(Re)Collecting the Vietnam War
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(2) Timeline: After the Vietnam War (1975-present)

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Starting in May 1975, the new Communist regime begins rounding up former political officials and military personnel tied to the South Vietnamese government. They are sent to re-education camps, where they are "re-educated" in Communist ideology and forced into hard labor. Later, intellectuals, writers, religious leaders, and leaders of ethnic minority groups are interned. Most are imprisoned on average in 3 to 5 re-education camps from 4 to 8 years. Some are incarcerated for as long as 17 years.


On 23 May 1975 President Gerald Ford signs the Indochina Migration and Refugee Act, admitting 130,000 Southeast Asian refugees into the U.S. Of this cap, almost 120,000 are Vietnamese, with Cambodians comprising the remainder. Refugees first stay in Guam, Wake Island, or Philippines, and then arrive in the U.S. at four relocation camps: Camp Pendleton, California; Fort Chaffee, Arkansas; Eglin Air Force Base, Florida; and Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania.



Sài Gòn, the capital of the fallen Republic of Việt Nam, is renamed Hồ Chí Minh City on 2 July 1976, to commemorate the father of Vietnamese Communism. However, many residents continue to call the city by its original name. On the same day, Hà Nội becomes the seat of government of the new Socialist Republic of Việt Nam.


The 4th National Congress of the Communist Party in Việt Nam meets 14-20 December 1976, and creates a Five Year Plan (1976-1980) which calls for rapid socialization in the southern economy, with mass relocation of people and forced collectivization of agriculture, small industry and commerce. This leads to an economic disaster, provoking new waves of refugees.



After talks between U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke and Vietnamese officials fail in May 1977, the U.S. continues the embargo on Việt Nam it imposed after the end of the war. Việt Nam is thus isolated from most of the non-Communist world, which meant little aid and investment.


Between late 1977 and 1980, a steady stream of Vietnamese escape Việt Nam to other Southeast Asian countries at about 2,000 refugees per month, starting the "Second Wave" of Vietnamese refugees.


Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA) sponsors a bill, H.R. 7769, to change the status of Indochinese refugees from parolees to permanent residents. This is called the 1977 Adjustment of Status Clause and is added to the 1975 Indochina Migration and Refugee Act in Public Law 95-145 (passed 28 October 1978). Prior to this amendment, the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952 indicates that a parolee's stay is temporary.



Việt Nam invades Cambodia on 25 December 1978 to topple Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime and to expand Việt Nam's regional power. This brings on a new and costly cycle of war for Việt Nam. Although fighting largely ends by 8 January 1979, with the occupation of Phnom Penh by a pro-Vietnamese government, the war does not officially cease until 23 October 1991, with the Paris Peace Agreement.



China, in support of Cambodia, retaliates and attacks Việt Nam at the northern border, starting the Sino-Vietnamese War (17 February-16 March 1979). China's effort fails and the 300,000 ethnic Chinese living in Việt Nam face persecution. Most flee Việt Nam into China or escape by sea.


The number of Vietnamese refugees leaving the country increases dramatically in September 1978, with more than 50,000 in some months. The numbers are probably higher, since an estimated one-third die in passage. Some escape Việt Nam by land traveling north to China or west to Cambodia to end up in Thailand border camps. Others escape by boat, ending up in Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, the Philippines, or Hong Kong. Escaping Việt Nam was a hazardous journey, and the refugees leaving by sea became known as the "Boat People." By mid-1979, the plight of the boat people has received enough international attention to prompt President Jimmy Carter to order the 7th Fleet of the U.S. Navy to seek out vessels in distress in the South China Sea.


