A Short History of Southeast Asia: Vietnam


1990: Collapse of USSR and loss of foreign aid propel further economic change towards a free enterprise economy

1986: Policy of "doi moi" [renovation] adopted and period of overhaul of political and economic systems begins

1978: Invasion of Cambodia leads to attacks on northern borders by China

1975: RVN falls, Vietnam unified and refugees flee country

1973: Paris Peace Agreements signed

1960's: "Vietcong" control over much of the south leads to United States increasing aid and troops are sent to support RVN

1954: Vietnam partitioned - Democratic Republic of Vietnam [DRV] in the north and Republic of Vietnam [RVN] in the south

1946-54: Indochina War between French in the south and Vietminh in the north

1859-85: French gradually acquire all of country and later establish "French Indochina" with Cambodia and Lao

1802-14: United Vietnam under Emperor Gia Long

17th century: Country split into two clans - Trinh in the north and Nguyen in the south

11th-17th centuries: Acquires central part of the country from the Kingdom of Champa and Mekong delta from the Khmers

939: Vietnamese State re-established

618-907: The T'ang dynasty terms the country Annam - "the pacified South"


The Vietnamese were ruled by the Chinese for over a thousand years, from the 2nd century B.C. until the 10th century A.D. After winning their independence the Vietnamese continued looking to China as their cultural model, their prime source of concepts of government, social organisation and the arts. Culturally, Vietnam thus belonged to the ‘Confucian’ world of East Asia. This distinguished it sharply from neighbouring states with Theravada Buddhist or Islamic cultures. The difference in cultural outlook between Vietnam and her Southeast Asian neighbours has long contributed to conflict in the region.

But the Vietnamese regard for China also made for conflict within Vietnam itself. It proved difficult to reconcile with another Vietnamese impulse – to protect their distinctive character as a people, upholding uniquely Vietnamese cultural traditions. To adopt or to resist Chinese ideas became a perennial source of social and cultural stress within Vietnam’s ruling class, and also between the ruling class and the people.

The Vietnamese state was an expanding one, intensifying such cultural stresses. The expansion – known as the ‘march to the south’ though it took 700 years – eased the country’s population pressures and made Vietnam a major power in Southeast Asia, but it also bred deep regional differences and rivalries within Vietnamese society. 19th century Vietnam proved in poor shape to face the challenges posed by the West’s political, economic and cultural expansion.

The Western impact, in the shape of French colonial rule and subsequent American intervention, aggravated the historic tensions and also cut bitter new divisions in Vietnamese society. Communism in Vietnam, as in China, won wide popular support with its promise not only of national independence but of a reintegrated and just society. As in China, communism in Vietnam now drifts uncertainly, though most observers are optimistic about Vietnam’s future as a state under Communist Party control but with a free enterprise economy.

Early History

The earliest Vietnamese state occupied only the Red River Delta, today the heart of northern Vietnam. In the 2nd century B.C. this state was absorbed into the empire of Han dynasty China, the Chinese calling it Nan-yueh or Nan-viet. Thus began over 1,000 years of Chinese rule, during which the Vietnamese became familiar with Chinese political and social institutions, the Chinese writing system and Chinese learning and arts.

They were also influenced by the Mahayana forms of Buddhism then flourishing in East Asia, another factor which would set them apart from their neighbours in Southeast Asia where Hinduism and subsequently Theravada Buddhism flourished. Mahayana Buddhism tended to blend with Confucian and Taoist thought and, in Vietnam, with local popular religious folklore and spirit beliefs. It never developed the strong institutional networks of temples and monasteries which gave considerable political strength to Theravada Buddhism.

