Vietnam: From Reunification until the Withdrawal from Cambodia (1976-1989)

Justin Corfield. The History of Vietnam. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2008.

The period from the end of the Vietnam War until the reunification of the country on July 2, 1976, had allowed for a gradual merger of the organs of both states—the education and health systems, the public works boards, and the like. The first new coins of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV) bore the emblem of North Vietnam, but now referred to the whole of Vietnam. The symbol also appeared, along with various portraits of Ho Chi Minh, on the new banknotes. The first postage stamps, issued on July 27, were less controversial. One commemorated the 30th anniversary of the Vietnamese Red Cross; the other two were issued specifically for use by disabled war veterans. By December, stamps were being produced commemorating the capture of Ban Me Thuot, Danang, and Saigon’s presidential palace in the previous year. With the formation of the SRV, one of the other issues concerned the reorganization of the Vietnamese Olympic Committee, which took place on December 20, 1976, although it did not receive official recognition until 1980 when a team competed in the Moscow Olympics.

As with the ending of all civil wars, there was a spate of name changes, the most obvious being Saigon, which was renamed Ho Chi Minh City, although it was a city that Ho Chi Minh had had little to do with during his life. The one building that did have a genuine association with him, the Nha Rong (Dragon House), which had been the headquarters of a French shipping company, was turned into the Ho Chi Minh Museum, as it was from this building that Ho Chi Minh left Vietnam in 1911. The South Vietnamese Presidential Palace was renamed the Reunification Palace, and was used for state functions; it is now a major tourist attraction. Although guides maintain that it has remained unchanged since 1975, its bookshelves crammed with the works of Kim II Sung tend to indicate that its library has been updated since Duong Van Minh surrendered there in April 1975.

The street names were also changed. Rue Catinat, one of the most fashionable streets in French Saigon, had been renamed Duong Tu Do (“Tu Do” Street) by Diem, and was now renamed Dong Khoi. The road at the southern end of it, which ran along the Saigon River, had been named Quai le Myre de Villiers by the French (after the governor of Cochinchina from 1879 to 1883) and was now renamed after Ton Duc Thang, the man who had succeeded Ho Chi Minh as president of North Vietnam. North of the presidential palace, the formerly French Rue Legrand de la Liraye was now renamed Dien Bien Phu. Many streets kept the same name, however, with the French Rue Taberd having been renamed by Diem after the early modern writer Nguyen Du (1765–1820), a name retained by the Communists who also respected the official who led a mission to China in the early nineteenth century.

Economic Problems

Vietnam was desperately poor and survived largely on donations by the governments of the Soviet Union and other Communist countries. The United States maintained a boycott on political contact with, and economic ties to, Vietnam, and Vietnamese Americans and their supporters kept up the pressure on successive U.S. administrations. President Ford, President Carter, and especially President Reagan pressed the Vietnamese government to release the tens of thousands of former South Vietnamese officials and army officers and noncommissioned officers held in reeducation camps, some in the same prisons that international human rights groups had criticized the South Vietnamese government for maintaining in the early 1970s. There was also pressure by the U.S. government to account for the American service personnel still listed as “missing in action” and to deal with reported sightings of American prisoners still being held in Vietnam.

The French government had played an ambivalent role in much of the latter period of the Vietnam War. Trying to pursue an independent foreign policy, the French were certainly involved in negotiations with the Vietnamese Communists, as well as the Communists in Cambodia. Indeed, French rubber plantation owners worked tracts of territory along the Ho Chi Minh Trail during the 1960s and early 1970s and seemed never to notice the use of the trail to bring Communist supplies into South Vietnam, much to the annoyance of the U.S. and South Vietnamese army commanders. Only in 1976 did the Vietnamese government finally take over the rubber plantations, and the French commercial presence in Vietnam ended. During the 1980s, the French government was to systematically exhume all French graves throughout Vietnam and transport the bodies to France, where they were reburied in a massive cemetery at Fréjus, near Toulon in the south of France. A massive memorial commemorates by name the 39,000 soldiers who died for the French—as well as the tens of thousands of French, Germans, Africans, and others who died in the French Foreign Legion or in the French colonial forces.

