Initiated Cover
Politics

How War is Initiated

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. 

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ABOUT HOW WAR IS INITIATED

When was the last time the US made a declaration of war? You may answer with Afghanistan, Iraq, etc., but in fact the last time that the US formally declared war was in 1941, with the onset of World War II. Our founders intended for war to be initiated through a specific procedure, but that hasn’t always been the case, particularly in the last 50+ years.

View slides 1-2 in the presentation. The Constitution addresses how war should be initiated—in Article I, Section 8, the text states that “Congress shall have the Power to declare War.” This indicates that the authority to initiate war lies with Congress—how has this legislative authority played out in the 20th century?

In slide 3, you see an image from the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor naval base in Hawaii on December 7, 1941. Before this attack, American citizens largely supported a policy of non-intervention in foreign conflicts. Over 2000 Americans lost their lives in the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the tragic and seemingly unanticipated event galvanized the American public.

Watch the video included on slide 4, which is President Roosevelt’s now famous address to Congress concerning the attack and the prospect of war against Japan. What language does the President use 1.) to justify the need for armed intervention as a response to the attack and 2.) to bolster confidence in and support for an armed intervention? How does this address seem to maintain the founders’ intentions regarding the initiation of war? On December 8, Congress passed a resolution formally declaring war against Japan (slide 5).

In 1964, a series of events with some familiar elements unfolded and ultimately resulted in US armed intervention in a foreign conflict. On August  2 and 4, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson received reports of attacks by North Vietnamese forces on the USS Maddox in the Vietnamese Gulf of Tonkin. Many have suggested that the incident, the details of which have come under dispute, merely served as an excuse to advance President Johnson’s policy toward Vietnam, an inclination toward proactive military action that used the lessons of the Munich Conference as an analogy (“Nor would surrender in Viet-Nam bring peace, because we learned from Hitler at Munich that success only feeds the appetite of aggression.”)

On August 7, 1964, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. Read the excerpt from the resolution included on slide 7. What words stand out to you? Do you see the word “war” anywhere? Through this resolution, President Johnson was able to commit large numbers of additional troops to Vietnam without receiving a formal declaration of war from Congress, and some have interpreted this as being an unconstitutional way to initiate war at a full scale, or an overexpansion of executive authority as commander-in-chief.

As the war progressed, from 1964 onward, Americans became increasingly disillusioned with the war in Vietnam. Only an average of 40% of Americans approved Johnson’s handling of the war in Vietnam in 1968 (Gallup), and the approval rating increased to only 54% when Nixon announced a withdrawal of some troops in 1969 (Gallup).

(Slides 8 and 9) In mid-1970, Nixon authorized an invasion of Cambodia, purportedly to secure the border with Vietnam as a preemptive measure in the move toward Vietnamization (to expand South Vietnam’s role in the war while reducing the US’s role). This action was authorized without the approval of Congress and the American public learned about it after the fact through a speech by President Nixon on April 30, 1970. Unrest grew among the public (protests at Kent State against the invasion of Cambodia led to killing of 4 students by National Guard) and Congress responded by passing the Cooper-Church amendment, which immediately ended US operations outside the Vietnam borders.

As a measure to check executive power in committing forces and, arguably, as a way to reconcile the mistake that was made in passing the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, on November 7, 1973, the War Powers Resolution passed by Congress became law. The War Powers Resolution requires the President to notify Congress within 48 hours upon sending troops into military action, and it forbids military personnel from remaining in a state of conflict for more than 60 days without authorization from Congress for a formal declaration of war.

Read the excerpt from the War Powers Resolution included on slide 10. Do you think this new resolution is constitutional or unconstitutional? The Constitution names the President as the Commander-in-Chief of all armed forces, and yet it also gives the power to declare war to Congress. The War Powers Resolution is still in effect today and is intended to guide decisions on the initiation of war.

(Slides 11 and 12) On September 11, 2001, a series of coordinated attacks by Al Qa’ida, a global militant group, killed nearly 3000 Americans at the World Trade Center in New York, in Pennsylvania, and at the Pentagon in the Washington, DC area. The September 11 attacks marked the single largest loss of life on American soil by foreign attack. The event stunned the nation and on September 18, 2001, Congress passed Public Law 107-40. Read the excerpt from PL 107-40 included on slide 13. How does this statement compare with the statement read earlier from the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution? Would you interpret this law as being in keeping with the War Powers Resolution?

In September of 2014, President Obama authorized limited airstrikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (also known as Da’esh) as part of a “counterterrorism strategy,” using the language of PL 107-40 as justification for military action. A CBS news poll has indicated that six in ten Americans believe that US military intervention in Syria requires congressional approval.