The high water mark of Chinese influence upon the Vietnamese was probably reached during the T’ang dynasty (61–907 A.D.), whose rulers termed the country of the Vietnamese, An-nan, or Annam – ‘the pacified South’. The Vietnamese, however, never lost their sense of separate identity. In 939 A.D. they took advantage of political disorder in China to seize their independence and re-establish a Vietnamese state. In later centuries the Chinese attempted on several occasions to reassert their authority – leading to a Vietnamese perception of themselves as a permanently threatened nation – but they were successfully resisted. The early Ming did manage to take and hold Vietnam for twenty years, 1407–1428, but were ousted by forces led by one of Vietnam’s greatest heroes Le Loi, founder of the Le dynasty, 1428–1789.

The history of Vietnam after independence in the 10th century would be marked by two principal, and conflict-provoking, tendencies. Firstly, the development of a Confucian state and high culture modelled on China. By the 15th century, Vietnam had a system of government similar in all but size to that of its mighty northern neighbour. The Vietnamese emperor, at the capital Hanoi, presided over a mandarin bureaucracy educated in the Confucian classics. Law, administrative structures, literature and the arts all followed Chinese forms. The educated class also tended to prefer to use Chinese rather than the Vietnamese language. In theory the adoption of the Confucian model of social organisation should have conferred enlightened government on Vietnam. In practice it produced a ruling class culturally alienated from their subjects. This problem was compounded by the grip on the country’s commercial life maintained by Chinese merchants allied with the Vietnamese ruling class.

Nevertheless, popular Vietnamese culture absorbed many attitudes and values of Chinese derivation, through acceptance of codes of law and morality promulgated by government and spread by scholars. Thus ordinary Vietnamese displayed such characteristically ‘Confucian’ traits as respect for hierarchy, emphasis on an individual’s social obligations, intense family loyalty and reverence for education and scholarship. Even so, Vietnamese popular culture always remained self-consciously distinct, hostile to China and wary of the country’s Sinophile upper class.

The second main tendency in the history of Vietnam after gaining independence from China was southward expansion, and this would compound the cultural tensions. Military in organisation, the expansion was driven basically by the need to find farming land for a growing population. Between the 11th and 17th centuries it gradually extinguished the kingdom of Champa, in what is today central Vietnam. It then took the Mekong Delta from the Khmers, and during the 19th century would probably have overwhelmed the whole of Cambodia, had not the Thais challenged the Vietnamese advance and the French brought it to a halt by establishing a ‘protectorate’ over Cambodia in 1863. One can see here some of the seeds which have led to anti-Vietnamese feelings in Cambodia which are strongly sown today by the Khmer Rouge.

The ‘march to the south’ allowed rival power blocs to develop within Vietnamese society. The 16th century saw intermittent civil war in Vietnam. In the 17th century the country was split between two powerful clans, the Trinh in the north and the Nguyen in the south. The frontier established between them was only a few kilometres from the site of the demilitarised zone which would separate North and South Vietnam between 1954 and 1975. In the 17th and 18th centuries the Nguyen rulers in the south became responsible for the country’s continued expansion.

The cultural differences between northerners and southerners popularly recognised in modern Vietnam may have their origins in the ‘march to the south’. The circumstances of the ‘frontier’ southerners contrasted with those of ‘stay-at-home’ northerners. In the south settler families were thrown on their own resources, in a tropical environment unlike that of the temperate north. Deference towards officialdom declined. Village organisation of economic and administrative matters – elaborate in the north – also declined in the south. On the southern frontier facilities for the reinforcement of Confucian culture were virtually non-existent.

At the same time the southern settlers were encountering alternative ideas, particularly religious concepts, in the cultures of the Chams and Khmers and also upland tribal (or montagnard) groups. Here, perhaps, were the beginnings of the cultural dichotomies popularly perceived today. Northerners are noted for their conservatism, deference to the group, reserved manners and respect for the intellectual life; southerners for their outgoing approach to life, free-wheeling attitudes toward authority, outspoken manners and eclectic religious life.

Whatever the developing differences the Vietnamese perception of themselves as basically one people remained unquestioned. This was dramatically demonstrated in the Tay Son Rebellion which broke out in Vietnam in 1771. A vast ‘revolution from below’, the rebellion swept away the Nguyen and Trinh regimes which had divided Vietnam, and also the long since nominal Le imperial dynasty.

