Reunification Without Reconciliation: A Glimpse Into The Social Conflicts And Integration Process In Postwar Vietnam

Dat Le

As April comes to a close, public discussions on the fall of Saigon and the new government’s integration policy that followed have turned into a heated debate that usually results in a fierce crossfire of opinions, both inside and outside of Vietnam.

The scenes of North Vietnamese tanks rolling through the gate of the Presidential Palace in Saigon on the morning of April 30, 47 years ago, signaled the end of the Vietnam War and concluded a more than a three-decade-long struggle for the reunification of an ideologically divided Vietnam.

Still, there has been widespread resentment among the overseas Vietnamese community and, in particular, the former Republic of Vietnam Army (ARVN) veterans. They are aggrieved over how the history of their country and their traumatic lives as refugees have been ferociously erased and misinterpreted through the distorted lens of the victorious “northern liberators.”

As South Vietnam fell under Communist control, the northern government, despite its firm promises to facilitate the national reconciliation process, systematically discriminated against ARVN soldiers and South Vietnamese officials who worked for the former Saigon regime and with the United States.

North Vietnamese tanks crashed through the gate of the Presidential Palace in Saigon on April 30, marking the end of the Vietnam War. Photo: Francoise De Mulder—Roger Viollet/ Getty Images.

Additionally, shortly after the reunification, the leadership in Hanoi ramped up a cultural revolution in the south by destroying its sites of memory as it attempted to wipe out any trace of the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) from history.

The Vietnamese Communist Party’s (VCP) efforts to rewrite the narrative and its failed policy of integration and conciliation in postwar Vietnam are well analyzed and documented in a research paper titled “Reunification without Reconciliation?: Social Conflicts and Integration in Vietnam after 1975” [1] by Martin Grossheim. [2]

Grossheim is an associate professor of Vietnamese history at the College of Humanities, Seoul National University. His other research areas include modern Vietnamese history, Cold War history, memory studies, and intelligence studies.

In his paper, Grossheim explained how the VCP holds a discriminatory view of the former Saigon government and seeks to delegitimize it by describing the regime as a “puppet state” (ngụy quyền) in contemporary history textbooks, newspapers, and television programs in Vietnam.

In addition, he explains how Hanoi attempted to varnish its image in the civil war as a nationalist savior that liberated the country from imperialism and capitalism and achieved reunification and the building of socialism in the south.

The author also detailed how the discrimination and mistreatment by the new government forced many South Vietnamese and their families to flee the country by sea.

This mass exodus of Vietnamese refugees, who became known as the “boat people,” [3] was one of the gravest humanitarian crises in the late 20th century. Many unfortunate Vietnamese boat people were killed by pirates or perished from starvation and dehydration in the South China Sea.

Vietnamese refugees display banners on the deck of a boat, asking for permission to stay in Hong Kong. Photo C. Y. Yu/ South China Morning Post.

The Political Purge

Upon its takeover of the south, the Communist Party announced multiple control measures for the South Vietnamese population and initiated a political purge of those who had close links to the former administration.

Following the requirements of the new Communist security apparatus, southern residents had to register and make a personal history statement (lý lịch), in which they needed to provide details regarding the class background and political activities of their families and themselves before reunification day.

The “lý lịch” was used as a basis for differentiating southerners in terms of their political activities as “supporters” or “opponents” of the revolution, as well as assessing their economic activities and deciding whether they were of the “peasant and worker” class or of “bourgeois capitalist” origins.

Those regarded as having a bad profile, or lý lịch xấu would be subjected to different discriminatory measures; for example, their children would not be able to access public schools while they were prohibited from working in the state sector.

A reeducation camp in 1976 in Tay Ninh Province, where former ARVN officers were compelled to learn Communist doctrines to be reintegrated into the postwar Vietnamese society. Photo: manhhai/ Flickr.

At the same time, government officials of the former Saigon regime and military veterans of the defunct ARVN were accused of having a “negative political background” for having worked for the “puppet government” (ngụy quyền) or for serving in the “puppet army” (ngụy quân).

