by Prof. Gordon L. Bowen, Ph.D.
last updated: January 31, 2012
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I. IntroductionThis reading traces the course and analyzes the consequences of U.S. policy toward Vietnam. Though the first three decades of the Cold War (i.e., 1945-75) will receive greatest attention, the aftermath of the U.S. withdrawal from Southeast Asia also will be discussed. The effort to contain communism in Vietnam was not the first "limited war" in which the US was engaged. The conflict in the Northeast Asian nation of Korea, 1950-53, preceded it. But, in terms of the evolution of U.S. foreign policy, the Vietnam War was the most significant of the Cold War era "limited wars" for a number of reasons.
As is the case in all limited wars, the US did not set as its objective the unconditional defeat of our local adversary (northern Vietnam), nor did we seek at the outset to engage Vietnam's primary allies. Nor were the means employed in pursuit of our goals unlimited: US strategy confined to Southeast Asia the theater of military action, never mounted a major land invasion of the adversary's home territory, and used only measured tools from our arsenal to conduct the fighting inside the disputed territory of southern Vietnam. Missions for chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons categorically were avoided, though herbicides were used to remove dense vegetation and did create human casualties.
Within these limits, in Vietnam the US applied an anti-communist war fighting strategy known as Counterinsurgency Warfare (C-I War). C-I strategy successfully had been used to stop earlier communist efforts. With US advisors refining their efforts, US Filipino allies in the Philippines and Britain in Malaysia had stemmed the tide of early Cold War communist advances in Asia. In Vietnam, especially from 1965 to 1973, the US armed forces played a more direct role than in those earlier cases. Ultimately, the US learned that C-I wars can carry high costs and that even great powers can discover limits to the utility of C-I war as a means through which to advance their national interests.
Beyond the way the conflict in Southeast Asia forced upon the US new ways of thinking about its military concepts and tactics, the American effort in Vietnam tested and ultimately shattered the domestic consensus within the US about its foreign policy of containment. Before the late 1960s, few reservations about the practical implications of Truman's global containment strategy were heard in public debate. Especially, the US political party system further muted the impact of those rare voices until 1968. By then, however, the failure of the US to attain its objectives in Southeast Asia had become controversial and politically divisive. Each major political party became divided into pro and anti-war wings, though this process more deeply affected the Democratic Party. Public support for the war overall faltered and, in the media's version of this development, whole generations appeared to question one another's loyalty over the issue. The controversy over the Vietnam War was catalytic in undermining Americans' faith in their institutions of authority, crumbling an important foundation stone needed for political elites to pursue any active foreign policy.
Until the Gulf War of 1990-91, the Vietnam War appeared to have fundamentally altered the way many Americans and non-Americans thought about the efficacy of their armed forces and of military power in general. This perception of the US military as a muscle-bound but hapless giant also came to be widespread in the non-aligned Third World, and among some of our adversaries. Correspondingly, as the reputation of our military power declined, challenges to American interests became more frequent and more menacing. Thus, it is no exaggeration to say that a key element of US political-diplomatic influence --our reputation as a military power-- was the most costly casualty sustained as a result of the Vietnam War.
The conflict also altered relations among governmental institutions within the US government. By the closing years of the Vietnam conflict, Congressional challenges to President Richard Nixon's Vietnam policy broadened to become challenges to presidential foreign policy powers per se. In the words of one leading analyst of US foreign policy, "[m]ore than any other single development, that traumatic and divisive conflict convinced many legislators that presidential dominance in the foreign policy field must end" (Crabb and Holt: 60). Legislation passed in the final years of the Vietnam War had the intention of sharply limiting presidential control over war powers, over arms exports, over military aid to countries with checkered human rights records, and over clandestine use of intelligence agencies. Each of these means of foreign policy actively had been used by presidents in the course of the Vietnam debacle. While the ultimate effect of the laws then enacted is complicated, and may, in some instances, ultimately have increased Presidential powers (e.g., the War Powers Act), the immediate impact of institutional conflict over Vietnam was to weaken the presidency. Accordingly, the Vietnam War's importance to an understanding of US foreign policy extends far beyond the obvious and immediate battlefield outcome, or the simple observation that containment policy failed there.
Study of the Vietnam War also promises to reveal lessons at a more general, strategic level. Later Cold War conflicts would similarly involve a major power attempting to subdue an irascible smaller country, notably the Soviet fiasco in Afghanistan (1979-89). Asymmetrical relations not entirely dissimilar from these have continued to some important degree in the conflicts found in the post-Cold War and post-9/11 worlds. Clearly, the tense confrontation the U.S. faced in managing disorder and insurgency in Iraq (2003-2010) contained a basic asymmetry; the ongoing NATO operation in Afghanistan (2001-2012) also contains certain parallel features. What general lessons of strategy, then, can be extracted from the Vietnam wars, the Soviet adventure in Afghanistan, and perhaps from asymmetrical conflicts in general? As Andrew Mack argued long ago (i.e., World Politics 27, 2, Jan. 1975), why do "great nations lose small wars"? While further study of the case evidence must precede generalization, it is apparent at the outset that in each of these cases the major power was thwarted in achieving its goals despite apparently overwhelming military power. Why and under what conditions do big powers like the US attempt to use a war policy but fail to achieve their objectives?
For these many reasons, then, careful understanding of the superpower conflicts in Indochina may lead us part way toward unraveling a more general paradox concerning the utility of military power in modern international relations.
Structure of this Essay: We begin our analysis by learning some key features of the Vietnamese context (section II.A.), before dissecting the strategy used by the Vietnamese Communists in their "guerrilla war" (i.e., in section II.B). This technique not only has been used throughout the Cold War by Communist insurgents. It formed a key part of the anti-Communist strategy used by the US in the 1980s, when aid to anti-Communist guerrillas in places such as Afghanistan and Nicaragua were dubbed the "Reagan Doctrine." It continued to be used by armed movements in the 1990s, from rural areas of Mexico to Algeria; and was adopted by international jihadists in the first decade of the new millennium. Accordingly, guerrilla war needs to be understood by students who would attempt to understand the dynamic elements of conflict in the modern international system. Section III discusses the strategy used by the US to stop the guerrilla war in Vietnam. Known as the doctrine of counterinsurgency (or C-I war), the reading reviews the operational components of it within a generally chronological account of the first major military defeat of US armed forces in US history. The reading then discusses the consequences of the US defeat in Vietnam (in IV).
II.A. The Setting of the Vietnamese Revolutionary ConflictIt is somewhat ironic that the Vietnamese Communists ever became close allies of the USSR, for the revolutionary process that brought them to power much more closely resembled that of the Chinese revolution than that of the Russian or Bolshevik Revolution. Unlike the urban-based 1917 Bolshevik seizure of power, the Vietnamese Communist movement was rural-based throughout most of the First Indochina War (1946-1954) against the French. Like the Chinese Communist Party, a substantial element of the Vietnamese party had been industrial proletarians during the 1920s and 1930s. Many cadre (or Party lieutenants) were organizers of strikes during the early 1930s. During this early period, most of the Vietnamese Communist leaders had close contact with the Soviet-organized "Communist International" movement (or COMINTERN) and with other Indochinese Communists. In 1930, COMINTERN rejected applications for admission to the movement from militants in each of the three separate administrative jurisdictions of French Vietnam, Tonkin, Annam, and Cochin China. Viet Communist Ho Chi Minh was sent by COMINTERN to Hong Kong where, in February 1930, he instructed them to merge with Lao and Khmer communists to form a larger Indochinese Communist Party. This Party finally was formally admitted to COMINTERN in 1935 (Becker: 30).
French colonialism contributed to the growth of Vietnamese nationalism, as most Viets resented the prominence of French officials in their changing society. This insipient nationalism later was used as the foundation from which the Vietnamese Communists built a movement. French methods of linking Vietnam into an international system of trade had altered Vietnamese society and had created new tensions. To some Viets, these changes seemed consistent with the Marxist-Leninist analyses of intensifying class struggles under capitalism. Thus, French colonialism helped to draw together Vietnamese discontent with two strands of social change (nationalism and class struggle) around a common enemy ,the French.
The French had only subdued Vietnamese resistance to their occupation in 1883, after a bitter 22 year war. French occupation and colonization ignited both Viet nationalism and class struggle among Viets. The conversion of self-sufficient Vietnamese village culture into a plantation economy that would be the rice bowl of the worldwide French empire required the French to disrupt much of traditional Viet society. While only 57,000 Tons of rice had been exported in 1860, by 1937 1,548,000 Tons were.
Both the governmental changes and the economic changes associated with French colonialism disrupted Vietnamese life. Many of the traditional Viet civil servants (or Mandarins) were involved in Viet resistance to French colonialism, resistance which continued until 1909. Thereafter, the Mandarins were bypassed as the French created a new class of collaborators through which to rule. This challenged traditional lines of authority in Viet culture. Traditional farming methods also were replaced. Plantations were established in (under populated) southern Vietnam, which the French administratively called Cochin China. By 1930, 20% of the total arable land in Vietnam was owned by Frenchmen. In the rich farm district of the Red River valley (in northern Vietnam), the French transferred much of the better farmland to those locals who willingly cooperated with French administrators. Thus, concentration of the ownership of the means of production in fewer and fewer hands proceeded rapidly, especially in the areas that were newly "colonized" under French rule: by 1938, 2.5% of the Viet population owned 48% of the rice producing areas of southern Vietnam; and 350,000 southern Viet families were landless (57% of the population in the region).
Pauperization of much of the Viet people directly coincided with the progress of French colonization. In 1900, rice consumption in Vietnam was 262 kg. per capita per year; by 1913, it declined to 226 kg; and by 1937, 182 kg. Most nutritionists say that in a rice-predominant diet, at least 220 to 270 kg. per capita is needed to stave off second stage malnutrition. Other dietary shortfalls were noted in the French census of 1937: per capita consumption of salt declined from 22 lbs (1900) to 14 lbs (1937), principally owing to high taxes.
