Why is Vietnam a poor nation

Contemporary history: Vietnam: The war ended, the trauma remained

The Vietnam War has a long history. During the Second World War, the Americans dropped brochures about Vietnam in which the population was called upon to resist the Japanese occupiers and offered them independence and self-determination. But after the victory over Japan and the beginning of the Cold War, there was no longer any talk of it. Now it was about the "containment" of communism, and with this in mind, the USA also accepted France's intentions to restore its colonial rule in Indochina. That couldn't be done without violence. And so began the French Indochina War at the end of 1946, which ended with the defeat of France in 1954.

At the subsequent conference in Geneva, Vietnam was divided along the 17th parallel. In the north, the communists ruled under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh; in the south, the United States determined politics from now on. The freedom of San Francisco, it was said, was being defended in Saigon.

"Rolling Thunder"

At the beginning of August 1964, a momentous incident occurred in the Gulf of Tonking. North Vietnamese patrol boats shot at the US destroyer "Maddox". Two days later, the Americans launched the first air raids against North Vietnam. Congress authorized President Johnson "to take all necessary steps, including the use of armed force."

In the spring of 1965, a smoldering civil war turned into an American war. Operation "Rolling Thunder" began the systematic bombing of North Vietnam on March 2, 1965. On March 8, 3,500 US Marines landed in Da Nang. Hanoi spoke of an "open declaration of war". The USA sent more and more soldiers to South Vietnam, in 1968 there were 550,000.

The year 1968 also marks the end of Johnson's war with the so-called "Tet Offensive", a no longer considered possible major attack by the Communists against five of the six large cities, 36 of the 44 provincial capitals and a quarter of the 242 provincial cities of South Vietnam in January 1968. In the end, the Americans and South Vietnamese had recaptured all the lost territories, but it was a Pyrrhic victory. The American public had lost faith in victory and the president had lost his credibility. In late April, Johnson announced that he would not stand for re-election.

The new president was Richard M. Nixon. He won the election with a promise to end the Vietnam War. In July 1969 he proclaimed his new doctrine: Vietnamization, that meant withdrawal of American troops; the South Vietnamese should take over. Meanwhile the morale of the troops in Vietnam sank. The end of the war became an absolute necessity for Washington. Nixon's security advisor Henry Kissinger held talks with the communists in Paris, which led to an agreement in principle in October 1972: North Vietnamese troops should remain in the south of the country, the demilitarized zone at the 17th parallel was not designated as the official political border, the USA would Leave the country. On January 27, 1973, US Secretary of State William P. Rogers and his North Vietnamese colleague Nguyen Thuy Trinh signed the "Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam".

The deal wasn't worth the paper it was written on. The only ones who stuck to it were the USA: on March 29, 1973, the last GI left South Vietnam. Two days earlier, North Vietnam had released 591 American prisoners of war. For the Americans the war was officially over, for the Vietnamese it continued with undiminished severity. In the meantime, Nixon was caught up in the maelstrom of the Watergate affair and practically incapacitated. In April 1974, Congress rejected additional military aid to South Vietnam, and on August 9, 1974, Nixon resigned.

In March 1975, North Vietnam began the "Ho Chi Minh Offensive" against the regime in the south, which collapsed after 55 days and surrendered unconditionally on April 30th. At the beginning of 1973, after the agreement was signed, Kissinger was asked how long Saigon could last. His answer: "I think if you are lucky, a year and a half."

The German ambassador to South Vietnam, Heinz Dröge, took the last members of the embassy to safety in a chartered plane to Bangkok on April 14th. From there he reported to Bonn: "We left Saigon in the midst of the great exodus. A huge caravan of rural Vietnamese people moved to the airport. The government officials at the various stations were nervous. At the airport we met high officials with packed suitcases. The State was on
End."

One conclusion

It was exactly like that. On April 28, the American radio stations in South Vietnam played Bing Crosby's "White Christmas". That was the sign of Operation Frequent Wind. US Ambassador Martin had waited far too long to evacuate. The pictures of the chaotic rescue of their own people - and at least 51,000 Vietnamese too! - went around the world at that time.