With nearly a million people made homeless by the war, and as many as one-eighth of the population injured in the war, the problems facing the SRV were extremely formidable. Furthermore, many children had been unable to attend school for years, and the healthcare system was fairly rudimentary in large parts of the country. Many foreign-trained doctors from South Vietnam had fled the country, and those who remained operated, for the most part, in heavily under-resourced hospitals and clinics. Although the fighting had ended, there were large numbers of unexploded mines and other ordnance littering the countryside, adding daily to the number of people injured by the war. The aftereffects of the defoliants on people living in affected areas still remains a major problem.

To try to overcome these problems, the government of the SRV drew up plans to try to revitalize the economy, which had been on a war footing since 1945. Essentially, the plan was to encourage the expansion of industry in the north of the country and to increase agricultural land in the south. The former ran into technical problems with a shortage of Western-trained personnel, and the latter was even more problematic because of the massive amount of unexpended ordnance, mines, and defoliant such as Agent Orange used during the war. The defoliants and the bombing had destroyed 5 percent of the total tree cover of the country and had damaged half of what remained. Most of the Communist bureaucracy had spent its energy during the last 30 years providing for the war effort. In the south, there was continual resentment, especially in Saigon, which had been renamed Ho Chi Minh City, although many of its residents continued to call it Saigon.

The commercial sector was dominated by ethnic Chinese who refused to cooperate with the new economic directives from Hanoi and who opposed the establishment of the “new economic zones” created in depressed parts of the country. The nation was also battered by major floods in parts of the country and a drought in some of central Vietnam, which reduced food production. As a result, the Hanoi-based bureaucracy decided to embark on the “socialization” of industry and agriculture in the south, seizing control of private property and starting to establish communes. Protests were brutally repressed and hundreds of thousands of people, most of whom were ethnic Chinese, left Vietnam, either to head over the mountains into China, or by boat for China, Hong Kong, or places farther away. Known as the “Boat People,” tens of thousands of them were attacked by pirates in the South China Seas, with men being hacked to death and women and girls raped. Most countries were eager not to want to be seen to encourage refugees arriving by boat, and many of those who did arrive were put into internment centers, from where some managed to get resettlement as a part of refugee programs, but others languished for long periods, with some being forcibly returned to Vietnam.

Because of the ethnicity of many of the refugees, China willingly took in several hundred thousand who were resettled in the south of the country. The relationship between the Vietnamese and Chinese Communists, enjoyed so much during the Vietnam War, started to sour badly. On May 24, 1978, a spokesman of the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office of the State Council of the Chinese government publicly accused the Vietnamese government of mistreating Chinese residents. He stated that more than 50,000 people of Chinese ethnicity had been forced over the Vietnamese border into southern China and compared the actions of the SRV to those of Ngo Dinh Diem in 1957, when he introduced regulations to make Chinese in South Vietnamese into Chinese citizens. Three days after the Chinese statement, the SRV’s foreign ministry issued its own statement denying the facts at issue.

On June 9, 1978, the Chinese attacks on the Vietnamese government’s policies became even more pointed when the Chinese ministry of foreign affairs stated that it was well known that there were more than 1 million Chinese in Vietnam and urged for reconciliation, as “China and Vietnam are linked by common mountains and rivers, and the two people share weal and woe.” Many of these refugees in China were settled at the port of Beihai, but there was little likelihood of any reconciliation, as incidents along the Vietnamese-Cambodian border soon led to war.

The War with Cambodia

The Communist Khmer Rouge had taken control of Cambodia two weeks before the Vietnamese Communists captured Saigon. The Cambodian Communist Party had long operated underground, and few knew that their leader was Pol Pot (formerly Saloth Sar), a longtime communist who harbored a passionate hatred of Vietnam. Pol Pot yearned for a rebirth in Cambodia’s importance in Southeast Asia, and, having been able to win the civil war there ahead of the end of the war in Vietnam, he soon had an overblown idea of the strength of the Cambodian soldiers he commanded.