View the video on slide 15 of President Obama’s speech at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 2012, beginning at the 15:17 minute mark and ending at the 16:20 minute mark.  What does President Obama state should be the prerequisites to entering into war? How do his words reflect a reference to the Vietnam War? Do you think the US has learned its lessons from Vietnam? Is executive authority being expanded once again, or is the presidency simply continuing on the path set by Lyndon Johnson? Because it is always a significant decision to commit forces to conflict, it is important to understand and evaluate political decisions associated with past conflicts.


Gen. Peter Pace discusses how leaders decide to use military force, generally as a last option.

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Motivations Cover
Politics

Motivations for US Involvement

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; Ed Moise, Clemson University; Susan Tomlinson, Franklin Central High School.

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ABOUT MOTIVATIONS FOR U.S. INVOLVMENT

What would you say are valid reasons for getting involved in a war? What factors do you think should determine a nation’s withdrawal from a war? These are questions that presidents and their advisors struggle with on a regular basis.

From the mid 1800’s to World War II, France occupied Vietnam (as well as Cambodia and Laos) as a colonial state. During World War II, the Japanese marginalized the French and occupied Vietnam. In 1945, Viet Minh (Vietnam Independence League) leader Ho Chi Minh organized a revolution against the France as it sought to reestablish colonial rule with the defeat of the Japanese. This precipitated what is generally known as the First Indochina War, which continued from 1946 until 1954, when the French were defeated by the Viet Minh at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. The subsequent signing of the Geneva Accords divided Vietnam at the 17th parallel, with the Viet Minh administering the northern region and the government under Emperor Bao Dai, who had been installed by the French in 1949, governing the southern region. The accords specified that an election was to take place in 1956 to unify the country according to popular vote.

In 1947, President Harry Truman put forth his Truman Doctrine, which established a precedent for US military assistance to non-communist nations under threat. This so-called “containment” doctrine suggested that if the US did not provide support to the governments of Greece and Turkey, those nations might lose the struggle against communism; US intervention was thus necessary to contain the spread of communism.  This line of thinking influenced US foreign policy for years to come, with the idea that US intervention in foreign conflicts could be warranted if it seemed that communist forces threatened to expand in a particular region or sub-region—for example, when China came under communist leadership in 1949, fear of a possible communist bloc in the region arose. Listen to the audio clip included on slide 1, which is an excerpt from President Truman’s address to Congress regarding the Truman Doctrine. What language in the clip sets a precedent for future US involvement in Vietnam? Three years later, President Truman followed through on his policy and authorized $15 million in aid to the French to support their military efforts in Indochina.

In 1954, the French were defeated in Indochina and a conference in Geneva was assembled to determine a means of restoring peace and order to the region. At this conference the Geneva Accords were signed, the result of which was a temporarily divided Vietnam with the Viet Minh occupying the northern region and Emperor Bao Dai installed by the French as leader of the southern region. By this time, Eisenhower had been elected president and his policy toward Vietnam (and in the Indochina region more broadly) continued to give strong consideration to the strategic importance of the region to US allies, with respect to both politics (a desire to prevent a communist bloc from forming in the region with China at the helm- commonly known as the “domino theory”) as well as economics (a desire to keep the region open for trade and extraction of resources). Read the excerpt on slide 2 from President Eisenhower’s press conference held in April 1954. Do you find the President’s arguments for US intervention in Vietnam convincing/valid?  Why might Americans in 1954 have found Eisenhower’s logic reasonable?

In 1955, Emperor Bao Dai was ousted in favor of Ngo Dinh Diem, a Western-educated Catholic favored by the US, who would serve as the first president of South Vietnam (see slide 3). Diem’s rule saw the cancellation of the planned 1956 elections to reunify Vietnam, with the contention that South Vietnam had not been a signing party of the Geneva Accords, and thus it was not bound to its terms. In reality, Diem, and the US, feared that Ho Chi Minh’s popularity would translate to sure loss in any election. The Diem regime repressed suspected communists and the Buddhist majority, practices which contributed to the rise of the National Liberation Front, founded in 1960 in South Vietnam with the intention to overthrow the Diem government and reunite Vietnam (see slide 4).  By the late 1950s, a new insurgency, this time directed against Diem’s regime, was gaining strength in South Vietnam, imperiling the regime and American policy in the region.  This rising insurgency was a critical factor in spurring further American involvement in Vietnam.