These South Vietnamese elites, along with many others deemed disloyal by the Communist victors, were punished by being sent to reeducation camps (trại cải tạo) for ideological correction and were forced to do a self-criticism or perform hard labor. According to the research, more than one million southern residents spent time in one of these camps; some were even detained until the 1980s.

Meanwhile, many local families regarded as unreliable by the new government were subjected to resettlement in “new economic zones” in remote areas. This tactic was believed to help disconnect and disperse deep-rooted anti-Communist networks among southern communities.

Vietnamese officials insisted [4] that these so-called economic zones were a social experiment designed to “employ the poor and supply food for the hungry.” However, many refugees later recalled that these new resettlements were nothing other than “barren labor camps” where detainees continually faced hardship, deprivation, and even death.

In addition to purging former RVN officials through reeducation programs and dividing South Vietnamese society by relocating local communities in distant and desolate regions, Grossheim writes that the northern leadership also sought to “monitor and limit alternative forms of thinking and belief” in the south through systematic measures of censorship and cancel culture.

As the northern administration consolidated its rule and proceeded to apply its monolithic socialist culture all over Vietnam, various forms of South Vietnam’s culture, entertainment, and academic publications, including its music, books, magazines, and other printed materials, were classified as “poisonous” or “reactionary” and subsequently confiscated or burned by the new government.

A concert hall in Saigon before 1975, where “cải lương,” a mixture of southern Vietnamese folk music and modern spoken opera, was performed. Photo: Archived photo via danviet.vn

For example, records of romantic songs about love and peace, or nhạc vàng, popularly performed and sung before 1975 in the south, were banned because they were too “decadent” compared to the uniform state-controlled culture in the north.

The cultural cleansing also extended to other schools of philosophy other than socialism and communism.

Ironically, the author argues, this also included the works of Jean-Paul Sartre, a French philosopher and a leading proponent of existentialism who is well known for his opposition to the war and the U.S. intervention in Vietnam. Sartre’s books published in southern Vietnam were later considered “decadent works” by the Party’s propaganda department and subsequently prohibited from circulation.

Furthermore, the systematic erasing of the memory of the collapsed Saigon regime, a policy Grossheim coined as the “condemnation of memory,” was also deliberately conducted in the southern part of the country by the North Vietnamese communists.

This grand memory shaping project had been carried out through the activities of leveling and demolishing signature infrastructure built before 1975 in South Vietnam. These include cemeteries holding the remains of ARVN soldiers, burial sites of former Saigon politicians, hero statues, and many other memorial sites that were popular among the southerners.

The research specified a few examples during this cultural revolution era: the memorial statue of the South Vietnamese Marines, which was previously located in front of the Saigon Opera House, was pulled down by supporters of the National Liberation Front (NLF); [5] or the Mac Dinh Chi cemetery, a burial ground originally dedicated for leading politicians and officers of the RVN, was leveled and replaced by the Le Van Tam Park, named after a communist martyr of the First Indochina War who was later claimed to be a fictional character created by the Propaganda Department.

Another prime example of the mass demolishments and desecrations of memorial sites in the south was the abandonment of the National Military Cemetery in Bien Hoa, the final resting place for approximately 16,000 ARVN soldiers.

Binh An Cemetery in Binh Duong Province, formerly the ARVN National Military Cemetery, where approximately 16,000 ARVN soldiers are buried. Photo: BBC Vietnamese.

Following the collapse of Saigon, the cemetery in Bien Hoa was renamed Binh An Cemetery and was transferred to the administration of the Vietnamese Defense Ministry’s Military Zone Seven.

It was also abandoned and desecrated like other landmarks and burial sites of the South Vietnamese government. The author noted that these desecrations are still visible today.

Meanwhile, the new administration of the former ARVN Cemetery did not allow the families of the fallen soldiers access to the graveyards,  to care for the tombs, or to make offerings to their deceased family members during special occasions in Vietnamese tradition. Many tombstones were later stolen while the graves became overgrown with weeds and fell further into decay as time passed.