On December 3, 1975, the coalition government in Laos was abolished by the Communist Pathet Lao, who, in control of that country, ended the 600-year old Laotian monarchy, proclaiming the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos. The new ruler of Laos was Prince Souphanouvong, a member of the Laotian royal family who had a long history of anti-French activism, having spent much of the time since 1945 heading a guerilla force in the countryside. Prince Souphanouvong was to remain a loyal supporter of Vietnam, with Kaysone Phomvihan as his prime minister.

While the Vietnamese Communists were able to start to dominate Laos, the new Cambodian Communist government became increasingly xenophobic and, in fact, claimed parts of southern Vietnam as Cambodian territory, citing the Cambodian ownership of them for the period up to the 1800s. Border clashes began, with the Cambodians massacring villagers along the Vietnamese-Cambodian border. In 1977, there was a simmering border dispute, and by mid-1978, the Vietnamese government made clear that it intended to confront, militarily, the Khmer Rouge who was also arming for a confrontation along the border.

A wave of arbitrary arrests in eastern Cambodia in 1977 and early 1978 had led to a number of Khmer Rouge fleeing into Vietnam. These included Cambodian Communists Heng Samrin and Hun Sen and in August 1978, Chan Vèn. It was not long before the Vietnamese decided to help these exiles, possibly providing them with weapons and even using the Vietnamese army. In early 1978, large numbers of copies of a Vietnamese-Cambodian dictionary were published in Vietnam, which Cambodian nationalists later cited as clear evidence for Vietnam’s plans to colonize Cambodia.

As tensions heightened along the Cambodian-Vietnamese border, the Cambodian government suddenly decided to invite three Westerners to its country to show that it was about to become the victims of a Vietnamese invasion. The Scottish academic, Malcolm Caldwell, the American journalist Elizabeth Becker, then with the Washington Post, and Richard Dudman, of the St. Louis Post Dispatch arrived in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, on December 3, 1978. The country by that time had been cut off from the world since 1975, apart from a brief visit by a Yugoslav camera crew who had portrayed a very bleak view of the country. Early in the morning of December 23, a group of armed people broke into the government guest house where the three foreigners were staying and murdered Caldwell. It has never been satisfactorily explained exactly who the killers were, but evidence suggests that they could have been either renegade Khmer Rouge, seeking to embarrass Pol Pot whom the group had met on the previous day, or people working on behalf of Vietnam for a similar purpose.

By this time it appears that a large Cambodian Communist armed force had already entered Vietnam, where it had been destroyed. Certainly when Vietnam struck back on December 25, 1978, the Khmer Rouge army was already a spent force. With the Vietnamese government having a treaty of friendship and cooperation with the Soviet Union, signed on November 3, 1978, it was clear that Vietnam, backed by the Soviet Union, and Cambodia, backed by China, would go to war. On December 25, 1978, a group of pro-Vietnamese Cambodian Communist exiles who had sought refuge in Vietnam, proclaimed the invasion of Cambodia, and 200,000 Vietnamese soldiers attacked into Cambodia from Vietnam and Laos.

The Vietnamese army, previously trained in guerilla war, acted well in Cambodia. In one of the fastest moving campaigns in history, on January 6, 1979, it had captured Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, which was largely deserted, having been forcibly evacuated by the Khmer Rouge in April 1975. Three days later, with the vast majority of Cambodia in their hands, the pro-Vietnamese former exiles and their Vietnamese backers proclaimed the formation of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea and declared themselves allies of Vietnam.

The international community was shocked by the Vietnamese action, and by the fall of the Cambodian Communists who had lost control of their entire country in a fortnight. At the United Nations, the Chinese government led the condemnation of the Vietnamese actions and was supported by the United States and its allies. On February 17, 1979, the Chinese launched their invasion of Vietnam, forcing the Vietnamese to pull out their crack soldiers from Cambodia to defend their home territory. The Chinese were able to capture the northern border region of Vietnam, but because of the mountainous terrain and the dogged fighting of the Vietnamese, as well as some ineptness in some in the Chinese command, on March 5, the Chinese started withdrawing. They had certainly not managed to defeat the Vietnamese, but the Vietnamese realized that China was prepared to strike to protect its allies in Cambodia who managed to regroup and re-form along the Cambodian-Thai border. The Chinese government later claimed that 20,000 Chinese and 50,000 Vietnamese soldiers were killed or wounded in the fighting.