The rebels also repelled a Chinese invasion, and turned on Chinese merchants in Vietnam. They faltered only when faced with the task of practical government. A member of the southern Nguyen clan, Nguyen Anh, raised forces and by 1802 managed to subdue the rebel forces. He became the emperor Gia Long, first of Vietnam’s Nguyen emperors and the first ruler to preside over a united Vietnam for more than two centuries.

The 19th century Confucian revival

Emperor from 1802 to 1820, Gia Long recognised what an administrative and defence nightmare Vietnam’s geography had become by the early 19th century – two fertile deltas 1,000 kilometres apart, connected by a narrow coastal corridor. Ignoring Hanoi (and thus incurring northerner resentment) he established his capital in the centre of the country at Hue. There he built a palace complex that was a scaled down replica of Peking’s Forbidden City. The symbolism was appropriate – Gia Long and his son Minh Mang (emperor 1820 –1841) would attempt to establish in Vietnam the most thorough copy yet seen of Chinese administrative concepts and methods. Honourably intentioned, the attempt would prove a disaster.

From the 1830s onwards rebellion flared frequently in protest at the level of bureaucratic intervention in daily life, the rigidities and absurdities of mandarinal decrees and, above all, at the level of taxation demanded by the system. The renewed concern with Confucian models also diminished the ability of the Nguyen imperial government to deal realistically with the growing challenges from the West. Some members of the Vietnamese scholar class recognised the need to study the West, but they were in the minority. Disastrously, Emperor Minh Mang and his successors (Thieu Tri, emperor 1841–1847, and Tu Duc, emperor 1847–1883) chose to confront and repress the religion of the West, Christianity.

French Catholic missionaries had been active in Vietnam since the mid-17th century. They had helped Gia Long defeat the Tay Son rebels and establish his imperial dynasty, assisting him with men and resources. By the mid-19th century there were an estimated 450,000 Catholic converts in Vietnam. Vietnamese government had always been wary of organised religion in any form, as a potential threat to Confucian authority, and now Christianity seemed a serious challenge. In successive campaigns of repression, thousands of Christians and their priests were killed and Christian villages were levelled. The persecutions shocked Catholics in France, and unwittingly provided a pretext for French intervention in Vietnam.

Colonial history

In 1859 a French naval expedition seized Saigon, following an unsuccessful attempt on the then more significant port of Da Nang, which was close to Hue. Emperor Tu Duc faced rebellion in the north and in 1862 conceded to the French, who gained by treaty, Saigon and its three surrounding provinces. In 1869 the French seized three further adjoining provinces, thus completing the territory of the colony they would call Cochin China.

The French conquered the remainder of Vietnam between 1883 and 1885, in the course of a complicated conflict in the country’s north. The north had collapsed in chaos fomented by both Vietnamese and expatriate Chinese rebels. The Vietnamese imperial government had lost all capacity to control events. Both China and France regarded Vietnam as their ‘sphere of influence’ and sent forces; the French eventually repelling the Chinese.

The French then declared ‘protectorates’ over northern Vietnam (Tonkin) and central Vietnam (Annam), where they would retain a line of ‘puppet’ Nguyen emperors until Bao Dai, emperor 1926–1945 and later nominal ‘chief of state’ from 1949 to 1956. In 1885 some Vietnamese mandarins, outraged at the French intrusion, organised a resistance movement called Can Vuong (‘Aid the King’), which would persist for several years, but after its pacification the French would rule relatively securely until 1940.

French colonial rule would bring many elements of modernity to the country, amongst them handsome cities, sewered and lit by electricity, the Saigon-Hanoi railway, modern port facilities, a network of metalled roads, and modern education and medicine for those – a small minority – who could afford them. The French also vastly expanded Vietnam’s rice output and linked Vietnam into the world economy on the basis of exports of rice and, to a lesser extent, rubber and other products. Colonialism’s most significant impact, however, was to increase divisiveness in Vietnam – administratively, economically and socially.

