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Vietnam Modern History

Vietnam gained full independence from France in 1954 while dividing it into a western-supported state in the south and a communist state in the north. During the 1960s, the fighting intensified and the United States became increasingly involved. When the war ended in 1975, the Communist guerrilla and Hanoi were victorious and all of Vietnam became a Communist state. Several millions of people had been killed and the destruction was great. In the 1980s, reforms were launched that opened up the economy and contributed to rapid growth and reduced poverty.

After World War II, the victorious forces agreed that the area north of the 17th latitude (cutting through the country just north of the city of Hué) in Vietnam would continue to be occupied by nationalist Chinese troops, who had been allies of the Western powers, while the British would occupy the area south of it. With British help, France regained its foothold in southern Vietnam.

  • ABBREVIATIONFINDER: List of most commonly used acronyms containing Vietnam. Also includes historical, economical and political aspects of the country.

For historical reasons, a Chinese occupation was unthinkable for the Vietnamese. To get rid of the Chinese, Communist leader Ho Chi Minh (see Older history) agreed that the French were allowed to return to the northern part of the country for five years, against which Vietnam in return was recognized as an independent state in the French Empire.

After general elections in January 1946, the communist Viet Minh government was formed. Relations with the French were tense and war broke out in November. The conflict became one of the first expressions of the Cold War, which set the Western powers against the Soviet Union and its allies. The Chinese Communists joined forces behind Viet Minh and the United States supported the French.

The French empire is falling

Contemporary History of VietnamViet Minh had taken control of most of northern Vietnam in 1953. Through the victory at the Dien Bien Phu base in May 1954, Viet Minh ended the French Empire. The so-called Indochina War had claimed around half a million people's lives.

The day after the French capitulation, an international conference on the future of Vietnam was launched in Geneva. It was now decided that Vietnam would be provisionally divided along the 17th latitude. The Communists would rule in the north and a French government in the south. General elections aimed at reunification would be held in July 1956. For 300 days, people would be allowed to move freely across the border. Over 100,000 people moved north and upwards of a million - most Catholics - to the south.

In the south, US-backed Catholic Ngo Dinh Diem took power in October 1955, after which armed resistance broke out. His regime developed into a dictatorship and the promised election in 1956 was never carried out. Resistance to the regime grew strongly among Buddhists, while communists increased military pressure against Diem. At the initiative of North Vietnam, the 1960 National Liberation Front (FNL) was formed in southern Vietnam.

Following the division of the country, two systems emerged: in the south a private capitalist war economy, backed by US dollars, in the north a socialist centrally controlled planning economy based on heavy industry and low-productivity collective agriculture.

Increased US presence

Under considerable resistance, the communists in the north began to implement land reform and try to eradicate the old landowner class. From 1960, the emphasis was on gradually forming cooperatives in agriculture. The small industry that existed had the French destroyed at the 1954 retreat and a slow reconstruction began with the help of the Soviet Union and China.

The first US military had come to Vietnam in 1950 as an adviser to the French. Faced with the threat of a communist takeover of power in the South, US President John Kennedy from 1961 increased the US presence. The Diem regime began in 1962 to rally the rural population in enclosed and guarded "strategic villages" to isolate guerrillas, which quickly increased resistance. Through his ruthless policies, Diem became uncomfortable even for the United States and in 1963 he was assassinated in a US-backed coup. After a few more military coups, General Nguyen Van Thieu became president in 1965.

The war went bad for the South Vietnamese army and US new president Lyndon Johnson wanted to send combat allies in support, but Congress had opposed it. However, after a North Vietnamese attack on two US warships in the Gulf of Tonkin in August 1964, Congress gave Johnson free hands. It was later revealed that the vessels were located on North Vietnamese waters on espionage missions and that the congressional resolution had been completed for several months, pending submission at the appropriate time. The events of 1964 are usually called the Tonkin intermezzot.