What were the reasons for the US failure in Vietnam? For the military, especially for the Commander-in-Chief General Westmoreland, the war under Johnson was lost. At that time, the resources that were available were not used properly. It was also about a wrong tactic: the war was different from the war in World War II or in Korea; the best example of this was the unsuccessful "Rolling Thunder" operation against an industrially underdeveloped country. Or the "body count": killing the enemy.

The more opposing corpses were counted, the more successful the own troops were; the communists should be so weakened ("search and destroy") that in the end they could no longer make up for their losses and would give up. The military also blamed civilians, and then again the breaking of domestic political consensus in the United States - and of course the media. In any case, the military severely restricted media coverage in later conflicts.

At no point was the simple GI and the public given a credible answer to the question of why they were in South Vietnam and making sacrifices at all. About 2.7 million Americans were in the country as soldiers during the Vietnam War, 1.6 million of them in combat. There was compulsory military service, but the system was highly unfair: Those who had the financial means could evade military service in Vietnam (through studies, etc.). Those who did their military service and who fought and died in Vietnam were disproportionately poor, poorly educated and black. It was an army of teenagers - more than 60 percent died between the ages of 18 and 21, and the troop's median age was 19.

The Vietnam War remains one of the greatest disasters in US history and a trauma for world power. It was a "terrible mistake", as Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara called it in 1995 in his "Memoirs". It was America's longest war to date - and the first to be lost. The consequences were terrible: 58,269 American soldiers died, 304,704 injured, and more than 33,000 were paralyzed; more veterans committed suicide when soldiers died in Vietnam. In their homeland, many could no longer find their way in civilian life. 500,000 to 800,000 of them suffered and still suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome.

In the early 1990s, of the approximately 750,000 homeless in the United States, a quarter to a third were Vietnam veterans. The Vietnam War became the Americans' nightmare, dividing the nation more than anything since the Civil War 100 years earlier.

Follow to this day

In the subconscious, this war continued to work and determined American foreign policy for decades. The German ambassador in Washington, Berndt von Staden, formulated the direct consequence of the defeat for the USA as follows: "The 'missionary' phase of American foreign policy, which was based on the will to do one's own thing, seems to be drawing to a close."

The war in Southeast Asia was not just a catastrophe for the Americans: One million South Vietnamese soldiers died, about two million civilians died and two million people were mutilated. It can be assumed that at least as many people lost their lives in North Vietnam. The US dropped four times as many bombs as it did during World War II - with a destructive power of around 600 Hiroshima atomic bombs and 20 million bomb craters. 50 million liters of the highly toxic "Agent Orange" were sprayed to defoliate the forests in order to better fight the enemy - with fatal consequences to this day.

After the reunification of Vietnam in 1975, 400,000 South Vietnamese were put in labor and re-education camps for up to 10 years. In the years that followed, around 1.4 million South Vietnamese fled, including the "Boat People", of whom 50,000 lost their lives during the first wave of refugees.

When Saigon surrendered, preparations for the country's 200th anniversary were in progress. Vietnam initially fell into a collective oblivion. The impressive Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D. C., was built in 1982 with private donations. With two million visitors a year, it is still more crowded than any other public institution or museum in Washington.

US President Gerald Ford imposed a trade embargo on the country in 1975, Bill Clinton lifted it in 1994, and in 1995 the two countries established diplomatic relations. The first US ambassador was the former pilot Douglas "Pete" Peterson in 1997, whose plane was shot down in 1966 and who had spent the years up to 1973 in North Vietnamese captivity.

Rolf Steininger, born in Plettenberg / Westphalia in 1942, is Em. O. Univ.-Prof. and was from 1984-2010 chairman of the Institute for Contemporary History at the University of Innsbruck. www.rolfsteininger.at
Literature reference:
Rolf Steininger: The Vietnam War. A terrible mistake. Studienverlag, Innsbruck-Wien-Bozen 2018, 124 pages, 19.90 euros.