French administration also was disruptive to the cultural cycle that defined and gave meaning to life in Viet culture. Rice-based liquors used in celebrations were assessed a 60% tax, causing many of the poor to be unable to buy traditional festive intoxicants. Viets also were the object of discrimination: while many received French education, even a fully qualified Viet engineer would receive wages equal to only one third that paid to his French engineer counterpart. In the Red River Valley (Tonkin administrative area), French authorities permitted favored local labor bosses ("cais") to conscript workers to perform on newly founded French rubber plantations. By the late 1930s, 68% of the arable land in the Red River valley was owned by these cais.
Viet resistance was intermittent even after major uprisings were quelled in 1909. Three in five labor conscripts deserted the rubber plantations in the 1920s; and 2/5ths did even during the hard times of the 1930s. In 1932, French troops suppressed a five year long series of protests and strikes called the "Nghe An Uprising," jailing 10,000 protestors. Many of the women and men suppressed at that time had formed "Red Guards," paramilitary Communist groups, to aid strikers and to coordinate community actions during the strikes. Among those jailed were Vo Nguyen Giap and Ho Chi Minh, the men who later devised the theory of communist revolution through guerrilla war which was used by the Viet Communists during and after World War II.
French colonialism's key weaknesses grew from the thin basis of legitimacy this regime had in the eyes of the great mass of the Viet people. This legitimacy was undermined further by the ease with which the Japanese conquered Vietnam in June 1940. The Japanese occupation demonstrated to the Viet nationalists and Communists the military weakness of their former colonial overlord. In 1942, the "League of Independence for Vietnam," or Viet Minh, was founded in the mountains by Vo Nguyen Giap. At the core of this nationalist movement was the Indochinese Communist Party: nearly all Viet Minh leaders were ICP members. While there was no significant French resistance to the Japanese, the Viet Minh did engage Japanese forces regularly. In a chapter of World War II that virtually has been forgotten (e.g., it went unmentioned in the Pentagon Papers, a multi-volume Pentagon study of US history in Vietnam), US military advisors served as liaison to these fighters and assisted in their anti-Japanese efforts.
Even though Viet Minh leaders were Communists who subscribed to the entirety of V.I. Lenin's theory that the leadership of a revolutionary party must show the way to any socialist revolution, the Viet Minh nevertheless became a broad-based resistance movement. Over 20% of their members were from the Tho-ti minority ethnicity; most other minority ethnicities had looked to the French to protect them from the chauvinistic Viets. Forty-six percent of the rank and file Viet Minh were either peasants or wage laborers and another 48% were minor officials in the French government. Among the cadre of the Viet Minh, most were from middle sectors and had had some French education. One study done in the First Indochina War period (1946-54) showed that of 1855 key positions in the Viet Minh, 1365 were occupied by "intellectuals or sons of the bourgeoisie," 351 were peasants and 139 were proletarians. Given this elitist complexion, it was important to the broadening of the movement that reforms popular with lower and poorer classes be undertaken. During the period of Japanese occupation, over 600,000 hectares of land in southern Vietnam were distributed to peasants in the areas under the control of the Viet Minh resistance. This contributed to some rural southern Vietnamese's residual sympathy with Communism in later years.
The Viet Minh were annoyed by the indifference of the major powers to their cause. Ho Chi Minh forcably had been expelled from the 1919 Versailles Conference, where he had attempted to advance Viet independence aspirations. After World War II, Ho and the Vietnamese nationalists had come to expect a warmer reception. Yet, eight separate letters that pressed the Viets case, written by Ho to US President Truman (dated October 1945 to February 1946), were considered by, but went unanswered by, the US (Pentagon Papers: 26-27). Ho Chi Minh had had substantial contact with the West and knew the insult this inaction contained. Born in 1890 as the son of a Mandarin bureaucrat, Ho had lived abroad from the age of 22, remaining outside Vietnam from 1912 until 1941. In Paris, he had joined the French Socialist Party and had established an inter-colonial anti-imperialist union. He had worked as a pastry cook in London, on sea liners and in Paris. To him, the exploitive conditions of the working class truly knew no national limits. From 1924 to 1941, Ho served as COMINTERN agent for Asia, then returned to Vietnam, helping to found the Viet Minh. Despite the Viet Minh's anti-Japanese activities, at Tehran (November 1943) the Big Three agreed that (KMT-run) China would be given control over Vietnam north of the 16th parallel, and that Britain would be granted control south of that line. At Tehran, the US had insisted that no re-colonization of Vietnam by the French occur after the war (a position advanced most strenuously by the State Department's Bureau of Far Eastern Affairs; the European Desk favored the free French's position in favor of re-colonization). As mentioned before, US military advisors even worked in the field with Viet Minh fighters during 1944 and 1945; some war material also was granted by the US to the Viet Minh during World War II. The final status of Vietnam, however, was never fully resolved among the Allies during the War.
On August 29, 1945, the Viet Minh occupied the capital (Hanoi) and declared the establishment of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). Interestingly, the USSR did not immediately recognize this new, communist-party dominated group's claim. Only after the Chinese Revolution of October 1949 did Stalin's USSR and Mao's new Peoples' Republic of China, or PRC, grant diplomatic recognition to the DRV, in January 1950 (Pentagon Papers: 9).
Within days after the 1945 announcement of the establishment of the DRV, Viet Minh leader Ho Chi Minh wrote his first (of eight) appeals to US officials asking for full diplomatic recognition. Vietnamese forces in the countryside, however, were less conciliatory. On September 26, 1945, O.S.S. Mission Chief Col. A. Peter Dewey became the first U.S. combat casualty of the postwar era. He was shot outside Saigon after shouting at a group of three Viets on a golf course; his head was blown off (Karnow: 151). There is no evidence that this incident influenced Administration policy. Pres. Truman already had reversed the wartime US position and had agreed at the Potsdam Conference (summer 1945) that Free French Gen. Charles de Gaulle's government would be given the right to return to Vietnam; in October 1945, French, British and KMT Chinese troops began the re-occupation. Ho nevertheless sought a diplomatic compromise, and his government did not immediately authorize a general war on the French (though, as the Dewey incident reveals, some Viets shifted targeting from Japanese to others rather more quickly). Instead, the new Vietnamese government entered into a series of negotiations with the French field commander. An agreement was reached in Fall 1945 which provided that the Viet Minh would support the French in expelling the KMT from Tonkin in exchange for early French support for full Vietnamese independence. This arrangement worked out: in February 1946, the KMT forces-- who had their hands full inside China proper-- left. In March, without violence, the French re-occupied the major towns, as the Viet Minh took to the countryside. Upon traveling to Paris to fully confirm this deal, however, Ho discovered that no government then existed in Paris with whom he could negotiate. When one finally was formed, it renounced the terms agreed to by the French general in the field. Ho left Paris empty handed for a second time in 30 years: he never again would "ask" for independence.
French naval vessels, not Viet communists, formally began the First Indochina War on November 23, 1946 when they began to shell the heavily populated Haiphong port area. In eight years of bitter fighting, the French encountered a new form of warfare, the Viet Minh's guerrilla war. As the Pentagon Papers later would confirm, by 1954, the US paid about 78% of the costs of the French war effort, or $1.1 billion in that year. US taxpayers, not the French (whose blood, however, was spilled), were the principal source of military supplies to the French. The formal authority for this came from US National Security Council Paper 48/2 (approved by Truman on December 30, 1949). It authorized containment to be expanded to Asia, and that "particular attention should be given to the problem of French Indochina" (Sheehan: 9). US officials publicly refused to confirm the extent of this support in the 1940s, but did formally recognize a non-communist front government in Vietnam on February 7, 1950, and the US publicly announced a $10 Million military aid grant to the French forces there, in May 1950. Like many aspects of the later conflicts in Indochina, the initial, but not the ultimate, bills to be paid by US citizens were small.
Not all Viet Minh efforts against the French were successful. In 1951, the Viet Minh errantly escalated the conflict onto the (basically cleared) plains of northern Vietnam and were routed, fleeing again to the jungles and heavily vegetated hills of Vietnam and Laos to re-group. Ultimately, the French were enticed into building forts high in the mountainous area where Vietnam and Laos meet, were surrounded, laid to siege and forced to surrender after the defeat and capture of their entire Army, at the battle of Dienbienphu. During this final campaign, a Geneva Conference was called for the purpose of devising terms for a negotiated end to the conflict. (Follow this link to view a map of this stage of the conflict)
The official US attitude toward the Geneva Agreements which came out of this conference was negative before, during and after the conference. Before the conference, in August 1953, the NSC decided that "any negotiated settlement would mean the eventual loss to Communism not only of Indochina but of the whole of Southeast Asia. The loss of Indochina would be critical to the security of the US" (Sheehan: 10). During the Conference, the French secretly requested "immediate armed intervention" by the US to break the siege of Dienbienphu. Eisenhower administration officials were sympathetic and formally prepared for submission to Congress a draft authorization of just such a response. This document circulated among Defense, State, and Justice Department officials in April-May, 1954. But as the weeks passed, the situation on the ground in Indochina militarily became untenable: not only at the highland fort of Dienbienphu but throughout the Red River delta, the situation shifted decisively against the French. In Paris, the will to join in a prospective US-French effort to turn the tide broke apart, as the French Cabinet conveyed new reluctance to US officials. Finally, division surfaced within the US administration, with the Joint Chiefs of Staff stating that "Indochina is devoid of decisive military objectives and the allocation of more than token US armed forces to that area would be a serious diversion of limited US capabilities" (Sheehan: 44).
