Sunday, October 30, 2011

“Nothing More To Say After That”: Aftermath of the Vietnam War

I am coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled “American Dreams and Reality: A Retelling of the American Story.” Here, I describe the tragic aftermath of the American war in Southeast Asia.

Under the peace terms ending the Vietnam War, the Americans agreed to remove all troops, including military advisers, from South Vietnam. The U.S., South Vietnam, and the North also agreed to exchange prisoners of war. North Vietnamese troops could maintain their positions in South Vietnam, as could Vietcong guerillas.

In essence, the truce was a surrender document, not much different from what President Richard Nixon could have gotten from Hanoi when he first took office in 1969. In all, 58,193 Americans died in Vietnam, almost 21,000 under Nixon’s watch, as well as close to 2 million Vietnamese. At least 150,000 soldiers and medical personnel suffered injuries. The United States spent $138 billion in military aid plus $8.5 billion in economic aid, a total of about $743 billion in 2011 dollars.

Foreign Policy Advisor Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho, the chief North Vietnamese negotiator, received Nobel Peace Prizes for the truce in 1973, in spite of Kissinger’s involvement in invasions of Cambodia and Laos and his likely involvement in the Chile coup the same year. The comedian and musical satirist Tom Lehrer supposedly retired from performing upon hearing the news. "It was at that moment that satire died," Lehrer reportedly said. "There was nothing more to say after that." Kissinger and Le Duc Tho’s Peace Prize became even more ironic since the Vietnam War didn’t actually end until two years later.

The Democratic Party-dominated Congress in November 1973 passed the War Powers Act, overriding Nixon’s veto. Congressional leaders knew that the free hand given several consecutive administrations, culminating in the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964, had resulted in the Vietnam quagmire. Alarmed particularly by Nixon’s unauthorized invasion of Cambodia and bombing campaigns there, members of the House and Senate sought to reassert their voice in military policy. Under the War Powers Act, the president has to notify the Congress within 48 hours of any military deployment where battle conditions prevail or are likely to prevail. If the Congress does not sign off on the military action, the president has to withdraw troops within 60 days.

The Hanoi government clearly saw the peace agreement as merely a pause in the action. Fighting between the North Vietnamese and Vietcong and South Vietnam began almost immediately after the American departure. North Vietnam launched a new full-scale offensive in 1975. By then, North Vietnam boasted the fifth largest military in the world. It anticipated that the final phase of the war would take two years, but final victory came in only 55 days.

Coordinated attacks across the country began on March 10. Just three days later, hoping to consolidate his forces in the Southern third of the country, Thieu ordered a withdrawal from the northernmost provinces and the Central Highlands. This triggered a panic as South Vietnamese soldiers, police and other government officials fled in droves, struggling to flee on clogged roads and arriving as refugees in Saigon, which became virtually the last government stronghold by April 1975.

Gerald Ford, who assumed the American presidency when Nixon was forced to resign August 9, 1974, had already declared that no American combat soldiers would rescue the South this time. He authorized “Operation Frequent Wind,” which eventually evacuated more than 7,000 American personnel and 150,000 South Vietnamese officials and family members who feared retribution from the North Vietnamese government. As thousands of locals fought their way into the American embassy compound, American television crews filmed some South Vietnamese being pushed away from overcrowded helicopters or grabbing the skids and holding on as the crafts took off from the embassy roof. The morning of April 30 the last American personnel, 10 Marines, departed and North Vietnamese forces poured into Saigon which they quickly renamed “Ho Chi Minh City” after the late Communist leader.

The collapse of Saigon marked the start of a mass Vietnamese diaspora. For months before the fall of the Thieu government, South Vietnamese had heard rumors of a planned bloodbath in which the victorious communists would commit mass murder against the political opponents. Some fled by foot to nearby countries. Thousands who came to be known as “boat people,” those who had worked for or supported the South Vietnamese government or served in its military or its intelligence services, put together rickety sea craft. They sailed until they met friendly vessels and were placed in refugee camps and tent cities across east Asia. Some eventually reached the United States.

About a quarter million Vietnamese-born refugees made it to the United States between 1975 and 1980, settling in large numbers in states like California and Texas. Reminders of a lost war, the refugees often received a harsh reception in the United States. At a refugee center near Fort Chafee, Arkansas, white protestors waved signs calling the newcomers “Gooks” and telling the Vietnamese to “Go Home.” In 1981, armed Klansman led by Vietnam War veteran Louis Beam harassed the new Vietnamese community, burned crosses, hanged effigies and torched boats owned by Vietnamese fishermen near Galveston, Texas. A Gallup Poll taken in 1975 showed that Americans opposed admitting the refugees by a margin of 54 percent to 36 percent. The House of Representatives rejected a bill that would have provided $327 million in aid to the refugees. “Those sons of bitches,” President Gerald Ford said when he heard about the vote.

