The Vietnam War and Its Impact

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The Vietnam War and Its Impact

Larry Berman and

Jason Newman

On 2 September 1945 at Hanoi's Ba Dinh Square, Ho Chi Minh issued the historic Vietnamese proclamation of independence with words borrowed from the American Declaration of Independence: "We hold the truth that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Ho Chi Minhwho four years earlier had founded the League for Revolution and Independence, or Vietminhhad been preparing his entire life for the opportunity to rid Vietnam of colonial rule, both Japanese and French. Crowds marched from one end of Saigon to the other chanting, "Do Dao de quoc, Do Dao thuc dan phap." (Down with the Imperialists, Down with the French Colonialists.) Throughout Vietnam banners proclaimed "Vietnam for the Vietnamese."

Ho Chi Minh requested support for his cause from nations that recognized the principles of self-determination and equality of nations. President Franklin D. Roosevelt seemed to favor an international trusteeship for Vietnam to be followed by independence, but new pressures would soon change the situation for Ho and the Vietnamese. As the Cold War developed, Washington became more sensitive to the colonial interests of its allies than to the decolonization of Indochina. Ho was defined as being pro-Moscow. U.S. Cold War policy was guided by the containment of a perceived Soviet aggression. Containment was composed of economic, political, and military initiatives that sought to maintain stability in the international arena. The bitter recriminations in the United States over "who lost China?" after 1949 led the Truman administration to do what it could to prevent a Vietminh victory in Vietnam or anywhere else in Indochina. Vietnam was valued not for its own merit, but was seen rather as a test of America's global position and credibility. In December 1950, the United States joined France and the French-controlled governments of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos in signing the Mutual Defense Assistance Agreement. The United States agreed to provide military supplies and equipment through a military advisory group. This small contingent of U.S. advisers provided limited logistical services; all supplies and equipment were dispensed through the French Expeditionary Corps. U.S. aid to the French military effort mounted from $130 million in 1950 to $800 million in 1953.

In May 1953 the French government appointed General Henri Navarre commander in Vietnam and charged him with mounting a major new offensive against the Vietminh. One of Navarre's first moves, late in 1953, was to dispatch French troops to Dien Bien Phu, the juncture of a number of roads in northwestern Indochina about 100 miles from the Chinese border. On 7 May 1954 the French forces were defeated there. Shortly thereafter the Geneva Conference was held, bringing together representatives of Vietminh-controlled territory and Bao Dai's French-controlled governmentwhich would later evolve into North and South Vietnam, respectivelythe other emerging Indochinese states of Laos and Cambodia, and the major powers of France, Britain, the United States, the Soviet Union, and the People's Republic of China. The Geneva Accords, formally known as the Final Declaration of the Geneva Conference on the Problem of Restoring Peace in Indochina, essentially settled military but not political issues.

The Vietminh controlled most of Vietnam and sought a political settlement at Geneva that would lead to the withdrawal of French forces and the establishment of an independent government led by Ho Chi Minh. But at the Geneva Conference, Anthony Eden of the United Kingdom, Pierre Mendès-France of France, Vyacheslav Molotov of the Soviet Union, and Chou En-lai of China pressured the Vietminh, through its representative, Pham Van Dong, to accept much less than it had won in battle. Under great pressure in particular from the Chinese and Soviets, who feared American military intervention under Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, Ho made two major concessionsa provisional demarcation line drawn at the seventeenth parallel and free nationwide elections for unifying the country supervised by an international commission scheduled for 1956. The election was intended to settle the question of political control over Vietnam. Externally, the accords provided for a neutral Vietnam, meaning that no military alliances were to be made by either side.

Three months after Dien Bien Phu, President Dwight D. Eisenhower convened the National Security Council (NSC) to review U.S. policy in Asia. The president was already on record as claiming that

strategically South Vietnam's capture by the Communists would bring their power several hundred miles into a hitherto free region. The remaining countries in Southeast Asia would be menaced by a great flanking movement. The freedom of 12 million people would be lost immediately and that of 150 million others in adjacent lands would be seriously endangered. The loss the Republic of Vietnam, or South Vietnam, would have grave consequences for us and for freedom.

Eisenhower had also articulated the line of reasoning that came to be known as the domino theory, that the fall of one state to communism would lead to the next and the next being knocked over. Not losing Southeast Asia thus became the goal of the United States.

In an October 1954 letter to the president of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem, President Eisenhower was exceedingly clear:

I am, accordingly, instructing the American Ambassador to Vietnam to examine with you in your capacity as chief of Government, how an intelligent program of American aid given directly to your Government can serve to assist Vietnam in its present hour of trial, provided that your Government is prepared to give assurances as to the standards of performance it would be able to maintain in the event such aid were supplied. The purpose of this offer is to assist the government of Vietnam in developing and maintaining a strong, viable state, capable of resisting attempted subversion or aggression through military means.

By 1961 Vietnam loomed as a test of President John F. Kennedy's inaugural commitment "to pay any price, to bear any burden, in the defense of freedom." But Diem's government had evolved into a family oligarchy that ruled through force and repression. Opposition grew from a wide range of political, social, and religious groups. Protests raged, including the quite dramatic self-immolations by Buddhist monks. On 1 November 1963, Diem was removed from office and murdered in the back of a U.S.-built personnel carrier. The coup was planned and implemented by South Vietnamese military officers; U.S. ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) were involved. Kennedy, given the opportunity to instruct Lodge that the coup be stopped, issued no such order.

Diem's death was followed by a period of great political instability in Saigon, while three weeks after the coup Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. His successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson, assumed office with the belief that the United States had to ensure the stability and security of South Vietnam. Momentum was building in favor of action that might reverse the disintegrating political conditions in South Vietnam, which was under military pressure from the North Vietnamesebacked National Liberation Front (NLF), or Vietcong (VC). One form of new activity involved U.S. Navy patrols up the Gulf of Tonkin for intelligence-gathering purposes. On 2 August 1964 the destroyer Maddox was returning from one of these DeSoto electronic espionage missions when North Vietnamese torpedo boats fired on the ship. Rather than withdrawing U.S. ships from the danger zone, the president ordered another destroyer, the C. Turner Joy, to join the Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin. On 4 August both the Maddox and the C. Turner Joy reportedly came under attack. The president later met with congressional leaders and sought assurance that his response would be supported.

On 10 August 1964, Congress passed the Southeast Asia Resolution, also known as the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which authorized Johnson "to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression." The president later used the resolution to justify his escalation of American involvement in Vietnam. With the 1964 presidential election against Republican conservative Barry Goldwater less than three months away, however, he had no desire to be portrayed as planning for war. Instead, he left the rhetoric of war to Goldwater and the planning to his military advisers. "Peace candidate" Johnson won the election in a landslide.


Rolling Thunder, the commitment of marines in March 1965, and the deployment of other troops all before June 1965 provided ample evidence that the war was already on the road to being Americanized. Throughout June and July of 1965, the question of "Americanizing" the war was at the center of all foreign policy discussions. Undersecretary of State George Ball tried to warn Johnson of the dangers ahead. In an 18 June memo titled "Keeping the Power of Decision in the South Vietnam Crisis," Ball argued that the United States was on the threshold of a new war:

In raising our commitment from 50,000 to 100,000 or more men and deploying most of the increment in combat roles we were beginning a new warthe United States directly against the VC. The president's most difficult continuing problem in South Vietnam is to prevent "things" from getting into the saddleor, in other words, to keep control of policy and prevent the momentum of events from taking command.

The president needed to understand the effect of losing control:

Perhaps the large-scale introduction of U.S. forces with their concentrated firepower will force Hanoi and the VC to the decision we are seeking. On the other hand, we may not be able to fight the war successfully enougheven with 500,000 Americans in South Vietnam we must have more evidence than we now have that our troops will not bog down in the jungles and rice paddieswhile we slowly blow the country to pieces.

Ball tried to review the French experience for Johnson, reminding the president that

the French fought a war in Vietnam, and were finally defeatedafter seven years of bloody struggle and when they still had 250,000 combat-hardened veterans in the field, supported by an army of 205,000 South Vietnamese. To be sure, the French were fighting a colonial war while we are fighting to stop aggression. But when we have put enough Americans on the ground in South Vietnam to give the appearance of a white man's war, the distinction as to our ultimate purpose will have less and less practical effect.

Ball's arguments had little influence on policymakers. On 26 June, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara circulated his "Program of Expanded Military and Political Moves with Respect to Vietnam." McNamara argued that North Vietnam was clearly winning the war and "the tide almost certainly cannot begin to turn in less than a few months and may not for a year or more; the war is one of attrition and will be a long one." McNamara defined winning as "to create conditions for a favorable settlement by demonstrating to the VC/DRV that the odds are against their winning. Under present conditions, however, the chances of achieving this objective are smalland the VC are winning nowlargely because the ratio of guerrilla to antiguerrilla forces is unfavorable to the government." The secretary recommended that ground strength be increased to whatever force levels were necessary to show the VC that they "cannot win."

The Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) urged Johnson to call up the Reserves and the National Guard and seek public support on national security grounds. National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy proposed that the president go before a joint session of Congress or make a statement in the form of a fireside address. But Johnson decided that there would be no public announcement of a change in policy. Instead, he simply called a midday press conference for 9 July. The content as well as the forum of Johnson's presentation downplayed its significance. The expected call-up of the Reserves and request for new funds were absent. In announcing a troop increase, Johnson did not fully reveal the levels he had now authorized: 175,000 to 200,000. Instead, he noted only the immediate force increment of fighting strength from 75,000 to 125,000. Nor did he tell the U.S. people that just a few days earlier, Clark Clifford had privately warned against any substantial buildup of U.S. ground troops. "This could be a quagmire," the president's trusted friend had warned. "It could turn into an open-ended commitment on our part that would take more and more ground troops, without a realistic hope of ultimate victory." Instead, Johnson chose to walk a thin line of credibility. "Additional forces will be needed later, and they will be sent as requested," Johnson observed at his afternoon press conference. His seemingly passing remark correctly indicated that the U.S. commitment had become open-ended: "I have asked the Commanding General, General Westmoreland, what more he needs to meet this mounting aggression. He has told me. We will meet his needs."

Having made the fateful decision, Johnson traveled in February 1966 to Honolulu for a firsthand assessment of the war's progress and to secure additional commitments for political reform from South Vietnam. Johnson utilized his favorite exhortation, telling Westmoreland to "nail the coonskin to the wall" by reaching the crossover point in the war of attrition by December 1966. This so-called light at the end of the tunnel was to be achieved primarily by inflicting losses on enemy forces. Johnson and his advisers expected the enemy to seek negotiations when this ever-elusive crossover point was reached. A fixation on statistics led to use of such terms as "kill ratios," "body counts," "weapons-loss ratios," "died of wounds," and "population-control data" to show that progress was being made. The computers could always demonstrate at least the end of the tunnel; statistically, the United States was always winning the war. In the words of Senator J. William Fulbright, the Great Society had become the "sick society." Disenchantment with the war manifested itself in the growing anti-war movement that began organizing massive protests and moratoriums against U.S. policy.


While the American people had been told repeatedly that there was a light at the end of the tunnel in Vietnam, the deployment of some 525,000 troops had brought the United States no closer to achieving its limited political goals, and there would soon be a call for major new increases in troop deployments. In effect, the United States faced a stalemate in Vietnam because the enemy controlled the strategic initiative. During the early morning hours of 31 January 1968, the Vietnamese New Year, known as Tet, approximately 80,000 North Vietnamese regulars and NLF guerrillas attacked more than one hundred cities in South Vietnam. The military goal was to spark a popular uprising and, as captured documents revealed, "move forward to achieve final victory." This final victory was not achieved, but psychological and political gains were made. The front page of the 1 February New York Times showed a picture of the U.S. embassy in Saigon under assault. Guerrillas had blasted their way into the embassy and held part of the embassy grounds for nearly six hours. All nineteen guerrillas were killed, as were four MPs, a marine guard, and a South Vietnamese embassy employee.

The enemy sustained major losses at Tet, from which it would take years to recover. But Tet also demonstrated the enemy's great skill in planning, coordination, and courage. North Vietnamese regulars and NLF forces had successfully infiltrated previously secure population centers and discredited Saigon's claims of security from attack.

On 27 February, Johnson received JCS chairman Earle Wheeler's report on military requirements in South Vietnam. The document contained a request for 206,000 additional troops. To some, this was proof of the bankruptcy of the army's strategy in Vietnam. Despite the large enemy losses during Tet, the United States was no closer to achieving its goal in Vietnam than it had been in 1965. There appeared to be no breaking point in the enemy's will to continue the struggle indefinitely. The new reinforcements would bring the total American military commitment to three-quarters of a million troops. It was becoming increasingly evident that no amount of military power would bring North Vietnam to the conference table for negotiations.

That same evening CBS news anchorman Walter Cronkite told the nation that the war was destined to remain deadlocked:

We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds. For it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion.


The president appointed a task force, under the direction of Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford, to evaluate a request for 206,000 troops. The president's final instructions to Clifford were "give me the lesser of evils." For weeks Johnson wavered between a bombing halt and sending another 206,000 troops. Within the White House, Clifford led the cabal to convince their president that he ought to stop the bombing and thereby start negotiations that might end the war. "Is he with us?" a phrase from the French Revolution, became the code for those working toward a bombing halt.

Johnson's instincts told him that the North Vietnamese could not be trusted, and his fears made him worry that a bombing halt would be exploited by domestic political opponents. Still, in the end Johnson listened to those who urged that he stop the bombing. Addressing the nation on 31 March 1968, the president spoke of his willingness "to move immediately toward peace through negotiations." Johnson announced that "there is no need to delay talks that could bring an end to this long and this bloody war." He was "taking the first step to deescalate the level of hostilities" by unilaterally reducing attacks on North Vietnam, except in the area just north of the demilitarized zone, known as the DMZ. "The area in which we are stopping our attacks includes almost 90 percent of North Vietnam's population and most of its territory," said Johnson. "Even this very limited bombing of the North could come to an early end if our restraint is matched by restraint in Hanoi."

Johnson called on North Vietnam's leader, Ho Chi Minh, to respond favorably and positively to these overtures and not to take advantage of this restraint. "We are prepared to move immediately toward peace through negotiations." The United States was "ready to send its representatives to any forum, at any time, to discuss the means of bringing this ugly war to an end." To prove his sincerity, Johnson named the distinguished American ambassador-at-large W. Averell Harriman as his "personal representative for such talks," asking Harriman to "search for peace."

Then, in a dramatic gesture toward national unity, the president announced that he would not seek reelection, declaring, "I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes or to any duties other than the awesome partisan causes of this officethe presidency of your country. Accordingly, I shall not seek and I will not accept the nomination of my party for another term as your president."

Three days later, Radio Hanoi broadcast the news that the DRV had accepted Johnson's offer and would agree to establish contact with representatives of the United States. This was the first time that Hanoi had said publicly that it was willing to open talks with the United States. Hanoi was careful to stipulate that these initial contacts would focus first on bringing about the unconditional end to American bombing and other acts of aggression against Vietnam.

On 3 May 1968 President Johnson announced that both sides had agreed to hold preliminary talks in Paris, but he cautioned that "this is only the first step. There are many, many hazards and difficulties ahead." The talks were scheduled to begin on 10 May. President Johnson knew that the government of South Vietnam (GVN), headed by President Nguyen Van Thieu, opposed any bilateral discussions with the North Vietnamese on issues that would effect the South. Thieu believed that North Vietnam would use these initial contacts to demand direct negotiations between the GVN and the NLF in the hope of creating the conditions for a coalition government. Thieu also feared the election of Vice President Hubert Humphrey, a Democratic president hopeful, who was slowly distancing himself from Johnson's position.

President Thieu believed that a Humphrey victory would bring a coalition government and a U.S. withdrawal. "A Humphrey victory would mean a coalition government in six months. With Nixon at least there was a chance," recalled Thieu. This view was shared by Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky, who remembered that "we had little desire to sit down with the communists at all, and no intention of sitting down with, and thereby recognizing, the National Liberation Front." Thieu thus decided he would not go to Paris even if there were a bombing halt.

President Thieu had two contacts in Washington: Anna Chennault, the widow of Flying Tigers hero General Claire Chennault, and Bui Diem, the respected South Vietnamese ambassador. Chennault was a central figure in the China lobby, a vehement anticommunist, and chair of Republican Women for Nixon. During the 1968 campaign Nixon, the Republican candidate for president, asked her to be "the sole representative between the Vietnamese government and the Nixon campaign headquarters." With Nixon's encouragement, Chennault encouraged Thieu to defy Johnson. The latter knew all about it, but his information had been obtained from illegal wiretaps and surveillance, so he could not do much with it.


Prior to 5 May 1968, Nixon spoke of seeking a "victorious peace" in Vietnam. But on that day, speaking in New Hampshire, the nation's first primary state, he used the term "honorable peace" for the first time. Crucial to his plan was the concept of linkageusing the Soviet Union to get the North Vietnamese to negotiate seriously.

In what Nixon believed was an off-therecord discussion with southern delegates at the 1968 Republican Convention, the nominee described another way to end the war:

How do you bring a war to a conclusion? I'll tell you how Korea was ended. We got in there and had this messy war on our hands. Eisenhower let the word get outlet the word go out diplomatically to the Chinese and the North Koreans that we would not tolerate this continued round of attrition. And within a matter of months, they negotiated.