Administratively, ‘Vietnam’ disappeared off the map, outraging Vietnamese nationalists and enhancing regionalist tendencies, the country being divided into Cochin China (administrative centre Saigon), Annam (Hue) and Tonkin (Hanoi). The three segments became parts of ‘French Indochina’ along with Cambodia and Lao. Differing approaches to administration north and south also enhanced regionalism. Cochin China, constitutionally a French colony, experienced French administrators and French legal forms. Saigon became the leading and most westernised city of Indochina, an alluring showpiece of modern fashions and culture. In the ‘protectorates’ Tonkin and Annam, by contrast, the French endeavoured to retain indigenous administrative and legal systems, if only for the sake of cheapness. Hanoi and HuĂ© remained much quieter places than Saigon.

Colonial economic policies also pulled the country apart, though the fundamental reasons for this lay in the circumstances inherited by the French. In Vietnam’s north the French found a ready-made economic crisis – a densely crowded population dependent on subsistence rice agriculture. By 1929 the average population density in the Tonkin Delta countryside would be 975 per square kilometre. Most families held inadequately small plots and were in debt; the whole system depended on an elaborate but ancient and dilapidated complex of irrigation dykes.

The French were unwilling to industrialise in Vietnam – industry was for metropolitan France, not for her colonies – and thus had no fundamental answers to these problems. By the 1930s only about 120,000 people were classified as industrial workers in Vietnam, many of these being miners in the north’s coal, zinc and tin mines. Some northerners moved to the south’s rubber plantations as indentured labour, often in scandalously exploitative conditions, but this labour traffic had little impact on the north’s basic economic problems.

In contrast, Cochin China was the success story of French colonialism. When French rule began the Mekong Delta was still relatively lightly populated. Much delta land was still unharnessed swamp. From the 1870s water control and irrigation programs made available vast new areas of farming land. Later the French would boast that they had boosted Vietnam’s rice lands by 420 per cent. The development of the Mekong Delta enabled Vietnam to become by the 1920s one of the world’s leading rice exporters, although the absolute primacy of rice – accounting for over 70 per cent of colonial Vietnam’s exports – made the economy a precariously unbalanced one. It was also debatable, ironically, whether the southern farmers were much better off than their northern cousins. Most southerners became sharecroppers on the vast estates created out of the reclaimed lands; as such they enjoyed little security or prosperity.

Vietnamese histories recall, with horror, French taxation policies, claiming that the Vietnamese were the most highly taxed people in the colonial world. That is debatable, but French defence, administrative and public works costs were high and so therefore were their taxes. The promotion of a government opium monopoly, as late as the 1930s, is remembered with particular distaste. Other imposts included a poll tax and taxes on alcohol and salt.

Culture and politics in colonial Vietnam

Socially and culturally, colonial Vietnam was a place of ferment. The collapse of Confucian government and the triumph of the ‘barbarian’ West had thrown all traditional Vietnamese beliefs and values into question. The Vietnamese upper and middle classes were small in numbers, but they pursued modern (as against Confucian) education avidly, and more than made up for their small numbers with the intensity of their debates on the way forward for Vietnam.

Here too divisiveness grew. Some opted for various Western models of thought and behaviour. Others looked to China for ways of reconstructing a shattered Confucian world (but found only conflict there too). Still others looked to Japan. By the 1920s, however, the Vietnamese intelligentsia reached consensus on the adoption of quoc ngu, a relatively simple Romanised written form of Vietnamese invented by French missionaries, in preference to the traditional but cumbersome Chinese-style characters (Chu Nom). Quoc ngu helped the growth of an impressive modern Vietnamese literary culture, and the production of popularly accessible newspapers and political literature.