This divergence in perspective among important US officials was not reconciled by the Eisenhower administration. Instead, even while the Geneva Conference was in session, during June 1954, a CIA sabotage team (headed by Col. --later Gen.-- Edward Lansdale) was sent into northern Vietnam. It also should be noted that the Joint Chiefs' position against direct US intervention in the First Indochina War was not absolute: they argued in the same memorandum cited above that whether or not the Chinese Communists might have intervened to help the Viet Minh, the use of atomic weapons, rather than ground troops would be the preferable US military response. It is some measure of the reckless brinksmanship of that age that Pentagon officials in 1954 seriously advocated using the ultimate weapons not merely against Vietnam (with whom we were not at war) but also against military targets in China (against whom only one year earlier we had disengaged, in Korea! (Sheehan: 45-47).
The Geneva Conference of 1954 was attended by the major powers and the combatants in the First Indochina War and resulted in the "Final Declaration" (Commonly known as the Geneva Agreements), signed on July 21, 1954 by the Viet Minh and the French. (This document can be found in the Pentagon Papers: Sheehan: 49-52). In exchange for release of French prisoners of war, France agreed to an orderly withdrawal from the region. Troops of the two combatant forces were to regroup: Viet Minh combat forces were to move to areas north of the 17th parallel; French forces were to regroup south of this line. Within one year, an election was to be held for the purpose of reunifying Vietnam under a single administration. During this transition, France was expected to continue to play a role in the area. But, no further foreign armed forces were to be introduced into the area (i.e., US forces were limited to no more than the 342 military advisors then present there). All powers were asked not to interfere with the national reconciliation process which would lead to an orderly and complete withdrawal of France after the election. These terms were witnessed by the Chinese (PRC), Soviets and British governments. In a separate, unilateral statement, US observer Gen. Bedell Smith stated in writing that the US will "continue to seek to achieve unity through free elections supervised by the United Nations to insure that they are conducted fairly" (52).
While the US observers appeared publicly to have orally assented to the Geneva Agreements, no US official actually signed them. In August 1954, the NSC concluded that the agreement was a "disaster," that amounted to "a major forward stride of Communism which may lead to the loss of Southeast Asia" (Pentagon Papers: 14). Despite objections raised by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the CIA's National Intelligence Board, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles persuaded the NSC and President Eisenhower to follow a policy designed to advance containment even at the expense of undermining the Geneva Agreements. US aid, which formerly had been given to the French, began to be supplied to the Vietnamese non-Communist administration, then led by Premier Ngo Dinh Diem.
II.B. The Strategy of Guerrilla War
During 1954-1975, successive US administrations attempted to contain communism in Indochina. This section of the reading explains the strategy used by the adversary of the US. After reading about it, we will return to a more chronological discussion of the elements of US foreign policy used in attempts to combat guerrilla warfare in Indochina. Giap and Ho's theory of guerrilla war closely resembled that which was applied by Mao Zedong in China, 1927-49. However, each revolutionary process was shaped by the local Communist Party in a manner suited to its national situation.
Subjective and Objective Capabilities: In all war there are both objective and subjective elements that contribute to a combatant group's power. In a conventional war, objective capabilities (e.g., the number of fighters in arms, the types of weaponry at their disposal, the total population base from which to raise an army, etc.) are of great importance. But in guerrilla war, the subjective capabilities (e.g., the morale of the guerrilla combatants compared to that of the state's army and, especially, the guerrillas will to endure hardship to fight; the overall politico-military strategy of the guerrilla movement) are more important. This is because guerrilla wars are a-symmetrical; the weaker side (objectively) adopts guerrilla tactics precisely because it is the weaker. Guerrilla tactics are part of a strategy meant to maximize whatever advantages the guerrillas can find. In Vietnamese, this concept of steeling a whole people's will to struggle, politically and militarily, so as to magnify their power is called Dao Chun.
Three Stages of Guerrilla War. Guerrilla tactics form part of a total strategy of war winning, but they are not means unto themselves. In these ways, guerrilla tactics use terrorism but differ from sheer terrorism. The strategy of guerrilla war unfolds in three stages: 1. strategic retreat; 2. stalemate; 3. escalation to conventional war and victory.Strategic retreat: The basic principle here is use space to buy time. Political work in developing a network of supporters within the zone controlled by the government is more important than running up a string of battlefield victories. Organization of guerrillas is developed: top leaders, cadres, rank and file fighters, political liaisons, and supporters. Each unit in the guerrilla organization is organized into cells. A clandestine approach is crucial. The tasks of the top leaders is to coordinate political networking, recruitment activities and occasional military missions. Cadres and political liaisons work behind the lines of the government army to a large degree. They establish contacts with sympathizers and organize networks of intelligence information and recruitment through them. This they then provide to guerrilla fighting units, in which they often also participate. Rank and file fighters train and prepare for combat. It is crucial in this stage of guerrilla war for the movement to have a secure base area from which to operate. Bases can be within the nation (e.g. China's PLA in Yenan; or the Viet Minh use of the mountainous interior portions of Indochina, 1946-51, and 52-54; or Castro's 26th of July Movement in the Sierra Oriente of Cuba). Bases can also be established outside the nation, e.g.: Laos for the Viet Minh in the First Indochina War, and Laos for the Viet Cong in the war against the Americans; the Northwest Territories of Pakistan and Baluchistan (Pakistan) for the Afghan mujahideen, 1980-1989, and for the Taliban and Al Qaeda, 2001-2007; or Honduras for the 1980s' anti-Nicaraguan "contras."In summary, guerrilla war is a long term strategy by which objectively "weaker" armies try to defeat objectively "stronger" ones. The critical issues posed by this strategy include: is it a neutral military strategy that can be effectively used by both anti-communist and communist guerrillas (as the "Reagan Doctrine" of the 1980s had it); or are there aspects of it that are suited only to the conduct of communists' and other similarly ruthless ideologues' (e.g., the Al Qaeda movement of Osama bin Laden) wars alone?
The military component of this stage is measured and precise: raiding to capture arms from government stocks, conducting political propaganda operations by occupying villages for a short time; ambushing isolated government troops; assassinating government officials, etc.. This was the stage of the Viet Minh in the Seconc World War and again in 1946-51; it was also the stage of Viet Cong strategy in the Second Vietnam war, 1957-61. Reform also played an element in building the nationalist/communist movement. In the 1940s, Viet Minh redistributed French plantation lands (and that of collaborating Vietnamese) to win over the hearts and minds of the rural poor people. The key to this stage is political, not military: use space to buy time to build the movement.
Stalemate: After a dispersed organization of cells has been developed and a reasonably secure sanctuary for base operations has been found, tactics evolve a more consistently military element. In this stage, attempts may be made to "take territory", usually in a dispersed series of areas, rather than by creating a single front. Again, the political goal of creating a hidden movement of many collaborators who aid clandestine fighters is more important than sustained engagements with the government's troops. However, in this stage the means used to broaden the movement include provocations of government troops to entice them into committing reprisals against the civilian population that is suspected of assisting the guerrillas. This stage also may last for many years. The overall goal is to undermine the credibility of the government in the eyes of the uncommitted citizens, who usually number up to 80% of the people, so to prepare them to acquiesce to the guerrillas' authority as the conflict escalates. Vietnam was in this stage from 1962 to 1967, and again from mid 1968 to late 1974. All of the tactics of Stage One continue, are expanded and larger forces of guerrillas are used in counterattacks against government forces, not merely "hit and run" ambushes. As the government forces escalate their responses, new base areas and sanctuaries are developed. Thus, the Mekong Delta and the Central Highlands which served as sanctuaries for the Viet Cong during 1962-68, thereafter were made less vital to the organization of Viet Cong war-making, even though some of the guerrillas still were present there. After the Tet offensive of 1968, the Viet Cong relocated their main base functions to the sanctuary of "neutral" Cambodia, to the Parrot's Beak area. This center became unstable, however; it was invaded and bombed into rubble by the US (1969-70), and the sanctuary had to relocate farther west into central Cambodia. Thus, the unique course of each guerrilla war dictates originality in strategic adaptation. The course of battle required the Viet Cong to create multiple command centers. One was the tunnels of Cu Chi, near Saigon, which put a Viet Cong command headquarters underground, virtually directly beneath the principal US airfield (Tan Son Nhut). Truly, this made it difficult for the South Vietnam government and US forces to deal direct blows to the heart of the hidden guerrillas!
Escalation to Conventional War: All guerrilla wars end with a conventional assault. Mao used armored columns to sweep into South China. The Viet Minh surrounded and forced the French surrender of Dienbienphu (1954). Castro marched on Havana. The North Vietnamese truck and tank columns in Spring 1975 simply rolled down the highways and took Saigon with scarcely a significant battle along the way. Guerrilla tactics of hit-and-run and harassment are useful in wearing down and wearying the government forces, but they cannot effect the total collapse of those forces. In 1967-68, the regular army of the DRV began fighting fixed-position battles against US forces, setting the stage for the Viet Cong guerrillas' simultaneous attack on 30 cities (and hundreds of towns) in the crucial January-February "Tet Offensive," of 1968. This demonstrates that the escalation to conventional war can be used as a reversible step in bringing about the physical exhaustion and the deterioration of the morale of government (and allied, i.e., US) forces. It is not a "step" in an ever-escalating war; it is a strategic component that is part of an overall strategy to make relatively more potent the materially inferior guerrilla Army. This is how the escalation - to-conventional-war aspect of the decisive Tet Offensive (1968) should be understood. Hue was not "conquered" as a failing attempt to conquer all of southern Vietnam, but as a tactic to form part of the pressure to break South Vietnam's Army and population's morale to persist in war. Over 20,000 were massacred by the Communists at Hue in 1968.
Thus, the entire DRV strategy overall, and the Tet Offensive in particular, was directed at the morale and will-to-persist of both US and non-Communist Vietnamese military forces and that of their (USA and Southern Vietnamese) leaders and domestic populations. In the end, this strategy did wear down US support of the long war: after spending over $410 billion on the Vietnam War, after losing over 58,000 combat troops, in 1973, the US ended its combat role in Vietnam (Hudson: 57). For a brief time (1968-74), the Vietnamese Communists resumed the stage 2 "stalemate" strategy, showing that, as was the case with the alternating use of stage one and stage 2 tactics, Stage 3 can be adopted, abandoned, then introduced again at a more opportune time. That time came in the late Winter and Spring of 1975, when the regular northern Vietnamese Army invaded across the 17th parallel, proceeded southward along the major coastal highway and, in sequence, took every major Vietnamese city by direct frontal attack.