When Nixon took office in January 1969, the United States had been involved in combat operations in Vietnam for nearly four years. U.S. military forces totaled 536,040, the bulk of which were ground combat troops. More than 30,000 Americans had lost their lives to then and the war cost $30 billion in fiscal year 1969. In 1968 alone, more than 14,500 U.S. troops were killed.

Richard Nixon was determined that Vietnam would not ruin his presidency, as had been the case with Lyndon Johnson. The Nixon plan was to "de-Americanize" the war, an approach that became known as Vietnamization. It involved building up the South Vietnamese armed forces so that they could assume greater combat responsibility while simultaneously withdrawing U.S. combat troops. The U.S. military role would shift from fighting the DRV and VC to advising the South Vietnamese and sending in a massive influx of military equipment and weaponry. Perhaps most important, Nixon changed the political objective of U.S. intervention from guaranteeing a free and independent South Vietnam to creating the opportunity for South Vietnam to determine its own political future. Vietnamization along with negotiation were Nixon's twin pillars for achieving an honorable peace.

During the first weeks of his presidency, Nixon also began to consider options for dealing with Cambodia, including the feasibility and utility of a quarantine to block equipment and supplies coming from that nation into South Vietnam. Under code name MENU, B-52 strikes began on 18 March 1969 against enemy sanctuaries in that country. They were kept secret from the American public, in part because Cambodia was a neutral country, but even more important because Nixon had not been elected to expand the war after just three months in office.

Halfway through Nixon's first year in the White House, President Thieu requested that a meeting be held in Washington, D.C., but Nixon, fearful of demonstrations, selected Honolulu, which the Vietnamese rejected because they did not want to meet on a U.S. resort island. Nixon next suggested the remote island of Midway, where Nixon won Thieu's public acquiescence for Vietnamization. When Nixon proposed that secret or private contacts be started between Washington and Hanoi in an effort to secure a negotiated settlement, Thieu asked that he be kept fully informed on the details of these meetings and that he be consulted on any matters internal to South Vietnam. He received assurances that this would most certainly be the case. By January 1972 the United States had conceded on almost every major point, including, at least implicitly, that any cease-fire would be a cease-fire in place, which meant that North Vietnamese troops then in the South would stay there. What came next was predictable: The North Vietnamese could not get the United States to dispose of Thieu for them. They did not intend to stop fighting until they regained the South. Thus, they had one obvious strategy: stall the peace, pour forces into the South, and strike a deal only when a cease-fire in place virtually amounted to a "victory in place." In an announcement made on national television on 25 January 1972, President Nixon revealed that Henry Kissinger had been holding private talks with the North Vietnamese starting in August 1969 and that every reasonable American proposal to end the war had been turned down. Nixon offered the details of a secret proposal made on 11 October 1971 that called for internationally supervised free elections in which the communists would participate and before which President Thieu would resign.

On 30 March 1972, Easter Sunday, the North Vietnamese began their biggest attack of the Vietnam War. It was a conventional military assault, designed to inflict a crippling blow against the army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and would last six months. On 8 May, President Nixon met with the NSC and told of plans for mining Haiphong harbor and resuming the bombardment of Hanoi and Haiphong. He also told the council that he would inform the public of his decision in a televised speech that evening.

After the NSC meeting Nixon brought his cabinet together and stated frankly, "We've crossed the Rubicon." As Nixon would put it to Kissinger the next day, he wanted to "go for broke" and "go to the brink" to "destroy the enemy's warmaking capacity." He wanted to avoid the previous mistakes of "letting up" on the bombing that he and Johnson had made in the past. "I have the will in spades," he declared. Nixon was determined not to repeat LBJ's mistakes. "Those bastards are going to be bombed like they've never been bombed before," gloated Nixon. What followed, starting in May, was the most successful use of airpower during the Vietnam War and one of the largest aerial bombardments in world historyOperation Linebacker. Targeting roads, bridges, rail lines, troops, bases, and supply depots, the attack was the first large-scale use of precision-guided laser bombs in modern aerial warfare.

In the short term, the offensive was clearly a military defeat for the North Vietnamese and would cost General Vo Nguyen Giap his job as chief strategist. On the other hand, although Hanoi never retained control over a provincial capital, the North Vietnamese did gain ground along the Cambodian and Laotian borders and the area just south of the DMZ. Hanoi remained in control of this territory for the rest of the war, and in 1975 would use it to launch a successful attack on Saigon.

A week before the 1972 presidential election, Kissinger stated that "peace is at hand," but again the talks stalled and Nixon turned to "jugular diplomacy." Nixon decided that no treaty would be signed until after the November 1972 election, when his position would be strengthened by what most observers expected to be an overwhelming election victory over Democratic challenger and antiwar leader George McGovern. Reelected by just such a landslide, Nixon moved swiftly against North Vietnam.

On 13 December the peace talks broke down, and on the following day Nixon ordered that the bombing be resumed. Now his only goal was to bring Hanoi back to the bargaining table. On 18 December, Linebacker IIwidely known as the Christmas bombingbegan with B-52 bomber sorties and fighter-bomber sorties on the Hanoi-Haiphong area. The day prior to the start of the Christmas bombing, Nixon told Admiral Thomas Moorer, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, "I don't want any more of this crap about the fact that we couldn't hit this target or that one. This is your chance to use military power effectively to win this war, and if you don't, I'll consider you responsible." Admiral Moorer called for expanded air attacks with an objective of "maximum destruction of selected military targets in the vicinity of Hanoi/Haiphong." He ordered that B-52s carry maximum ordnance with preapproved restrikes of targets. Kissinger wrote later that "the North Vietnamese committed a cardinal error in dealing with Nixon, they cornered him." The B-52s were his last roll of the dice.


The basic elements of the Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnamsigned at the International Conference Center in Paris on 27 January 1973provided for the end of the fighting and the withdrawal of American forces. The United States committed itself to ending all air and naval actions against North Vietnam and to dismantling or deactivating all mines in the waters of North Vietnam. Within two months after the signing of the agreement, all forces of the United States and of U.S. allies would depart Vietnam. The United States was barred from sending new war materials or supplies to South Vietnam and was required to dismantle all military bases there. The armed forces of the GVN and the NLF were allowed to remain where they were, but the cease-fire barred the introduction of new troops, military advisers, military personnelincluding technical military personnelarmaments, munitions, and war material from North Vietnam or anywhere else. The disposition of Vietnamese armed forces in South Vietnam would be determined by the two South Vietnamese parties in a spirit of "national reconciliation and concord." In addition, the accord required the return of all captured military personnel and foreign civilians during the same two-month period. The two South Vietnamese parties would handle the return of Vietnamese civilians. The United States and North Vietnam promised to uphold the principles of self-determination for the South Vietnamese people, which included free and democratic elections under international supervision.

Even more unusually, the treaty called for a Four-Party Joint Military Commission to be constituted by the four signatories for implementing and monitoring compliance with the provisions on withdrawal, cease-fire, dismantling of bases, return of war prisoners, and exchange of information on those missing in action. An International Commission of Control and Supervision (ICCS), consisting of Canada, Hungary, Indonesia, and Poland, would oversee the agreement and report violations. In No Peace, No Honor (2001), Larry Berman utilized recently declassified records to show that Nixon had little faith in the Paris accord and expected that the accord would be violated, which would trigger a brutal military response. Permanent war (air war, not ground operations) at acceptable political cost was what Nixon expected from the signed agreement. President Thieu received repeated assurances that when the communists violated the accord, the B52s would return to punish Hanoi, but the Watergate scandal prevented such a retaliation.

Not a moment of peace ever came to Vietnam. Following the return of the American POWs, there was little adherence to the Paris agreements from either North or South Vietnam. The U.S. troops departed Vietnam sixty days after the Paris agreement was signed, but the level of violence had not significantly declined. Watergate was about to destroy the Nixon presidency and a new antiwar Congress had little interest in continuing economic support to the South. Faced with funding a $722 million supplement to stave off a collapse of South Vietnam, Congress refused to act. For many Americans, the last image of Vietnam was that of ambassador Graham Martin carrying a folded American flag during the final evacuation. This bitter aftermath left Americans searching for explanations as to what had gone wrong and who was responsible for failure.


There may be no phrase more overused in foreign policy discussions and analyses since the 1960s than "the lessons of Vietnam." Nonetheless, exactly what those lessons are have been hotly debated. The debate has also been played out in the larger field of American politics, splitting the Democratic Party for more than two decades and fueling the political appeal of Ronald Reagan in 1980. It has framed U.S. policy toward a number of other countries, most notably Central America in the late 1970s and the 1980s and later in the Persian Gulf, where the Vietnam analogy was invoked with regularity. And time and again the debate has come back to heated arguments about the Vietnam War itself, as scholars and former policymakers have continued to reflect, lecture, and write about it. Former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, in his In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (1995), broke his own long silence on the subject with the provocative admission that while "we acted according to what we thought were the principles and traditions of this nation we were wrong, terribly wrong."