President Kennedy was wary of further involvement in Vietnam, but ultimately he continued to escalate US involvement. In late 1961, President Kennedy began increasing the number of military advisers in Vietnam to help train the South Vietnamese army. Despite previous backing of the US, Diem’s regime was seen as increasingly untenable and US officials in fact supported a coup against Diem, which ultimately led to his assassination in 1963 and the rise of a military junta under South Vietnamese General Duong Van Minh. Watch the clip of a September 1963 Walter Cronkite interview with President Kennedy included on slide 5. What are the major points of Kennedy’s remarks? Based on this clip alone, would you expect the US to become further involved in Vietnam, or less involved? Why?  Why do you think Kennedy continued to escalate US involvement in Vietnam even when he had his doubts about the possibility of US success in the country?

With President Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, Vice President Lyndon Johnson became president and took decisive steps toward waging full-fledged war in Vietnam. On August  2 and 4, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson received reports of attacks by North Vietnamese forces on the USS Maddox in the Vietnamese Gulf of Tonkin. Many have suggested that the incident, the details of which have come under dispute, merely served as an excuse to advance President Johnson’s policy toward Vietnam, an inclination toward proactive military action that would communicate that the US would stand up to any kind of aggression. Listen to the recording of President Johnson’s August 3 conversation with Secretary McNamara regarding a course of action in response to attacks in the Gulf of Tonkin, included on slide 6. What language stands out as Johnson’s primary reasoning for pursuing action? Does this recording indicate that Johnson gave any direct consideration to the threat of communism?

Watch the clip from a 1965 press conference with President Johnson included on slide 7, starting at around the 2:00 minute mark and ending around the 4:00 minute mark. How would you characterize the motivation for continued US involvement in Vietnam, based on Johnson’s words? Rather than strictly strategic concerns, concerns of credibility and steadfastness began to weigh more heavily in policymaking regarding Vietnam. By the end of 1967, the American death toll in Vietnam reached over 15,000.

Facing increasing public dissent regarding US involvement in Vietnam, Johnson decided not to seek reelection in 1968, and in 1969 President Nixon was elected president and took office. Nixon campaigned on a need to change policy with respect to Vietnam (watch video in slide 8), with a promise for “honorable withdrawal.”  Two years earlier, Nixon had claimed that “if the credibility of the United States is destroyed in Vietnam, it will be destroyed in Europe as well,” (see New York Times article in slide 9). Despite announcing a plan of “Vietnamization” in 1969, which would equip and train South Vietnam’s troops to take the place of US troops for phased withdrawal, President Nixon expanded US involvement in the region by then authorizing an invasion into Cambodia in 1970. Watch Nixon’s address to the nation regarding the Cambodian invasion from April 1970 included on slide 10, particularly starting at the 12:30 minute mark and ending at the 14:00 minute mark. How would you characterize the tone of Nixon’s words?  How does he explain his reasoning for launching an invasion of another country at a time when he was trying to wind down the war in Vietnam?

From 1947 until the end of the war by the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in 1973, varying factors motivated US involvement, including (but not limited to): strategic concerns over the spread of communism; political concerns about impact of instability in the region for allies; desire for reelection and the broader protection of political interests; concerns about maintaining the credibility of the US and avoiding defeat.

The complex motivations that guided US involvement in Vietnam over the course of over two decades continue to guide decisions regarding involvement in foreign conflict today. Ask students to observe the political cartoon included on slide 11, from the Buffalo News. What motivation for the Iraq war is the author suggesting through this cartoon? What do you understand as having been the primary motivation for the initiation of that war? What possible motivations for entering into conflict, if any, would be valid and justified?

Because it is always a significant decision to commit forces to conflict, it is important to understand and evaluate political decisions associated with past conflicts.  


Gen. Peter Pace discusses how the nation was misled by its leaders during Vietnam.

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Coalitions Cover
Politics

Coalitions in Wartime

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

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COALITIONS IN VIETNAM

Why might other countries have chosen to support or not to support the United States in Vietnam?

During US involvement in Vietnam, a few nations chose to support US efforts and many others chose to refrain from entering the conflict, either militarily or politically, for a variety of reasons.

On slide 1, you see a safe conduct pass issued by forces allied with South Vietnam—on it you can identify the South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, and Philippines flags. These countries lent the greatest degree of support to the US by sending combat forces to fight in Vietnam.