The Communist victors also sought to exterminate potential rivals as they cemented their political power in the south. Towards achieving this end, the VCP broke its earlier agreements and commitments stipulated in the Paris Peace Accords, which promised fair elections and negotiations during the unification process of postwar Vietnam.

The NLF, which also consisted of non-communist elements advocating for elections and peaceful reunification, was overpowered by the northern leadership. Its military troops were later forced to merge with the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) without their consultation.

The two Vietnamese states, including the North Vietnam government and the NLF-governed administration in the South, were finally unified into a single state called the Socialist Republic of Vietnam in June 1976.

This unification process was subjectively accomplished “without any meaningful debate” in the country’s legislative body or in the Political Conference for the Reunification of the Country – an event organized to settle and agree on the requirements and conditions of the integration, Grossheim noted.

Hanoi also sent thousands of northern cadres southward to construct a comprehensive Communist governance structure all over Vietnam.

This state-building project included establishing the VCP’s arms and mass organizations at all administrative levels and building up an efficient security apparatus in the South.

The northern cadres tasked with carrying out this mission, according to the research, often enjoyed unrivaled privileges while behaving arrogantly towards southerners and showing little understanding of the local culture.

Students celebrate the reunification of Vietnam on May 1, 1975, one day after the collapse of the RVN Government. Photo: BBC Vietnamese.

In addition to hegemonizing its political governance model, the Hanoi regime also sought to apply North Vietnam’s centrally planned economic model to the southern part of Vietnam.

Since 1978, the Communist leadership in Hanoi has implemented an economic crackdown on capitalist trade. It punished private business owners in South Vietnam, which significantly affected the businesses owned by ethnic Chinese businessmen and traders in the Saigon-Cholon area. It was followed by the mass confiscation of private property and the nationalization of commercial enterprises.

The collectivization of agriculture, part of the Sino-Soviet-style centralized economic model, was also carried out simultaneously in the South. However, this collective policy attracted little support and enthusiasm from local farmers since they were displeased with the seizure of their farmlands while also feeling reluctant to join the state-owned agricultural cooperatives.

The Communist authorities’ failed policy in implementing a centralized economy and collective agriculture brought disruptions to both the economic and agricultural activities in the southern region.

Vietnam experienced severe famine at the end of the 1970s as agricultural output declined due to the passive resistance of many farmers who were discontented with the new agricultural policy.

Meanwhile, a large number of Vietnamese fled the country in the following decades, many of whom were of ethnic Chinese origin, because of the radicalization of Hanoi’s economic policy and the discrimination they faced after the Sino-Vietnamese war in 1979.

As Martin Grossheim recounted in his research, even more disheartening was that many of those who fled Vietnam in the post-1975 period were the same people who had moved south following the signing of the Geneva Peace Accords in 1954.

North Vietnamese peasants escape southward in a program called “Operation Passage to Freedom,” assisted by the U.S. Navy to avoid Communist persecution. Photo: U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archive

After Vietnam was divided at the 17th parallel, many North Vietnamese embarked on arduous journeys to escape communism and see a better life in the south. But after reunification, these generations of northerners could not even stay in Vietnam anymore and were finally forced to leave the country. In other words, the author said, they fled their home twice: first in 1954 and once again in 1975.

National Reconciliation Under the Open Door Policy

The Vietnamese government’s approval of renovation plans for the former ARVN National Cemetery in Bien Hoa Province in 2007 was seen as the prime result of the country’s open-door policy coupled with tireless advocacy from ARVN veterans living abroad and progressive voices within the government. It is an essential milestone in the reconciliation process between the two former war enemies.

After embarking on vigorous reforms at the beginning of the 1990s, Vietnam opened its door to foreign visitors while encouraging the overseas Vietnamese diaspora, or Việt Kiều, to come back and invest in the economy.

Despite its previous systematic discrimination and defamation of the South Vietnamese who fled the country following the Communist takeover in 1975, the Communist Party officially recognized the potential contribution of the Việt Kiều community in the Politburo’s Central Resolution number 36 in 2004.

The suggestions for the restoration and opening of the Binh An Cemetery, formerly known as the National Military Cemetery of Bien Hoa, were made by the former RVN Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky to the then Vietnamese Prime Minister Phan Van Khai during Ky’s visit to Vietnam in 2005.