In 1975 the Vietnamese economy lay in shambles and it would take decades to rebuild. Most of the population of fifty-five million was unemployed, impoverished, and suffering from the emotional and physical ramifications of the war. Over two million had been killed and 300,000 were reported missing and presumed dead. The number of Vietnamese who lost loved ones and family members was many times more. The loss of so many adults made Vietnam by the 1990s one of the youngest nations on earth.

Lacking an industrialized base and highly lucrative mineral or agricultural products, Vietnam found one immediate solution by exporting over $1 billion in abandoned American military equipment and scrap metal. The new regime also sold rice and other essential goods at below market prices for ten years. But a war against Cambodia beginning in December 1978 strained the economy. Large defense expenditures to fight the Khmer Rouge and conduct a war with the People's Republic of China in 1979, along with low consumer prices, combined to unleash widespread famine and hyperinflation that lasted into the 1980s.

Economic reforms improved conditions in Vietnam beginning in the mid-1980s. The benefits of peace with Cambodia after 1989 were balanced by the loss of economic aid from the declining Soviet Union. Impatient at the slow pace of economic change and heartened by the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, over seventy-five thousand Vietnamese fled the nation in 1989 for Australia, the United States, and other nations willing to accept them. Vietnam continued privatization reforms, known as dau man hade, that transformed it into the third-largest rice producer in the world.

Another long-term impact of the Vietnam conflict entailed the presence of toxic chemicals in the soil and water. Between 1961 and 1970 the United States sprayed over nineteen million gallons of herbicides containing hazardous dioxins over the forests and farmlands of Vietnam, poisoning the people and contaminating the soil to the present day. A special U.S. Air Force program known as Operation Ranch Hand employed a fleet of C-123 airplanes to spread defoliants across the inland and coastal areas of South Vietnam in order to reduce tree cover and render crops unfit for consumption by North Vietnamese troops. Hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese suffered a range of illnesses from varying levels of chemical poisoning, in some cases leading to cancer and birth defects that have passed through three generations.

Many species of animals disappeared from heavily sprayed regions, while others adapted to a new environment and returned to their former habitats slowly over time. By the late 1980s the inland forests had recovered, but the more delicate mangrove coastal zone still had not returned to its former health. Today, the vestiges of chemical pollution are still apparent in altered vegetation patterns and cancer clusters in some areas of Vietnam. Although it became accepted scientific fact by the late 1960s that herbicides and dioxin were harmful to humans and the environment, the spraying of chemicals like Agent Orange continued until 1971, when the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to stop using biological weapons.

A large number of returning veterans on both sides of the war developed cancer and unknown illnesses during the 1970s as a result of contact with dioxins in Vietnam. When the last herbicides were destroyed by the U.S. military in 1977, veterans were already mounting a vigorous campaign to make the government more aware of their plight; some even sued the chemical industry. In 1984 the Dow Chemical Company and other chemical companies that had manufactured Agent Orange made a $180 million out-of-court settlement with veterans and their families (for an average payment of $1,000 per veteran). The following year the federal government funded $1 billion to conduct research on the chemical poisoning of veterans. In 1992 the Department of Defense declared that Vietnam veterans exhibiting Hodgkin's disease, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, soft-tissue sarcoma, chloracne, and birth defects could claim contamination by herbicides in Vietnam.

The economy of Vietnam revived in the early 1990s when political relations with the United States began to thaw. In February 1994 the United States lifted a twenty-year embargo of Vietnam, enabling American companies to resume business with the communist nation. Incentives for companies to invest in Vietnam included cheap wages and abundant natural resources. The Vietnamese welcomed this development. By 1996 foreign investment, most of it from neighboring Asian "tiger" nations, had topped $20 billion. American holdings in Vietnam also had increased from a few million into billions of dollars. But policies by the Vietnamese government slowed foreign investment by 1997, making some analysts cautious about Vietnam's economic turn toward the West. Foreign investment took a downward spiral from $2.8 billion in 1997 to a mere $500 million by 1999. Tourism, however, continued to increase, as did student and cultural exchange programs that funneled foreign influences and dollars into Vietnam.

Improved relations with Vietnam also enabled more Vietnamese Americans to reunite with family members. When college-educated Vietnamese granddaughters met their elderly Vietnamese grandmothers living in rural villages for the first time, emotional healing, cultural exchange, and an improved financial situation for some Vietnamese were the consequences. Reflecting the impact of the war on so many different groups of people, American and Vietnamese veterans and war widows from both nations traveled thousands of miles to Vietnam to participate in private and officially sponsored exchange groups. They often searched for missing remains, shared their pain, and tried to understand the loss of their loved ones in the devastating conflict.

The communist government memorialized the war primarily through several public museums, as at the hidden Vietcong southern base within the Cu Chi tunnels outside of Ho Chi Minh City, or at Dien Bien Phu, where the French were finally defeated in 1954. Both have become major tourist destinations for war-fixated foreigners and patriotic and proud Vietnamese. To some extent the government utilized the successful prosecution of the war as propaganda to keep Vietnam a socialist state. The hero worship of Ho Chi Minh reflects a conscious decision on the part of the government to create a cult of personality for the father of modern Vietnam at a time when the overwhelming majority of the Vietnamese population was born after his death.


For Vietnamese veterans on both sides of the conflict, the violence of war remained firmly with them for the rest of their lives. For the victorious communist troops, the end of the war meant a return home to participate in village life and the rebuilding of a united nation. Compared to South Vietnamese veterans, many northern veterans suffered long isolation from their families whom they had not seen in some cases since the mid-1960s. The communist government forbade the returning veterans to fully take part in village politics due to fears that ex-soldiers would take on increased power through their enhanced status as war heroes. Over the next two decades the veterans fared poorly and received paltry rations of rice, meat, and cigarettes in compensation for their war service. Even more so than for American veterans, Vietnamese veterans were largely forgotten by the government, and the service of women was utterly ignored. Only near the end of the twentieth century did the Vietnamese government fully honor the women who fought as front-line troops during the war.

The five million ARVN veterans (including 500,000 disabled vets) faced difficult choices at the war's end. Of the 145,000 Vietnamese refugees who fled Vietnam in 1975, approximately 33 percent were South Vietnamese veterans who, with their families, chose to immigrate to the United States. Most South Vietnamese veterans who fought with the Vietcong were, along with their families, forced into land redevelopment projects, or New Economic Zones, established in the rural countryside to increase land productivity. They comprised nearly half of the one million Vietnamese detailed to the rural projects. Those who survived malaria and malnutrition drifted back to major southern cities when food supplies dissipated. There, many reentered Vietnamese urban society as cab drivers. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, many of these veterans and their families swelled the tide of "boat people" seeking refuge in the United States. Approximately 100,000 South Vietnamese veterans entered the United States in this fashion, though an unknown number perished at sea.

Other South Vietnamese veterans deemed more dangerous were sent to reeducation camps located in rural areas. The estimate of the number sent to the camps was over 300,000 and included army officers, civil servants, teachers, Catholic clergy, journalists, doctors, engineers, and political activists. The system of reeducation involved regular confessions of "crimes" against Vietnam, coupled with readings on American imperialism and Vietnamese socialism. Higher officials and those who resisted were sometimes tortured. Terms of service ranged from a few months to several years. Those prisoners viewed as the most threatening were sent to camps in northern Vietnam, where slave labor was not uncommon. Some of these prisoners were held until 1989, when the camps finally disbanded. The United States estimated that at least fifty camps existed in the 1970s and 1980s, with an average population of four thousand people each. An unknown number of the war veterans perished from disease, starvation, and overwork. Family members who attempted to smuggle food to the prisoners endured great suffering by having to support themselves while they made long trips to the camps. American and Vietnamese efforts led to the release of most of the sixty thousand veterans by 1990.

Vietnamese veterans who fought for South Vietnam and immigrated to the United States secured political asylum beginning in 1988 through the official Orderly Departure Program. By 1997 tens of thousands of veterans had used the program. Many remained bitter, however, over alleged abandonment by Vietnamese and American officials, who failed to provide adequate financial support once the veterans arrived in the United States. Many Vietnamese veterans suffered from substance abuse, joblessness, and underemployment.


The immigration of thousands of people from Southeast Asia in the 1970s and 1980s impacted American-Vietnamese relations and gave rise to new communities of Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian, and Hmong Americans in the United States. Known as boat people for escaping Southeast Asia by sea, the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Southeast Asians (predominantly Vietnamese) generated a political and humanitarian firestorm for the international community, the United States, and Vietnam.

The first wave in 1975 included 140,000 South Vietnamese, mostly political leaders, army officers, and skilled professionals escaping the communist takeover. Fewer than a thousand Vietnamese successfully fled the nation. Those who managed to escape pirates, typhoons, and starvation sought safety and a new life in refugee camps in Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Hong Kong. For many, these countries became permanent homes, while for others they were only waystations to acquiring political asylum in other nations, including the United States.

