Reflections on the Forty-Fifth Anniversary of the Fall of Saigon
After the American withdrawal from Vietnam in 1973, it was clear that the Vietnamese Communists would eventually gain control over and reunite the country. Well aware of the western interventions after they appeared to gain victory after Dienbienphu in 1954, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRVN)began to build a vast highway, Corridor 613, running from the seventeenth parallel to the Saigon area, and by early 1975 it could handle 10,000 trucks in traffic and refuel them via a 5,000 kilometer pipeline. Ironically, however, Corridor 613 was barely used, for when the final offensive began, People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) and Provisional Revolutionary Government (PRG) forces so totally overwhelmed the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) that they simply used the existing highways in the Republic of Vietnam, or South Vietnam.
On December 26, 1974, beginning a campaign that Hanoi believed would bring victory by 1976 or 1977, General Van Tien Dung, with 22 infantry divisions, hundreds of tanks, and thousands of artillery pieces, began bombarding Phuoc Long province near the Cambodian border and only about 50 miles from Saigon. By January 7, 1975 the entire province came under PRG control as the South barely resisted and American B-52s did not reappear, as South Vietnam had hoped, and the enemy had feared. Hanoi was thrilled as the offensive had exceeded its most optimistic hopes. As the DRVN leader, Le Duan, exclaimed, “never have we had military and political conditions so perfect or a strategic advantage so great as we have now.”
From that point on, the PAVN coasted through Vietnam. On April 26, General Dung began the “Ho Chi Minh Campaign” and the ARVN fully collapsed. American helicopters scrambled to get over 7,000 American and Republic of Vietnam (RVN) personnel out of the capital while U.S. ships in the South China Sea evacuated another 70,000 Vietnamese out of the country. On April 30, 1975, tanks rolled toward the presidential palace, crashed through the gates, liberated, or conquered, Saigon, and flew the PRG flag from the palace balcony. “Saigon” ceased to exist, and the capital was renamed “Ho Chi Minh City,” while in Hanoi crowds began chanting “Long Live Ho Chi Minh.” General Tran Van Tra, who led the final assault, was overtaken with emotion and “suddenly felt as if my soul was translucent and light, as if everything had sunk to the bottom.” The Vietnam War had ended.
In his final testament, written just a few months before he died, Ho Chi Minh poetically envisioned that “our rivers, our mountains, our people will always be; the American aggressors defeated, we will build a country ten times more beautiful.” Fulfilling that dream, however, would be as difficult as winning the war, as the aftermath of the American War brought more hardship, conflict, and battle.
Meanwhile, conditions in Vietnam were often precarious. The war had devasted the entire country. The United States had rained fifteen million tons of munitions on Vietnam, destroyed vegetation with defoliants that still cause large numbers of birth defects today, and created about seven million refugees in the southern half of the country alone. By 1975, somewhere around 3 million Vietnamese were killed, probably more civilians than soldiers. And when the war ended, a humanitarian nightmare grew as millions sought refuge. Many became “boat people” who were often attacked by pirates or drowned at sea before arriving at refugee camps. Eventually perhaps one million made it to the United States in the first wave of resettlement, usually with nothing more than the clothes on their backs.
Inside what was now the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV), immense problems confronted the new national government. It had to rebuild a nation wracked by war and develop a new economy. In the South, the dominant economic class had long been Chinese, so the SRV leaders had to dismantle that old regime in order to create some level of political stability. Eliminating Chinese influence, however, created additional problems that over the next few years would make the task of reconstruction virtually impossible—both due to international factors and mistakes made by the SRV’s leaders.
In the first instance, the Vietnamese needed funding to rebuild basic infrastructure and create economic activity. However, the Americans reneged on a promise of US$3.25 billion in reconstruction aid made during the peace talks, and pressured international lending organizations such as the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization(UNESCO) to reject Hanoi’s applications for loans or aid. The SRV then increasingly relied on the Soviet Union for economic help while relations with China, which had also supported Hanoi during the war, deteriorated. Soon after the war, the SRV signed a treaty with the Soviet Union, which was China’s great rival, and Beijing in turn branded Vietnam the “Cuba of the East” which had “imperial dreams” in Southeast Asia.
Inside Vietnam, the earlier visions of Ho Chi Minh and his comrades to create a socialist society and reward those who had made the Revolution possible—peasants, workers, and veterans—fell to the side as the SRV found itself in conflict with Cambodia. At virtually the same time in April 1975 that the Vietnamese Communists rolled into Saigon, the Communist Khmer Rouge ousted the government of Cambodia. While the Vietnamese had earlier supported the Khmer Rouge, relations between the two states were frosty as the new, brutal regime of Pol Pot was closer to China than the SRV.As the horrific “killing fields” in what was now Kampuchea grew, border attacks on Vietnamese troops increased as well. So, on December 25, 1978, the Vietnamese invaded Phnom Penh and removed the Khmer Rouge from power.
While ousting Pol Pot was a noble goal, the intervention would be devastating for the SRV. Despite the genocide committed by the Khmer Rouge, both the United States and China continued to recognize it as the official government. Toward that end, Washington and Beijing began to consult immediately on action against Vietnam. In a January 29, 1979 conversation with the Chinese supreme leader, Deng Xiaoping, the U.S. president, Jimmy Carter, expressed his desire to punish Vietnam by encouraging other nations to reduce aid to Hanoi “as long at the Vietnamese are the invaders,” increasing military aid to Thailand, reaching out to Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members to unite against the SRV, and warning the Soviet Union that continued support of Vietnam would harm relations with America.
