The War's Effect on the Vietnamese Land and People

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The War's Effect on the Vietnamese Land and People

About 58,000 American soldiers were killed during the Vietnam War, and another 304,000 were wounded. Without a doubt, the war took a terrible toll on the United States. But since most of the fighting took place in Vietnam, the Vietnamese land and people paid a much heavier price for the war. An estimated 4 million Vietnamese were killed or wounded on both sides of the conflict, including as many as 1.3 million civilians (people not involved in the military, including women and children) in South Vietnam.

Much of the death and destruction resulted from bombing. The U.S. military used more than 14 million tons of explosives during the Vietnam War, mostly on the South Vietnamese countryside. This meant that American planes dropped more than twice as many bombs as U.S. forces had used during World War II (1939–45)—all on an area about the size of California. The U.S. military also sprayed millions of gallons of defoliants (chemical agents that killed or burned crops, forests, and other vegetation) on the South Vietnamese land during the war.

The widespread destruction of the farms and villages in the South Vietnamese countryside turned huge numbers of peasants into homeless refugees. Many of these people fled to the cities, where they made a living any way they could—including through illegal activities. The poverty and desperation of the war years—along with the influence of Americans—resulted in major changes to Vietnamese families, culture, and society. "The United States, motivated by the loftiest intentions, did indeed rip South Vietnam's social fabric to shreds," Stanley Karnow comments in Vietnam: A History.

U.S. bombing destroys farms and forests

Before the Vietnam War, the South Vietnamese countryside was lush and green. Farmers tended rice paddies (wet fields where rice is grown) in fertile river valleys. The surrounding hillsides were covered with jungles of trees and plants. But when U.S. troops arrived in 1965, they learned that the jungles provided ideal hiding places for the Communist guerilla fighters known as the Viet Cong (guerrillas are small groups of fighters who launch surprise attacks). They also realized that the rice paddies and rural villages were good sources of food and supplies for the Viet Cong. To eliminate these sources of support for the enemy, the U.S. military bombed the South Vietnamese countryside using airplanes and heavy artillery for many years.

Across all of Indochina (the region of Southeast Asia that includes Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos), the United States used an average of 142 pounds of explosives per acre of land. But most of the bombing was concentrated in South Vietnam, particularly the northern provinces and the area around the capital city of Saigon. The bombing did terrible damage to the land. It destroyed many of the dams and canals that the peasants had installed to irrigate their farmland. It also created huge craters in the rice paddies and hillsides. In fact, by the end of the war there were an estimated 21 million bomb craters in South Vietnam. "From the air some areas in Vietnam looked like photographs of the moon," researchers Arthur H. Westing and E. W. Pfeiffer wrote in Scientific American.

In addition to the widespread bombing, U.S. forces sprayed defoliants and herbicides (harsh chemicals that kill plants) on large sections of South Vietnam. "Air Force planes sprayed 18 million gallons of herbicide containing dioxins [toxic chemicals] on some six million acres—around one-seventh of South Vietnam's total land area, and a much higher proportion of its most fertile cropland and richest forests," James William Gibson reveals in The Perfect War: The War We Could Not Lose and How We Did. "An additional 1,200 square miles of territory were bulldozed flat, stripped of all life." Some military observers claim that the once-green land looked like it had been "torn apart by an angry giant" or mashed into a "gray porridge."

The combination of the bombing and the spraying of chemicals destroyed nearly half the crops in South Vietnam. Before the war, the country had been one of the largest exporters of rice in the world. But during the war, the loss of crops forced South Vietnam to import one million tons of rice each year. Much of this rice came from the United States. Despite the U.S. aid, however, hunger and starvation were common among rural people.

Some U.S. officials called for an end to the bombing, claiming that the destruction hurt the South Vietnamese without helping the U.S. cause. "There is nothing in the history of warfare to compare with [what we have done in Indochina]. A 'scorched earth' policy has been a tactic of warfare throughout history, but never before has a land been so massively altered and mutilated that vast areas can never be used again or even inhabited by man or animal," Senator Gaylord Nelson stated in 1972. "Our program of defoliation, carpet bombing with B-52s, and bulldozing . . . did not protect our soldiers or defeat the enemy, and it has done far greater damage to our ally than to the enemy."