The Têt offensive is fought back

The American force increased rapidly, and in March 1968 amounted to over half a million men. The war hardened and North Vietnamese strengthened the FNL, while Soviet and Chinese support for the guerrillas increased. To isolate the FNL, the US began bombing North Vietnam in 1965, which seriously brought Hanoi into the war.

In South Vietnam, the United States tried to crush the FNL by destroying guerrilla-controlled areas, including through chemical warfare. Nevertheless, in early 1968, FNL and North Vietnamese troops were able to conquer a large number of cities across South Vietnam during the têt offensive (so-called because it coincided with the Vietnamese New Year, têt). The offensive was fought back with huge losses for the FNL and the North Vietnamese, who had misjudged the possibilities of a popular rise in the cities.

But for the United States it was still clear that the war would be difficult to win. The costs had become unreasonable and the number of people falling was greater than the home opinion could tolerate. Criticism against US warfare had also increased both within and outside the United States. Peace talks with North Vietnam began in Paris and bombings in the north were interrupted. In the south, the war continued as before, protests in the United States increased and Johnson chose not to stand for re-election in 1968.

During the next US president Richard Nixon, the number of US soldiers was reduced; the war was "Vietnamized". The peace talks in Paris were extended to a conference with participation also by South Vietnam and the FNL. But at the same time, the war spread to Cambodia and Laos, when the United States made unsuccessful attempts to bomb the North Vietnamese supply lines to the south along the "Ho Chi Minh Trail" through mountains and jungle.

North Vietnam wins the war

North Vietnam began a new offensive in the spring of 1972. The United States responded by re-launching bombings in the north and mining North Vietnamese ports. The bombings of Hanoi and Haiphong Christmas 1972 shook world opinion, but for the United States they had the intended effect: North Vietnam was forced into a peace treaty signed in Paris in January 1973.

The US Army left Vietnam - after losing 58,000 men - but the war continued on a smaller scale until North Vietnam went on the offensive in January 1975. With the US out of the picture, South Vietnam lay wide open and the Saigon army fled in panic. Province after province was conquered, often without battle. President Thieu fled the country on April 21 and just over a week later Saigon was taken. The city was later renamed Ho Chi Minh City.

Data on the number of Vietnamese who died in the Vietnam War, from the mid-1950s to 1975, fall apart, but estimates are between 2.5 million and 5 million.

After the Communist takeover, soldiers and civil servants from the old regime were sent to "retraining camps", in many cases too long.

Elections to an all-Vietnamese parliament were held in April 1976, and on July 2 of that year, the country was reunited when the Socialist Republic of Vietnam was founded.

Hundreds of thousands of boat refugees

Following the reunification, northern Vietnam was given responsibility for the heavy industry, while the south would mainly take care of the food supply and light industry. The industries that existed in the south were largely nationalized and agriculture was collectivized from 1977 to 1978.

In the north, distrust was great against the population in the south. Thousands of party activists were sent south to lead the transition to socialism. Relatives of the former regime officials got rid of their homes, and lost the right to work and education. Even today, former officials of the Saigon government are forced to rely on trampling cyclo (a form of bicycle taxi) or selling tickets.

The nationalization of the economy continued and in the spring of 1978 private trade in the south was banned. It mainly affected the Chinese in the big cities, which until then had dominated the business world. At least 400,000 Vietnamese, most of Chinese origin, fled the country, often in overloaded boats. Later, the UN succeeded in persuading the new regime to allow a further at least 350,000 people to leave the country more safely.

After the war, Vietnam had brought the hostile Red Khmer regime to a neighbor in Cambodia. After more than a year of screenings at the border, Vietnamese forces invaded Cambodia (then called Kampuchea) and installed a sound regime.

The Red Khmer had China's most important ally. The Vietnamese invasion, the persecution of Chinese in Vietnam and Vietnam's increasingly close relations with the Soviet Union led to a tense relationship between Vietnam and China. After a series of incidents at the border, northern Vietnam was invaded by Chinese forces in February 1979. A month-long war with tens of thousands dead was followed by an uncertain ceasefire, which forced Vietnam to hold large military forces in the area for years.

