Beginning in 1954, the United States began a two decade commitment to fighting communist forces in Vietnam. Over half a century later, Vietnam is a very different country with a rapidly growing economy and relatively friendly relations with the United States. Join us as we take a look back at the evolution of Vietnam today. We will cover the history as well as Vietnam's current and evolving role in the region.

Key Lecture Points

  • Beginning in 1954, the United States began a two decade commitment to fighting communist forces in Vietnam. An integral part of Cold War strategy, the Vietnam War was intended to keep the Asian “dominoes” from falling to communism. As the war changed from a limited war to a protracted conflict (around the time of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution), by 1968 some 500,000 US soldiers would be committed to the conflict and the American public would become increasingly uneasy and angry. The implementation of the draft in 1969, as well as the shooting of war protestors at Kent State University in 1970, were among the events that inflamed the American public. The Vietnam War spanned 4 presidencies (Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon), 2 decades, and resulted in the loss of 58,000 American lives. Ultimately in 1975, two years after all US troops were sent home, South Vietnam fell to the Communist government of the North.
  • From the Vietnamese perspective, the American War (as they call it) was the last in a long line of conflicts against foreign powers. Having fought off the Chinese for centuries and France for 100 years (1858-1954), the war with the US was the final war for Vietnamese independence. A strong spirit of resistance, grown in the Vietnamese population through years of domination by outsiders, enabled North Vietnamese Communists to out-last the US in the protracted conflict. Further, a history of civil war also presaged the 20th century division between North and South, a division which resulted in the loss of millions of Vietnamese lives between the 1950s-1970s.
  • Today, US-Vietnamese relations are relatively friendly, with trade and political ties strengthening. Vietnam sees the US as a counterweight to Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea.  The US is the largest investor in Vietnam and Vietnam’s largest trading partner.  Vietnam is a negotiating partner in the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.
  • Much like China, Vietnam has, since the mid-1980s, embarked upon a program of economic reform along capitalist lines.  One of the fastest growing economies in Southeast Asia, Vietnam is predicted to be among the world’s 20 largest economies by 2050 because of its large population, growing consumer class and rich natural resources.  It is attractive to investors because of its low labor costs—50% of China.    Although economic reforms are increasingly forthcoming, Vietnam remains a one-party communist state, where political dissent and religious freedom is suppressed.

Exploration Questions

  • What are the major themes in Vietnamese history? How did they play into the war with the United States?
  • Describe the current relationship between the US and Vietnam.

Reflective Questions

  • How do you think the Vietnam War changed American society?
  • In what ways were the experiences of US Vietnam veterans similar to the experiences of US veterans in other wars?  In what way were they different?

More to Explore

Books for Further Reading

  • Ninh, Bao (with Phan T. Hao, translator). The Sorrow of War: A Novel of North Vietnam. Riverhead Books, 1996. 240 pages. This novel is the first published about the Vietnam War from the perspective of the North Vietnamese. Critics have hailed it as the best book to come out of the Vietnam War, and perhaps one of the greatest war novels of the 20th century.
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  • Marlantes, Karl.  Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War. Grove Press, 2011.  640 pages. Written by a Vietnam veteran, this novel describes what it is like to be a young man at war, telling a universal story of courage, camaraderie and sacrifice.
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  • Appy, Christian G. American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity.  Viking Adult, 2015. 416 pages.  This is a historical examination of the forces that shaped our foreign policy in Vietnam and the consequences of the war.
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