Even so, Vietnamese political enthusiasts made little popular headway before World War II. The moderates of the Constitutionalist Party, who favoured gradual development of democratic structures, were considered too pro-French by most Vietnamese, and in any case the French were dismissive of their plans.

Some radical-thinking Vietnamese established in 1927 a party imitating China’s Kuomintang, the VNQDD (Viet Nam Quoc Dan Dang). However their numbers were decimated following an abortive uprising in 1930. In the same year some young Vietnamese attracted to Marx and Lenin founded the Indochina Communist Party (ICP), but they also became targets of French surveillance and unusually severe repression, although they were able to operate semi-openly in Cochin China during the Popular Front era in French government, between 1936 and 1939. They were embarrassed, however, by the policy twists and turns in their orders from Stalin’s Comintern, and many Vietnamese left-wingers turned to Trotskyism. The extent of either Marxist group’s popular appeal in Vietnam in the 1930s is debatable. The ICP’s achievements before World War II are probably exaggerated by modern official histories, though certainly not the courage and determination of its pioneer members.

In Vietnam the most imposing popular movements before World War II, in terms of numbers, were in fact religious movements. Cao Dai, a sect founded in the south in 1925 and claiming to harmonise the East and the West and unique Vietnamese traditions, had over 1 million adherents by the late 1930s.

A Buddhist sect, Hoa Hao, was also attracting large numbers in the south by that time. Christianity had also grown in Vietnam, by the 1930s claiming around 10 per cent of the population (then about 30 million). These and other flourishing religious movements would pose problems for Vietnamese nationalism after World War II.

World War II and the First Indochina War, 1940–1954

Japanese forces entered French Indochina in 1940 and quickly reached an agreement with the colonial government similar to that reached in France between Japan’s ally Nazi Germany and the Vichy regime. Thus French colonial authority survived – but only until March 1945, when the Japanese interned all French in Indochina. The Japanese then set up a nominal Vietnamese government under the emperor Bao Dai and other dignitaries.

By early 1945 Vietnam was sliding towards chaos. The wartime disruptions to the economy, Japanese seizures of rice and other goods, plus disastrous weather which wrecked two successive harvests combined to produce famine in Tonkin and Annam. The famine’s death toll possibly exceeded 1 million when war ended precipitously on 15th August, producing effectively a power vacuum in Vietnam. The stage was set for the ‘August Revolution’ of the Vietminh.

The Vietminh (Viet Nam Doc Lap Dong Minh: League for the Independence of Vietnam) had been set up in 1941 as a front organisation of the ICP, whose leadership was then gathered at Pac Bo, an isolated spot high in the mountains on the Sino-Vietnamese border. Here they had been joined by Ho Chi Minh, now in his fifties and back in Vietnam for the first time since 1911, although as Comintern agent for Southeast Asia in the late 1920s and 1930s he had maintained intermittent contact with Vietnam’s communists.

Henceforth, Ho would be free of control from Moscow and in Vietnam would cut his own revolutionary path, though he would always try to maintain good relations with both Soviet and Chinese communists, if only for the aid they might offer him. In Vietnam Ho would prove to be a brilliant if devious revolutionary tactician, a skilled leader of the many talented young Vietnamese attracted to communism, and also a hugely popular political leader, speaking and writing in terms that moved and exhilarated large numbers of his countrymen and women.

During the war the Vietminh developed a strategy for its cadres and guerrilla forces to seize power at the war’s end, when Vietnam could expect to be in disarray – as indeed happened. Within days of the Japanese surrender Vietminh forces (under the banner of national independence rather than socialism) took control of most of northern and central Vietnam. They were less successful in the south where Vietminh organisers were recognised as ICP members and found themselves opposed by political, business and religious forces. Nevertheless on September 2nd in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam’s reunification and independence.

Vietnam’s fate was to remain divided, however. In the north the Allies had appointed Chinese nationalist forces to relieve the Japanese. The Chinese occupied the north until May 1946, and, crucially, left the French there interned while tolerating Ho Chi Minh’s government, thus enabling it to consolidate its power. By contrast, in southern Vietnam the Japanese were relieved by British Indian troops.

