The Vietnam War is considered to be the “war with the difficult memory.” For the United States, it was about being the “liberator” – a fight for freedom and a fight to stop the spread of communism. The Vietnam War is the most unpopular US war in the twentieth century because the US had failed in their efforts to protect South Vietnam from communism. The Vietnam War cost the United States about 58,000 deaths and 350,000 were wounded. There was also between one and two million Vietnamese deaths. About 200,000 Cambodians and 100,000 Laotians died as well. To turn the Vietnam War into a just and successful war, the US provided asylum to many Vietnamese refugees.
As the Vietnam War continued into the early 1970s, the United States targeted major cities in North Vietnam such as Haiphong. The US came under heavy international criticism for putting civilians in danger, but the US said that they were only targeting the North Vietnam military.
In February 1970, National Security Advisor Henry A. Kissinger began secret peace talks with North Vietnam in Paris.
Cambodia wanted to stay neutral throughout the Vietnam War, but on April 29, 1970, South Vietnamese troops went into Cambodia. The US also pursued communist troops who were going through and setting up bases in Cambodia. Cambodia experienced heavy bombing, which was actually ordered by the Nixon administration.
In May 1970, the National Guardsmen killed four students and wounded eight other students during an antiwar protest at Kent State University in Ohio. Some protesters had been throwing rocks and empty tear gas canisters at the Guardsmen. So they opened fire on the crowd of protesters. This shows that there were many people in the US who were against the US involvement in the Vietnam War.
On February 8, 1971, Operation Lam Son 719 took place in Laos. Some South Vietnamese divisions attacked major enemy bases in Laos, but it was actually a North Vietnamese trap. So many South Vietnamese soldiers were killed and injured.
Up until the summer of 1971, Agent Orange was sprayed in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Loas by the US military so that the enemy cannot hide in the weeds or bushes. This was called Operation Ranch Hand. Agent Orange contains a lethal chemical called dioxin. This has caused a lot of damage to the ecology of Vietnam. There is also a connection to reports of cancer, skin disease, and other disorders. The Dow Chemical, who provided the US military with Agent Orange, actually knew of the serious health risks, but they continued to sell it to the US military for use in Vietnam. Many people were crippled or killed due to the use of Agent Orange. Also, some children were born with birth defects.
In October 1972, Henry A. Kissinger announced that peace was taking place, but in December 1972, the North Vietnamese walked out of the Paris peace talks.
In 1972, the US bombers targeted Hanoi and Haiphong. They mined Haiphong harbor to prevent military equipment from reaching the Communists. Also, on November 7, 1972, Quangtri was bombed by the US. This city was very important to North Vietnam because there was an oil pipeline that ran up until 75 miles northwest of Saigon.
Up until 1973, the US has been making efforts to end the conflict between Communist North Vietnam and anti-Communist South Vietnam. On January 8, 1973, North Vietnam and the US continued their peace talks in Paris. In January 1973, the US, South Vietnam, Viet Cong, and North Vietnam signed a ceasefire agreement. Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho signed the agreement. Also in January 1973, US forces were starting to be withdrawn from Vietnam, and US prisoners of war were being released. Despite the Paris Peace Agreement, fighting continued. In March 1973, the last US forces left South Vietnam. For the US, the war was officially over.
Also in 1973, Congress enacted the War Powers Act, which requires the US president to receive Congressional approval before sending US forces overseas.
On April 29, 1975, US Marines and Air Force helicopters began a massive airlift. In 18 hours, over 1,000 American civilians and almost 7,000 South Vietnamese refugees were flown out of Saigon.
On April 30, 1975, the capital of South Vietnam, Saigon, fell to the communists, and the war had ended. South Vietnam had surrendered to North Vietnam, and Vietnam was reunited in the following year 1976. Massive evacuations took place as soon as Saigon fell to the Communists. Soon thereafter, Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City.
In July 1976, Hanoi was named the capital of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
Many Vietnamese people, known as “boat people,” fled Vietnam. These refugees escaped on overcrowded and unsafe boats in search of a better life outside of Vietnam. Some boats sank, and some boats even ran into pirates. Many refugees found asylum in other Asian countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines. The US also offered asylum to many Vietnamese political prisoners and refugees.
In November 1982, the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC, was dedicated. Maya Ying Lin, a 22-year old Yale architectural student, designed it. It consists of two black granite walls forming a “V”, and it lists the names of the Americans killed in the Vietnam War.
Many Vietnamese are fairly new immigrants here in the US. Also here in the US according to Yen Le Espiritu, Vietnamese refugees became the anti-Communist model minorities. This is what the US wanted especially since the Vietnam War was not successful for them. Espiritu calls this the “We-Win-Even-When-We-Lose” syndrome. The US focused on the Vietnamese refugees who had the “rags-to-riches” accomplishments. They focused on those who were successful and assimilated into US culture. The US gave them education, opportunities, and social mobility. The US government wanted the Vietnamese to feel that they belonged. But did they really feel like they belonged? Many of the Vietnamese were refugees so they were forced to leave Vietnam with little or no possessions. They had to leave everything behind. Some people were even split from their families. The Vietnamese in the US still had to go through challenges especially in adapting to the new culture here in the US. Many people in the US need to be aware of what happened during the Vietnam War and the challenges many Vietnamese refugees went through here in the US. One’s understanding of Vietnamese American history must go beyond their lives here in the US; they have these other stories of being in Vietnam and leaving or escaping Vietnam.
Espiritu, Yen Le. “The ‘We-Win-Even-When-We-Lose’ Syndrome: US Press Coverage of the Twenty-Fifth Anniversary of the ‘Fall of Saigon.’” American Quarterly 58:2 (2006) 329-352.
Written by Camille Garcia