The Effects of War on Vietnam

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Key objectives
To be able to explain:

  • The short and long-term consequences of the Vietnam War on the people of Vietnam.

Key concepts, institutions and personalities

  • Scorched earth tactics
  • Agent Orange
  • Economic impact
  • Demographic impact
  • Social impact
  • Genetic and environmental impact

Key developments

  • In demographic terms, an estimated 4 million Vietnamese were killed or wounded on both sides of the conflict, including as many as 1.3 million civilians, much of which was due to US bombing. Similar numbers were left homeless, creating a vast refugee crisis in the South as peasants fled the destroyed rural environment and vainly sought safety and economic security in the vastly overcrowded cities.
  • The economic impact of the Vietnam War was primarily caused by the US commitment to a scorched earth policy to combat the enemy’s guerrilla tactics.
  • The combination of the bombing and the spraying of chemicals destroyed nearly half the crops in South Vietnam. In the short term, the damage done to the Vietnamese economy was huge:
    • Before the war, the country had been one of the largest exporters of rice in the world. But during the war, the loss of crops forced South Vietnam to import one million tons of rice each year. Much of this rice came from the United States. Despite the U.S. aid, however, hunger and starvation were common among rural people.
    • 8 million tonnes of bombs were dropped on Vietnam between 1965 and 1973, more than three times the amount dropped throughout the whole of the second World War, working out at 300 tones per every man, woman and child living in Vietnam.
    • Air Force planes sprayed 18 million gallons of herbicide containing dioxins [toxic chemicals] on some six million acres—around one-seventh of South Vietnam’s total land area, and a much higher proportion of its most fertile cropland and richest forests. An additional 1,200 square miles of territory were bulldozed flat, stripped of all life.
    • Senator Gaylord Nelson stated in 1972. “Our program of defoliation, carpet bombing with B-52s, and bulldozing . . . did not protect our soldiers or defeat the enemy, and it has done far greater damage to our ally than to the enemy.”
    • The bombing damaged the economic infrastructure of the country, destroying dams and canals, creating huge craters in rice paddies and hillsides. By the end of the war there was an estimated 21 million bomb craters in Vietnam.
  • The social impact of the American war and the presence of the US army in Vietnam was enormous. As rural livelihoods were destroyed by the war it became dependent upon American consumption and aid.
    • Vietnamese civilians increasingly became involved in crime – drugs and prostitution in order to make a living
    • When the US army left it took some 300,000 jobs and billions of dollars worth of aid with it.
    • “Saigon was an addicted city, and we were the drug,” James Fenton wrote. “The corruption of children, the mutilation of young men, the prostitution of women, the humiliation of the old, the division of the family, the division of the country—it had all been done in our name.”
  • In the longer term, the effects of Agent Orange are still felt at a genetic and environmental level in the form of birth defects and cancers throughout the rural population of Vietnam. Many of the tropical forests have still not recovered.

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