There may be no phrase more overused in foreign policy discussions and analyses since the 1960s than "the lessons of Vietnam." Nonetheless, exactly what those lessons are have been hotly debated. The debate has also been played out in the larger field of American politics, splitting the Democratic Party for more than two decades and fueling the political appeal of Ronald Reagan in 1980. It has framed U.S. policy toward a number of other countries, most notably Central America in the late 1970s and the 1980s and later in the Persian Gulf, where the Vietnam analogy was invoked with regularity. And time and again the debate has come back to heated arguments about the Vietnam War itself, as scholars and former policymakers have continued to reflect, lecture, and write about it. Former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, in his In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (1995), broke his own long silence on the subject with the provocative admission that while "we acted according to what we thought were the principles and traditions of this nation … we were wrong, terribly wrong."
In 1975 the Vietnamese economy lay in shambles and it would take decades to rebuild. Most of the population of fifty-five million was unemployed, impoverished, and suffering from the emotional and physical ramifications of the war. Over two million had been killed and 300,000 were reported missing and presumed dead. The number of Vietnamese who lost loved ones and family members was many times more. The loss of so many adults made Vietnam by the 1990s one of the youngest nations on earth.
Lacking an industrialized base and highly lucrative mineral or agricultural products, Vietnam found one immediate solution by exporting over $1 billion in abandoned American military equipment and scrap metal. The new regime also sold rice and other essential goods at below market prices for ten years. But a war against Cambodia beginning in December 1978 strained the economy. Large defense expenditures to fight the Khmer Rouge and conduct a war with the People's Republic of China in 1979, along with low consumer prices, combined to unleash widespread famine and hyperinflation that lasted into the 1980s.
Economic reforms improved conditions in Vietnam beginning in the mid-1980s. The benefits of peace with Cambodia after 1989 were balanced by the loss of economic aid from the declining Soviet Union. Impatient at the slow pace of economic change and heartened by the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, over seventy-five thousand Vietnamese fled the nation in 1989 for Australia, the United States, and other nations willing to accept them. Vietnam continued privatization reforms, known as dau man hade, that transformed it into the third-largest rice producer in the world.
Another long-term impact of the Vietnam conflict entailed the presence of toxic chemicals in the soil and water. Between 1961 and 1970 the United States sprayed over nineteen million gallons of herbicides containing hazardous dioxins over the forests and farmlands of Vietnam, poisoning the people and contaminating the soil to the present day. A special U.S. Air Force program known as Operation Ranch Hand employed a fleet of C-123 airplanes to spread defoliants across the inland and coastal areas of South Vietnam in order to reduce tree cover and render crops unfit for consumption by North Vietnamese troops. Hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese suffered a range of illnesses from varying levels of chemical poisoning, in some cases leading to cancer and birth defects that have passed through three generations.
Many species of animals disappeared from heavily sprayed regions, while others adapted to a new environment and returned to their former habitats slowly over time. By the late 1980s the inland forests had recovered, but the more delicate mangrove coastal zone still had not returned to its former health. Today, the vestiges of chemical pollution are still apparent in altered vegetation patterns and cancer clusters in some areas of Vietnam. Although it became accepted scientific fact by the late 1960s that herbicides and dioxin were harmful to humans and the environment, the spraying of chemicals like Agent Orange continued until 1971, when the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to stop using biological weapons.
A large number of returning veterans on both sides of the war developed cancer and unknown illnesses during the 1970s as a result of contact with dioxins in Vietnam. When the last herbicides were destroyed by the U.S. military in 1977, veterans were already mounting a vigorous campaign to make the government more aware of their plight; some even sued the chemical industry. In 1984 the Dow Chemical Company and other chemical companies that had manufactured Agent Orange made a $180 million out-of-court settlement with veterans and their families (for an average payment of $1,000 per veteran). The following year the federal government funded $1 billion to conduct research on the chemical poisoning of veterans. In 1992 the Department of Defense declared that Vietnam veterans exhibiting Hodgkin's disease, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, soft-tissue sarcoma, chloracne, and birth defects could claim contamination by herbicides in Vietnam.
The economy of Vietnam revived in the early 1990s when political relations with the United States began to thaw. In February 1994 the United States lifted a twenty-year embargo of Vietnam, enabling American companies to resume business with the communist nation. Incentives for companies to invest in Vietnam included cheap wages and abundant natural resources. The Vietnamese welcomed this development. By 1996 foreign investment, most of it from neighboring Asian "tiger" nations, had topped $20 billion. American holdings in Vietnam also had increased from a few million into billions of dollars. But policies by the Vietnamese government slowed foreign investment by 1997, making some analysts cautious about Vietnam's economic turn toward the West. Foreign investment took a downward spiral from $2.8 billion in 1997 to a mere $500 million by 1999. Tourism, however, continued to increase, as did student and cultural exchange programs that funneled foreign influences and dollars into Vietnam.
Improved relations with Vietnam also enabled more Vietnamese Americans to reunite with family members. When college-educated Vietnamese granddaughters met their elderly Vietnamese grandmothers living in rural villages for the first time, emotional healing, cultural exchange, and an improved financial situation for some Vietnamese were the consequences. Reflecting the impact of the war on so many different groups of people, American and Vietnamese veterans and war widows from both nations traveled thousands of miles to Vietnam to participate in private and officially sponsored exchange groups. They often searched for missing remains, shared their pain, and tried to understand the loss of their loved ones in the devastating conflict.
The communist government memorialized the war primarily through several public museums, as at the hidden Vietcong southern base within the Cu Chi tunnels outside of Ho Chi Minh City, or at Dien Bien Phu, where the French were finally defeated in 1954. Both have become major tourist destinations for war-fixated foreigners and patriotic and proud Vietnamese. To some extent the government utilized the successful prosecution of the war as propaganda to keep Vietnam a socialist state. The hero worship of Ho Chi Minh reflects a conscious decision on the part of the government to create a cult of personality for the father of modern Vietnam at a time when the overwhelming majority of the Vietnamese population was born after his death.