Deng expressed his concerns over Vietnam as well and told Carter that “some punishment over a short period of time will put a restraint on Vietnamese ambitions” and that “we need your moral support in the international field.” The American president understood clearly what China intended but cautioned that “invasion of Vietnam would be very serious destabilizing action.” Deng reassured him that “we have noted what you said to us, that you want us to be restrained. It is not that we did not consider this. . . .We intend a limited action. Our troops will quickly withdraw. We’ll deal with it like a border incident.”
And so, on February 17, 1979 hundreds of thousands of Chinese troops struck along the Vietnamese border. The incursion did not last long, about a month, but it was costly to both countries as the Chinese had about 25,000 or more killed and over 40,000 wounded and the Vietnamese had about 10,000 killed. Financially, however, the toll was greater. The burden of fighting against China right after intervening in Kampuchea, and then the immense occupation costs of keeping Phnom Penh under control would plague the SRV economy for years.
The SRV did get some support from the IMF in the early 1980s, but it conditioned the aid, as it always does, on adjustments to the national economy—reduced subsidies, more exports, private foreign investment, and a market economy. The vision that Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh once had of an independent socialist nation was now gone. By 1986 the SRV was desperate as the economic burden of maintaining a huge army in Kampuchea and agricultural failures had led to widespread deprivation, especially among those peasants and soldiers who had done so much to make the revolution successful. With the emergence of Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union, the Vietnamese began their own version of market reforms, or “market socialism,” called Do Moi.
Private entrepreneurs, generally with close contacts to the state bureaucracy, began taking over key economic sectors, and private investment came into Vietnam. Production rose and new businesses came to the SRV, but little of that wealth ever trickled down to workers and veterans. As Gabriel Kolko, the historian who has done the best work on this topic, lamented, “Ironically, after 1986 [Hanoi] increasingly adapted many of the assumptions and human priorities of those they had defeated, priorities on which a consensus has prevailed throughout the world since market theory attained unchallenged ascendancy in the putative socialist nations.”
Since then, Vietnam has been on an inexorable march toward the marketplace. The United States lifted its trade embargo on Vietnam in 1994 and normalized relations a year later, and in 2001 negotiated a commercial agreement that virtually removed tariffs and opened trade between the two nations. In 2007, Vietnam joined the World Trade Organization, which further led to tariff reductions and trade liberalization. The SRV began to move away from agriculture to industrialization and had an average growth rate of about 6.3 percent in the decade after joining the WTO, with annual export growth of about 12-14 percent. Vietnam had over 22,000 foreign investment projects, valued at US$300 billion, with companies such as Samsung, LG, Toyota, Honda and Canon. Its relations with China, however, remained fraught with peril as both sides viewed each other warily and disputes over the Spratly Islands continued to cause political skirmishes.
In April 1975, the Vietnamese Communists seemed to have finally achieved sovereignty and socialism after decades of war, while the United States apparently had seen the limits of its postwar power and suffered a defeat in a war against a small peasant nation in Asia. Now, forty-five years later, Vietnam resembles the country the Americans had hoped to create when they first became interested in Indochina as an economic partner for a restored Japan in a Capitalist Asia. After a half-century of nationalist uprisings, Japanese occupation, and wars against France and the United States, with many millions dead and ecological devastation, Vietnam is now a major manufacturing base and trading partner for U.S. companies.
Robert Buzzanco is a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of this Journal. He is a Professor of History at the University of Houston, specializing in Vietnam and U.S. foreign policy. He teaches a variety of courses in U.S. history, such as the U.S. history survey, the history of the Vietnam War, America in the 1960s, and U.S. foreign policy. He has also taught graduate courses on the Vietnam War, post-1945 U.S. History, and U.S. foreign relations (“Empire, War, and Diplomacy”), as well as numerous research seminars. He has been the advisor on many dissertation thesis committees. Dr. Buzzanco is the author or editor of three books and he has written more than twenty articles that have appeared in scholarly publications and major newspapers. He is continuing work on the political economy of the 1960s and the impact of the Vietnam War on the U.S. economy. His book, Masters of War: Military Dissent and Politics in the Vietnam Era (Cambridge University Press, 1996), received the Stuart L. Bernath Prize, awarded by the Society of Historians of American Foreign Relations (chapter on Tet Offensive excerpted in Robert McMahon, ed, Major Problems in the History of the Vietnam War, 3rd edition). He is the co-editor, with Marilyn Young of A Companion to the Vietnam War, a collection of essays on Vietnam in the “Blackwell Companion Series” (Blackwell, 2002). He has also authored “The Politics of Escalation in Vietnam during the Johnson Years,” in Young and Buzzanco edited, A Companion to the Vietnam War (Blackwell, 2002); Vietnam and the Transformation of American Life (Blackwell, “Problems in American History” Series, 1999); “Anti-Imperialism,” Encyclopedia of American Foreign Relations, 2002; “How Did Iraq and the United States Become Enemies,” History News Network, October 28, 2002; and “The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1968: Capitalism, Communism, and Containment,” in Empire and Revolution: The United States and the Third World since 1945, edited by Peter L. Hahn and Mary Ann Heiss (Ohio State University Press 2001).
 This section is largely derived from my books Masters of War: Military Dissent and Politics in the Vietnam Era (New York, 1996), and Vietnam and the Transformation of American Life (Boston, 1999).
 On the U.S. promise of reconstruction aid, see Tom Wicker, “A Broken Promise?” May 6, 1977, https://www.nytimes.com/1977/05/06/archives/a-broken-promise.html; see also “Vietnam 40 years on: How a Communist Victory gave way to Capitalist Corruption,” The Guardian, April 22, 2015.
 Memorandum of Conversation, January 29, 1979, Subject: Vietnam, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1977-1980, Volume XIII, China, https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1977-80v13/d205.
 This discussion is largely based on Gabriel Kolko, Vietnam: Anatomy of a Peace (New York, 1997).