Among the greatest commitments made was that of South Korea, which sent over 300,000 combat troops to fight in South Vietnam (see slide 2 for Korean troops in Vietnam). Slide 3 shows a 1961 meeting in Washington between President Kennedy and South Korean president Park Chung-hee, an authoritarian leader who had recently seized power in a coup-d’etat. The US had established a strong relationship with Park Chung-hee, and the desire to maintain the strength of that relationship was a motivating factor in providing both political and material support to the US in Vietnam. In 1965, South Korea sent battalions to Vietnam after President Johnson agreed to several conditions including increased American economic aid to South Korea, replacement of South Korean military equipment, and defraying of expenses. South Korea had 4407 combat deaths in Vietnam.

Australia was another nation that chose to send combat troops into South Vietnam in 1965 to assist the US-led effort (see slide 4). In 1964, in the face of little support from traditional Western allies, the State Department under President Lyndon Johnson led a “More Flags” campaign in an attempt to rally international support for the cause of saving South Vietnam. While some nations, like Australia, responded positively with both political support against the expansion of communism and military support by sending a total of over 60,000 combat troops (from 1962 to 1973), many others, including all of America’s closest allies in Western Europe, expressed concern and hesitation about getting involved in the conflict. Australia had 521 combat deaths in Vietnam.

Great Britain, for example, expressed concern at various points regarding both political and military involvement in Vietnam. Ask students to read the excerpt of Robert Thompson’s 1964 memo included on slide 6. What are some of his stated concerns regarding getting involved in Vietnam? Despite pleas from the US government, including a possible exchange of financial support for the pound sterling for British combat troops, Britain chose to refrain from involvement in Vietnam, with doubt that US objectives in Vietnam could be met, particularly not with military escalation.

On slide 7 you see Lester Pearson, who served as the prime minister of Canada from 1963 to 1968. In the midst of US escalation in Vietnam, Canada stood alongside Great Britain as a nation hesitant to enter the coalition against North Vietnam. In 1965, Pearson visited the US and delivered a speech at Temple University in which he said regarding the conflict in Vietnam: “A settlement is hard to envisage in the heat of battle, but it is now imperative to seek one.” Like Great Britain, the Canadian government was skeptical of US foreign policy in Vietnam and sought to push the US toward negotiations rather than military escalation. Among the top concerns were the ability of the US to achieve its objectives in Vietnam and disagreement regarding the strategic importance of Vietnam.

France was another Western nation (and member of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization) that refrained from joining the US coalition in Vietnam, for various reasons. On slide 8, you see a 1963 meeting between President Johnson and the French president Charles de Gaulle. Having fought and lost a war in Vietnam nearly ten years earlier, the French government had no intention of repeating past mistakes, and de Gaulle, like the leaders of Britain and Canada, urged neutralization as soon as possible.

Since Vietnam, US-led military conflicts have had varying degrees of coalition support, with a variety of reasons for or against participation. Look at the map on slide 9, which shows the coalition support the US received during the 1990 Gulf War. How many countries are in color? Which countries sent the greatest numbers of troops? Why do you think the US received strong global support for that particular war?

In contrast, observe the map on slide 10, which lists the countries that supported the 2003-2011 US war in Iraq. How many different flags are seen on the map? How does that number compare with the number from the previous map? Why do you think the US received less global support for the Iraq war?

Finally, coalition building is occurring today, as the US escalates military efforts against ISIS/Da’esh in Iraq and Syria. Watch the September 2014 news clip included on slide 11 on the state of the US coalition against ISIS. According to the clip, how many countries are in the coalition thus far? Does the clip indicate any reasons or motivations for the support of those countries? Because it is always a significant decision to commit forces to conflict, it is important to understand and evaluate the reasons why the United States has succeeded or failed in generating support for its military interventions in the past.  

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Withdrawal Cover
Politics

Withdrawal from Vietnam

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.

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ABOUT WITHDRAWAL FROM VIETNAM

What factors do you think should determine the end of a war, or the end of one nation’s involvement in a war? Why? This question is one that the nation’s leaders struggle with on a regular basis when the nation is at war.

With US’s dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and the Soviet entry into the Pacific War in 1945, Japan formally surrendered to Allied forces in September of 1945 (see slide 1), marking an end to World War II in Asia (the European war had come to an end a few months earlier, with the surrender of German forces in May 1945). The text of the “instrument of surrender” indicates unconditional surrender and Japan’s compliance with all terms set forth by Allied forces in the Potsdam Declaration issued earlier the same year. Four years after the attack on Pearl Harbor drew the US into the war in 1941, the second World War was formally ended by clear-cut surrenders of Germany and Japan in 1945, and most American troops were quickly withdrawn from Europe and Asia.