The Vietnamese Occupation of Cambodia

The initial Vietnamese plans in Cambodia had been to send commandoes ahead of their soldiers to try to capture Prince Norodom Sihanouk, Cambodia’s former king, who was being held under house arrest by the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge were able to whisk Sihanouk out of Phnom Penh just before its fall, and also evacuate their leadership. They left behind a wrecked country and clear evidence that they had been involved in the systematic mass murder of their political opponents. At Tuol Sleng in Phnom Penh, the Vietnamese came across an interrogation and execution center operated by the Khmer Rouge for the killing of people who were regarded as a serious threat to their regime. Internal dissent in the countryside was enough for people to be executed, but those suspected of treason, especially party leaders and their collaborators, were questioned at Tuol Sleng before their inevitable execution.

The Vietnamese pointed to the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia as justification of their actions in invading the country. Certainly most people around the world were horrified by the photographs and television footage of the Khmer Rouge rule. The Vietnamese and their client government in Phnom Penh, however, soon had to deal with more than just military problems. As soon as the Vietnamese had defeated the Khmer Rouge, many people in Cambodia tried to flee the country as refugees, heading for Thailand. The Thai government was worried that the Vietnamese might use this as an excuse to invade Thailand itself; furthermore other people remaining in Cambodia tried to track down members of their families from whom they had been separated during the three and a half years of Khmer Rouge rule. This quickly led to a failure to ensure that the rice crop had been planted and cultivated, and it was not long before Cambodia was hit by a massive famine.

World relief agencies quickly collected millions of dollars in food aid, and refugee groups and humanitarian organizations started to supply the refugee camps along the Thai-Cambodian border with food aid. Because of the Western blockade with Vietnam, however, relatively little food aid was provided for the starving people within Cambodia. The eastern bloc countries sent Vietnam considerable food supplies but never enough to cope with the humanitarian crisis that led to the deaths of tens of thousands of people. Even at the height of the famine, some of the aid from Eastern Europe continued to consist of textbooks on Marxist-Leninist theory, which arrived in Phnom Penh in large quantities.

From 1979 to 1989, the Vietnamese maintained between 140,000 and 200,000 soldiers in Cambodia, supporting the government led initially by Heng Samrin and then, from 1985, by Hun Sen. For the Vietnamese it was a difficult time, which led to major repercussions in their country. The cost of the fighting in Cambodia continued to cripple the Vietnamese economy. Many in Vietnam were elated when the fighting ended in 1975, but there was gradually growing dissent about the casualties suffered by the Vietnamese in Cambodia. The Vietnamese Communists had been excellent at waging a guerilla war against the French and then the South Vietnamese and the Americans. Now, in Cambodia, they had to garrison Cambodian cities, towns, and villages against attacks by guerillas who were becoming increasingly well armed.

In November 1981, one of the leading figures in the pro-Vietnamese government in Cambodia, Prime Minister Pen Sovan, began to criticize the continued Vietnamese presence in Cambodia. On December 5 of that year he was removed and “disappeared” from public view, being taken to Hanoi where he was held under house arrest for the next 10 years. For many people it was evident that the Vietnamese wanted to exercise absolute control over the country, with Hun Sen, a pro-Vietnamese politician, rising to become prime minister in January 1985.

By the mid-1980s, the West started supporting a number of anticommunist resistance groups along the Thai-Cambodian border who waged a guerilla war against the Vietnamese, with clear support from Thailand. It also saw the five (and later six) countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations leading the international opposition to Vietnam’s actions in Cambodia, with Thailand still worried about being invaded. With Cambodian resistance groups attacking the Vietnamese and then retreating back into Thai territory when the Vietnamese counterattacked, every time the Vietnamese crossed the Thai-Cambodian border there were howls of protest in the West.