III. Counterinsurgency: A Strategy by which to Oppose Guerrilla War
The American strategy by which to oppose guerrilla war in southern Vietnam initially grew out of tactics that had proven successful in the Philippines, Greece (military aid to non-Communist governments), Korea (new civil administration, limited land reform), and Guatemala (CIA covert actions). Some of these tactics were employed by the US in the first Indochina war and its immediate aftermath. (Recall that, after 1950, the US paid 78% of the total expenses of the French forces waging the first Indochina War). All of these approaches were used in the first years of the Diem government (1955-63).
Military Aid: In August 1954, the CIA told the US Eisenhower administration that the prospects for a southern Vietnamese government were poor. The National Security Council stressed to Eisenhower that implementation of the Geneva Accords would be a "disaster;" in response, and on Secretary of State John Foster Dulles' recommendation, Pres. Eisenhower authorized that substantially increased military aid be given to a newly formed, non-Communist army in southern Vietnam. In 1956, in what the Pentagon Papers later referred to as "an example of the US ignoring" the Geneva Accords, 350 additional military advisors were sent to southern Vietnam.
Reform: To placate peasant unrest, the Diem administration attempted to create a land colonization reform, rather than follow in the path of the (earlier) Viet Minh land reforms (which had transferred over 600,000 hectares to peasants during the first war). Over 200,000 Viet coastal dwellers were relocated onto lands claimed by minority ethnics in the Central Highlands. While this made a small dent in the land hunger, it did not supply adequate lands to the over 700,000 northern Viet Catholics who migrated to southern Vietnam in 1954-55. Additional administrative reforms also created new problems for the non-Communist Diem government. Diem initiated the practice of the central government (in Saigon) appointing village head men. This completed the destruction of village autonomy that had been underway for generations. Moreover, the new Diem appointees attempted to collect rent for the state on the "reformed" lands which the Viet Minh had redistributed earlier in the 1940s and 1950s. But peasant unrest was not quieted by these unpopular measures: several new non-Communist military and rural uprisings occurred between 1955 and 1962 (Cao Dai, Hoa Hao, Dai Viet). Suppression of non-Communists' restlessness became a major responsibility for Diem's new army, a situation in which he was much advantaged by information made available to him through his close relationship with Col. Lansdale (Pentagon Papers, pp. 19-21). This internal security task was aggravated by Communist Viet Cong (AKA, "National Liberation Front," or NLF) incitement of the peasants after 1958. The Diem regime also did little to co-opt the rural peoples into support for his regime: national elections (1955) and local elections (1956) were cancelled, and when ultimately ballotings were held they were marked by corruption. Delicately, the Pentagon Papers (21) called his 98.2% of the vote for president "too resounding." Additionally, repression was used liberally: between 50,000 and 100,000 suspected Communists were jailed, 1955-56 (Pentagon Papers: 71).
Covert actions also contributed to social polarization in Vietnam in the 1950s. Col. Edward Lansdale led and organized these activities about which we know a great deal, inasmuch as he wrote a 21,000 word summary which forms a small part of the lengthy Pentagon Papers (pp. 53-66). Lansdale was working on assignment for the CIA and some of his team was sent to northern Vietnam in June 1954. Teams of Viet collaborators and sabotage operations were organized there. Buses were filled with contaminant in their oil and gas tanks; petroleum supplies were blown up; efforts were (unsuccessfully) made to destroy printing presses. Lansdale also conducted psychological warfare. In order to stimulate mass panic, CIA operatives issued counterfeit DRV decrees, asking residents of Hanoi to prepare inventories of their household belongings, etc. Within two days of the release of one of these false documents, the street value of the Communists' currency fell by 50%. This technique is known as Black Propaganda. One of its more shocking forms was the circulation of rumors about Communists' anti-Catholic persecution which were disseminated despite no evidence that the Viet Communists intended to do any such thing. Thus, the migrations of northern Viets to southern Vietnam, 1954-56, were stimulated both by an unpopular DRV agricultural collectivization campaign and by deliberate CIA exaggerations about the extent to which life was going to be changing after the French left. (By 1960, over 3/4ths of northern Vietnam's farmland was collectively owned.) These were not rogue operations: US Naval vessels carried Lansdale's agents (code named "Binh") into Haiphong; the CIA-contract airline Civil Air Transport continued to take supplies to them as late as May 1955. Nor were all of Lansdale's covert actions directed against Communists. In Saigon, English language classes were organized for "mistresses of important personages," enabling Lansdale to get to know confidants of important southern Vietnamese officials, such as army Chief of Staff Gen. Nguyen Van Hinh (Pentagon Papers: 17). Southern Viet public opinion also was manipulated. Viet astrologers in Saigon were commissioned to forecast dark days ahead for the Viet Minh-- and sunny skies for the Diem regime. (Note: many of the details of Lansdale's escapades went to his grave with him. On February 23, 1987, at McLean Virginia, he passed away; Washington Post, Feb. 24, 1987: B4).
These varied efforts helped to keep Diem in power in southern Vietnam throughout the duration of the Eisenhower administration. As the authors of the Pentagon Papers (25) opined: "Without US support, Diem almost certainly could not have consolidated his hold on the South during 1955 and 1956... South Vietnam was essentially the creation of the United States" (emphasis added).
However, by 1961, the Kennedy administration determined that a more comprehensive effort would be needed if US containment goals were to be sustained in the longer run. Escalation in Communist tactics suggested a new level of US response was needed. The NLF had assassinated 193 Diem officials in all of 1958, but by late 1959 their acts of terrorism were more than twice as frequent: these killings reached a rate of 119 in the last quarter of that year. This type of targeted violence, directed as it was against the functionaries of the US-allied government, undermined the authority of the Diem government to the extent that Diem's officials readily could not eliminate this type of violence and restore order. The Politburo of the northern Vietnamese Communist Party also determined to aid the NLF in these terror tactics and in expanded ways. On May 19, 1959, that body assigned Brig. Gen. Vo Bam to construct a series of roads to permit the DRV steadily to aid the NLF, a project that ultimately would create what came to be known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail (Richburg: 33). Shortly after Kennedy's election as US President, on December 20, 1960, the DRV formally (but secretly) called on the NLF to lead a revolution to unify Vietnam.
US advisors numbered 685 at the time of Kennedy's inauguration; by October 1963, 16,732 US active duty US armed forces were in Vietnam. At the time of Kennedy's inauguration, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (who in 1954 had said all of Indochina was "devoid of military significance") told JFK that a maximum of 40,000 US combat troops ever would be needed to win a complete victory. Kennedy opted to expand US commitments to the non-Communist Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN): 30,000 ARVN troops would thereafter be paid by the USA. In the Spring of 1961, National Security Advisor Walt Rostow illustrated another of the key misunderstandings of that time, telling soldiers at Ft. Bragg (NC) that we can "stop insurgency by cutting off the external supply" to it. Neither Kennedy, nor Rostow, nor the JCS paid heed to a CIA National Intelligence Estimate issued that Spring, which stated that the main source of the strength of the NLF was indigenous, not external to southern Vietnam. The administration had an image of the adversary derived from earlier conflicts elsewhere (e.g., Korea), and a general strategy they believed could defeat it: counterinsurgency war (C-I war).
The elements involved in US counterinsurgency war strategy (hereinafter, C-I war) would evolve in Vietnam over the course of twelve years, 1961-73. To defeat the guerrillas, the hearts and minds of the public would have to be turned in favor of the Saigon government, not the guerrillas. Several further tactics to this end were pursued in the early years of US involvement:
Strategic Hamlets: To secure villagers from NLF assassinations of pro-Diem officials and supporters, a system of protected villages was established. By September 1961, over 400 NLF attacks a month of this kind were occurring. In one spectacular assault that month, the NLF seized a provincial capital only 55 miles from Saigon and publicly beheaded the provincial chief appointed by the Diem government. The US and the Diem regime fashioned a response. Begun in late 1962, and called "strategic hamlets," these were designed to protect villagers at night, so that troops of the ARVN could stand between guerrilla and public.
Civic Action: To improve the public's attitude toward the ARVN and the Diem regime, military engineer units (modeled on the US Army Corps of Engineers) would begin to build needed public works in rural areas (e.g., wells, bridges, roads, sanitation systems, etc.). This component of counterinsurgency was (and is) called Civic Action. Another crucial element in the success of this strategic component was the elimination of corruption by Saigon appointed administrators. Land reform to woo the hearts of landless peasants also was repeatedly proposed by USAID administrators. These latter tactics never were fully implemented.
Irregular Warfare: To eliminate the guerrillas that now were thought to be less likely to remain in good standing with the villagers, special crack fighting units were trained to quickly respond and eliminate guerrillas wherever they might be reported to have appeared. To this end, JFK approved the creation of a 805 man Viet special operations group, to be trained by US Army Special Forces (AKA, the Green Berets). These US soldiers began to fight alongside the ARVN, though this publicly was acknowledged only 10 years later. Concurrently, US Army Rangers, stationed near the 17th parallel were authorized to begin to conduct covert actions inside northern Vietnam. Still, as late as November 1962, the primary US orientation was indirect: only 948 US military then were present in Vietnam, despite the declining authority of the Diem regime. However, in the Gulf of Tonkin, US Navy minesweepers and other warships now were on regular patrol; and in January 1962, US helicopter pilots began to fly combat support for the ARVN in its ground operations.