During the administration of President James Earl Carter, Vietnamese immigration to the United States became a prominent political issue. The number of refugees fleeing Vietnam by sea increased to nearly six thousand in 1976 and twenty thousand the following year. Officials estimated that nearly one-third of this total perished at sea from starvation, drowning, and pirates, problems that increased when some Asian countries began turning away boat people.

The Vietnamese government began to institute socialist reforms by the late 1970s, including the confiscation of businesses and farmland. Many ethnic Chinese business owners who had lived in southern Vietnam for generations came under attack. The Chinese, or Hoa as the Vietnamese called them, were suspected of sympathizing with China, profiting from the poverty of the Vietnamese people, and betraying Vietnam during the conflict with the United States. As a result, they were officially encouraged to leave the country. Adults could pay a bribe and a departure fee to arrange their deportation. In at least one case, a Hoa man paid for the passage of himself and his large family with a bag of gold bars obtained from the liquidation of his estate. Other Vietnamese took advantage of the black market trade in selling passage outside of the country, which developed into a lucrative business in Vietnam between 1977 and 1979.

International attention to the plight of Vietnamese immigrants escalated in 1979, when the human tide of boat people increased to an unprecedented level of 100,000. Public alarm outside of Asia increased when Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Hong Kong, and the Philippines (known as ASEAN countries) declared that they could no longer accept immigrants into their overcrowded camps. But from ten thousand to fifteen thousand immigrants were still leaving Vietnam each month. United Nations secretary general Kurt Waldheim called a conference in response to the impending catastrophe. Sixty-five nations attended the meeting in Geneva, voting to increase funding to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Utilizing an executive order to raise immigration quotas, President Carter doubled the number of Southeast Asian refugees allowed into the United States each month. Agreements were also reached with Vietnam to establish an orderly departure program. These developments combined to slow the exodus of refugees in 1980 and 1981. By 2000, more than two million Vietnamese had left the nation of their birth to start new lives in foreign lands.

Ethnic minorities in Vietnam confronted difficult choices in the wake of the Vietnam conflict. Hundreds of thousands of Hmong and Montagnard people, who supported the United States and South Vietnam during the conflict, migrated to refugee camps in the late 1970s to evade the violence and instability left in the wake of American withdrawal. Many of the Hmong, natives of Laos, became political refugees and finally settled in communities in California and Minnesota, where they continued to practice their culture and adjust to new circumstances as hyphenated Americans. Until 1990 many Hmong funded attempts to retake Laos from communist control. Many Montagnards, who inhabited the Central Highlands of Vietnam, continued resisting the Vietnamese until the close of the Cold War in the early 1990s. By then, most of the one-half million Montagnards had either fled to refugee camps in Cambodia or resettled in the United States.

The political plight of Amerasian children embodies one of the most fundamental and lasting legacies of the Vietnam conflict. The offspring of American men and Vietnamese women, Amerasian children could not immigrate to the United States until the late 1980s. Following the end of the war in 1975, the Vietnamese government refused to meet with American officials to arrange for the immigration of these children. In turn, the United States refused to deal directly with the new communist regime. The children languished in uncertainty, held political hostage by two nations over a war long over.

Although the children were viewed as half-castes, they were not officially targeted for discrimination. But the Vietnamese government viewed their mothers as traitors and called the children bui doi (dust of life). Local officials often targeted Amerasian families for forced migration to New Economic Zones, where the surplus urban population resettled. Some Amerasian children suffered abandonment by families that did not want them for the shame and fear it brought upon their families. As a result, the children were sent to orphanages, and many became street urchins in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. For children of African-American soldiers and Vietnamese women, ethnic discrimination was even more intense.

The children allowed to leave between 1975 and 1982 included those who could prove U.S. citizenship. Vietnamese mothers and refugee organizations attempted to contact the fathers, who would be in a position to arrange for the immigration of the children through government agencies in their home nation. Yet citizenship itself did not guarantee safe passage. Bribes and exit fees were necessary to leave Vietnam legally during the era of massive emigration from 1977 to 1980.

Amerasian children received renewed hope in 1982 when Congress passed the Amerasian Immigration Act, which applied to children throughout Southeast Asia, not just Vietnam. The act had substantial limitations and only a small number of children successfully immigrated. The Vietnamese government announced in 1986 that over twenty-five thousand cases still awaited processing; it then stopped the processing of new cases, causing a steep decline of Amerasian immigration by 1987.

Abandoned and unwanted by the Vietnamese and American governments, the struggle of Amerasian children received widespread publicity, prompting renewed congressional action. The Amerasian Homecoming Act of 1988, sponsored by U.S. Representative Robert Mrazek, facilitated the immigration of Vietnamese Amerasians and certain members of their families. The act successfully broadened Amerasian immigration so that by 1994, refugee watch groups had declared that only a few thousand Amerasian children remained in Vietnam. The by-then grown children and their families had adapted to life there and had chosen to stay.

Despite setbacks and challenges, many Amerasian children became prosperous. Those who adjusted most successfully were usually children who accompanied their Vietnamese mothers to America. Some of these children received assistance through the Big Brother and Big Sister programs. By 1995, however, all Amerasian children had reached adulthood, and all federal programs to assist their assimilation and adjustment were terminated.

Another group of children from Vietnam also grew to adulthood in the United States. As communist forces closed on Saigon in early April 1975, President Gerald Ford began Operation Babylift, the evacuation of 2,600 Vietnamese orphans for adoption by American parents. Twenty years later, many of the children had adjusted successfully to living in the United States. Some became part of the tide of temporary migration back to Vietnam to find missing relatives.

By 1995 over 480,000 Vietnamese had chosen to immigrate to the United States. Another 210,000 lived in other countries around the world. But 46,000 still remained in the refugee camps in ASEAN nations. Many of these countries began to close the camps, forcing dislocated refugees to contemplate returning to Vietnam. By early 1996 more than 39,000 Vietnamese still remained in the camps. That year the United Nations began to withdraw funding of the refugee installations, and soon after closed the camps. Most of the Vietnamese refugees, including children who had never seen Vietnam, returned to an uncertain fate in their home country.


Foreign relations between the United States and Vietnam soured after 1975. They did not fully recover until the mid-1990s, when economic, political, and cultural ties revived, leading to a vibrant period of political reconciliation by the year 2000. Following North Vietnam's victory in 1975, the U.S. attitude toward Vietnam was antagonistic. In the Paris Peace Accords, the United States had agreed to provide $3.3 billion over five years to help rebuild the shattered infrastructure of Vietnam. Rather than meeting its obligations, the United States extended to all of Vietnam the trade embargo against communist North Vietnam that had been ratified under the Trading with the Enemy Act passed during the early years of the conflict. The United States further marginalized Vietnam by halting credits and loans from monetary institutions such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the Asian Development Bank. Seeking acceptance in the international arena, Vietnam attempted several times to join the United Nations, only to be halted by American vetoes.

Relations with the United States began to soften during the first year of the Carter administration, though war wounds still ran too deep to permit a relationship of cooperation and agreement between the two nations. President Carter and Congress indicated that relations could be normalized if the vexing issues surrounding prisoners of war (POWs) and soldiers missing in action (MIAs) were resolved. Approximately 2,500 U.S. service personnel continued to be reported as missing in the jungles of Vietnam, and Americans desperately wanted an accurate assessment of their numbers and of whether any of them were still alive in Vietnamese camps. Optimism grew in 1977 and 1978 as the two nations discussed preliminary issues.

President Carter sent Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke in May 1977 to meet with Vietnamese officials. The talks broke down, however, when Vietnam demanded several billion dollars in payment for war damages, which the United States rejected because the Vietnamese had allegedly violated the 1975 Paris Accords by invading South Vietnam. President Carter indicated that the United States would provide aid, but that funding could not be linked to normalization or the POW-MIA issue.

When the Vietnamese finally relented on their demands for reparations, they failed to receive a corresponding overture from the United States. This stemmed from official and public alarm over Vietnamese immigration, a Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, and an increasingly powerful Soviet presence in the region (epitomized by the Soviet base at Cam Ranh Bay, the largest military installation of the USSR outside of its borders). After the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, the United States sent covert aid to noncommunist Cambodian guerrillas who were fighting Vietnam.

Meanwhile, as relations between China and Vietnam worsened, U.S.Chinese relations improved, culminating in the establishment of full diplomatic ties between the two nations in 1978. This development, combined with Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia in 1978, its treaty of alliance with the Soviet Union the same year, and a border war with China in 1979 gave more impetus to American hostility toward Vietnam. During the final years of the Cold War, Vietnam found itself strongly aligned with anti-American forces that helped offset billions of dollars lost from the American trade embargo.