Large numbers of Vietnamese were also killed or injured in the war, with others moving to Cambodia, which engendered a further wave of Cambodian xenophobia in the 1990s. The Vietnamese pointed out that they had overthrown the Pol Pot government in Cambodia, which had presided over the death of about a million people, in a population of seven or eight million. Anti-Vietnamese rhetoric in the West, partially as a result of the war, however, ensured the continued international isolation of Vietnam. India was the only noncommunist country that recognized the pro-Vietnamese People’s Republic of Kampuchea. Most of the West, and also the United Nations, supported the anti-Vietnamese Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea, which controlled most of the refugee camps on the Thai-Cambodian border, and increasing amounts of territory in Cambodia itself.

The Vietnamese Government

Rather than trying to increase engagement with the rest of the world, in 1980, the Vietnamese National Assembly adopted the country’s third constitution. It was largely based on the Constitution of the Soviet Union and stated that the SRV would remain a one-party state and that the Communist Party had the role of representing the people and running the country.

During the early 1980s, the Vietnamese remained reliant on economic aid from the Soviet Union, receiving as much as $3 billion a year in Soviet subsidies. The Soviet Union was also generous in its friendship ties, and on July 23, 1980, Pham Tuan, a former North Vietnamese pilot during the Vietnam War, was launched into space on the Soyuz 37, along with a Soviet cosmonaut. He was not only the first Vietnamese to go into space, but also the first Asian; he spent 7 days, 20 hours, and 42 minutes in space. During his time there he was able to help with the servicing of the Salyut 6 space station, carry out experiments with plant cultivation, and photograph Vietnam for mapping. After his return to Vietnam, he entered politics and won a seat in the National Assembly.

While the Vietnamese government was facing international opprobrium for its actions in Cambodia, Nguyen Co Thach, the new Vietnamese foreign minister, appointed in 1980, embarked on a policy of engagement with the West. From a peasant family, Thach had fought at the battle of Dien Bien Phu and had been appointed as ambassador to India in 1956, later returning to work at the foreign ministry in Hanoi. He supported the overthrow of the Pol Pot government in Cambodia, but he recognized that the only way that Vietnam could prosper was by getting Western foreign aid, investment, and expertise. This would limit Vietnam’s almost total dependence on financial aide from the Soviet Union, and a settlement to the Cambodian conflict—the Vietnamese government maintained that their invasion in 1978–1979 was “irreversible”—would help the Vietnamese economy.

When Nguyen Co Thach and other Vietnamese government officials visited a number of overseas countries, they often ran into protests organized by Vietnamese exiles and their supporters. By the 1980s, there were a number of organizations established by these exiles with the aim of overthrowing the Vietnamese Communist government. Many wanted to pressure the governments in the countries in which they had settled, but a number were keen to launch an armed struggle against the Vietnamese government. Hoang Co Minh in the United States, a mathematician originally from Hanoi, had served as a vice admiral in the South Vietnamese navy. He returned to Vietnam in August 1987 to carry out attacks on the Vietnamese Communists and was killed during an ambush in Laos. Another anticommunist fighter, Vo Dai Ton, from Australia, was captured but later released after diplomatic pressure from overseas; and Le Quoc Tuy, from his exile in France, was arrested and died in a French prison. Because of their numbers, the Vietnamese community represents a strong voting bloc in parts of the United States, in some of Canada (especially Quebec), in several constituencies in France, and also in Australia. In many of these countries, discussion groups on the Vietnam War often led to fights between supporters and opponents of rival factions; and on Vietnamese festivals, many Vietnamese restaurants and other shops in the West still flew the South Vietnamese flag.

Vietnam joined the Soviet-led boycott of the Los Angeles Olympic Games, in response to the American boycott of the previous Moscow Olympics. In 1988, Vietnam sent a team to the Seoul Olympics, and Quoc Cuong Nguyen placed 13th of 32 shooters in the rapid-fire pistol event, the best result that any Vietnamese athlete had received up to that point.

Do Moi and the Liberalization of Vietnam

On July 9, 1986, the Le Duan, who had been general secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) for 10 years, died and was succeeded by Truong Chinh. Chinh was only a temporary replacement while the Vietnamese Communist hierarchy sought out a new leader. From December 15–19, 1986, the Sixth Party Congress of the CPV was held in Hanoi; and at the congress, Nguyen Van Linh was elected as the general secretary. At 73, he was only six years younger than the man he replaced, so it was not the generational change that many younger Vietnamese had expected.