In contrast, there were several factors that worked together to motivate the eventual withdrawal of US troops from Vietnam. One early factor was analysis suggesting that even extensive bombing of North Vietnam was failing to set back North Vietnamese morale or war-making capabilities. During Operation Rolling Thunder, an extensive bombing campaign carried out by the US against North Vietnam from 1965 to 1968, the CIA issued numerous reports assessing whether the United States was achieving its goals.  One such report from 1968 is excerpted on slide 2. Read the text on slide 2: If you were a leader at the time (like the president or the secretary of defense), what would you recommend as a course of action in response to this analysis? Why?

Under President Nixon, the idea of ‘Vietnamization”—training and expanding the South Vietnamese military for a bigger combat role in the war in order to permit the withdrawal of US troops—began to be discussed as a possible course of action in 1968.  On slide 3, you can watch a clip of President Nixon’s address to the nation about the process of Vietnamization (begin at 17:10 mark). In 1969, National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger expressed his reservations on the course of the war in Vietnam, and the delicate nature of any move toward withdrawal, including Vietnamization. Read excerpts of this memo that are included on slide 4: What does Kissinger believe are some of the obstacles to Vietnamization?

After several years of fighting, public opposition to the war began to grow, as did congressional doubts about both the original impetus for US involvement and the possibility of any kind of definitive resolution. In 1968, news anchorman Walter Cronkite gave to the American public his thoughts on what the ultimate answer to the situation in Vietnam would have to be, which would be to negotiate “not as victors, but as an honorable people, who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could” (see the video clip included on slide 5). This was driven in response to the January 1968 Tet Offensive—an attack on South Vietnam (and US forces) carried out by North Vietnam that was widely covered by the media and led many to question the continued American presence in Vietnam. This was just one example of the shift in public attitudes toward the war. In 1971, Senate majority leader Mike Mansfield (see slide 6) gave a public address at Boston College in which he expressed strong doubts about the fate of the war in Vietnam and the ability of the United States to prevail in Vietnam. Read the selection of the speech included on slide 7: What would do you imagine your reaction might have been to these words at the time?

After the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in 1973, US troops were withdrawn from Vietnam, but the fate of the region was still uncertain. Many believe that President Nixon and his advisors worked to withdraw from the region with the assumption that there would be a “decent interval” in which the South Vietnamese government would continue to stand, but knowing it would be unlikely that it would continue to stand indefinitely. Fighting in South Vietnam increased gradually after 1973, and President Nixon grew unable to further respond to the situation in Vietnam when dealing with his own involvement in the Watergate scandal, in which there was a cover-up of a break in to the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee (Nixon eventually resigned in 1974 as a result of the scandal). South Vietnam’s President Nguyen Van Thieu appealed to the US for further economic and military support to aid in the ongoing fight against North Vietnam, but Congress grew increasingly hostile to then President Gerald Ford’s requests for funding. Eventually North Vietnam scaled up operations to the point where it was able to capture the then-capital of South Vietnam, Saigon, in April 1975.

The Iraq war launched in 2003 has prompted many comparisons to the Vietnam war, particularly in decisions made by our nation’s leaders. Watch an excerpt of the video clip included on slide 9 of the presentation, which is a recording of President Bush’s State of the Union address in 2007 (begin at 42:00 minute mark and end at 46:00 minute mark). As you watch the piece, make note of how Bush’s words and description of the ongoing strategy in Iraq compare to the televised address made by President Nixon in 1969 regarding Vietnamization. In what ways does Bush’s suggested process, which would move toward the goal of eventual withdrawal, seem similar or different to the process that was suggested by President Nixon in Vietnam? According to a national Gallup poll (see slide 10), by 2011, 75% of Americans approved of President Obama’s decision to withdraw all US troops from Iraq.

Controversy over U.S. intervention in, and withdrawal from, Vietnam continue to shape debates over U.S .foreign policy in the twenty-first century.  Watch the video of Senator Ted Kennedy’s speech at the National Press Club in January 2007 included on slide 11, starting at the 5:00 minute mark and ending at the 8:00 minute mark. Then watch the video of President George Bush’s speech at the Veterans for Foreign Wars headquarters in Missouri in August of 2007, included on slide 12. What lessons has each leader respectively drawn from US involvement in Vietnam and the way that war was ended? Whose argument do you find more compelling or convincing? Why?

Because it is always a significant decision to commit forces to conflict, it is important to understand and evaluate political decisions associated with past conflicts.  


Peace activist Tom Hayden discusses the hearings with Senator Fulbright in 1971.

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Legacy Cover
Politics

Legacy of War in Vietnam

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. 

Teachers/Presenters:

 

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Download Discussion Guide 

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.


Gen. Peter Pace discusses the responsibility of the US to leave the people of a nation better off.

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