Ten years ago this April, the United States finally ended its military intervention in Vietnam. This marked a great victory for the Vietnamese national liberation movement and for the broad popular opposition movement in the US and around the world. MERIP’s own beginnings came out of that movement, and we noted that the sudden burst of media attention, after years of amnesia, reviewed those bloody years of intervention in Indochina exclusively in terms of what they meant to Americans. No Vietnamese was invited to reflect on the consequences of the war and its ending. Our friend David Truong worked long and hard in this country to bring the war to an end, and after April 1975 he was among the most tireless advocates of American and Vietnamese reconciliation. The US government responded by sending David to prison on trumped-up charges of espionage. David lives every day with the legacy of the American war in Vietnam, so we asked him to share with us some of his thoughts on the occasion of this anniversary:
No one who lived through those turbulent years and joined the worldwide support for the Vietnamese liberation struggle could forget the exhilirating news of April 30, 1975. For me and for most Vietnamese, this realized a cherished national dream. In 55 days, under the punch of Vietnam’s liberation forces, the Thieu regime’s army — more than a million men sustained for two decades with billions of dollars — disintegrated. Saigon, the regime’s final lair, fell intact on that last day of April. A year later, in July 1976, Vietnam was formally reunited, ending the long march toward independence and freedom that defeated French, Japanese and American intervention.
The United States suffered its first strategic defeat, at the cost of 58,000 lives, hundreds of thousands maimed and injured, and half a trillion dollars. For Vietnam, the costs of victory were staggering — millions of dead and wounded; the land scarred by chemical defoliants and by bombings more than five times the entire bomb tonnage of World War II. After April 1975, Vietnam’s only choice was to rebuild with its meager resources and protect its gains. Washington worked its diplomatic and economic revenge, in coordination with Chinese military pressure. A new and complex phase in Vietnam’s independence struggle began.
The legacy of the war continues to unfold in unexpected ways. My incarceration is a case in point. There is still an undiminished reluctance to deal with the war-related problems of Vietnam veterans, as though patriotic testimonials were sufficient. Former key policymakers strenuously rewrite their roles to elude the accountability that finally awaits them. Can anyone believe that the US has learned the lessons of “Vietnam”? The disaster in Lebanon, the bullying in Central America refute any such revisionist notion. Policymakers advocate applying swifter, more overwhelming force against Third World opponents. The Pentagon has developed incredibly lethal advanced weapons systems. Covert war and counterinsurgency are still very much on Washington’s menu.
Yet “Vietnam” has fundamentally altered the global power equation. No longer can Washington intervene at will. In Grenada, the Reagan administration sought to create the perception of military and political recovery from the “Vietnam syndrome.” Instead this sad episode highlighted the lack of coherence between forces and objectives.
At the same time, the invasion of Grenada contributed to a more aggressive international environment, to which Third World liberation movements will have to develop a more effective and comprehensive response or face obliteration. Throughout the 30-year-long Vietnamese struggle, its united and clear-sighted leadership and its ability to plan an appropriate multi-form strategy for each stage of the war were the main elements behind the victory of April 30, 1975. The international situation has grown more complex since that time, and it may be that diplomatic struggle should occupy an even more essential place in a movement’s overall strategy.
As for Vietnam itself, it is making gigantic efforts to reconstruct its economy and society out of the legacy of war and poverty. The euphoria of April 1975 led the Vietnamese to underestimate the international complications they faced. The same euphoria distorted the expectations of many of Vietnam’s supporters. Mistakes were made; some steps were faltering. Vietnam’s military victory over the Pol Pot regime in Kampuchea in 1979 diminished some of its international support. Vietnam is in some ways at the hub of the American-Soviet-Chinese triangle, the so-called framework for peace left us by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, and Vietnam must pursue a sophisticated and vigilant policy to maintain its independence. The Vietnamese have already paid an enormous price for that independence, and they will preserve it at all costs. Decades from now, I believe, the world will remember Vietnam as one of the most successful and humane liberation struggles in modern times.