Their commander, dismayed at the political mayhem in Saigon, released and rearmed the French. By late 1945 French forces again controlled southern Vietnam. During 1946 Ho’s government anxiously negotiated with the French, buying time as both sides prepared for war, which finally broke out in December 1946.

The French, fighting a conventional war, appeared by early 1947 to have all strategic positions in Vietnam under their control. The Vietminh, however, had settled down to an underground ‘people’s war’, organising and educating the population to support a possibly long guerrilla campaign. The war’s turning point came in 1950, when first the new communist government of China and then the USSR began to assist the Vietminh with arms and other material. International communist support for the Vietminh precipitated direct United States aid for the French war effort, but by the early 1950s the French were beginning to weary of the inconclusive conflict. The fall of the French garrison at Dien Bien Phu in May 1954 – a brilliant victory for the Vietminh’s military strategist Vo Nguyen Giap – effectively signalled the end of France’s attempt to hold Vietnam.

Vietnam Partitioned and the Vietnam War, 1954–1975

As Dien Bien Phu fell, the great powers were meeting at Geneva to seek a settlement of the war. The result was a ceasefire and partition of Vietnam at the 17th parallel. The North, to be known as the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV), would be governed by Ho Chi Minh and his group, who since 1950 had emerged as unequivocal communists, dedicated not only to national independence but to socialist revolution. The South would be headed by Bao Dai, who had abdicated as emperor in 1945 but became nominal ‘chief of state’ under the French in 1949. Ho’s victorious forces settled for partition presumably because the Geneva conference had also heralded elections in 1956, to establish government for a reunited Vietnam. As national heroes they were confident of winning such elections.

The elections never took place. France withdrew from Vietnam and the United States backed Ngo Dinh Diem, a Catholic and staunch anti-communist, as Prime Minister under Bao Dai. With American aid, Diem suppressed or bought off rival southern anti-communist leaders and their disparate followings. In 1955 Diem won a referendum to determine whether he or Bao Dai should head the South. Bao Dai left Vietnam and Diem declared himself President of the Republic of Vietnam (RVN). With American support Diem refused to discuss the proposed nationwide elections.

In the North the DRV government, appealing to long-cherished community values, pressed ahead with socialisation, including collectivisation of agriculture. Those deemed ‘capitalists’ and ‘rich peasants’ suffered, sometimes brutally, but the majority poor seem to have accepted socialism’s promises. Popular support for Ho Chi Minh’s government remained enormously high.

By contrast Diem was never to be genuinely popular in the politically and religiously fragmented South, except perhaps amongst his fellow Catholics (almost 1 million northern Catholics were shipped south by the U.S. navy in 1954). Diem, as indifferent to economics as he was to democracy, offered little hope to the southern poor, and spent most of his U.S. aid on his security forces, which were under the command of his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu. Other members of his avaricious family also provoked resentment.

In 1959 the DRV government, observing the build-up of popular opposition towards Diem the ‘American puppet’, sponsored a new Vietminh-style front organisation for the South. This was the NLF (National Liberation Front – called ‘Vietcong’ by its opponents). Coy about its degree of control by communists, the NLF appealed to Vietnamese patriotism and morality, promising to oust American influence and to set up fair and honest government.

By the early 1960s NLF guerrilla forces were in command of wide areas of the southern countryside, and had won sympathisers at all levels of society. Alarmed, United States President Kennedy stepped up aid to Diem and sent American military ‘advisers’ – 17,500 by 1963. By mid-1963, however, Diem and his brother Nhu had antagonised almost every sector of Southern society. The world was startled when Buddhist monks began burning themselves to death in protest against the regime. Plotters within South Vietnam’s military concluded that Diem and Nhu had to go, and in October 1963 they were murdered.