South Vietnamese people become refugees

The destruction of the South Vietnamese countryside with bombs and defoliants took a terrible toll on the people who lived there. "For the common people, the war was a dreadful random infliction [cause of suffering] that on any given day or night could disrupt their lives, destroy their homes, wound their loved ones, or kill them outright," Kim Willenson writes in The Bad War: An Oral History of the Vietnam War. Many people left the rural villages where their families had lived for generations and became refugees. In fact, as many as four million Vietnamese (one-fourth of the total population of the South) fled to the outskirts of cities and towns, where they hoped to escape the bombing and find a way to make a living.

Some American military leaders believed that destroying rural villages and grouping the South Vietnamese people near cities was a good strategy. They claimed that it would reduce support and supplies for the Viet Cong guerillas in the countryside. After areas were bombed, U.S. troops were sent into villages on "search-and-destroy" missions. The soldiers would question the local people and look for evidence of Viet Cong activity. But it was often difficult for the Americans to tell whether villagers were loyal to the South Vietnamese government or whether they supported the Communists. This uncertainty caused some soldiers to treat the villagers harshly. Even when the U.S. troops managed to clear a village of enemy agents, the Viet Cong usually returned within a short time.

Many South Vietnamese villagers were afraid to cooperate with either the Americans or the Viet Cong. They worried that if they did, the other side would punish them. This created a feeling of hopelessness among many rural South Vietnamese. "Most people didn't even know the difference between communism and democracy," recalled John Kerry, a Vietnam veteran who went on to become a U.S. senator. "They only wanted to work in rice paddies without helicopters strafing them and bombs with napalm burning their villages and tearing their country apart. They wanted everything to do with the war, particularly with this foreign presence of the United States of America, to leave them alone in peace, and they practiced the art of survival by siding with whichever military force was present at a particular time, be it Viet Cong, North Vietnamese, or American."

Stuck in the middle of fights between the Americans and the Viet Cong, and facing the constant threat of bombing, large numbers of South Vietnamese villagers fled to the cities. Before the war, ninety percent of South Vietnam's population had lived in rural villages in the countryside. But during the war, sixty percent of the population lived in urban areas. The cities were not equipped to handle the huge number of refugees. In Saigon, many peasants ended up living in makeshift refugee camps. "There were insufficient housing, sanitation, transportation, social services, and jobs to accommodate the tens of thousands of newcomers who settled in each month," Edward Doyle and Stephen Weiss write in A Collision of Cultures: Americans in Vietnam, 1957–1973. "In Saigon this provoked a state of emergency. Huge shantytowns encircled the city's prosperous center."

Conditions in the refugee camps were very poor. There was no way to dispose of garbage and human waste, which polluted water supplies and spread disease. Unable to find jobs, many people went hungry or resorted to begging in the streets. Many refugees survived by collecting and recycling the things U.S. troops left behind. For example, some villagers would collect the brass shell casings that fell on the ground after American forces fired on the enemy. They would use the metal to create brass ashtrays to sell on the streets of Saigon.

The destruction of villages also separated families and eliminated the family structure that was so important to Vietnamese culture. By 1972—when the United States was removing its troops from Vietnam—there were an estimated 800,000 orphaned children roaming the streets of Saigon and other cities. "The refugees, uprooted from the devastated land and fearful of renewed offensives, remained in the cities and towns—their disrupted, dispirited families aggravating the instability of South Vietnam's already fragile society," Stanley Karnow writes in Vietnam: A History.

Transformation of Saigon

The influx of refugees and the presence of Americans brought vast changes to South Vietnamese cities, especially the capital city of Saigon. The population of Saigon tripled during the Vietnam War to reach three million in 1970. Most of these new people were refugees whose homes in the countryside had been destroyed. But the city also became the central location for thousands of American military leaders, journalists, aid workers, missionaries, businessmen, and construction workers during the war years.

The Americans tended to be quite wealthy compared to the South Vietnamese. They created a new market for luxury goods like cars, motorcycles, televisions, and stereos. The wealth and comfort of the Americans sometimes provided a sad contrast to the poverty and desperation of the local people in Saigon. For example, reporter Stanley Karnow remembers standing on the terrace of the fancy Continental Palace Hotel, "where limbless Vietnamese victims of the war would crawl like crabs across the handsome tile floor to accost [confront and demand money from] American soldiers, construction workers, journalists, and visitors as they chatted and sipped their drinks under the ceiling fans."

