After the war, most Vietnam vets got on with their lives. Many became leaders in Congress, industry, and the media. In 1994, the unemployment rate for veterans was 3 percent, well below the national average of 4.9 per¬cent. The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta reported that suicide rates were within the normal range for the general population. In 1999, the Vietnam Economic Times reported that in an earlier U.S. poll 71 per¬cent of vets said they were “glad to have served in Vietnam” and 74 percent said they “enjoyed” their tour of duty. A survey by the Veterans of Foreign Wars said 87 percent of the public held Vietnam veterans in high esteem.
A FEW DAYS AFTER SAIGON FELL IN 1975, communist cadres went from embassy to abandoned embassy, raising the National Liberation Front flag. The only embassy they bypassed was that of the United States. Nayan Chanda, the Far Eastern Economic Reviews Saigon bureau chief, one of a handful of journalists who stayed behind after the helicopter evacuation, asked a soldier guarding the U.S. Embassy why no Viet Cong flag was flying overhead. “We are not authorized to raise one,” he told Chanda. “We do not want to humiliate the Americans. They will come back.”
The response perhaps reflected more pragmatism than magnanimity. Indeed, the United States had economic and technological resources the Soviet Union lacked, and tapping into them would have provided a huge boost to Vietnam’s development. But first Washington wanted to ensure Hanoi was punished for its victory: Washington froze Vietnam’s assets in the United States ($260 million) and prohibited Americans from sending money to Vietnam; severed mail and telephone links between the two na¬tions; refused to consider diplomatic relations with the newly reunited state; reneged on Nixon and Kissinger’s promise to supply Vietnam with $3.3 billion in reconstruction aid; vetoed Vietnam’s requests to join the United Nations; blocked credits and loans from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank; and instituted a trade embargo that Japan and other allies were pressured into observing.
Washington’s punitive policies pushed Vietnam toward the precipice of disaster. And Hanoi’s doctrinaire rulers gave the country the final shove over the edge with an agenda that was both vindictive and ill-con¬ceived. When Bui Tin of the North Vietnamese Army accepted South Vietnam’s surrender on April 30, 1975—he was a journalist but, as a colonel, was the senior officer present—he told Saigon’s nervous cabinet ministers: “You have nothing to fear. Between Vietnamese, there are no victors and no vanquished. Only the Americans have been beaten. If you are patriots, consider this a moment of joy. The war for our country is over.”
But if the war was over, the Dark Years were just beginning: the reedu¬cation camps and forced resettlement of peasants in so-called economic zones; the collectivization of farming and near famine; the confiscation of wealth and loss of civil liberties; the wars against Cambodia and China; paranoia, isolation, and deprivation. Never had anyone imagined peace could bring such deep suffering.
The anguish and misery of the people, however, did not stir much re¬sponse from former antiwar protestors who had expressed such sympathy for the Vietnamese when they themselves had been in danger of going off to war. Tom Hayden had cheered the fall of Saigon, saying it would lead to the “rise of Indochina.” Huh? A thousand University of California stu¬dents had marched through Berkeley on April 30 in celebration. But in celebration of themselves or the Vietnamese? Where was Jane Fonda af¬ter the war was over? There was silence, I suppose, because the protests never had anything to do with the ultimate well-being of the Vietnamese people. They were about self-interests and ending U.S. involvement. Once those goals had been met, what the Vietnamese did to the Viet¬namese didn’t matter. Reconciliation could wait for another day.
JAPAN AND THE UNITED STATES normalized diplomatic relations six years after the end of World War II. It took Vietnam and the United States twenty years to take the same step. But if the war was character¬ized by missed opportunities for peace on both sides, so was the peace de¬fined by lost chances to chart a new and constructive direction in U.S.- Vietnamese relations. One of them came in 1977, two years after the fall of Saigon, when President Jimmy Carter sent Leonard Woodcock, chief of the U.S. liaison office in Beijing, to Hanoi to clear the path for normal¬ized relations. “I understand President Carter’s wish [is] to solve our problems in a new spirit,” Prime Minister Pham Van Dong told Wood¬cock. “And if so, I see no obstacle to our resolving the problems.”
Sixteen months later, in September 1978, secret negotiations in New York produced a breakthrough when Vietnam dropped its demand for monetary reparations as a precondition for normalized relations. Both sides were so sure they had a deal that the abandoned villa on Hai Ba Trung Street in Hanoi, which had served as the U.S. Consulate in colo-nial times, was painted green in anticipation of the return of U.S. envoys. Dennis Harter, a Vietnamese-speaking State Department officer in Washington, checked out the shuttered Vietnamese embassy on R Street, just off Massachusetts Avenue. The carpets were moldy, paint was peeling off the walls. Three-year-old editions of Time and Newsweek detailing the fall of Saigon were strewn about. Dirty plates from the last meal South Vietnam’s diplomats ate the day they walked out and locked the door were still on the table. But the place, Harter concluded, could be cleaned up and made habitable for Hanoi’s envoys.