By late 1963, US military advisory and training missions had grown to require 16,732 active duty US military personnel. The expectation was that the ARVN, bouyed by this visible support, would mop up the NLF in short order. Some holes in these expectations were already visible: US casualties in 1962 were ten times greater than they had been in 1961, for example. White House aide Michael Foresttal noted to the President that there really was no way of knowing just how successful existing ARVN operations were, since many of the 20,000 they had killed in the "strategic hamlets" campaign were simply innocent bystanders. This interpretation, as well as another CIA estimate that the military balance favored the NLF (due to high rates of ARVN defection), were scoffed at by the Pentagon. But other elements in the Pentagon's optimistic assessment of the efficacy of counterinsurgency war were unraveling, in full view of high US military planners. As early as May 1963, US military officials were meeting regularly with disgruntled ARVN officers who sought to eliminate President Diem. This disunity was aggravated by tensions within the ARVN over Diem's campaign to stop peace protests by Buddhists. In August 1963, Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge suggested that "we go straight to the generals with our demands," bypassing President Diem. Thus, when the military heads of the ARVN overthrew Diem (and murdered him), the US had played a significant role in undermining his authority already.
In the wake of Kennedy's assassination (November 22, 1963), doubting voices within the US administration had the opportunity to urge disengagement, based on the failure of counterinsurgency in its first three years. Attorney General Robert Kennedy to the NSC forcefully advanced this position, which earlier had been the position of Paul Kattenburg, head of the Vietnam Intergovernmental Working Group. Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Secretary of Defense Robert MacNamara were instrumental in persuading new President Lyndon Johnson not only to reject this advice but also to begin steps toward military escalation. Four days after taking office, LBJ authorized secret "hit and run" raids into northern Vietnam.
Escalation of the Direct US Role in the War. While Lodge and other US personnel attempted to stabilize administration in southern Vietnam under the authority of General Khanh, US military forces edged closer to direct combat throughout 1964. "Plan 34A," begun in February authorized raids on northern Vietnam. Secret bombing of trails supplying equipment to the guerrillas through Laos was begun in the late Spring. US naval operations off the northern coast of Vietnam continued all summer, culminating in the two Tonkin Gulf Incidents of the late summer. Congress was not informed of the 34-A raids which were contemporaneous with the northern Vietnamese attack on the USS Maddox and USS Turner Joy. Nearly unanimously, the Congress (in House Joint Resolution 1145, the "Tonkin Gulf Resolution") authorized "the President, as Commander in Chief, to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the US and to prevent further aggression" (Congressional Record: 18402-18404). This was construed to be tantamount to a declaration of war against the DRV; only 2 US Senators had voted against it (Wayne Morse of Oregon; Ernest Gruening of Alaska). For the first time in the history of US involvement in Indochina, US officials then acknowledged that we had undertaken retaliatory bombing raids over northern Vietnam. An American war effort in earnest had begun.
Deception: To Americans, the bold new steps were carefully minimized in the manner with which they were presented to the people. In the Fall of 1964, LBJ campaigned for election to continue his presidency as the "peace" candidate, as distinct from the "war-like" Republican, Barry Goldwater. Commercials were aired that suggested Goldwater would provoke nuclear war. Hidden from view were depressing JCS studies (January 1965) that saw the fall of Saigon, its "final collapse... a distinct possibility." The NLF, however, were working on their own timetable, and attacked the airfield at Bienhoa barely 48 hours before the US election. Johnson won in a landslide.
Air war leads to Ground Combat: Continuous air war against the supply lines ("Ho Chi Minh Trail") and troops of the NLF and the DRV began early in 1965 and continued, with but brief interruptions, for over eight years. The objective of strategic bombing was both to enfeeble the NLF in the south and to weaken the resolve of the suppliers of arms in the north. Neither objective appears to have been accomplished through the most extensive aerial bombing campaign ever launched anywhere (including World War II, if measured in terms of tons of bombs dropped). In March 1965, to secure a perimeter around one air base (Da Nang), US combat Marines were introduced. Thus, the strategy of stopping supplies to the southern guerrillas by bombing the trails to the south led to a direct ground combat role for US armed forces. The question became: how wide did the secure perimeter need to be? No one could finally answer this question. In June 1966, the air war turned economic: bombing of oil storage facilities in northern Vietnam then began, continuing off and on until January 1973. Yet, as early as September 1966, the official Study Group reported secretly to LBJ that operation "Rolling Thunder" (the code name for the air war over the north) "had no measurable effect" on the war in the south, going on to conclude: "there is no firm basis for determining if there is any feasible level of effort that could achieve" US objectives. In January 1967, the CIA secretly reported that 80% of the 36,000 northern Vietnamese killed by the air war (to that date) were civilians. Ignoring the implications of these assessments, in 1969, US officials expanded the air war to include sorties over neutral, neighboring Cambodia. For five more years it, too, would become a war zone for the Americans.
Pacification: The objective in the land war, beyond securing the air fields, was to pacify the countryside by clearing specific areas of guerrillas. To accomplish this, Gen. Westmoreland in June asked for and received 44 battalions, or 190,000 US soldiers. (This was not made public for six months, until December 1965). Though NSC directive 328 (April 6, 1965) had stated that "publicity be avoided by all possible precautions," the new role of US forces could not long be covered up. Casualties began to increase as the "Hop Tac Program" began to radiate out from Saigon, "clearing" guerrillas from one area, then moving on. The strategy assumed that, after US "search and destroy" operations moved through, the peasants would loyally report any return of guerrillas. This supposition turned out to be a vain hope, for guerrilla infrastructure ran too deep into most of the rural Viet communities that were "pacified."
To remove guerrilla personnel from the villages a further component of pacification was devised: "Operation Phoenix." Its purpose was to identify and eliminate Viet Cong (NLF) cadre in the villages of southern Vietnam. Though at least 20,000 persons summarily were executed by CIA and ARVN personnel as part of "Phoenix," the guerrillas remained sufficiently well organized to be able to launch the (suicidal) 1968 Tet Offensive. The ramifications of the "Phoenix" approach, however, were broader still: when news of CIA-run assassinations surfaced in the US, sharp debates ensued regarding the propriety of such tactics forming part of a democracy's war-fighting strategy.
Expansion of US ground combat operations: From 1965 to 1968, the escalation continued. At each stage of the escalation of the US commitment, critical voices were rejected as LBJ leaned more and more heavily on the advice of his field commander, Gen. Westmoreland. In November 1965, he asked LBJ to increase US combat troop strength to 400,000; one month later, 443,000 were said to be needed; in January 1966, 459,000 were requested; by August, Westmoreland thought 542,588 would suffice. Only when the General asked for 671,000 US combat troops (March 1967) did LBJ finally say, "No." By then, over one half million US GIs were fighting alongside the ARVN against the tenacious NLF and its ally, the northern Vietnamese regular Army. Moreover, the rate of ARVN casualties declined in direct proportion to the rate of increase in US ground forces' casualties, 1966-68 (Fitzgerald: 473). Increasingly, the war which LBJ was presenting to the American people as one in which the US was aiding a sturdy anti-Communist ally (i.e., the Saigon government) was becoming, in fact, a war fought primarily by US troops.
The memoir of Saralee McGoran, Army nurse at Cu Chi during 1967-68, captures some of the lost innocence of those times. She wrote:
"We were getting all kinds of casualties in. Guys would come in who had lost one eye, one arm, two legs. It wasn't uncommon to have a guy come in with wounds like that, plus with wounds all over his body... You could put two arms in through the holes... It took me about a week to realize that the war was wrong. That we didn't belong there. That it was gross, war was gross. And awful. ...Like, there were some units that weren't issued weapons because maybe the second lieutenant didn't have the respect of the men, were afraid their own men would kill them-- a lot of the second lieutenants were real paranoid, because they didn't know what the hell they were doing. So they wouldn't let their guys have weapons and their units would get overrun. They'd get slaughtered. It was terrible. I don't remember names but I remember cases" (in Marshall: 248-249).
After the war ended, a BBC film crew was shown the main reason why Cu Chi was such a tough assignment. A maze of Viet Cong underground tunnels were concealed directly under the US command there, housing terrorist units, injured combatants, and weapons production facilities. Far from being a secure US base, Cu Chi was a hub of clandestine enemy activity.
The Critical Crossing: The Viet Cong's Tet Offensive, January-March, 1968. On January 30, 1968, NLF forces began the campaign in which they lost 40% of their fighters, the ill-starred "Tet Offensive." Simultaneously, more than two dozen southern cities were attacked, including Saigon and the old imperial capital of Hue, near the demilitarized zone separating northern from southern Vietnam. This offensive was a disaster for the Communists from a purely military point of view, but the mere fact that such an offensive could occur was interpreted by nearly all of the US press as colossal evidence that the war was turning badly for the US. For example, NLF guerrillas penetrated the grounds of the US Embassy in Saigon, symbolizing the image of the Communists' apparent potency. In protracted war where the will to persist in war plays a central part in the equation, it is perception more than reality which is of greatest import. Nearly all US observers concluded that Tet indicated the war was far from over, an assessment that was quite contrary to more upbeat official reports in 1967. More than five hundred US troops perished in one week of March 1968. Anti-war Senators entered the re-nomination race against Johnson. Even though the sitting president won a narrow (49 percent to 42 percent) victory over anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy in New Hampshire, the press continued to spin the story as one of flagging support for Johnson and his war. Unwilling to defend his policies in a court of public opinion now quite agitated, a sheepish Pres. Johnson announced he would begin negotiations for a cease fire and stated he would not seek reelection to the US presidency. In terms of the subjective element of US war-fighting ability, the events of January to April 1968 indicated that the American will to persist had slackened. The Vietnamese communists had snatched victory from the jaws of their clear military defeat. (For an American woman's memoir of her experiences as the enemy army overran the city of Hue, see Marshall: 147-157). America exploded in anti-war demonstrations, racial riots and other manifestations of a fraying unity. Unrest spread to the troops in Vietnam and incidents of officer killing ("fragging") were rumored.
