The Vietnam War’s Legacy in Asia

Refugees from Vietnam escaped on small and crowded fishing boats. May 1984. (Lt. Carl R. Begy/Wikimedia Commons)

Refugees from Vietnam escaped on on small and crowded fishing boats. May 1984. (Lt. Carl R. Begy/Wikimedia Commons)

50 years ago yesterday, the first American troops landed in Vietnam to launch the Vietnam War, one of the longest wars in US history. For the US, the war had countless repercussions, including the death of 58,000 Americans, the passing of the War Powers Resolution and the popularization of the pacifist movement. It left a lasting legacy on US foreign policy; but, in Vietnam, the war wrought devastation on a greater scale. Estimates of Vietnamese civilian deaths range from the hundreds of thousands to the millions. Additionally, the country was ransacked by chemical and conventional warfare. After the war, Vietnam was one of the poorest countries in Asia, with a bleak economy and dispirited population.


With the fall of Saigon, the lives of South Vietnamese sympathizers were jeopardized while the government established its absolute authority. In an effort to eliminate capitalism from Vietnam, the government persecuted the South Vietnamese upper and middle classes. Some families were killed while others had their money confiscated and assets frozen. In response, hundreds of thousands left the country by any means possible, creating a global refugee crisis.

Fleeing Vietnam on fishing boats, so-called “boat people” established ethnic communities in California, Texas and other locations, but not without hardships. Vietnamese refugees were often attacked by Thai pirates, killed by storms at sea and exiled without food or water on islands in the Pacific. Eventually, the UN granted the exiled Vietnamese refugee status, but many had already suffered immeasurably on their journey.

Ethnic Chinese, particularly the Hoa people, were hit the hardest by the crisis because they made up a large percentage of the businessmen and bourgeoisie in Vietnam, the communists’ primary target. As the government filled freight boats with ethnic Chinese refugees to be sent to China, the Vietnamese government actually extorted the equivalent of thousands of US dollars for each refugee. However, the Chinese government was not open to this persecution and the forced influx of immigrants, and closed its borders to Vietnamese refugees. China and Vietnam’s communist ties could not ease the tensions surrounding immigration, and the Sino-Vietnamese border conflict broke out four years after the end of the Vietnam War.

The Cambodian-Vietnamese and the Sino-Vietnamese Wars

In the wake of the Vietnam War, Vietnam experienced two closely linked conflicts, one with Cambodia (then called Kampuchea) and the other with China, called the Cambodian-Vietnamese War and Sino-Vietnamese War respectively. Although all three countries were communist, there was a strong sense of rivalry among them. Vietnam viewed itself as the lynchpin of the Southeast Asian communism and was therefore obligated to exert some form of control in communist Kampuchea. However, Kampuchean leaders were not keen to the idea of Vietnam controlling the entire region. When internal conflicts in Kampuchea led to the ascendance of Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge regime – a brutal government that created chaos and violence in Kampuchea – Vietnam invaded.

For the Vietnamese, the war in Cambodia proved to be much like the Vietnam War was to Americans, a justifiable effort that turned out to be more complex, time-consuming (14 years in total) and tragic than expected. For example, many Vietnamese soldiers believed in their cause – freeing Cambodians from the Khmer Rouge – but oftentimes Cambodians reacted negatively to the invasion. One Vietnamese soldier remembers, “American soldiers thought they helped Vietnam…We were the same in Cambodia.” Vietnamese soldiers did not receive the appreciation they expected in Cambodia, especially after Vietnam attempted to occupy the country following the Khmer Rouge’s fall. Even today there is lingering bitterness against Vietnam in Cambodia.

Similarly to the US’s experience during the Vietnam War, public approval of the Cambodian-Vietnamese War decreased by the day in Vietnam. Today, the war is a memory rather left forgotten, a blemish on the Vietnamese government’s history. The Cambodian-Vietnamese War was physically and psychologically scarring for Vietnamese soldiers. Veterans returned traumatized, yet were not greeted as heroes in Vietnam—another parallel between the Vietnam War and the Cambodian-Vietnamese War.

A 1979 banner in Vietnam reads, “To fight the China invader.” February 2009. (James Kieran Nguyen/Flickr Creative Commons)

A 1979 banner in Vietnam reads, “To fight the China invader.” February 2009. (James Kieran Nguyen/Flickr Creative Commons)

China reacted negatively to the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia; the war, combined with Vietnam’s treatment of ethnic Chinese immigrants, caused the PRC’s People’s Liberation Army to attack Vietnam. Both governments claim victory in the Sino-Vietnamese War, yet neither celebrates it openly because of the large death toll each country suffered; in just weeks, thousands of Chinese and Vietnamese were killed and the Vietnamese countryside was destroyed.

Today, relations with China have not improved. The two countries have maritime disputes that intensify yearly regarding each country’s Exclusive Economic Zones. In 2014, China installed an oilrig in Vietnam’s claimed maritime space, sparking outrage and protests throughout Vietnam. In response, Vietnam purchased Russian Kilo-class submarines to patrol their waters for any Chinese ships.

Unlike Vietnam’s relationship with China, its relationship with the US has gradually improved in the past two decades, beginning with President Clinton’s 1995 initiative to normalize relations. Since then, trade between the two countries has blossomed with 134 times more trade in 2014 than in 1994. The US recently also lifted a 40-year embargo on lethal weapons to Vietnam, a move that is seen by both the US and Vietnam as a strategically prudent move for Asian security. Leverage against China seems to be a top priority for both the US and Vietnam.

Data from the Center for the Study of Democracy indicates that the Vietnamese government’s approval ratings are much higher today than those of other Asian powers. (Center for the Study of Democracy/University of California, Irvine)

Data from the Center for the Study of Democracy indicates that the Vietnamese government’s approval ratings are much higher today than those of other Asian powers. (Center for the Study of Democracy/University of California, Irvine)

In recent decades, Vietnam has done much to move on from the pains of the Vietnam War and its aftermath, including ending the age of the “boat people,” introducing economic reforms and becoming a part of the developing Trans-Pacific Partnership. According to the Center for the Study of Democracy at the University of California, Irvine, people in Vietnam are generally happy with their lives, the economy and the government. Among those surveyed, 90% have confidence in their government and 91% express happiness and satisfaction with their overall situation in life, more than in many developed countries.[1] Modern Vietnam is a far shot from the Vietnam of 1979 and has only become stronger as it moves away from the shadow of the Vietnam War.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff, editors, or governors.


Other Works Cited

[1] Dalton, Russel J. and Nhu-Ngoc T. Ong, “The Vietnamese Public in Transition, World Values Survey: Vietnam 2001,” Center for the Study of Democracy (2001): 2.


About Author

Abigail Becker is an International Relations and East Asian Area Studies double major at the University of Southern California. She has conducted research with USC International Relations professor Andrew Coe on the effects of economic sanctions on rogue states, as well as patterns of urban development with the USC Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism. Her core interests include foreign policy, US-Korean relations and East Asian politics and security. In 2013, she studied at Ewha Woman’s University in Seoul, South Korea, as a Global East Asia scholar and spent the spring semester of 2015 at Yonsei University in Seoul. Abigail also worked for the US Department of State as a Domestic Political Section intern at the US Embassy Seoul and is an Undergraduate Fellow at the USC Korean Studies Institute. Abigail joined Glimpse from the Globe as a correspondent in May 2014.

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