It’s 30 years since a North Vietnamese tank crashed through the gates of the Presidential Palace in Saigon in what was then South Vietnam.
It was the symbolic end of a long and painful war, and a humiliation in the extreme for the United States. That war had cost the US armed forces 58 000 dead, but its opponent had lost 1,4 million men, and its South Vietnamese allies 250 000 dead.
Who was right and who was wrong in that war that dominated so much of the discussions in the West during the 1960s’s and early 1970’s?
In one fundamental sense, it is obvious that the United States misread the entire situation.
Looking through the lenses of the day, they saw the Communist insurgence in the South of the divided Vietnam as an expression of a wave of monolithic Communist domination that would risk sweeping through Southeast Asia and beyond if not stopped.
These were the days of containment, and that strategy made it necessary to take a stand wherever what was seen to be an expression of either Soviet or Communist Chinese power tried to advance.
In a way, the escalating involvement in Vietnam was the concrete expression of the famous words of John Kennedy in his inaugural speech 1961 that the United States was ready to ”pay any price, bear any burden… support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty.”
In retrospect, it is obvious that the United States was up against the forces of indigenous nationalism far more than the forces of creeping communist imperialism.
Since the fall of Saigon in 1975, Communism hasn’t made any advances in the region. On the contrary, we have seen the policies of capitalism creeping into the societies that once proclaimed that they were going to do something entirely different.
When visiting Saigon – everyone said Saigon, hardly anyone Ho Chi Minh City – a decade ago I sometimes wondered who really had won the war. It was a bustling city, eager to open up to the world, commercial in the extreme and certainly looking for its models and ideals in the United States more than anywhere else.
But if the United States turned out to be wrong in warning for the dangers of dominoes falling to Communism all over the region, the propaganda from the other side looks equally hollow with the distance of the decades.
Those marching the streets of the West in those days declared their support for a democratic South Vietnam, said it had nothing to do with Communism and denied there was any direction or involvement from Hanoi.
But in the end it was the divisions of the regular North Vietnamese army that in its rapid offensive in the spring of 1975 caused the sudden collapse of the regime in Saigon. No less than 13 divisions of the NVA took part in the final assualt on Saigon.
And immediately after taking power, it was obvious that it was Hanoi that was in command, that democracy was distinctly not on the agenda, that a unification under the leadership of the North was going to be enforced and that a Communist dictatorship should be extended over the entire country.
It did not last long until we started to see the boats with desperate people trying to flee the repression and poverty of the Vietnam. Suddenly, the Communist take-over presented the world with a huge refugee crisis as people did whatever they could to get away from ”re-education camps”, repression and economic collapse that followed the imposition of socialist policies in the South.
In the immediate years after 1975, approximately one million people risked the dangereous waters of the South China Sea to seek a new future in other parts of the world.
At the same time as a million people fled, those faces of the former National Front for Liberation that had been so active in drumming up support in the outside world disappeared. There was no room for the democrats of the South when the communists of the North took over.
Vietnam remains a Communist dictatorship today, although hardly one trying to extend its reach. Its regime still struggles with the question of far it dares to reform and open up, but at the end of the day knows that it hasn’t much of an alternative.
A period of reform in between 1985 and 1996 has been followed by a period in which the more dogmatic forces have called the tune. The old men in Hanoi are still trying to restrict the forces of reform, thereby significantly reducing the possibilities of the talented and charming people of Vietnam to reach its potential.
Communism has been a tragedy in Vietnam – North and South – in the same way as it has been in the rest of the world.
The United States is looking back on the war in Vietnam as a gigantic mistake, driven by the logic of the Cold War.
But those that marched in the streets of the West during the years of the war – speaking about their support for liberation, national self-determination and democracy – were in many ways equally misguided and mistaken.