Doi moi introductory

Despite extensive support from the Soviet-run cooperation organization Comecon, the economic development in Vietnam was disastrous. Several bad harvests contributed to this, as did the costs - economically and politically - for the invasion of Cambodia. With an inefficient, oversized and increasingly corrupt bureaucracy, there was a shortage of most things: goods, educated staff and capital.

In the early 1980s, a US-led boycott had isolated Vietnam from the western world and driven the country's economy to the bottom. A cautious reform effort was initiated at the party congress in 1982, when supply problems had become acute. The investment in heavy industry was curbed in favor of the production of food and other basic commodities. Attempts were also made to reduce the crippling bureaucracy in the administration. The failure of the centralized planning economy caused the system to be loosened up from within. Out in the provinces, privately grown food began to be sold in a free market. The government plans were restructured in the direction of consumer goods.

Increasing price increases - inflation was up over 700 percent in 1986 - helped to accelerate reforms. The reform line, called doi moi (renewal), was reinforced by the Sixth Party Congress in 1986, which was characterized by internal criticism of inefficiency and corruption. The economy was liberalized according to Chinese pattern. The currency was written down, lending tightened and subsidies abolished, which reduced inflation. A new generation of political leaders took over and cautious political reforms were introduced, such as fewer ministries and increased local self-government.

Worried about the highlands

But the collapse of the Eastern European Communist regimes in the late 1980s shook the Vietnamese party leadership. The tone was sharpened against political innovation.

During the last years of the 1990s, there were many signs that there were different opinions within the party leadership. Obviously, there was uncertainty within the party about how far the reforms could be allowed to go. While private enterprise was released and agricultural land was in practice privatized, the party said no to most political reforms.

In the spring of 2001, severe unrest erupted when mountain residents from various minority people in the central highlands protested that Vietnamese were moving in from the overpopulated coastal areas and harvesting large amounts of forest to plant coffee plantations. The Vietnamese government deployed soldiers, riot police and helicopters to quell the unrest.

Many feared that conservative groups within the party leadership would take the turmoil as a pretext to curb all political reforms. But instead, the reformist forces advanced their positions at the Ninth Party Congress in April 2001.

In 2004, it was again unrest in the central highlands. Christian groups from the minority people gathered up to 30,000 people for demonstrations, which were brutally defeated. The area was closed to foreign journalists and no reliable information on the number of casualties is available. Many of the insurgents fled to Cambodia.

Reform friends against conservatives

For a couple of years thereafter - in conjunction with negotiations on membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO) - the regime met demands from abroad for better respect for human rights and efforts against the severe corruption. Relief was introduced in the control of religious groups and the media got free hands to report bribery.

At the Tenth Congress of the Communist Party in 2006, three people who were all considered to be the reform-friendly faction were appointed to the three top posts: the party's secretary general, president and prime minister.

The contradictions between reform-friendly and conservative politicians became clear during the global economic crisis of 2008–2009, when the conservatives openly criticized the government because it had a hard time curbing market forces and inflation at the beginning of the crisis.

Even at the eleventh party congress in 2011, the members welcomed a gradual economic opening, but without political reform. The reform-minded Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung was elected for a new five-year term, while the presidential post went to the conservative Truong Tan Sang. New secretary general of the party became Nguyen Phu Trong, also he conservative. The fact that a number of people with strong ties to the security apparatus and the military received key positions was interpreted as a reaction to China's growing role in the region.

In 2012, the government increasingly acknowledged that financial neglect and corruption were major problems. Prime Minister Nguyen was subjected to intense criticism within the party that corruption in state-owned enterprises had increased since he came to power in 2006. In several notable cases, high-ranking people were sentenced to long prison terms or to death for financial crime.

 
 

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