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Vietnam, now and then

Countries that fell to communism still suffer half a century later

Soldiers of the U.S. 1st Air Cavalry Division take cover during a battle in South Vietnam on Jan. 29, 1966. Associated Press/Photo by Henri Huet

Vietnam, now and then
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This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Paris Peace Accords, which ended U.S. military involvement in Vietnam.

My Vietnamese friend, Tom, often reminds me what the war was really about. Tom’s father served in senior positions in the South Vietnamese Army. Throughout the 1960s, South Vietnam took halting steps toward democratic governance and economic development. In 1975, the Communists broke the Paris Accords, invaded the South, and ultimately crushed resistance. Tom tried to escape five times before he finally made it out of the country by swimming out to a boat under cover of night. He was fortunate to make it to a refugee camp in a neighboring country.

Tom’s kids went to American public schools and universities and have built a good life for his grandchildren. But the differences between them versus their cousins stuck in Vietnam are stark—as is the success of countries out of Communist control that were able to mature into democratic, market-driven economies. Look at the so-called Asian Tigers, such as Japan and South Korea, and others such as Thailand, to see the difference when compared to the countries that fell to communism after the West abandoned what was known as Indochina: poverty and tyranny in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, not to mention their neighbor to the northeast, North Korea.

Some people like to say that the United States lost the Vietnam War. What does that mean? Does it mean that the United States lost on the battlefield? Not really. For instance, the Tet Offensive of January 1968 was a massive invasion of the South by North Vietnamese troops and their Viet Cong (local insurgents) allies. Within a few weeks, they lost an estimated 50,000 troops. The loss of U.S. and South Vietnamese troops was just a fraction of that. Nevertheless, the destructiveness of these battles led many to conclude that a traditional victory, under the constraints imposed by Presidents Johnson and later Nixon, could not occur. Upon seeing the destruction, Walter Cronkite opined, “It seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. … It is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.”

The GDP per capita of Vietnam is less than one-fifth that of South Korea and Japan.

Another way of thinking about “victory” is in terms of quality of life and the values that undergird a country’s economic system. Vietnam’s Communist economic theory is a laughable failure at providing for the populace. The GDP per capita of Vietnam is less than one-fifth that of South Korea and Japan. Moreover, Vietnam’s economy of nearly 100 million people is buttressed by remittances from the four million Vietnamese living outside the country. According to the Hanoi Times, Vietnam received $19 billion in remittances from friends and family overseas in 2022. It is the tenth largest recipient of remittances in the world.

A third way of thinking about victory and loss is in terms of moral victory, i.e. did one values system triumph over the other? The United States and its allies continue to live in representative governments, respecting civil liberties and civil rights. This is the aspiration of most people in most places around the world. In contrast, has anyone defected from the West to live in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam?

There were two great losses in the Vietnam War. The first was the tragic loss of life. It is estimated that between 1-3 million Vietnamese lost their life in the nearly 20 years of warfare (1955-1973), with another quarter million or more dying in brutal Communist insurgencies of neighboring Laos and Cambodia. The U.S. reports during its involvement (roughly 1963-1973) a loss of 58,220 military personnel, which means that millions of Americans directly knew a family touched by loss. The wounds of the war continue to this day.

The second loss was the long-term freedom and opportunity for democratic evolution for the people of South Vietnam. After their military crumbled in 1975, the South Vietnamese were not liberated by the North. Instead, they faced a regime that had learned its lessons from watching Chairman Mao crush dissent, freedom, and opportunity in China.

We cannot change history, but we can reflect on what loss and victory really mean. The Communist triumph was tragic for the people of South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, but we can be proud of those who sacrificed and served in the attempt to contain communism and give a fledgling democratic South Vietnam a chance.

Eric Patterson

Eric Patterson is president and CEO of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in Washington, D.C., and past dean of the School of Government at Regent University. He is the author or editor of more than 20 books, including Just American Wars, Politics in a Religious World, and Ending Wars Well.

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