Vietnamization: The 1968 US general election brought Richard M. Nixon to the presidency after a "law and order" campaign that also promised a "secret plan" to end the war in Vietnam. Years later, when asked about that "secret plan," Nixon told ABC News that there was none, that "it was just one of those things that comes up in the course of a campaign" (ABC). Nixon's Vietnam deceptions during the campaign of 1968 surely were no greater than those involved in presenting Johnson as the "peace" candidate in 1964. Both were substantial affronts to the democratic process. But what had changed was that the public was no longer so unified in its gullibility by 1968; indeed, cynicism had become nearly as universal. Nixon's policy in office thus was constrained by this changed environment. Reacting to an American public less than united behind the various components of C-I war, in 1969 the Nixon Administration attempted to fulfill existing commitments, and to continue to pursue the basic strategy of containment, through new tactics dubbed as "Vietnamization." Assurances were given to the US public that his administration was winding down the US role in the war effort. This diminished direct US role even was presented as a new, overall Asian policy for the US, in the Guam announcement of the "Nixon Doctrine". Both publicly and behind the scenes, however, these efforts to reduce expectations were mixed with promises to remain steadfast beside our southern Vietnamese ally, Gen. Thieu. Critical to this effort were two elements: stabilization of governmental authority in Saigon around one general (Gen. Thieu), rather than a continuously changing set of generals; and second, invigoration of the ARVN so that it could replace US forces in effective combat as the US commitment of ground troops began to be withdrawn. Some charged that this modification of war policy amounted to little more than changing the color of the men in the coffins. At a deeper level this charge contained a grain of truth: behind all that appeared new in Nixon's gradual withdrawal of US combat troops, the anti-communist essence of war policy continued, and it continued to rely on a US air war over all Indochina.
The War Spreads to Cambodia. In a significant expansion of the theatre of ground combat, for two months in Spring 1970, the Nixon administration ordered US forces to invade Cambodia to eliminate NLF bases there. This invasion followed swift on the heels of the re-alignment of formerly neutral Cambodia as an ally of the US. By coup d'etat that nation's place in the cause of the free world was set in motion by Col. Lon Nol. This militarization of Cambodia placed the neutralist former ruler Prince Norodam Sihanouk in a difficult position; eventually, he threw his authority behind the Cambodian Communist forces ("Khmer Rouge") who were attempting to expel the US from Cambodia and end the Lon Nol military government. Ultimately, they "succeeded," in April 1975, ushering in the most brutal communist government known for a brief, three year run at further destroying Cambodian society (see Becker, and Ngor).
The invasion of Cambodia stimulated anew the anti-war movement within the US, hastening the efforts of Congress and others to end US involvement in Southeast Asia. Unarmed students protesting the war were shot and killed by National Guardsmen at Kent State University (Ohio). Unrest spread to over 300 universities and colleges, leading the Nixon team to attempt to harness the widespread and negative reactions of the "Silent Majority." Protestors, it seemed to the Nixon team, could be their own worst enemies, for by burning the flag (etc.) they undermined support for their cause.
The author of this essay had first hand experience with Nixon's attempts to manipulate public opinion about war protests so to influence the outcome of U.S. elections, but the reader need not take his word alone. Nixon's Chief of Staff, H.R. Haldeman, in his diary of October 29, 1970, summarized the way in which the Nixon team sought political gain in this situation. Commenting on events that the author of this essay witnessed in San Jose, CA on that date, Haldeman wrote: "...we wanted some confrontation and there were no hecklers in the hall, so we stalled departure a little so they [the demonstrators outside the hall] could zero in inside, and they sure did... Made a huge incident and we worked hard to crank it up, should make a really major story...." (Pincus: 6). Indeed, Nixon entered the parking lot, stood atop a limo, waved his patented "V" sign with his up-stretched arms, and enraged the anti-war crowd. Just as their hoots reached a crescendo, a flying wedge of motorcycle police drove without warning into the crowd, clearing a path for the presidential motorcade. Stunned, the crowd fell back pell-mell as dozens of baton wielding police waded in, cracking heads. When the Presidential motorcade reached the street, it paused, clogging up the flow of associated vehicles and the press buses through the now enraged crowd. Coincidentally --or perhaps NOT coincidentally, from the provocative tone of the late Haldeman's diary--, the street recently had been torn up, and the old asphalt had been deposited on the roadside, the very roadside toward which the baton-wielding police drove the crowd. Not surprisingly, many in the crowd --though not the author-- then pelted the motorcade, especially the press buses, with the convenient fist sized asphalt pieces. The encounter produced coverage of Nixon's stoning by anti-war protestors in California, but the general election days later did not produce big gains for the Republicans in Congress. The attempt to link support for Nixon's war policy to a domestic campaign centered on "Law and Order" had failed. (Quite mysteriously, the very next day all of the asphalt pieces on that roadside were removed and the road itself was repaved, as if nothing had occurred).
Within Congress the war itself --not the provocations at home-- remained the central issue, and support for the war which had been eroding decisively continued to shift: on January 12, 1971, the Tonkin Gulf Resolution was repealed. Within the administrative part of the government, NSC staffer Daniel Ellsberg quit and took the Pentagon Papers to the publishers of the New York Times. In a highly unusual attempt to exercise prior restraint over the press, the Nixon administration sought to bar their publication. On June 30, 1971, the US Supreme Court reversed lower court decisions barring Americans from reading the government study and ruled, in New York Times v U.S., that the first amendment of the US Constitution was more important than protecting secret historical aspects of US involvement in Vietnam. Justice Potter Stewart wrote: "In the absence of the governmental checks and balances present in other areas of our national life, the only effective restraint on executive policy and power in the areas of national defense and international affairs may lie in an enlightened citizenry-- in an informed and critical public opinion which alone can here protect the values of democratic government... [w]ithout an informed and free press, there cannot be an enlightened people" (in Cushman: 279-80).
The Nixon Administration was deeply enmeshed in negotiations with the North Vietnamese then being held in Paris. Already secretive by personal style, the delicacy of these negotiations gave additional impetus to the perceived need for absolute secrecy regarding Vietnam War policy. Yet damaging leaks had continued throughout the first years of the Nixon Administration: how could they be stopped? In response to this chain of events, the Nixon administration began a vigorous campaign to identify disloyal elements within the administration, efforts that led to the establishment of special security groups in the White House ("the Plumbers") and a series of criminal acts, 1970-73, which eventually led to criminal investigations. Most notable of these was, of course, the break-in at the Watergate offices of the Democratic National Committee. Attempts to cover all this up, and to use US agencies to intimidate opponents were successful until after the 1972 general election, in which Nixon was reelected. Though he had foreign policy guru Kissinger declare "peace is at hand" during the height of the campaign (i.e., October 26, 1972), bombs again rained on Hanoi in December 1972, setting the stage for the final peace settlement, signed in January 1973 in Paris. (Revealingly, in Kissinger's 2003 memoir, Ending the Vietnam War, discussion of the "peace is at hand" gambit appears barely half way through the book, at page 375 of that rambling 635 page post hoc justification of his role).
The sordid backdrop to Nixon's Vietnam policy, however, was discovered by Congressional investigators and by independent counsels which had been appointed to investigate potential crimes. Ultimately, this process led to Nixon's resignation from the US presidency in the face of imminent impeachment by the House of Representatives (August 1974).
Beset as it was by the unraveling cloth of its criminal conspiracy to cover-up a series of burglaries directed against its domestic opponents (including those who had released the Pentagon Papers), the Nixon group enjoyed little influence in Congress by mid 1973. Laws were passed terminating the legal authority under which US funds could bomb in Indochina; and which restricted the War Power of the presidency. While just months before (January 27, 1973), the Nixon administration basked in success, having finally negotiated and signed with the DRV terms for US withdrawal from Vietnam, by Summer 1973 little credit was extended to Nixon for this tardy achievement. A close examination reveals why: the Nixon Vietnam settlement, known as the Paris Accords, abandoned longstanding goals of containment policy. Signed January 27, 1973, this peace agreement provided for the orderly withdrawal of US forces and the return of US prisoners of war (POWs) held by the DRV. The Saigon government was not a party to these negotiations and rejected their terms, for no prohibition on DRV troops remaining in southern Vietnam was included. These were terms that northern Vietnamese negotiators first had offered the US in 1968. Five additional years of bloodshed, essentially, had been necessary in order to convince US leaders of the viability of the deal. The US ally in southern Vietnam, Gen. Thieu, rightly understood that Mr. Nixon's "peace with honor" was little more than a face-saving device through which the US would quit the war and leave him to fight his own anticommunist battles.
Collapse: For two more years (1973-75), the Thieu regime hung desperately onto its eroding base of domestic and international support. The end came suddenly, in Spring 1975, about two years after the last US combat forces left Vietnam. Nixon's successor, Gerald Ford, had little support for half-hearted proposals to come again to the aid of a Thieu government which Congress had been increasingly unwilling to bankroll. In the winter of 1974-75, the northern Vietnamese forces launched an attack on the south, and the Saigon-based ARVN, especially in the Central highlands, simply disintegrated. The decision to mount an even bolder armored, cross-border attack in Spring 1975 was made in Hanoi. Within six weeks of commencing, the entirety of Vietnam was under the rule of the DRV, an objective won after 30 years of fighting. To Americans, the image of the last US helicopter lifting diplomats and refugees from the roof of the US embassy symbolized a new self image: an era of disillusionment and retreat had arrived. For at least fifteen years after the retreat from Vietnam, Americans' attitudes about the efficacy of their military power would be shaken.
IV. Direct Consequences of the Vietnamese Communists' Success in the Vietnam War
Establishment of a significant Regional Military Power: The final triumph of Communist forces in Indochina (April 1975) came at the conclusion of over 35 years of war. During these decades of conflict, Vietnamese fighters in turn successfully had engaged the Japanese Army (1941-45), had defeated the French Army (1946-54) and had forced US advisors and armed forces to withdraw (1954-75). Emboldened and transformed by this militant history, within four years of victory the Vietnam government invaded and conquered its neighbor, Cambodia, menacing other states of Southeast Asia.
