Vietnam Debacle 1975–Imagine a Different Ending

John Metzlerby John J. Metzler
Weirs Times Contributing Writer

UNITED NATIONS – It’s been forty years since the wars in Indochina ended and the curtain dropped ushering in a new period of darkness for the people of Vietnam and Cambodia. Four long decades since the stunning imagery of North Vietnamese tanks smashing through the gates of Saigon’s Doc Lap Independence palace seizing the South Vietnamese capital, ending the decades long war, and bringing forcible reunification by the communists to the divided nation.
For America the politically divisive conflict was over, the page turned, and the book shelved. For the Vietnamese, and even more so for the beleaguered Cambodians, a new level of hell was about to begin in 1975.
Many people know the narrative which has now become fuzzy or bypassed by the march of time. American troops had already been withdrawn from South Vietnam by 1973 and thus the devastating defeat of the Saigon government by a massive North Vietnamese conventional offensive between February and April, was not as many glibly claim, a defeat of U.S. forces. Yet it posed a grim geopolitical setback for the USA.
But let me digress from events to imagine for a moment what could have happened, and may have transpired if the North Vietnamese had abided by the U.S. negotiated Paris Peace agreements in 1973 which should have stopped the military conflict, ensured a ceasefire, and allowed South Vietnam’s survival.
Consider another divided nation, Korea to see my thesis. Here too a historic nation was arbitrarily divided when Dean Rusk drew the line at the 38th parallel at the end of WWII. North and South Korea, which had endured Japanese colonialism, were now free but separated by two antagonistic governments. After the horrors of the Korean War (1950-1953), the tenuous peace held. Both the communist North and free South Korean states developed separately.
But here’s the point; a rising Phoenix of economic development and prosperity took hold in South Korea through the 1960’s and 1970’s . South Korea successfully hosted the 1988 Seoul Olympics, and had emerged as an East Asian tiger economy. Political democratization had taken root by the late 1980’s and has flourished ever since.
So here’s my question. Viewing the South Vietnam of 1975, what if both North and South Vietnam developed separately economically, with political antagonism but not conflict? A bit like West and East Germany or Mainland China and Taiwan?
By 1975, and despite the ongoing conflict, South Vietnam was still ahead of the North. As long as the Saigon government could develop its socio/economic base free from both Viet Cong insurgency and the threat of a large scale conventional North Vietnamese onslaught, something similar to South Korea’s post-1953 economic revival could have happened.
Though South Vietnam’s economy was weak in the aftermath of years of war, with a cease-fire which held, and supported by a continuing flow of American economic assistance, Saigon stood at the threshold of possible success. By the early 1980’s, a new wave of foreign investment, opening markets and enterprise driven economics were radically transforming places like Korea and China and equally sweeping Southeast Asia from Singapore to Thailand.
South Vietnam was thus well poised to attract some of this investment and trade.
As I have written before, “Hanoi’s arrogant triumphalism following reunification in 1975, assured the Socialist Republic of Vietnam that it would be bypassed by the rising tide of economic development and waves of investment which lapped on the shores from South Korea to Singapore.”
In 1978, just three years after the invasion of the South, Socialist Vietnam’s per capita income stood at a paltry $170 while South Korea’s was $1,200, Malaysia was $1,100, Taiwan $2,000 and Thailand $500.
Only many years later, and after costly and avoidable economic mistakes, did Hanoi’s rigid Marxist government adopt the Do Moi economic system which opened the country to reforms and encouraged foreign investments.
Today the Europeans, the USA, Japan and Taiwan are among Vietnam’s largest investors. American trade which stood at $1 billion in 2000, has surged to $36 billion in 2014, with the U.S. running a $25 billion trade deficit last year.
Things have improved economically for the 90 million Vietnamese but at the expense of massive corruption and enduring political rigidity. Vietnam’s per capita income now has reached $2,230, South Korea stands at $25,000, Malaysia $12,000, Taiwan $22,000, and Thailand $6,260.
Economic changes finally came for a reunited Vietnam, but not before the harrowing socialist mismanagement, the re-education camps, the two million boat people refugees, and the continuing authoritarianism. This story could have ended so differently.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism The Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014).