Before long, the American influence began to have negative effects on the social structure in Saigon. Thousands of Vietnamese found jobs in service industries that sprang up to cater to the Americans. Some worked in hotels, restaurants, or construction sites, but many others became involved in illegal activities. For example, an estimated 500,000 South Vietnamese women became prostitutes during the war. Many of these women were poor peasants who had no other way of feeding their families. There was also an active drug trade in Saigon during the war. Drugs like marijuana, opium, and heroin were readily available in the city. In fact, they were sometimes sold by children on street corners. Finally, there was an enormous black market for stolen goods in Saigon. Many of the items for sale came from U.S. military shipments.

Many South Vietnamese people found it tempting to become involved in such illegal activities. After all, a young woman who worked as a prostitute could earn more money in a week than her peasant family would ordinarily earn in a year. Some Vietnamese used their newfound wealth to buy luxury goods such as electric rice cookers, bicycles, and televisions. These people formed a new, privileged urban class that turned the structure of Saigon society upside down. Suddenly, construction workers and drug dealers made much more money than policemen and soldiers in the South Vietnamese army.

Over time, people's values changed to reflect the new order in the city. They began to prefer the jobs that would enable them to purchase luxuries, even if these jobs were illegal or immoral. Many of these changes in people's behavior and relationships lasted long after the war ended. Some observers blamed the situation on the American influence. "Saigon was an addicted city, and we were the drug," James Fenton wrote in Granta. "The corruption of children, the mutilation of young men, the prostitution of women, the humiliation of the old, the division of the family, the division of the country—it had all been done in our name."

Effects on the North

Despite the fact that South Vietnam was America's ally in the Vietnam War, it suffered severe damage to its land, people, and culture. The war also affected North Vietnam, but not as severely or as permanently as the South. After all, most of the heavy fighting took place in the South. The United States never launched a full-scale invasion of North Vietnam, because U.S. leaders worried that such an action might provoke neighboring China into joining the fight.

Still, the U.S. military dropped one million tons of bombs on North Vietnam during the war. The idea behind the bombing was to break the will of the Communist government, and to destroy their ability to fight and send supplies to the South. For this reason, most of the bombing targeted urban areas of North Vietnam. The U.S. bombing campaigns did severe damage to over 70 percent of the industries in the North, which cut the amount of goods the country was able to produce in half. The bombing also destroyed thousands of buildings, damaged 4,000 villages, and occasionally hit schools, churches, and hospitals.

Another major target was North Vietnam's network of roads and railroad lines. These transportation routes were hit with an average of 24 bombs per kilometer. Author Michael Maclear traveled one highway in North Vietnam for 250 miles in 1969. A journey that would have once taken four hours ended up taking four days. "The awesome bomb craters along the 'highway' interlocked almost end to end, negotiable only by jeep," he recalls in The Ten Thousand Day War. "There was just a very rough route stitched from broken-down rock, thousands of loose planks and nerve-wracking bamboo platforms bridging the craters and canals. Wrecked vehicles and twisted rail lines littered the entire route, with rusted metal rising in grotesque shapes from the adjacent rice-lands."

The North Vietnamese government took a number of steps to reduce the impact of the U.S. bombing. For example, they spread some industries out into the countryside, and they built networks of tunnels and shelters to protect people in the cities. Citizens were required to wear camouflage clothing to avoid attracting the attention of American planes. "I remember once driving through an area and to my great astonishment the whole field of maize [corn] suddenly got to its feet and charged across the road," British reporter Wilfred Burchett recalled. The bombing did force the Communists to devote some of their manpower to rebuilding tasks, which reduced the number of people who were available to fight in the South. But most of the roads, buildings, and factories were eventually rebuilt with aid from the Soviet Union and China.

Since most of the bombing in North Vietnam was aimed at urban areas, it did not destroy as much farmland in the North as it did in the South. One study estimated that only 5.6 percent of North Vietnamese farmland suffered severe damage during the war. But since many peasant men were recruited to join the North Vietnamese Army, many of the farming tasks were performed by women during the war years. Women worked in the rice paddies and created new, cooperative systems of growing and irrigation that required fewer people.


Chanoff, David. Vietnam: A Portrait of Its People at War. New York: Tauris/St. Martin's, 1996.