Communist Aid and the Growth of Soviet Influence in Southeast Asia: During the course of their revolutionary war, the Vietnamese Communists were assisted by the Chinese (Peoples' Republic of China, or PRC), East European and Soviet parties and governments. All during the war, it was very apparent that great majority of the weapons in use by the Communist side originated in China, Eastern Europe and the USSR. In the decades after the end of the Vietnam War the full extent of this military aid finally has been acknowledged, and more direct forms of involvement have been confirmed. In 1989, the PRC's China News Agency reported that over $20 billion in Chinese aid was extended to Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s. Further, the Chinese even claimed that over the years fully 320,000 Chinese troops fought in Vietnam in support of the Viet Communists; 4000 died there ("China Admits...": 31). In the age of glasnost, Soviet sources also finally began to speak with candor about their actual role in supporting Vietnamese Communists' wars. Though the numbers of Red Army combat veterans of the Vietnam War were apparently much smaller, Krasnaya Zvezda newspaper in April 1989 reported that more than 20 US aircraft were shot down by Soviet anti-aircraft personnel there (Remnick 1989: 24). Beyond this direct aid, it is now clear that advisors from major Communist powers also played an important role in assisting Vietnam to win the Vietnam War. Throughout, advice was offered and suggestions given of new directions in war-making activities. Vietnamese leaders were kept informed of American capabilities as a result of Soviet intelligence sharing.
Aid from communist countries clearly helped Vietnam to defeat the US. But the larger truth is that the primary strategy of the Vietnamese Communists was developed by national leaders, the timing of its implementation was selected by them, and most importantly, the brunt of the casualties were suffered by Vietnamese. At least six hundred thousand Vietnamese died fighting for the communist side. Moreover, the Viets were not the Soviets' poodle even if they relied on Soviet aid. Indeed, the negotiating strategy used by Vietnamese negotiator Le Duc Tho in his Paris exchanges with Henry Kissinger at times deeply annoyed both the Soviets and the Americans.
By the 1975 conclusion of a major Western presence in Indochina, Vietnam had become a close ally of the USSR. This had not always been the case. In the early 1960s, when Vietnamese Communists had begun escalating their attacks on anti-Communist South Vietnamese government officials and their supporters, Moscow actually had supported an effort to "neutralize" Laos, a position that might have weakened the Vietnamese revolution, if it actually had occurred. After the Brezhnev group came to power in the Soviet Union (1964), however, the USSR became more supportive of the Vietnamese Communists, and began major arms deliveries shortly after sustained US bombing began (1965). By the time of the Paris Accords which signaled the end of direct US involvement in the war (January 1973), the Soviets were the main supplier of arms to the Vietnamese Communists. One of the biggest "spoils" which the US abandoned in its retreat from Indochina was the large naval facility at Kam Rahn Bay, which swiftly was converted in to a Soviet Naval facility.
There were ironic secondary effects to the Soviet-Vietnamese partnership. Over the course of this long conflict, Vietnamese Communist leaders increasingly came to rely on the USSR for supplies of arms (etc.) that were crucial to their war effort. After the 1975 end of the war, Soviet aid continued, amounting to an estimated $3.2 billion as late as 1986, $1.4 billion of it military aid (Europa: 3036). But this expensive and close relationship contributed to a growing financial crisis in the final years of the USSR. As resources were drained from domestic renewal projects in the USSR to support this far flung client state, support for further "fraternal commitments" diminished even within the CPSU. When the USSR dissolved (December 1991), Vietnam was left without a patron, and with few friends.
Demonstration to small states of the vulnerability of Superpowers: Most significant to an understanding of the US role in world politics were lessons that the Vietnam conflicts taught us about the nature and utility of apparent power. This case demonstrated that, when survival of a two centered global system hinged on non-use of available nuclear weapons, there were clear limits to the usable military power of the superpowers. The Cold War and its risks simply prevented the US from ever delivering a "knockout punch." In these circumstances, the Vietnamese fought and won protracted, a-symmetrical conflicts against two numerically and materially superior adversaries (i.e., France, then the US). In so doing Vietnam demonstrated that "subjective" aspects of national power (e.g., will, strategy, endurance) can be of greater significance than "objective" elements of national power (e.g., GNP, size of population resources and armed forces, level of technical sophistication of weaponry) in determining outcomes of international conflicts. Vietnam demonstrated to all Third World states that a party committed to its concept of national interest can re-organize state and society so as to weather even determined opposition of major powers. That this was accomplished only by extinguishing much of what it traditionally meant to be Vietnamese cannot be denied; indeed, the ominous implications of what it may take to overcome a superpower casts a chilling shadow over the aspirations for greater national self-determination entertained by frustrated imitators, whether in underdeveloped areas of the Third World or elsewhere. Yet, the Saddam Hussein's and Slobodan Milosevic's of the post-Cold War age chose aggression and confrontation nonetheless, suggesting that the end of the Cold War --and of Communism-- was not the "end of history" which Francis Fukuyama and others envisioned.
The Changing Impact of Soviet, US and Chinese Presence on the international system in East Asia after the Vietnam War. The end of the Vietnam war was not able to measured in an atmosphere of real peace. Other rivalries --ignored earlier by the US-- resurfaced. Within three years after the fall of Saigon (1975), Vietnamese relations with the PRC were strained and tense, while Viet-Soviet relations were closer than ever. Traditional animosities between ethnic Chinese and Viets became magnified through international actions of these states in the late 1970s through the mid 1980s, a period in which the global Cold War reinforced division between USSR-allied Vietnam and a PRC whose foreign policy ran parallel to that of the US on many important questions.
Deep cultural differences resurfaced. One reason that many ethnic Chinese were targeted by the Vietnam government grew from the economic role of many of the resident Chinese before Hanoi's triumph. Typically, many ethnic Chinese in Vietnam had been in commercial roles, especially in the cities of southern Vietnam. When these somewhat better off Chinese ethnics attempted to flee Communist Indochina-- alongside millions of disillusioned Viets-- the Vietnam government took swift action against the emigrants. To prevent a mass exodus, vast communist re-education camps were set up which, though they differed little from forced labor practices of the PRC, further alienated the two Asian communist states to the extent that they were perceived in Beijing to be disproportionately filled with ethnic Chinese citizens of Vietnam. This problem was mitigated in the later 1980s and early 1990s, partly due to the failure of the Vietnamese economy (which reduced the government's zeal in preventing emigration) and partly due to the very real isolation of Vietnam, one of the few communist states remaining in the world.
Two other issues in the Southeast Asia region also contributed to Chinese - Vietnamese tensions after 1975, Cambodia and the Viet-Soviet alliance. Each of these deserves specific attention. Cambodia (or Kampuchea): Chinese Communists long had been the inspiration and principal source of foreign support for another group of Communist guerrillas, the Khmer Rouge, or Red Cambodians, who took power in Vietnam's neighbor, Cambodia, in Spring 1975. The short-lived government of the Khmer Rouge there (1975-1978) was the author of the most brutal, genocidal administration witnessed anywhere since World War II. Perhaps as many as two million people --one third of the Cambodian population-- appear to have been murdered or starved to death by the fanatical Khmer Rouge. Nevertheless, the Chinese Communist government resented the December 1978 conquest of this brutal ally by (Soviet-allied) Vietnam. Thereafter, China gave assistance to an armed resistance against the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia. In the 1980s, the US also gave humanitarian assistance to anti-Vietnamese guerrillas (though not the Communist Khmer Rouge factions) that sought expulsion of Vietnam from Cambodia.
By this case the explanatory limits of the US strategic doctrine of "containment of communism" are revealed. The ideological phases of containment only really fit the early part of the Cold War era; and the concept accurately described virtually nothing about the policies of the great powers in the Southeast Asia region in the 1980s. Clearly, both Vietnamese and Chinese governments remained dominated exclusively by communist parties throughout the 1990s. Both pursued divergent foreign policies, however; and the US supported objectives remarkably congruent with those of China: containing growing Vietnamese power.
In the 1980s, the global system overall remained a bipolar one, and blocks of allied states continued to oppose one another largely along a communist versus free world fracture line. But ideology was no longer the only glue that stuck. Alliances which once had reinforced a stark, ideologically-based division of the globe in nearly all regions had evolved into something less than ideologically unified camps. Democratic India substantially was supported by and gave support to the U.S.S.R. Conversely, until the collapse of the U.S.S.R. in 1991, Communist China and the capitalist US frequently stood together against the USSR and its friends. Due to similarities in objectives in Cambodia (i.e., to contain the influence of Soviet-allied Vietnam), the US and the Chinese Communists found themselves to be as tacit allies. In seeking the expulsion of Vietnam from Cambodia in the 1980s, the US ironically found itself advancing the same goal pursued by the despicable, but pro-Chinese, Khmer Rouge, whom the Vietnamese had removed from power in 1979. In September 1989, the US-Chinese policy of assisting a diverse Cambodian resistance of communist and non-communist armies bore fruit, as the last Vietnamese combat troops withdrew from Cambodia.
The Cold War ended, 1989-91, and new conditions came to prevail in the whole global system, hence in the regional subsystem of Southeast Asia. New actors now found a role. Previously dormant in regard to these problems owing to the stalemate created in it by superpowers' rivalries, the United Nations was called upon to help supervise national reconciliation in Cambodia as a result of a peace agreement arrived at among the local parties in October 1991. Elections under U.N. auspices were held in May 1993, refugees were repatriated and, though Khmer Rouge troops continued to menace the fragile peace, they did so without powerful external patrons. Since the end of the Cold War, China has been more concerned with economic development, and for China this has made trade with the West the priority in foreign policy. Vietnam, though still communist, also embarked on a campaign for Western trade and aid. The U.N. mission to Cambodia, UNTAC, withdrew its main operation in the fall of 1993, and Cambodia faded from the world's gaze. Isolated, forgotten, Cambodia languished, and on July 7, 1997, a powerful faction led by ex-Khmer Rouge leader Hun Sen dispensed with the aura of democracy and seized power from Prime Minister Ranariddh in a violent military coup.