At the heart of the inability of American and Vietnamese leaders to reconcile national interests in the 1970s and 1980s lay the troublesome POWMIA issue. Although the number of MIAs in World War II and the Korean War (80,000 and 8,000, respectively) was much greater than MIAs in the Vietnam War, the small number of missing American soldiers in the latter conflict (1,992 in all of Southeast Asia, 1,498 in Vietnam) captured the national psyche. They became the focus of a national crusade that retained its fervor into the twenty-first century. The plight of MIAs received much greater attention in the aftermath of the conflict as national leaders and the media fed public alarm over the fate of missing veterans. Although the Department of Defense declared the MIAs deceased, it could not stop the issue from growing to national importance. Unconfirmed public sightings of U.S. soldiers in Vietnam by refugees and others led to expeditions by American veterans to find their missing comrades. As of 2001 no sightings had been confirmed, although human remains were repatriated from Vietnam to the United States as part of an ongoing plan of cooperation between the two nations. More than $5 million were spent annually by the United States on attempts to find and return the remains of missing servicemen in Southeast Asia.

During the 1980s President Ronald Reagan kept the MIA issue at the forefront of American relations with Vietnam. Supported by the National League of POW/MIA Families, Reagan harnessed a national crusade to hinge the normalization of relations with Vietnam on the fate of the MIAs. In July 1985 Vietnam finally allowed an American inspection team to visit alleged MIA burial sites. The return of the remains of several dozen pilots that year eased tensions and led to further investigations. In 1987 and 1989 Vietnam allowed General John Vessey, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to visit with Vietnamese leaders as an emissary of Presidents Reagan and George H. W. Bush.

Realizing that further concessions would help improve a stagnant economy, Vietnam assisted in returning the remains of more than two hundred American soldiers between 1985 and 1990 and also provided access to archives, war files, and cemetery records. They also allowed the United States to establish a Hanoi office to oversee MIA investigations. Between 1993 and 2001, joint ventures by the United States and Vietnam generated thirty-nine official searches that yielded 288 sets of remains and the identification of another 135 American servicemen previously unaccounted for in Vietnam. In a move to further pacify American political leaders, Vietnam announced in 1995 that its continuing cooperation regarding American MIAs and POWs did not depend on an accurate accounting by the United States and its allies of the whereabouts of the 330,000 Vietcong and North Vietnamese MIAs.

Kindled by the MIA issue, relations between the United States and Vietnam grew closer during the 1990s. As the Cold War came to a close in 1989, Vietnam finally agreed to withdraw all of its troops from Cambodia, ending its long and costly period of isolation from the United States. The Cold War's termination also improved relations by ending the Soviet-Vietnamese partnership. To further ease foreign antagonism toward Vietnam and to increase foreign investment, the communist government removed from the Vietnamese constitution unflattering characterizations of Western countries.

Other agreements between Vietnam and the United States centered upon the issue of Vietnamese political refugees. To improve relations with many of its southern people, the Vietnamese government in September 1987 released more than six thousand military and political prisoners, many of them senior officials in the former government of South Vietnam. Under the Orderly Departure Program in 1990, Vietnam agreed to assist the United Nations in helping refugees utilize official channels rather than leaky boats to immigrate to America. Another agreement, signed in 1990, enabled former South Vietnamese officials and army officers to immigrate to America.

Under the administration of President William Jefferson Clinton during the 1990s, Vietnamese-American relations continued to improve. With the lifting of the U.S. trade embargo in 1994, economic relations opened and American companies increased their investments in Vietnam. Clinton fostered educational and cultural exchange, enabling veterans, students, and the expatriate sons and daughters from Vietnam to cement family ties. Humanitarian aid to Vietnam from the American government and private associations increased and tourism became a vibrant element of the national economy. In a sign of growing political ties, Vietnamese officials in January 1995 signed an agreement with the United States providing for an exchange of diplomats and other officials as a prelude to full normalization of relations. As expected, President Clinton overrode Republican conservative critics and MIA stalwarts to extend full recognition to Vietnam in July 1995.

One month later the American flag was raised over the new U.S. embassy in Hanoi while Secretary of State Warren Christopher looked on. Over the next two years, President Clinton established the diplomatic structures necessary to bring the two nations closer together. He nominated U.S. Representative Douglas "Pete" Peterson, a former POW, to represent the United States as the first envoy to a united Vietnam. Soon after Peterson took up his post in the summer of 1997, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright visited Vietnamese officials in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. The first U.S. secretary of state to visit Vietnam since the end of the war, Albright participated in ceremonies dedicating a new site for an American consulate.

Beginning in the late 1990s a number of steps further enhanced economic relations between the United States and Vietnam. After Vietnam joined the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in 1998, the United States jettisoned the Jackson-Vanick Amendment that had capped U.S. investment programs in Vietnam. In 1999 the two nations finally agreed on the outlines of a trade agreement to help Vietnam open its markets to world investors. American investment support programs then poured in, reversing the decline of world economic interest in Vietnam that had begun to worry investors in 1997, when the Vietnamese government enacted political and economic policies of retrenchment that retarded the growth of capitalism and capital investment in Vietnam. President Clinton further thawed U.S.Vietnamese relations during the waning days of his administration. In July 2000 the two countries signed an unprecedented bilateral trade agreement reached between the two nations. The agreement mandated that Vietnam halt quotas on all imported goods over the following seven years, cut tariffs, and handle American imports in the same manner as domestic products.

Four months later President Clinton traveled to Vietnam, the first president to do so since President Nixon touched down in South Vietnam in 1969. The visit closed a sad chapter of violence and strained political relations between the two nations, and ushered in a new era of economic boom in Vietnam that was unparalleled in its tragic history of successful resistance against foreign military intervention. Vietnamese analysts predicted that Vietnamese exports to the United States, hovering near the $800 million mark in 2001, could top $3 billion in 2005 and $11 billion by 2010. U.S. investment in Vietnam had already increased from $4 million in 1992 to $291 million in 1999, providing hope that this trend would continue well into the twenty-first century. In late July 2001, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who had been a soldier in Vietnam, returned there for the first time in thirty years in an historic attempt to put the past to rest.

During the first six months of his administration in 2001, President George W. Bush pledged to continue Clinton's policy of economic liberalization toward Vietnam, and took active steps to support the American diplomatic mission based in Hanoi. In one of his first actions as president, Bush reappointed as ambassador Pete Peterson, who in the Clinton years had been instrumental in helping to negotiate the bilateral trade agreement. Although Bush was associated with a conservative Republican bloc that in the past had voiced criticism of American reconciliation with Vietnam, the new administration recognized the potential economic windfall awaiting U.S. investors in Vietnam.


The Vietnam conflict impacted veterans in a variety of ways. Most combat soldiers witnessed violence and lost friends to the horrors of war. The dedication of eight new names to the Vietnam War Memorial on 28 May 2001 brought the American death toll to 58,226, a number that will continue to rise as the classified casualties of the covert war in Laos and Cambodia continue to surface. Some American veterans bore emotional and physical injuries that they would carry for the rest of their lives. Most remained proud of their service and of the role of the United States in the conflict. During the war approximately twenty-seven million American men dealt with the draft; 11 percent of them served in some fashion in Vietnam. As a consequence of college deferments, most U.S. soldiers in Vietnam came from minority and working-class backgrounds. The average age of U.S. soldiers in Vietnam, nineteen, was three years lower than for American men during World War II and Korea.

In contrast to World War II, American soldiers in Vietnam served individualized tours of duty rather than remaining attached to their units throughout the war. This sometimes produced difficulties in adjusting to life back at home. A minority of soldiers in Vietnam also became drug addicts who continued their self-medication because of the difficulties of transitioning to a peacetime existence, the availability of drugs in the United States, and the lack of federal programs to help veterans cope with postwar life at home.

Whether or not they felt proud of their service or sustained war injuries, returning Vietnam veterans received a lukewarm welcome for their service. A vocal section of the public vented its frustration with racism, the federal government, and the war on the returning veterans. While most Americans viewed World War II as the "good war," a majority of the American public viewed the Vietnam conflict as a disaster. Only the POWs generated postwar sympathy for the suffering they endured.

Some veterans wrote about their war experiences to educate the nation as well as improve their own understanding of their participation in the conflict and the public reception they received. Ron Kovic, a disabled veteran who served two tours of duty in Vietnam with the marines, wrote Born on the Fourth of July (1976), which explained his participation in the war and the difficulties of coming home in a wheelchair to an angry and hostile American public. Oliver Stone transformed the book into a successful film in 1989. Stone, who served in Vietnam, also produced the film Platoon (1986).