The idea quickly gained support from the late Vietnamese Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet, [6] a reformist widely known for spearheading the country’s economic innovation during his incumbency. In April of the same year, Kiet raised the topic of national conciliation openly in Vietnam while criticizing the Hanoi leadership for their arrogance and self-complacency following their victory in the Vietnam War.

The former RVN Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky and the former Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet during a meeting in Ho Chi Minh City in 2004. Photo: Vietnam Archives via BBC Vietnamese.

In 2006 the Binh An Cemetery was transferred from the Defense Ministry administration to the civilian management of Binh Duong provincial authorities with the approval of then Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung.

One year later, Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet promised during his state visit to the United States in 2007 to allow overseas Vietnamese to visit the former ARVN cemetery.

Families of fallen South Vietnamese soldiers were also allowed to pay visits to the cemetery while the restoration process of degraded grave tombs was also undertaken. Several Vietnamese state news outlets and personal blogs reported these developments in the Binh An Cemetery.

However, according to the author, the overall reconstruction of the graveyard still looked incomplete during his last visit. At the same time, efforts by overseas Vietnamese NGOs and the U.S. government to initiate campaigns to search for the remains of missing ARVN soldiers were also undermined and neglected by Hanoi.

The Party’s Permitted Level of Conciliation

Martin Grosshein concluded his research paper with a careful examination that the limits of Vietnam’s reconciliation process remain under the Party and its Propaganda Department’s permission.

At the same time, the VCP’s memory shaping machine still adheres to the selectively binary version of the war: where North Vietnamese soldiers are described as patriotic martyrs while their ARVN counterparts are framed as “American puppets” (Mỹ ngụy).

The Party has fervently defended its master narrative that the war was a crusade to “fight against the United States and save the country” (Cuộc kháng chiến chống Mỹ cứu nước). It also lashed out at anyone who tried to promote the picture of the Republic of Vietnam as a legitimate and independent country or described the Vietnam War as a civil war rather than a struggle against foreign interference. [7]

Southern residents attempted to escape the Communist takeover of Saigon on April 29, 1975. Photo: Getty Images via BBC Vietnamese.

But as the Hanoi leadership basked in celebrations and propagandizing about their fundamental role as nationalist liberators, they largely remained silent on the fiascos of their postwar nation-building project, where the Soviet-style centralized economic policy had plunged Vietnam’s economy into a deep depression and consequently prompted a mass exodus of one million Vietnamese refugees.

Recognizing the legitimacy of the South Vietnamese government and explaining why many people left the country after 1975 could backfire on Hanoi. It could lead the public to question the government’s authority and the cause of its socialism-building agenda. The Party can only permit reconciliation on its terms for the time being.


References:

[1] Grossheim, M. (2021). Reunification without Reconciliation?: Social Conflicts and Integration in Vietnam after 1975. The Politics of History and Memory in Vietnam. https://doi.org/10.17326/jhsnu.78.2.202105.459

[2] Martin Grossheim profile. (n.d.). ResearchGate. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Martin-Grossheim

[3] The Editors Of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (n.d.). Boat people. Britannica. Retrieved April 14, 2022, from https://www.britannica.com/topic/boat-people-refugees

[4] Chapman, W. (1979, August 17). Hanoi Rebuts Refugees on “Economic Zones.” The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1979/08/17/hanoi-rebuts-refugees-on-economic-zones/a26c10ab-3791-4d76-9c4a-db4f7d48be32/

[5] The Editors Of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (n.d.-b). National Liberation Front. Britannica. Retrieved April 14, 2022, from https://www.britannica.com/topic/National-Liberation-Front-political-organization-Vietnam

[6] Agence France-Presse. (2008, June 12). Vo Van Kiet, Reformer and Ex-Premier of Vietnam, Is Dead at 85. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/12/world/asia/12kiet.html

[7] Ibid., [1]

[8] Ibid., [1]

Politics1975Vietnam WarSouth VietnamNorth VietnamApril 30