In the nearly four decades since the war ended, 40,000 Vietnamese have died or have been injured by landmines and unexploded bombs left behind in Southeast Asia. About 12 to 18 percent of the bombs dropped during the war didn’t explode, only to blow up when discovered by farmers, children, and others who, if they survived, were left with missing limbs.

Meanwhile, digging up the explosives cost Vietnam about $1,000 each and disturbing the soil exposed the local population to the cancer-causing defoliant Agent Orange. During the 1960s,until a 1970 lab study demonstrated that Agent Orange caused birth defects in animals, American planes dropped 12 million gallons of the chemical compound, a cancer-causing defoliant created by Dow Chemical, on the Vietnamese countryside to strip trees as a means of exposing communist fighters. The heaviest spraying took place during “Operation Ranch Hand” between 1967 and 1969. Up to one million Vietnamese children have suffered birth defects as a side effect of the chemical, with another half-million injured during the initial chemical drops. Since then, cancer rates in Vietnam exploded and soldiers and servicemen from the United States, Australia and other countries that fought there have reported skin rashes; cancers of the skin, lung, brain and prostate; non-Hodgkin lymphoma, Hodgkin’s lymphoma and unusual rates of handicaps in their children.


There was no more tragic aftermath to the Vietnam War than the rise of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. During the Operation Menu bombing campaign that began in 1969, Cambodian President Lon Nol noted a sharp increase in the number of communist guerillas operating in his country. At the same time, Lon Nol’s government proved ineffective, corrupt and cruel. Cambodia’s economy began to collapse, which added to the Khmer Rouge’s momentum. Food prices escalated wildly. Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia created 700,000 refugees by the end of 1970. Eventually 540,000 tons of bombs fell on the tiny country and the number of refugees by the end of 1971 reached a staggering two million people out of a total population of about seven million. “Pol Pot’s Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK) . . . used the bombing’s devastation and massacre of civilians as recruitment propaganda and as an excuse for its brutal, radical policies and its purge of moderate communists,” noted historian Ben Kiernan.

By March 1973, American bombing raids encompassed the entire country, with 3,000 civilians dying in just three weeks. One evening a mass funeral procession unknowingly walked into a bombing target area, and hundreds were killed. One villager told an interviewer in April, “The bombers may kill some communists, but they kill everyone else too.” Armed by the North Vietnamese, the Khmer Rouge became a tightly-disciplined, dedicated and ruthless fighting force. Lon Nol’s troops, by contrast, consisted of demoralized, frightened draftees. The government implemented a draft law in 1973. “Cinema queues were a favorite hunting ground: army trucks would rush up in the evening and drag young customers away at gunpoint,” journalist William Shawcross observed. “Army life began as it ended – in squalor. The boys were packed off for inadequate training . . [and faced] . . . ‘primitive living conditions . . . ’”

On April 17, 1975, the remnant of Lon Nol’s forces collapsed. The Khmer Rogue marched into Phnom Penh and took effective control of the nation they renamed Democratic Kampuchea. Pol Pot declared the start of “Year Zero.” Cambodia would be rebuilt from the ground up and become an almost entirely agricultural society in which all private ownership was banned and the family abolished. The Khmer Rouge closed down newspapers and television stations, prohibited the use of money, and shuttered schools. Small children as well as adults became part of a mass agricultural work force. The regime also expelled foreigners. Pol Pot ordered all of the 2 million persons living in Phnom Penh to evacuate. Soldiers went through hospitals, shot patients too weak or ill to move, and forced the rest to join a mass march to the countryside. “And so, in the heat of day, a most dreadful parade began,” Shawcross wrote.

. . . Men with no legs bumped down stairs and levered themselves on skinny arms along the street; blind boys laid their hands on the shoulders of crippled guides; soldiers with one foot and no crutches dragged themselves away; parents carried their wounded children in plastic bags that oozed blood . . .

About 20,000 died in the forced march, those falling shot by soldiers. In mass agricultural camps, men and women lived separately and ate meals communally. Children were separated from parents and casual conversation was suppressed and some were executed for laughing. Workdays, beginning at 4 a.m., lasted 18 hours, followed by mandatory lectures on communism. Overwork, combined with paltry food rations (amounting to 90 grams of rice a day) caused starvation and death from exhaustion. The Khmer Rouge murdered any civilians they caught eating the food they were harvesting.

About 2 million Cambodians died during less than four years of rule by the Khmer Rouge. Democratic Kampuchea became, as the North Vietnamese regime described it, “a land of blood and tears, hell on earth.” The Khmer Rouge remained in power until a series of Cambodian border raids provoked Vietnam to invade on December 25, 1978. The Vietnamese took control of Phnom Penh in January 1979, set up a puppet government, and the Khmer Rouge lost control of the majority of the country, continuing a guerilla war against the new government from remote outposts mostly in the western part of the country for 17 years. The Vietnamese withdrew in 1990. The Khmer Rouge collapsed in 1997-1998, with Pol Pot placed under arrest by his own forces. He died in April 1998, 23 years after launching his brief, nightmarish reign.

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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