Four years of unstable government would follow in South Vietnam, until in 1967 General Nguyen Van Thieu would emerge as President. A skillful manipulator of the vast patronage which American aid made possible, Thieu would remain President until 1975. But meanwhile in the United States Kennedy’s successor Johnson had decided to confront the NLF directly with United States power. In early 1965 the United States Air Force began bombing targets in both South and North Vietnam and United States ground troops landed in the South. What came to be called ‘the Vietnam War’ was now unequivocally under way.

A process of ‘escalation’ followed: China, the USSR and the Eastern Bloc raised their aid to the DRV, which raised its commitment of material and men to the NLF. In turn, the United States raised the stakes further, to a peak of 525,000 troops by 1967. The United States received some support from Australia, New Zealand and some anti-communist Asian governments, but its major allies stayed aloof from the conflict.

In 1968 at Tet, the lunar new year, NLF/DRV forces launched a massive offensive throughout the South. The offensive was repelled, but its strength shocked both the Johnson administration and the American public, which had been led to believe that the war was being won.

Richard Nixon, elected President in 1968, and his special adviser Henry Kissinger, had to find alternative strategies to ‘escalation’. They pursued ‘Vietnamisation’ of the war, reducing United States troop levels and encouraging the South with ever-increasing aid to increase its levels. By 1973 the South’s armed forces numbered over one million; half the South’s men between the ages of 18 and 35 were in the armed forces.

The Nixon/Kissinger strategies also included increased aerial warfare. American bombing of both North and South and also of Cambodia wreaked social, economic and ecological devastation. By the war’s end 60 per cent of southern villages would be destroyed or rendered unsafe; only 35 per cent of an essentially peasant population would still live in rural areas. However the bombing never proved decisive to the course of the war. It even failed to interdict the legendary Ho Chi Minh Trail, the network of mountainous trails down which the DRV supplied its war effort in the South. Some American opinion consistently urged the expansion of the ground war into the North, but neither Johnson nor Nixon were ever willing to take that course, fearing that it might precipitate full scale American confrontation with the USSR and China – the dreaded World War III. Thus the DRV, despite the bombing, always remained a secure base for the DRV/NLF war effort in the South.

Meanwhile, Nixon and Kissinger also pursued diplomacy. Talks between United States and DRV/NLF representatives had begun in Paris in 1968. For years they dragged on inconclusively, but in January 1973 the ‘Paris Peace Agreements’ were signed by the United States, the Saigon government (reluctantly, under intense United States pressure), the DRV and the PRG (the Provisional Revolutionary Government of the NLF).

Crucially for the DRV/NLF, the first article of the agreements recognised the ‘independence, sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity’ of Vietnam. Other articles called for a ceasefire, at which point the contending Vietnamese forces could claim whatever territory they held in the South, pending elections to determine the South’s future government. The agreements also called for the total withdrawal of United States troops and military personnel within 60 days. This article proved in fact to be the only one of the Paris agreements which was fully carried out. The American boys went home, but in South Vietnam war continued unabated.

The morale of the Southern forces began to slide, particularly after Nixon’s resignation in August 1974 over the Watergate scandal. His successor as President, Gerald Ford, had little influence over a Congress now disillusioned with the war and reluctant to sustain United States aid to the Saigon regime. In contrast, the DRV/NLF forces, legitimately ensconced in the South under the Paris agreements, were increasingly confident that victory was in sight. Guerrilla war had long since given way to conventional military tactics. By now the amount and sophisticated nature of their weaponry, supplied by their allies, matched that of the Southern forces.

Even so, the speed with which the war ended stunned both sides. DRV/NLF forces launched a limited offensive in the South’s central highlands in mid-March 1975. RVN forces panicked when ordered to retreat, creating a country-wide rout which was slowed by Southern detachments in only a handful of places. The Southern government collapsed, and DRV/NLF forces entered Saigon on 30th April. The last Americans remaining in South Vietnam had been evacuated just hours before, along with some leading Southerners closely identified with the American presence.