Despite the myth of the chronically impaired Vietnam veteran, most vets married, found jobs, and successfully reintegrated into American society. Many became successful businessmen and politicians whose experiences in the war shaped subsequent U.S. policy toward Vietnam. They became the point men leading the nation to a complex but more hopeful phase of Vietnamese-American relations. Yet veterans like Senator Bob Kerrey continued to face the fallout from their actions in Vietnam, revealing that the American people were still unable to unburden themselves from the political context of the conflict. Reminiscent of many veterans who have come under fire for their participation in the war, Kerrey rationalized his participation in a firefight that left twelve women and children dead as a response to orders followed in a chaotic and unconventional military engagement.

Although most veterans were not permanently damaged by the war, some 15 to 25 percent of Vietnam veterans (between 500,000 and 700,000) suffered from a stress-related impairment known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a psychological disease brought on by acute combat experience. Some of the 11,500 women who served in the war90 percent of them as nursesalso returned exhibiting PTSD. This condition can occur in combat soldiers or other individuals suffering from violent trauma and can manifest itself years after the initial experience. Also known as shell shock or combat fatigue, the disorder is vaguely defined and was overused in diagnosing the psychological reactions to war of Vietnam veterans. Some of the 11,500 women who served in the war (90 percent as nurses) also returned exhibiting PTSD.

Reflecting the changing mood of the American public toward both the war and the veterans, memorials and other commemorations of the Vietnam conflict began to surface in the mid-1980s. They revealed a national desire to "welcome home" vets who had not received domestic support when they most needed itimmediately after the war.


A national obsession over the fate of the approximately two thousand American soldiers missing in Southeast Asia became one of the most unexpected and permanent legacies of the war. To many Americans, perpetuation of the search for the POWs and MIAs provided the opportunity to extend belated thanks and honor to all Vietnam veterans.

The return of POWs became a heated political and military issue during the Paris peace talks that culminated in 1973. Both sides attempted to use it to their advantage over the next two years. The Americans claimed that the freeing and returning of the veterans was taking too long, though most of the men were later returned. During the administration of President Jimmy Carter in 1977, more than one thousand of the two thousand listed as MIA were reclassified as killed in action, although no credible reports existed that any missing service personnel not declared prisoners of war were still alive.

In the late 1970s the POW-MIA issue resurfaced as a result of lobbying by the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia. In 1979 Congress reclassified the fate of the soldiers killed in action as POW-MIA. President Ronald Reagan kept the issue alive three years later by stating publicly that he felt some Americans were still being held in Vietnam. His belief was supported by international humanitarian workers and Vietnamese immigrants who reported seeing Americans still held under guard.

Public passion for the return of MIAs increased following a spate of films in the mid-1980s, such as Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), starring Sylvester Stallone as a lone American freeing American POWs under intense enemy fire. MIA supporters soon began wearing bracelets and dog tags that listed a missing American veteran as a hero to be remembered and located. During his failed bid for the presidency in 1992, Ross Perot also fueled the MIA cause by declaring that he not only believed that Americans were still held, but that he had funded covert forays to locate and free the missing men. Because of contradictory and late-arriving information from the Vietnamese and U.S. governments, many Americans remained suspicious of the POW-MIA issue and came to believe it had declined as an issue of national importance.

Furthering national support for the controversial cause, President Reagan in 1988 ordered a black and white POW-MIA flag designed by the National League to fly one day each year at the White House. It stands as the only other flag besides the Stars and Stripes that has ever been hoisted at the White House. A Massachusetts state law passed in 1990 mandated that the flag be flown above one or more public buildings in every Massachusetts town. In April 2001, the state of Virginia passed similar legislation. Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts organized the Senate Select Committee on POW-MIA Affairs in 1992. Congressional prodding soon led the Postal Service to issue a POW-MIA stamp. Eventually, all fifty states officially recognized National POWMIA Recognition Day to commemorate the missing veterans.


The Vietnam Memorial, like the POW-MIA flag, stands as the physical embodiment of the desire of the American people to understand the meaning of the Vietnam conflict and remember the men and women who took part in it. During the late 1970s both public and private efforts began to congeal around the idea of establishing a monument to the 58,000 American dead in Vietnam. Influenced by the film The Deer Hunter (1978), Jan Scruggs, a Vietnam veteran, teamed up with two other servicemen in 1979 to create a non-profit organization known as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund.

The location and design of the memorial generated intense political controversy over an issue still raw in the American national consciousness. Maya Lin, a young Chinese-American architectural student at Yale University, won the competition with a design based on a sunken 500-foot, V-shaped wall of polished black granite bearing inscriptions on fourteen panels of all the names of the American men and women who died in Vietnam between 1959 and 1975.

Controversy immediately erupted over the political message conveyed by the wall. Some detractors saw it as a thinly veiled criticism of American motives in the war. Lin, who was also attacked by American racists who saw her Chinese heritage as implicated in her interpretation of the war and design of the memorial, effectively kept critics at bay and successfully preserved the inclusion of a chronological listing of the names of the deceased. Conservative critics influenced Secretary of the Interior James Watt to delay construction, however, until agreement was reached adding three life-sized bronze casts of American soldiers in more heroic form near the wall. This new addition reflected the desires and needs of a more conservative segment of the American population, personified by Ross Perot, who felt that the memorial should also recognize the positive aspects of the war and American service in Southeast Asia.

The wall, once unveiled, induced some veterans to feel guilt about surviving a conflict that their friends had not. Others discovered friends had not perished, and reconnected with former friends in the armed services who were at the wall to do the same. Thousands of flowers, cards, and other mementos have been left at the wall, a tradition that serves as a constant reminder that the conflict remains firmly imbedded in the memories of most Americans. A sacred shrine to many, over 2.5 million people visit the wall each year; it is the most visited memorial in Washington, D.C. The Korean War Veterans Memorial, established in 1995, owes its existence in part to a heightened sense of sympathy toward veterans by the American people in the wake of the Vietnam conflict.

On Veterans Day 1993 the Vietnam Women's Memorial Project unveiled a monument to the participation of women in the Vietnam War. Diane Evans, a Vietnam veteran who served as a nurse in hospitals and transport planes along with thousands of other women, pushed the project forward with tireless effort. In ways similar to the inclusion of a black male soldier in a bronze statue installed near the Vietnam Memorial in 1984, the women's memorialbuilt by sculptor Glenna Goodacrereflected the inclusiveness of the war and the shared experiences of participants across race and ethnicity. The statue depicts two female nurses (one black and one white) assisting a fallen soldier. The Vietnam War elevated the visibility of military women within the armed services, leaving a lasting legacy that helped later women achieve even greater gains in rank, job participation, and benefits.


The meaning of the Vietnam War for American foreign policy remains a hotly contested and unresolved issue. Most aspects of the war remain open to dispute, ranging from the wisdom of U.S. involvement to the reasoning behind continued escalation and final withdrawal.

The political legacies of the war began to surface even before North Vietnam's victory in 1975. A powerful domestic antiwar movement that arose in the mid-1960s influenced a bipartisan group of U.S. congresspersons who by 1970 began to question openly the commitment of American troops to conflicts of uncertain national importance. Their doubts were enhanced by the fact that Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon sent U.S. forces into Vietnam with little regard for congressional approval. Passage of the War Powers Resolution by both houses of Congress and over President Nixon's veto in 1973 signaled that American politicians and the public would no longer allow presidents to single-handedly dictate military policy as commander in chief of the armed forces.

The War Powers Resolution mandated that U.S. presidents inform Congress within forty-eight hours of a troop commitment in the absence of a declaration of war. If Congress does not declare war within sixty days of the commitment, the president must terminate the use of U.S. military forces, unless he has sought in writing a thirty-day extension of the deadline. Since its passage, however, the War Powers Resolution has made little impact on presidential warmaking because creative ways have been found to circumvent its limitations.

More important as a brake on presidential war policy is the Vietnam syndrome, a catchall phrase that describes the public's impatience for protracted American wars based on vague policy goals. Most pronounced from the American withdrawal in 1973 to the Gulf War in 1991, the Vietnam syndrome congealed after the war as the public mood slid toward isolation and the belief that troops should be committed only in cases of national invasion. This sentiment handcuffed President Jimmy Carter's ability to use military force to free American hostages in Iran in 1979 and 1980, and deterred President Ronald Reagan from seeking congressional approval to fund the Nicaraguan contras in the early 1980s.

During his first term in office, President Ronald Reagan assured the nation that there would be "no more Vietnams," a refrain also echoed by George H. W. Bush during his presidency. To conservatives, this meant that U.S. troops would never again fight a war without the necessary full political support to win it. To others, it meant that popular opinion would now limit any extensions of American military power across the globe. The public would not support a troop commitment to another war against communists, even in the Western Hemisphere. Mistrust spawned by the Vietnam conflict led Reagan's foreign policymakers to cover up arms deals during the Iran-Contra affair.

American invasions of Grenada and Panama in the 1980s were short-lived partly because of executive fears of escalating military involvement without strong public support. The deaths of more than two hundred marines at a base in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1983 threatened to rekindle the nightmare of Vietnam once again. But the victorious Gulf War of 1991 did much to remove the enormous burden of the Vietnam conflict from the back of American foreign policy.

