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50 Years After the Paris Accords: How the US Lost, then Won, in Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City, 2022

On January 27, 1973 the United States officially ended its war in Vietnam by signing the Paris Peace Accords and withdrawing from a land where it had been involved in warfare for over two decades.  In the 50 years since, there has been a significant political and scholarly debate over the meaning of the war and outcome in Vietnam.  In 1973, the outcome was clear, as American representatives essentially conceded defeat.  The U.S. left Vietnam with the Communist North stronger than the country it had “invented” in the South and the Democratic Republic of North Vietnam was barely two years away from outright victory, and when that happened in April 1975, the U.S. clearly had lost the war.

But in the half-century since, the way we look at Vietnam has shifted, and the goals the U.S. sought in Vietnam have come into focus and the results look different today than they did at the end of January 1973.  On this 50th anniversary of the peace treaty, we can now say the U.S. both lost and won the Vietnam War.

The Vietnam war was exhaustive and bloody. American policymakers after World War II became involved in the political affairs of Indochina, albeit reluctantly at first, to support France’s re-entry as the imperial power in the region and to contain Communist liberation movements, especially the Viet Minh in Vietnam, which might hamper the development of Asian Capitalism with Japan as the main ally and commercial partner of the U.S. 

By the early 1950s the U.S. was pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into Vietnam to quash the nationalist-Communist forces fighting the French, but the Viet Minh succeeded in defeating France at the pivotal battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954.  The U.S., however, refused to allow the movement led by Ho Chi Minh to accept victory and denied the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Vietnam, inventing a country below the 17th Parallel, the Republic of Vietnam [RVN], led by Ngo Dinh Diem.

From that point on, the story is well-known . . . The U.S. increasingly ramped up its commitment to Vietnam, with money, arms, and ultimately troops.  In 1961, John F. Kennedy took office with 800 American military personnel in Vietnam, and by the time he was killed there were 16,000 troops there, along with armor, helicopters, defoliants like Agent Orange, and other heavy firepower.  By 1966 there were over 400,000 troops in Vietnam and the U.S. had “Americanized” the war with free-fire zones, search-and-destroy missions, round-the-clock B-52 attacks on a country the size of New Mexico, a massive campaign of ecological warfare, supporting repression in the RVN, and atrocities.  America’s attacks on Vietnam constituted one of the greatest war crimes in military history. 

By the time the war finally ended, the U.S. had more than 58,000 personnel killed and spent close to $200 billion (about $1 trillion today) during its involvement there.  The Vietnamese suffered considerably more—with perhaps 3 million killed, the country devastated by 4.6 million tons of U.S. bombs and immense firepower, (and still today suffering the effects of the environmental war there), its economy destroyed, and millions of refugees created (many of who now make up a thriving immigrant community in the U.S.).  The neighboring countries of Cambodia and Laos, the “sideshows” in the war, met similar fates.  

But since 1973, due to American and international pressure on Vietnam (renamed the Socialist Republic of Vietnam or SRV in 1975) and the lure of capitalist globalization, the SRV now significantly resembles the country the U.S. hoped to create when it began its intervention there right after World War II. 

Partly this was due to continued coercion after the peace treaty ended the U.S. role.  The SRV desperately needed outside funding to rebuild basic infrastructure and create a new economy but the U.S. reneged on a promise of $3.25 billion in reconstruction aid made during the peace talks, and then pressured international lending organizations such as the International Monetary Fund [IMF], World Bank, and United Nations agencies to reject Hanoi’s applications for loans or aid.  

This forced Vietnam to rely on the Soviet Union for economic help, which led to increased tension between Hanoi and the People’s Republic of China, and that led to more regional conflict which exacerbated the SRV’s economic crisis.  In 1978, the SRV intervened in Cambodia to remove the brutal Khmer Rouge, whom were supported by the Chinese and Americans, from power.  They ended the “killing fields” but took on a huge economic burden with the occupation there. 

The U.S. and China continued to recognize the Khmer Rouge as the government of Cambodia and the U.S. prodded China to act against the SRV. President Jimmy Carter expressed his desire to punish Vietnam, whom he called “invaders” of Cambodia, by pressuring others to reduce aid to Hanoi, increasing military aid to Thailand to contain the SRV, and warning the Soviet Union that helping Vietnam would damage its relations with the U.S.   Most dramatically, the Chinese, with U.S. backing, invaded Vietnam in February 1979 and, while suffering big losses, caused over 10,000 Vietnamese deaths and imposed a huge financial toll on the SRV.  The burden of fighting against China, right after intervening in and occupying Cambodia, would plague the SRV for the coming decades.

Inside Vietnam, the government made a turn toward a market economy, and reduced and cut programs to help workers and veterans, the forces that had fought for liberation for years and led the victory, and reached out to international groups for aid.  The SRV did get some support from the IMF in the 1980s but had to adjust its economic plans—reducing subsidies, increasing exports, privatizing foreign investment, and moving toward a market economy—to get funding but these measures hurt Vietnamese workers and peasants.  

The costs of maintaining an allied government in Cambodia and agricultural failures at home led to even more desperate conditions and, similar to Gorbachev’s “market socialism” in the Soviet Union, the SRV embarked on do moi, its own version of that doctrine.  Private entrepreneurs, generally with close contacts to the state bureaucracy, began taking over key economic sectors, and private investment came into Vietnam.  Production rose and new businesses came to the SRV, but little of that wealth ever trickled down to workers and veterans.  

Since then, Vietnam has been on an inexorable march toward the marketplace.  The United States lifted its trade embargo on Vietnam in 1994 and normalized relations a year later, and in 2001 negotiated a commercial agreement that virtually removed tariffs and opened trade between the two nations.   In 2007, Vietnam joined the World Trade Organization, which further led to tariff reductions and trade liberalization. In 2013 the U.S. and SRV began a “Comprehensive Partnership” in the economic, environmental, military, and education sectors. 

Bilateral trade has increased 200-fold since the 1990s and last year American investment in Vietnam reached $2.8 billion.   Meanwhile, the SRV began to move away from agriculture to industrialization and had an average growth rate of about 6.3% in the decade after joining the WTO, with annual export growth of about 12-14%.  Vietnam has over 22,000 foreign investment projects, valued at $300 billion, with companies such as Samsung, LG, Toyota, Honda and Canon. 

In April 1975, the Vietnamese Communists seemed to have finally achieved sovereignty and socialism after decades of war, while the United States apparently had seen the limits of its postwar power and suffered a defeat in a war against a small peasant nation in Asia.  Now, 50 years later, Vietnam resembles the country the Americans had hoped to create when they first became interested in Indochina as an economic partner for a restored Japan in a Capitalist Asia. 

After a 20th Century full of nationalist uprisings, Japanese occupation, and wars against France and the United States, with many millions dead and ecological devastation, Vietnam shed off foreign control but eventually became a major manufacturing base and trading partner for U.S. companies.  

One of the more famous anecdotes from the Vietnam War came from the journalist Peter Arnett, who reported that a U.S. army major explained his decision to shell Bến Tre, a city in the Mekong Delta, regardless of civilian casualties, in order to displace Viet Cong guerrillas there, by saying “it became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”  That can also be used as an allegory for the whole war—the U.S. destroyed Vietnam and made it abandon the visions of its revolutionary ancestors and accept the realities of the capitalist global market.  If Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon or other policymakers from that era could see Vietnam today they very well might conclude that the U.S. won the war after all.