Vietnam Since 1975

The major question in April 1975 concerned the speed with which Vietnam would be reintegrated. Since the 1950s the historic differences between north and south had been hugely magnified. The northerners had existed under an austere, disciplined socialism which re-emphasised their traditional regard for social hierarchy and community obligation. The southerners had been introduced to a quasi-capitalist consumer economy, sustained by American aid, and to the trappings of American popular culture.

In 1975 the victorious DRV government revealed a profound distrust of even pro-communist southerners, and moved swiftly to subordinate the south. The NLF and its provisional government were disbanded, and administrative control was imposed directly from Hanoi. In 1976 the country was renamed the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV), though in practice it was a ‘greater DRV’, dominated by northerners. In the same year plans for the collectivisation of southern agriculture were announced; socialisation of the south’s entire economy, integrating it with the northern economy, proceeded swiftly over the next two years.

Heady from their military triumphs perhaps, Vietnam’s leaders envisaged equally dramatic results from their decisive action in the economic sphere. Instead they engendered acute economic crisis, made worse by flood and other natural disasters in 1977 and 1978. Ambitious industrial targets failed to be achieved; most seriously, rice and other agricultural outputs plummeted and food rations had to be slashed.

In late 1978 Vietnam invaded Cambodia and ousted the socialist genocidal and virulently anti-Vietnamese Pol Pot regime. In retaliation China attacked Vietnam’s northern frontier zone. Traditional regional antagonisms and rivalries had quickly reasserted themselves over the apparent international socialist comradeship of the years before 1975. In Vietnam these hostilities exacerbated the domestic crisis. In the early 1980s many Chinese and Sino-Vietnamese fled Vietnam, either to China or as ‘boat people’ to overseas countries, sharply boosting the statistics on people fleeing Vietnam since 1975.

The scale of the economic crisis forced some softening of policy as early as 1979, but hardline neo-Stalinist opinion essentially prevailed within Vietnam’s ruling group until 1985, when Gorbachev’s reforms in the USSR heartened reformers in Vietnam. In 1986 the Sixth National Congress of the Vietnam Communist Party formally approved the policy of doi moi, or renovation.

Politically, doi moi has meant the emergence of a new, younger leadership, the streamlining (relatively) of the country’s administrative apparatus, reforms in the Party’s structure, and moves towards the rule of law, answerable government and greater freedom of expression. Economic change has gone much further than political reform, propelled by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc’s abandonment of socialism, which in practical terms has meant the loss to Vietnam of aid which accounted for up to 30 per cent of the state budget.

China’s example has also been a major if unacknowledged factor in determining Vietnamese policy. Like China, Vietnam is now a hybrid, a state under one-party control, in theory socialist, but with a booming free enterprise economy alongside faltering state enterprises.

As with China some analysts question the long term stability of such a system. Free enterprise economic activity is perhaps intrinsically pluralist. In Vietnam the historically more pluralist south has shot ahead of the north economically since doi moi. Some are worried the country’s pull-apart tendencies could re-emerge. On the other hand, Vietnam’s current rulers are firmly in command as the rightful heirs of the socialist patriots who overcame France and the United States and reunited the fatherland.

The challenge they face is not at present to their power, but to their capacity to persist with doi moi, to see through the myriad social and cultural, as well as economic and political, changes demanded by doi moi, and in the process to maintain stability in a country where stability has rarely been experienced.

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About this edition:

This is the complete text of the 2nd edition of the book. Short History of South East AsiaThe first edition of "Focus on Southeast Asia" was published in 1997 and the second edition, which was renamed "A Short History of South East Asia", was published in 1999. With so much change taking place in South East Asia over the last few years we recently decided to update the book and a fifth edition was published by John Wiley and Sons (www.wiley.com) in 2009. The cover set out is of the fifth edition.

The 5th edition of "A Short History of South East Asia" is available to purchase from Amazon, as both an e-book and a paperback, and via its publisher, Wiley.


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