The 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War affords the opportunity to reflect on how the conflict changed both the United States and Vietnam since. At the same time, it is an appropriate time to remind ourselves of the constants of war for both sides.
Clearly, the conclusion of the war between North and South Vietnam in 1975 brought a communist victory, demise of the South Vietnamese government, and unification of the country from north to south for the first time in several hundred years.
But while Vietnam’s citizens somewhat escaped the fate of other incoming communist governments, there was enough fear and violence to cause mass exodus of residents, prompting a humanitarian crisis and international condemnation of Vietnam. Vietnam’s battles with Cambodia in 1978 and China in 1979 were followed by a period of relative peace.
Although President Nixon’s separate 1972 summits with the Soviet Union and China probably hastened North Vietnam’s acceptance of the Paris Peace Accord in January 1973, Vietnam quickly aligned with the Soviet Union after the war ended in 1975. However, problems within the Soviet Union led that nation to abandon Vietnam in the late 1980s.
With fewer ties to the Soviets, the Vietnamese actually adopted more of a market economy. Still claiming to be socialist, Vietnam nonetheless permits a form of individual entrepreneurship and thrives on tourism in designated areas like Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon.
For the United States, the biggest change since the Vietnam War probably entails how it views the international environment. At the conclusion of the war in 1975 — two years after American forces withdrew from the fighting — the frame of reference was still the Cold War, whereas the contemporary dominant factor is confronting global terrorism.
Militarily, the United States abandoned the draft following Vietnam and has relied on a volunteer force since. Before its participation in the Vietnam conflict, Congress rarely objected to administration policy during war, but after America’s withdrawal, it passed the War Powers Act as a way to remind presidents of its constitutional role.
Vietnam and America did not immediately renew ties with one another following the events of 1975. In fact, it took two decades to do so, delayed by world events, government policies and bitter memories.
But once the thaw came, it demonstrated the benefits of diplomatic and trade links. It has also highlighted similarities between the two nations as a result of the war. For one, both countries have erected memorials to fallen soldiers, sailors and airmen, which are reverently visited by grateful citizens.
Further, the veterans who fought in the war have been uniformly recognized for their bravery. Still, those same veterans continue to bear the scars of war, including medical issues associated with post-traumatic-stress disorder and exposure to Agent Orange.
During a 2004 trip to Vietnam, I encountered citizens eager to interact with Americans and to sell goods. Given the two generations which have transpired since the conflict, a majority of Vietnamese have no direct experience with the past era. That furnishes the impetus for a new approach, but only if combined with a warning against war’s human cost and consequences.
Editor’s note: Dr. Samuel B. Hoff is George Washington Distinguished Professor of History and Political Science and Law Studies director at Delaware State University. In 2004, he was awarded an Exxon-Mobil Faculty Fellowship for travel to Vietnam with the Council on International Educational Exchange.