An April Shower of Dominoes: 40 Year Anniversary of the End of the Vietnam War

April 30, 2015 marks the official end to the Vietnam War. April 1975 was as sobering month for the Washington crowd who foolishly hung on to the ideals of the Truman Doctrine. When the South Vietnamese government surrendered Saigon, it completed a remarkable run of luck for the communist rebel groups of Southeast Asia. Within a matter of a couple of weeks, the Pathet Lao, the Khmer Rouge, and the Viet Cong each took control of their respective countries as a seemingly prophetic movement which emphasized everything John Foster Dulles said during the first part of the 1950s. It was the domino theory coming to fruition: one communist country leading to another until the whole of Southeast Asia would be under communist country and the Truman Doctrine be damned!

April 30, 2015 must have been one of the bleakest days in the history of US foreign policy.

Would the communist momentum continue? What about Malaysia? Thailand? Philippines? Indonesia? Was it just a matter of time until Japan and South Korea were the last bastions of freedom in the whole Pacific Rim?

The hyperbole of opinions which undoubtedly spread quickly throughout the ranks of Washington insiders did not, perhaps, understand some of the basic elements of the communist movement of the region: everyone hated everyone else.

Yes, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia were communist like the Viet Cong, but they hated the Vietnamese. The Vietnamese were the traditional enemies of the Chinese. There was nothing built into their comrade relationships which screamed: “We’re all going to get along and conquer the world together!” Far from it. Their screed would have been: I don’t care if you’re my communist brother, your a filthy Vietnamese! (or insert other ethnicity if spoken from a different point of view)

Within the matter of months, the Khmer started attacking Vietnamese villages, slaughtering large numbers of people. By Christmas 1978, Vietnam had had enough and launched their full-scale attack of Cambodia, driving the Khmer Rouge from power and stopping the genocidal Killing Fields in the process. In retaliation, China attacked Vietnam in the early months of 1979 to punish the Vietnamese for their invasion of Cambodia. Russia quickly aligned with Vietnam and we had all the makings of one nasty communist street fight that painfully revealed the flaws of the Domino Theory.

The Killing Fields decimated Cambodia. Vietnam stayed in Cambodia for 10 years. China and Vietnam were unfriendly for another 15 years by which time the Soviet Union had already fallen apart. Cambodia slowly emerged from its communist past. China and Vietnam abandoned their command economies and replaced it with a remarkably robust capitalistic system.

Communism stayed in power in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia merely as the ruling political party – not the ideological brother of Dulles’ day.

April 1975 marked the end of the domino theory, not the beginning of it. But at that time, nobody would have understood that.


Know Your History: Christmas Invasion of Cambodia, 1978

The beginning of the end of the dark periods of modern history began on December 25, 1978, when a sure-footed, well-oiled, Vietnamese fighting machine crossed the border, heading straight towards the nearly deserted Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh.

The ramifications and irony of such an invasion were lost on many people at that time, and even today, it’s a period of Southeast Asian history which few people know much about.

Pol Pot, the enigmatic and dogmatic Communist leader of Cambodia, had created an illogical and frightening socialistic society. (We’ll have to deal with how he got there at another time.) His vision for Cambodia, inspired by Mao Zedong’s cultural revolution in China in the mid-1960s, was to create a completely agrarian society by removing every vestige of western, political, religious, and modern influences. This was cultural divergence on an unprecedented scale. Everyone was driven out of the cities and forced into labor camps, completed at the mercy of Anka, the all-knowing party. Kids were ripped away from their parents, taught to have allegiance only to Anka. And then the killing began. Elderly, educated, those with ties to Americans, those who spoke a foreign language, those who wore glasses, etc … ┬áThe hit list was long and brutal. Different factions of the party couldn’t be trusted, and purge after purge began, spilling blood on an unimaginable scale – eventually to be known as The Killing Fields. Upwards of two million, nearly 1/3 of the entire population of Cambodia was caught up in the unrelenting killing. This was the time period from 1975 – 1978.

But the Vietnamese did not cross the border on Christmas day in order to stop a humanitarian crisis. Something else had been brewing as well. Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot turned his eyes towards southern Vietnam, claiming the entire delta as belonging to the Cambodian people. He severely resented  the Vietnamese and ordered cross the border raids, slaughtering entire Vietnamese villages.

The Vietnamese tried to bring international attention to these atrocities, but no one was interested and in fact hardly even believed them until a western journalist documented the case. Why were the Vietnamese being ignored? Much of the western world considered the communist Vietnamese government to be nothing more than a pariah, one who had reneged on the Paris Agreement on Vietnam, until they eventually overwhelmed the South Vietnam government in April 1975. The west had little interest in worrying about the border issues between two communist countries. It eventually began evident to the Vietnamese that if they wanted the Khmer Rouge to stop the attacks on the Vietnamese border, they would have to do it themselves.

So they did, starting Christmas 1978. So forceful and effective was the Vietnamese fighting machine, that they rolled through the countryside, pushing into Phnom Penh and liberating much of the country from the Khmer Rouge in a matter of weeks.

In a twist that is in hindsight quite ironic, the U.S. and other allies condemned the Vietnamese invasion, which, they thought, proved their point that the Vietnamese government was nothing more than a pariah state, wanting to conquer more lands.

On the ground, however, the reception was very different. The Cambodian people welcomed the Vietnamese, thanking them for overthrowing the Khmer Rouge.

Only after this invasion did word of the real extent of the Killing Fields begin to spread around the globe.

The ramifications of the invasion were great:

  • China retaliated against Vietnam in early 1979. (more on that later)
  • Vietnam (unwisely) outlived their welcome in Cambodia, putting a pro-Vietnamese Cambodian government in power and leaving their troops in Cambodia for a decade, further alienating them from the rest of the world.
  • The Cambodian people, dazed and desperate, began a long, long journey back to normality. For perspective, it took thirty years to have the first Khmer Rouge trial in Cambodia. It started in 2009. A whole generation of people were scarred beyond imagination – no family untouched.

For a fascinating read on this incredible topic, I especially recommend Nayan Chanda amazing book, “Brother Enemy.”