The Vietnam War: After 40 Years

05/18/2015 08:04 pm ET | Updated May 18, 2016

Today, 40 years after the American war in Vietnam ended in ignominious defeat, the traces of that terrible conflict are disappearing.

Traveling through Vietnam during the latter half of April 2015 with a group of erstwhile antiwar activists, I was struck by the transformation of what was once an impoverished, war-devastated peasant society into a modern nation. Its cities and towns are bustling with life and energy. Vast numbers of motorbikes surge through their streets, including 4.2 million in Hanoi and 7 million in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). A thriving commercial culture has emerged, based not only on many small shops, but on an influx of giant Western, Japanese, and other corporations. Although Vietnam is officially a Communist nation, about 40 percent of the economy is capitalist, and the government is making great efforts to encourage private foreign investment. Indeed, over the past decade, Vietnam has enjoyed one of the highest economic growth rates in the world. Not only have manufacturing and tourism expanded dramatically, but Vietnam has become an agricultural powerhouse. Today it is the world's second largest exporter of rice, and one of the world's leading exporters of coffee, pepper, rubber, and other agricultural commodities. Another factor distancing the country from what the Vietnamese call "the American war" is the rapid increase in Vietnam's population. Only 41 million in 1975, it now tops 90 million, with most of it under the age of 30 -- too young to have any direct experience with the conflict.

Vietnam has also made a remarkable recovery in world affairs. It now has diplomatic relations with 189 countries, and enjoys good relations with all the major nations.

Nevertheless, the people of Vietnam paid a very heavy price for their independence from foreign domination. Some 3 million of them died in the American war, and another 300,000 are still classified as MIAs. In addition, many, many Vietnamese were wounded or crippled in the conflict. Perhaps the most striking long-term damage resulted from the U.S. military's use of Agent Orange (dioxin) as a defoliant. Vietnamese officials estimate that, today, some 4 million of their people suffer the terrible effects of this chemical, which not only destroys the bodies of those exposed to it, but has led to horrible birth defects and developmental disabilities into the second and third generations. Much of Vietnam's land remains contaminated by Agent Orange, as well as by unexploded ordnance. Indeed, since the end of the American war in 1975, the landmines, shells, and bombs that continue to litter the nation's soil have wounded or killed over 105,000 Vietnamese -- many of them children.

During the immediate postwar years, Vietnam's ruin was exacerbated by additional factors. These included a U.S. government embargo on trade with Vietnam, U.S. government efforts to isolate Vietnam diplomatically, and a 1979 Chinese military invasion of Vietnam employing 600,000 troops. Although the Vietnamese managed to expel the Chinese -- just as they had previously routed the French and the Americans -- China continued border skirmishes with Vietnam until 1988. In addition, during the first postwar decade, the ruling Vietnamese Communist Party pursued a hardline, repressive policy that undermined what was left of the economy and alienated much of the population. Misery and starvation were widespread.

Nevertheless, starting in the mid-1980s, the country made a remarkable comeback. This recovery was facilitated by Communist Party reformers who loosened the reins of power, encouraged foreign investment, and worked at developing a friendlier relationship with other nations, especially the United States. In 1995, the U.S. and Vietnamese governments resumed diplomatic relations. Although these changes did not provide a panacea for the nation's ills -- for example, the U.S. State Department informed the new U.S. ambassador that he must never mention Agent Orange -- Vietnam's circumstances, and particularly its relationship with the United States, gradually improved. U.S.-Vietnamese trade expanded substantially, reaching $35 billion in 2014. Thousands of Vietnamese students participated in educational exchanges. In recent years, the U.S. government even began funding programs to help clean up Agent Orange contamination and unexploded ordnance.

Although, in part, this U.S.-Vietnamese détente resulted from the growing flexibility of officials in both nations, recently it has also reflected the apprehension of both governments about the increasingly assertive posture of China in Asian affairs. Worried about China's unilateral occupation of uninhabited islands in the South China Sea during 2014, both governments began to resist it -- the United States through its "Pacific pivot" and Vietnam through an ever closer relationship with the United States to "balance" China. Although both nations officially support the settlement of the conflict over the disputed islands through diplomacy centered on the ten countries that comprise the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, officials in Vietnam, increasingly nervous about China's ambitions, appear to welcome the growth of a more powerful U.S. military presence in the region. In the context of this emerging agreement on regional security, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, and U.S. President Barack Obama will be visiting Vietnam later this year.

This shift from warring enemies to cooperative partners over the past 40 years should lead to solemn reflection. In the Vietnam War, the U.S. government laid waste to a poor peasant nation in an effort to prevent the triumph of a Communist revolution that U.S. policymakers insisted would release a Red tide that would sweep through Asia and imperil the United States. And yet, when America's counter-revolutionary effort collapsed, this dire prediction was proved false. Instead, an independent nation emerged that could -- and did -- work amicably with the U.S. government. This development highlights the unnecessary nature -- indeed, the tragedy -- of America's vastly destructive war in Vietnam. It also underscores the deeper folly of relying on war to cope with international issues.

Lawrence Wittner ( is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany. His latest book is a satirical novel about university corporatization and rebellion, What's Going On at UAardvark?