, however, voice it more openly and throw out challenges.
The Vietnamese firmly believe they are the best. The Chinese summarise this in a saying: “Vietnam is nobody’s lapdog.” They will not be the lapdog of foreign business powers either.
VIETNAM – HISTORICALLY AND TODAY 5
The Vietnam War