Although Linh had been born in Hanoi, he grew up in South Vietnam and was first arrested by the French in 1930, when he was 16 years old. He served six years in prison for political offences, was released in the amnesty of 1936, and then moved to Haiphong where he took part in Communist operations, working alongside Le Duan. Arrested in 1941, he was held at Poulo Condore prison until his release in 1945, when he started work under Le Duan again organizing the Communist movement in Cochinchina. In 1961, he was appointed director of the Central Office for South Vietnam (COSVN) and then served under General Nguyen Chi Thanh and then Pham Hung in the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (NFL) and then the Provisional Revolutionary Government of the Republic of Vietnam (PRG) until 1975. Raised to the politburo in 1976, Linh was head of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) Committee for Ho Chi Minh City until he was sacked in 1978 for opposing and then refusing to carry out the socialization of the economy. In 1982, he had been removed from the politburo but managed to rebuild his support in Ho Chi Minh City, the socialization schemes having collapsed, and was reinstated to the politburo in 1985. Linh was an avid supporter of greater liberalization of the economy, hoping to transform the country into a market economy. With Nguyen Co Thach as foreign minister, Vietnam was set to change.

This change in thinking among the leadership of the Communist Party of Vietnam coincided with the rise to power of Mikhail Gorbachev who became general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in March 1985. Gorbachev introduced his policies of Glasnost (openness) and Perestroika (restructuring). The Communist Party of Vietnam was wary of the former but thought that the latter would help regenerate an otherwise stagnant economy. Some also possibly saw a time when Vietnam would no longer receive large subsidies from the Soviet Union.

The policy of greater liberalization of the economy, introduced in 1986, was named Doi Moi (Renovation) by the Sixth National Congress. It was similar to perestroika, but the CPV was anxious to show that it was distinctly Vietnamese. The main aim was to revitalize the economy of the country and build up its prosperity to help all the people of Vietnam. To achieve this goal, it had to restore levels of private ownership and let the farming sector sell excess production. This strategy had the immediate effect, as had a similar policy in China, of encouraging farmers to grow more food, the amount above the government quota being able to be sold at markets that quickly appeared throughout the country. It reinvigorated the capitalist spirit in the Vietnamese people and helped end any shortages of food that had existed during the late 1970s. Some outside observers claimed that the selling of excess food had been taking place on a large scale before the introduction of Doi Moi, and there is some truth in this; however legalizing the policy ensured its success.

Although the policy of Doi Moi did improve the economic basis of the country, the CPV was anxious to avoid any major political reforms that would erode the supremacy of the party organization. Party members were still preferred in government appointments, and there was certainly no question of allowing for the introduction of a multiparty system with free elections. As a result, overseas critics viewed Doi Moi as a method of entrenching communism in Vietnam, rather than any serious attempt to reform the country. The greater economic independence created by Doi Moi did allow for changes in the education system and also a flourishing of new literary and artistic talent, with many new songs being released and a large number of new novels being published. Some of these novelists such as Bao Ninh, Duong Thu Huong, and Nguyen Huy Thiep soon became internationally well known.

Bao Ninh, born in 1952 at Hanoi, had served during the Vietnam War as a member of the Glorious 27th Youth Brigade. When he went to war in 1969, he was one of 500 youths in the brigade; by the end of the war, he was one of only 10 who had survived. His book, The Sorrow of War, portrayed the bleak life of a North Vietnamese soldier during the war, coming to terms with the death of his friends, and the huge price that the nation paid for victory.

In spite of Doi Moi, however, the Vietnamese economy was still unable to grow, primarily because of little support from the West. As a result of the mounting cost of the war in Cambodia, as well as the continued opposition to Vietnam’s actions there, Vietnam finally withdrew the last of its soldiers in September 1989, an action that helped ease tensions in the region. The Vietnamese government had also closed down all of its major reeducation camps, although some South Vietnamese officials were still being held in detention into the 1990s, up to 20 years after the war. Former internees, the Amerasians, and the families of Vietnamese living overseas were gradually allowed to emigrate under a number of refugee programs and family migration schemes. Many moved to the United States, with increasing numbers settling in Australia and other countries in the Pacific.