In the invasion plan to oust the Iraqi forces occupying Kuwait, General Norman Schwarzkopf, a Vietnam veteran, remembered lessons of Southeast Asia. He helped to limit the information released about the conflict (to prevent another "living-room" television war) and patiently built up his forces to maximum strength before attacking Iraqi troops. The architects of the Gulf War also relied on precision bombing rather than ground troops in order to minimize casualties and preserve public support for the war. President Bush successfully mollified the public's post-Vietnam fears of wasteful wars fought by poor men by pledging to do away with college draft deferments, if the draft was reinstated, and by calling for unqualified patriotic support to honor the 500,000 servicemen sent to the Gulf.

Following the Persian Gulf War the American public showered returning troops with a level of adulation not witnessed in the United States since 1945, and cracks became visible in the Vietnam syndrome. But hesitation in committing troops to Bosnia and the withdrawal from Somalia stemmed in part from Clinton administration fears that the conflicts there would escalate and damage American credibility, as with Vietnam. Strong domestic support for a precision bombing campaign over Kosovo in 1999, however, demonstrated how far the American public had drifted from the antiwar fervor of the early 1970s.

As time healed the wounds of violence and bloodshed, the impact of the Vietnam conflict still lingered for the Vietnamese and American people. But a new phase began, characterized by hope, new friendships, and cultural and political exchange unprecedented in the history of two nations once at war.


Andrade, Dale. Trial by Fire: The 1972 Easter Offensive, America's Last Vietnam Battle. New York, 1995. Using official records, interviews with participants, and captured North Vietnamese documents, this important book covers the entire scope of the Easter offensive.

Berman, Larry. Planning a Tragedy: The Americanization of the War in Vietnam. New York, 1982. A detailed archival-based account of the crucial July 1965 decision that Americanized the war in Vietnam.

. Lyndon Johnson's War: The Road to Stalemate in Vietnam. New York, 1989.

. No Peace, No Honor: Nixon, Kissinger, and Betrayal in Vietnam. New York, 2001. Drawing on new declassified documents, the case is presented that Nixon and Kissinger viewed the Paris accords as a vehicle for prolonging indefinitely American involvement in Southeast Asia.

Brigham, Robert K. Guerrilla Diplomacy: The NLF's Foreign Relations and the Viet Nam War. Ithaca, N.Y., 1999. The very best account of the NLF's activities during the war. The author utilizes many primary source documents from Hanoi archives and interviews with many Vietnamese leaders.

Bundy, William P. A Tangled Web: The Making of Foreign Policy in the Nixon Presidency. New York, 1998.

Butler, David. The Fall of Saigon. New York, 1985.

Chanoff, David, and Doan Van Toai. Vietnam: A Portrait of Its People at War. New York, 1986.

Clodfelter, Mark. The Limits of Air Power: The American Bombing of North Vietnam. New York, 1989. The most comprehensive account on the subject of U.S. airpower and strategy during the war.

Diem, Bui, and David Chanoff. In the Jaws of History. Boston, 1987. Diem, the former Vietnam ambassador to the United States, offers a gripping personal and political account of his life and the struggle for democracy in Vietnam.

Dillard, Walter Scott. Sixty Days to Peace: Implementing the Paris Peace Accords, Vietnam 1973. Washington, D.C., 1982.

Don, Tran Van. Our Endless War: Inside Vietnam. San Rafael, Calif., 1978.

Engelmann, Larry. Tears Before the Rain: An Oral History of the Fall of South Vietnam. New York, 1990. A stunning series of more than seventy oral history interviews with those who were there for the fall of South Vietnam.

Gaiduk, I. V. The Soviet Union and the Vietnam War. Chicago, 1996. A seminal contribution that draws on Soviet archives to advance understanding of Soviet ideology and policy during the war.

Gardner, Lloyd C. Pay Any Price: Lyndon Johnson and the Wars for Vietnam. Chicago, 1995.

Herring, George C. LBJ and Vietnam: A Different Kind of War. Austin, Tex., 1994.

Hung, Nguyen Tien, and Jerrold L. Schecter. The Palace File. New York, 1986. Based on more than thirty previously unpublished letters between South Vietnam's President Thieu and U.S. Presidents Nixon and Ford, the book documents the broken promises that resulted in the fall of South Vietnam.

Isaacs, Arnold R. Without Honor: Defeat in Vietnam and Cambodia. Baltimore, 1983.

Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam: A History. New York, 1991. This monumental narrative clarifies and analyzes the many facets of the Vietnam War.

Kimball, Jeffrey. Nixon's Vietnam War. Lawrence, Kans., 1998.

Kutler, Stanley I., ed. Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes. New York, 1997.

Logevall, Fredrik. Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam. Berkeley, Calif., 1999. The first truly comprehensive examination of the making of the war in Vietnam from 1963 to 1965. Develops an international context for the author's analysis and documents that at every step American decision makers chose war over disengagement.

Loi, Luu Van, and Nguyen Anh Vu. Le Duc ThoKissinger Negotiations in Paris. Hanoi, 1996. Vietnam diplomats who participated in the negotiations offer an invaluable Vietnamese perspective with documents and analysis.

McNamara, Robert S. In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. New York, 1995.

. Argument Without End: In Search of Answers to the Vietnam Tragedy. New York, 1999. Provides a new view of the Vietnam conflict by offering the assessments of what went on in the minds of decision makers in Hanoi and Washington as they confronted one another. The Vietnamese perspectives are especially valuable for the historical record.

Record, Jeffrey. The Wrong War: Why We Lost in Vietnam. Annapolis, Md., 1998.

Shawcross, William. Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia. New York, 1979.

Sheehan, Neil. After the War Was Over: Hanoi and Saigon. New York, 1992.

Snepp, Frank. Decent Interval: An Insider's Account of Saigon's Indecent End. New York, 1977.

Sorley, Lewis. A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam. New York, 1999. Draws on many previously unavailable documents and provides a valuable interpretation for American strategy and policies during the war.

Tang, Truong Nhu. A Viet Cong Memoir. New York, 1985.

Tin, Bui. Following Ho Chi Minh: The Memoirs of a North Vietnamese Colonel. Honolulu, 1995.

Zhai, Qiang. China and the Vietnam Wars, 19501975. Chapel Hill, N.C., 2000. In examining China's conduct toward Vietnam, Zhai provides important insights into Mao Zedong's foreign policy and the ideological and geopolitical motives behind it.

See also Cold War Evolution and Interpretations; Cold War Origins; Cold War Termination; Containment; Domino Theory; Intervention and Nonintervention; PostCold War Policy.


There is an important historical caveat worth noting. Richard Nixon was vice president of the United States at the time of the Geneva Conference of 1954 and Pham Van Dong headed the DRV delegation. By 1970 both men would be the leaders of the United States and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, respectively. Both drew lessons from the Geneva experience that would influence how each approached the final phase of negotiations in Paris nearly two decades later. Dong always believed that the Vietminh had been betrayed by its friends and was wary of a repetition. Therefore, he was determined that the Soviet Union and China not use their interest in improved relations with the United States to leverage a quick settlement. For Nixon the lessons from Geneva were just as clear. He would again try to use Hanoi's friends, the Soviets and Chinese, to force concessions that would lead to a political settlement advantageous to the United States. Nixon would insist that President Thieu remain in office as part of any negotiated settlement. Once that goal was accomplished, there would be no need to hold elections until the North Vietnamese troops went home. After all, with American support, Diem had called off the elections of 1956. Such was Nixon's view of Geneva's lessons.


The Watergate tapes revealed that in January 1973, when the Democratic-controlled Congress was investigating the Watergate break-in, Nixon devised a bizarre scheme of pressuring former President Lyndon Johnson to call his Democrat friends in Congress and request that they stop the Watergate investigation. Nixon threatened Johnson with a public disclosure that Johnson had bugged the Nixon and Agnew planes and campaign offices during the 1968 campaign, thus embarrassing Johnson and also proving that Nixon was not the first to illegally wiretap those suspected of leaking information. On a 9 January 1973 tape, Nixon says, "LBJ could turn off the whole Congressional investigation." But Johnson trumped Nixon by threatening to release the complete National Security Agency (NSA) Chennault files showing that the Nixon campaign had "illegally interfered with the Paris peace talks by convincing Saigon to stay away until after Nixon came to office."


The Soviet ambassador to France made a recommendation for the Paris peace talks: use a round table and two opposite rectangular tables off the round table for secretaries with no flags or plates for names. That way, the parties could speak of either a two-or four-sided conference, depending on their view. The United States would call the talks two-party, the communists would call them four-party. The United States called them the Paris peace talks, Hanoi the Paris talks. For months, nobody spoke the same language.