Soviet-Vietnamese Alliance: After August 1991, the Soviet Union was no more. But in the late 1970s and 1980s, Vietnam's ties to its large Eurasian patron vexed those seeking peace in the region. On November 3, 1978, an agreement called the "Soviet-Vietnamese Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation" was signed. At article 6, it pledged both parties to "immediately consult with each other with a view to eliminating that threat" if either nation was attacked. While the treaty was made obsolete by the disintegration of the U.S.S.R. in 1991, warm relations between post Soviet Russia and Vietnam have continued.
The Major Powers in Southeast Asia and the End of the Cold War. Faced with reduced capacity to project power, and possessed of a corresponding slackening will to pursue a traditional Soviet foreign policy globally, Soviet First Secretary and President Mikhail Gorbachev approached the Southeast Asian region with the goal of reducing Soviet commitments. In September 1988, Gorbachev first signaled a new approach when he offered to end the Soviet presence at Kam Rahn Bay in exchange for a US withdrawal from the Subic Bay US Navy base in the Philippines. Equivocation followed in Moscow, as the US Reagan-Bush Administrations brushed off the suggestion. No visible progress was made on this offer in the remaining three years of Gorbachev's undisputed leadership of the USSR. After his demise, matters quickly changed. Due to the underlying causes of collapse of the USSR (August-December 1991), expensively maintained Soviet forces in Vietnam (and elsewhere, e.g. Cuba) speedily were begun to be withdrawn after Fall 1991. Ironically, US base agreements in the Philippines also formally lapsed at that same time, due to the resentment of Filipino Senate members against a continued US presence in that nation.
As the Red Armed forces came home, so, too, did the terms of the Soviet/Russian commitment to Vietnam fall under broad criticism by the democratic forces briefly ascendant in the USSR after August 1991. Ultimately, the earlier security pledges of 1978 were renounced by the Russian Government of Boris Yeltsin which steered a pro-Western course through most of its first term, 1991-96. Despite the retreat from a pro-Western policy that was represented by elevation of Soviet-era diplomat Y. Primakov to the post of Foreign Minister (January 1996), Yeltsin and Primakov (who later became Yeltsin's Prime Minister) displayed little interest in resurrecting costly ties in Southeast Asia through the remainder of his term. After Yeltsin's resignation (Dec. 31, 1999), the Vladimir Putin presidency of Russia began to pursue a limited warming of relations in Southeast Asia. Moreover, contemporary Russian Communists, a large and influential force in the Russian legislature, have advocated a foreign policy that makes little mention of former client states such as Vietnam and Cuba, though it sharply has critiqued Western expansion of NATO into the former Warsaw Pact nations of Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic (1998), and into parts of the former U.S.S.R. in 2002 (e.g., the Baltic states).
Hostilities along Viet-Chinese Border: The Chinese-Vietnamese border remained tense even after the end of the Cold War. In 1979, the Chinese abrogated (i.e., cancelled) the long moribund USSR-PRC mutual assistance treaty and invaded Vietnam with a large force of combat troops, only to withdraw after two weeks of fierce fighting. Neither Communist nation decisively "won" any of the subsequent military exchanges (1981, 1983). In September 1987, a Vietnamese military jet was shot down over southern China. While the status quo ante eventually was restored, several other Chinese incursions, as well as frequent shelling across the border, made this area a flashpoint between the surviving Asian Communist powers. Agreements in the early 1990s increased trade in the border region, but a lasting and secure peace between China and Vietnam has not developed.
Measuring the legacy: Vietnamese Militarism and the further draining of resources from a poor country: Throughout history, Vietnam consistently has been underestimated by its neighbors and by the major powers. As the Cold War ended, Vietnam's population of approximately 69.7 million (1992) exceeded that of Britain (57 million, 1989), France (56 million, 1989), pre-unification West Germany (62 million, 1989) or Italy (58 million, 1989). Vietnam at the turn of the millennium numbered 78 million. Unlike those nations with relatively stable populations, Vietnam will grow to reach nearly 119 million by 2025 (millennium figures from World Bank 2000: 231; 1992 figures from World Bank 1995: 187; 1989 figures and 2025 projections from World Bank 1991: 254). Vietnam remains a very poor nation: at the start of the post Cold War era, in 1992, per capita gross domestic product was less than $200 per year (UNDP 1997: 165); by 1998, it had risen only to $330 a year (World Bank 2000: 231), near the bottom of the poorest states in the world (180th in rank). Despite this, and despite the end of the Cold War, Vietnam continues to field one of the largest armies in the world. Total men in uniform have been in decline since the end of the Cold War: in 1988 total Vietnamese armed forces stood at 1.2 million men (Europa: 3035); by 1992, they equaled 857,000 (World Bank 1995: 183), and in 1995 had fallen only to 572,000 (UNDP 1997: 189). In Asia, only China (2.93 million), India (1.145 million), North Korea (1.128 million), South Korea (633,000), and Pakistan (587,000) had larger armies near the end of the millennium (UNDP 1997: 188-189).
The World Bank has reported some other indicators of the impact of the war culture on Vietnam. Food production initially improved after war's end: in 1982 it was 14% higher than in 1969, and in 1989 it was 11 percent higher than 1979. This rate of recovery of the agri-economy, however, was considerably less than that of Laos (up 22% in the first period; up 16% in the latter), or China (up 24% in the first period; up 28% in the latter) (World Bank 1984: 228, 258; World Bank 1991: 210). Further, Vietnamese-occupation of Cambodia, 1978-89, coincided with that nation truly foundering. By the early 1980s, it could produce only 55% the amount of food that non-Communist Cambodia did in 1969! Such were the benefits of first a communist revolution in Cambodia, and then a Vietnamese occupation. Little modernization of Vietnam has taken place in the 1980s and 1990s: over 70% of all Vietnamese in the labor force in the early 1980s worked in agricultural production (World Bank 1984: 228, 258), and 71% did still in the early 1990s (UNDP 1997: 183). Well into the mid 1990s, a majority of Vietnamese continued to lack access to safe water (57%) or to safe sanitation disposal for sewage (nearly 78%; UNDP 1997: 165). In rural Vietnam, nearly 80 percent of the people lacked safe water and nearly ninety percent lacked proper sanitation (World Bank 1995: 167). Faced with this depressing performance, socialist Vietnam simply stopped reporting many social statistics.
Vietnam's trade balance remained very unfavorable, reflecting an economy that has yet to fully reorganize itself to compete in a regional or global market. In 1982, exports with a value of $188 million earned less than one third the value of 1982 imports ($637 million) (World Bank 1984: 234). Nearly two thirds of Vietnam's exports then were purchased by other Third World nations. Even before the collapse of Russian/European Communism, the red connection was of dubious value: Vietnam's merchandise exports to the Western Europe and Japan in 1982 were four times greater than were their exports to the USSR and the (then) Warsaw Pact nations (or 28% versus 7%, respectively) (figures from World Bank 1984: 240). By 1991, World Bank (1991: 230) figures showed Vietnam's total trade to have increased, but imports ($1.67 billion) still far exceeded exports ($1.32 billion).
Most trade with the US long remained restricted due to unresolved questions concerning US soldiers who were missing in action (MIA) in the region at war's end. Some still believe survivors remain under detention in Vietnam; others insist that the remains of all dead MIAs be returned before reconciliation is possible. Formal diplomatic relations only were normalized in 1995, with President Clinton acting only after leaders in Congress (e.g., Sen. John McCain, Republican of Arizona -- a former POW tortured by the Vietnamese) spurred the policy change forward. In late January 1994, the Senate overwhelmingly passed a non-binding "Sense of the Senate" resolution urging that the U.S. trade embargo with Vietnam be ended. In February of that year a US legation (a step less than a formal embassy) was opened in Hanoi. While the Clinton Administration ended the political impasse by opening formal diplomatic relations, the serious economic downturn of all of Asia after 1997 impeded increases in U.S. - Vietnam trade for the rest of the millennium.
Like most classical Communist nations, the Vietnamese state has enjoyed some successes that remain central to its ideological mythology of being a "regime that rules in the interest of the broad mass of the common people." It has, for example, placed a high priority on public health and educational services. The infant mortality rate per thousand live births (to the age of one year) did, in fact, decline, from 53 in 1982 (World Bank 1984: 262-263), to 41 in 1994 (UNDP 1997: 167), and to 29 in 1997 (World Bank 2000: 243). More underdeveloped Laos (now named Lao PDR), however, does lag behind Vietnam, with 159 Laotian babies dying per thousand in 1982, to a still high 105 in 1989, to 93 in 1994 (UNDP 1997: 167), rising again to 98 in 1997 (World Bank 2000: 242). Overall, public health generally seems to have improved: in contemporary Vietnam, life expectancy at birth has risen from 62 for men, and 66 for women in 1982 (World Bank 1984: 262-263) to 64 and 69 by 1989 (World Bank 1991: 266), and to 66 and 71 in 1997 (World Bank 2000: 233). However, the large numbers of economic refugees (AKA "Boat People") from Vietnam who left in the 1980s continued to leave in smaller numbers throughout the 1990s, fleeing this "workers' paradise" on some of the most un-seaworthy craft ever seen on the high seas. This enduring fact, and the refusal of these same migrants voluntarily to return to Vietnam when host sanctuaries (e.g., Thailand, Hong Kong) closed their doors to them in the late 1990s, served as loud testimony to the failure of the communist system in Vietnam, whatever its apparent statistical successes.
Such is the thin legacy of the Vietnamese Communists' victory in the Vietnam War.
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