Legacy of War in Vietnam

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Thank you to the following reviewers of the curriculum: Andrew Demko, Rainier Junior/Senior High School; George Herring, University of Kentucky; Mark Lawrence, University of Texas at Austin; Susan Tomlinson, Franklin Central High School. 

ABOUT THE LEGACY OF WAR IN VIETNAM

When the Paris Peace Accords were signed in 1973 to end the fighting in Vietnam, both North and South had been plagued by vast economic problems due to decades of war that had destroyed agricultural land and damaged the nations’ limited industrial facilities, and nearly 3 million Vietnamese civilians had lost their lives over the course of the war. While the Accords called for reconciliation between North and South Vietnam, and within South Vietnam, a genuine settlement proved difficult. In 1975, after the rapid capture of several cities by the North Vietnamese government, the North Vietnamese took control of Saigon. About a year later, North and South Vietnam were reunited under communist control to become the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (see slides 1 and 2).

Vietnam under communist control witnessed innumerable executions of those who had worked against North Vietnam during the war, along with the establishment of “reeducation camps,” essentially prison camps where former government workers of South Vietnam were forced into labor and compelled to adopt a communist perspective. Watch a portion or all of the video clip included on slide 3, which is an interview with a Vietnamese-American who was detained in a reeducation camp following the war. What is your impression of life in a reeducation camp from this perspective? If you could ask Dr. Ninh a follow up question, what would you ask?

In neighboring Cambodia, the time following the end of US involvement marked a stunningly tragic period in the nation’s history. Khmer Rouge, a communist movement formed in 1951, captured the capital city of Phnom Penh in April 1975. In slide 4, you see the head of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot, leading his troops. Under Pol Pot’s brutal dictatorship, as many as 2 million Cambodians lost their lives through executions or poor health brought about by a plan under which city residents were moved to collective farms and often forced to work to the point of exhaustion or even death. In 1978, Vietnam invaded Cambodia and removed the Khmer Rouge from power (see slide 5), but the devastation to the country was far reaching. Provoked by Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia (the Khmer Rouge was backed by China), China then invaded Vietnam in 1979, which led to further conflict within Vietnamese borders.

Grim events also unfolded in neighboring Laos. During the course of the Vietnam War, Laos had been subject to sustained bombing, as the US attempted to destroy North Vietnamese strongholds in the nation. In 1973, a ceasefire treaty was signed between warring factions in Laos, which stipulated that a coalition government would be formed between the parties supporting the monarchy of Laos and the Pathet Lao (see slide 6), the communist party of the nation. The coalition government was short lived: after the fall of Saigon in 1975, the Pathet Lao seized power in Laos. At that point, the Hmong people, an ethnic minority in Laos who had been recruited by the US during the war to gather intelligence and carry out military operations on the ground, were either exiled to Thailand or placed in labor and reeducation camps. Many Hmong refugees now live in the US, totaling over 200,000.

More than 130,000 Vietnamese were evacuated during the Fall of Saigon.  The years of strife and instability that followed the end of US involvement led many others to flee and seek refuge in other countries, many escaping with few possessions by boat—and thus the term “boat people” came to be used to refer to the wave of Vietnamese refugees who went to the US and other countries following the war (see slide 7). Over two decades, approximately 2 million people from the region emigrated to other nations, often settling in the US, Canada, and Europe.

By the late 1980’s Vietnam gradually ended its occupation of Cambodia as part of efforts to rejoin the international community and seek opportunities for trade to bolster the struggling Vietnamese economy. In a further effort to heal the wounds of the war, Vietnam began assisting more greatly in the search for MIA remains of American soldiers during this period, which resulted in many families’ ability to bring closure to years of uncertainty.

In 1994, the US embargo on Vietnam was officially lifted, and the following year diplomatic relations were reestablished with the installation of a US embassy in Vietnam and a Vietnamese embassy in Washington, DC. In 2000, then President Clinton made a historic visit to Vietnam, the first time an American president had set foot in Vietnam in decades (see slide 8). Since then, the US and Vietnam have established mutual trade. Analyze the graph on slide 9. What information does the graph tell us about Vietnam today? As US-Vietnam trade has grown over the past decade, so has the GDP, or Gross Domestic Product, of Vietnam. GDP is generally considered an indicator of a country’s economic wellbeing.

Despite a normalization of relations between the US and Vietnam, the effects of the war continue to impact the Vietnamese people and environment. The use of Agent Orange by the US to defoliate jungles has created irreversible damage to areas of the Vietnamese landscape (see slide 10), and has impacted generations of Vietnamese who continue to suffer from physical defects as a result of exposure to Agent Orange in the land. In addition, there remains unexploded ordnance in the region that continues to be a hazard for civilians.  From 2001 to 2011, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund ran a program to clear mines from Vietnam and provide assistance and support to mine victims.

Because it is always a significant decision to commit forces to conflict, as well as a decision that can significantly impact all nations involved for decades to come, it is important to understand and evaluate political decisions associated with past conflicts.