Magazine article Foreign Policy in Focus

Overcoming the Legacy of the Vietnam War

Magazine article Foreign Policy in Focus

Overcoming the Legacy of the Vietnam War

Article excerpt

Twenty-five years ago, on April 30, 1975, North Vietnamese troops marched into Saigon, ending what Vietnamese call the "American War" and leading to the reunification of the country. The war cost the lives of three million Vietnamese on both sides, and at least a million Laotians and Cambodians. Although most Vietnamese have put the bitter memories of the war years behind them, U.S. policy has still not fully accepted the loss of the war--as if the U.S. had grievances against Vietnam rather than the other way around. Any mention of Vietnam in the United States still evokes the war, first and foremost. Despite five years of diplomatic ties between the former enemies, the legacy of war remains hidden below the surface--sometimes quite literally, in the form of land mines, unexploded ordnance (UXO), and Agent Orange (dioxin). Over 100,000 Vietnamese have been killed or maimed by mines and UXO since 1975, and an estimated one million people suffer from toxic contamination. Additional consequences of unresolved conflicts include the economic and political isolation that still plagues the Vietnamese government, which won the war but has arguably lost the peace.

Early postwar hopes for normalization of relations between the former enemies were dashed when Washington refused to provide the reconstruction aid originally promised to Hanoi. When open conflict arose between Vietnam and Poi Pot's Cambodia in 1978-79, the U.S. tacitly supported the Khmer Rouge and their Chinese patrons, establishing full diplomatic ties with China and agreeing to look the other way from Deng Xiaoping's punitive invasion of northern Vietnam. In the geopolitical mindset of the Carter, Reagan, and Bush administrations, China formed a counterweight to the Soviet Union, while Vietnam was dismissed as a Soviet satellite. China received temporary normal trade relations (NTR) status, full diplomatic recognition, and, until 1989, military assistance. Vietnam got a twenty-year trade and aid embargo, which compounded the effects of a vast refugee exodus and other postwar difficulties.

The U.S. political establishment reacted to its defeat in Vietnam by adjusting its military strategy to minimize casualties to Americans. But the basic foreign policy errors that led to the Vietnam debacle lie embedded in persistent cold war thinking and in the assumption that the American way is always best. Instead of admitting that it might have supported the wrong side in the Vietnamese revolution, the U. …

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