Doyle, Edward, and Stephen Weiss. A Collision of Cultures: The Americans in Vietnam, 1954–1973. Boston: Boston Publishing Company, 1984.

Fenton, James. "The Fall of Saigon." Granta, no. 15, 1985.

FitzGerald, Frances. Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans inVietnam. Boston: Little, Brown, 1972.

Gibson, James William. The Perfect War: The War We Couldn't Lose and HowWe Did. Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1986.

Hawthorne, Lesleyanne, ed. Refugee: The Vietnamese Experience. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Herrington, Stuart A. Silence Was a Weapon: The Vietnam War in the Villages. Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1982.

Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam: A History. New York: Viking, 1983.

Maclear, Michael. The Ten Thousand Day War: Vietnam, 1945–1975. New York: Avon, 1981.

Schell, Jonathan. The Real War: The Classic Reporting on the Vietnam War. New York: Pantheon, 1987.

Westing, Arthur H., and E. W. Pfeiffer. "The Cratering of Indochina." Scientific American, May 1972.

Willenson, Kim. The Bad War: An Oral History of the Vietnam War. New York: New American Library, 1987.

Words to Know

Communism A political system in which the government controls all resources and means of producing wealth. By eliminating private property, this system is designed to create an equal society with no social classes. However, Communist goverments in practice often limit personal freedom and individual rights.

North Vietnam The Geneva Accords of 1954, which ended the First Indochina War (1946–54), divided the nation of Vietnam into two sections. The northern section, which was led by a Communist government under Ho Chi Minh, was officially known as the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, but was usually called North Vietnam.

South Vietnam Created under the Geneva Accords of 1954, the southern section of Vietnam was known as the Republic of South Vietnam. It was led by a U.S.-supported government.

Viet Cong Vietnamese Communist guerilla fighters who worked with the North Vietnamese Army to conquer South Vietnam.

Waiting for News of Death

Thousands of Vietnamese soldiers from both the North and the South were killed during the Vietnam War. The deaths of loved ones took a terrible toll on the families left behind. The Communist government of North Vietnam sometimes made such loss even more difficult for the survivors.

North Vietnamese leaders worried that the people would lose their will to fight if they knew the true cost of the war. For this reason, they sometimes withheld information about killed or wounded soldiers from the men's wives or parents. The Communists also discouraged people from talking about their fears or mourning for their loved ones during the war. Instead, they expected people to concentrate their efforts on helping the North win.

In the following passage from David Chanoff's book Vietnam: A Portrait of Its People at War, a North Vietnamese woman named Nam Duc Mao remembers the loss of her brother-in-law:

Starting in 1968, they began sending men from our village to the South. If someone didn't want to go, he had his rations cut off. My sister's husband went. In 1970 my mother found out that he had been killed. My mother was an officer of the court, so she found out through friends of hers in the government. She told me, but neither of us was able to tell my sister. It was too risky. Nobody was allowed to talk about deaths or rumors of deaths, not until the official death notification came from the army. Up until then, if you talked about things like this it was considered anti-state [against the government], you were undermining people's morale. You would get into trouble or be sent to jail.

But it was very hard, because sometimes the wives didn't hear officially for years. But news would come indirectly that somebody's husband or son had been killed. It would come from messages sent by friends who were in the army or by other soldiers from the village, or in some other way. So sometimes a woman knew that her husband was dead, but she couldn't mourn out loud or she and the rest of her family would be in trouble with the police.

That's why my mother and I couldn't tell my sister. But I tried to keep her from hoping that he would come back. I especially wanted her to move out of her parents-in-law's house. I tried to persuade her to leave her husband's family and to live as if her husband were dead, even if she didn't know for sure that he was.

But I wasn't successful. My sister told me, "I'll wait for my husband to come home." I'd say, "It could be a terribly long time."

A Wall with Two Million Vietnamese Names

In 1982, the U.S. government dedicated a memorial to the American soldiers who died during the Vietnam War. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., is a black granite wall nearly 500 feet long. The names of the 58,000 Americans killed in Vietnam are etched onto its face. There is no similar memorial to the estimated two million Vietnamese soldiers and civilians who were killed during the war. But if the names of these people were etched onto a wall, it would have to be 40 times larger than the American memorial—or close to four miles long.

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The War's Effect on the Vietnamese Land and People

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