In May 1979, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Socialist Republic of Việt Nam sign a Memorandum of Understanding to establish the Orderly Departure Program (ODP), which accounts for about 5,000 Vietnamese to come annually to the United States. Hà Nội hopes a liberal emigration policy might help to improve its relations with the western nations. The United Nations convenes the Geneva Conference on 20-21 July 1979, resulting in agreements with Southeast Asian countries to provide temporary first asylum to the refugees, Vietnam to promote orderly departures under the ODP rather than permit boat people to depart, and the Western countries such as the U.S., Canada, Australia and France, and to accelerate their resettlement of refugees.



A genuine economic crisis develops in Việt Nam, with production shortages and extreme dependency on the Soviet Union. Việt Nam suffers from considerable food shortages resulting from bad harvests and from the disincentives of the collectivization system. Việt Nam takes steps away from harsh economic controls by backing away from socializing family farms, accepting small-scale retail private enterprises and decentralizing decision-making in state-run enterprises. But Việt Nam does not abandon plan to socialize the southern economy.


"Boat People" continue to escape Việt Nam throughout the 1980s. An estimated 500,000 refugees died at sea, or one-half of those attempting to escape Việt Nam. On 17 March 1980, President Jimmy Carter signs the Refugee Act of 1980, which provides a definition of a refugee, creates the Office of Refugee Resettlement, sets the number of refugee admissions at 50,000 per year (unless in a case of an emergency), and allows a refugee to adjust his/her status after one year to become a permanent resident and after four more years to become a U.S. citizen.



On 14 February 1981, American fishermen in Galveston Bay, Texas, turn to the Ku Klux Klan to terrorize Vietnamese-American fishermen, claiming unfair competition. Civil rights attorney Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center advocates on behalf of the Vietnamese refugees and wins his case, securing protection from U.S. Marshals and a permanent injunction against the KKK in August 1981.



The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, "The Wall," designed by Chinese American architecture student Maya Lin, is dedicated in Washington, D.C. on 13 November 1982.



By the end of September, the United States has received approximately 659,000 refugees from Southeast Asia, close to two-thirds of whom entered the U.S. between 1979-82, during the period of the refugee crisis. Vietnamese refugees accounted for about two-thirds of all Southeast Asian refugees in United States, while Cambodians and Laotians made up 14% and 21% of the Southeast Asian refugee population.



There is widespread public dissatisfaction among the Vietnamese people, who have been waiting for improvement in the standard of living. Inflation shoots up by 500-700 percent, making life more miserable for the people. In the midst of this, the Sixth Congress of the Việt Nam Communist Party meets on 15-18 December 1986. Economic reformers and younger officials gain more power and influence. Socioeconomic renovation policies, collectively called "Đổi Mới," are adopted to further liberalize the economy. Đổi Mới actually consists of a series of actions taken over a period from 1987 to 1998, but key decisions were adopted in the 1987-1989 period, including liberalization of agriculture, opening Việt Nam to international trade, establishment of a commercial banking sector, end of almost all centrally managed prices, and elimination of most subsidies to state enterprises. In subsequent years, a legal system is slowly developed and major efforts to reduce corruption take place. 



On 22 December 1987, Congress passes the Amerasian Homecoming Act (Public Law 100-202), an effort to resettle Amerasians, the children of American servicemen and Vietnamese women, in the U.S. Amerasian children face severe social and economic discrimination in Vietnam. By 2009, about 25,000 Amerasians and 60,000-70,000 family members have immigrated to the U.S. under this act.



Resettlement countries become increasingly impatient with the continuing outflow of Vietnamese refugees, and other Southeast Asian countries threaten to push back new arrivals. The first forced repatriation of Vietnamese refugees in Southeast Asian camps (Indonesia, Malaysia, The Philippines, Hong Kong, Thailand) occurs under the Comprehensive Plan of Action, which was adopted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in 13-14 June 1989. The new plan requires asylum-seekers from Việt Nam to be screened for refugee status. Many are deemed economic migrants, and not refugees. In the next 10 years, over 110,000 are forced to return to Việt Nam. Việt Nam agrees to take back the boat people living in camps, and promises not to punish people for having escaped the country. The United Nations agrees to monitor the return of the boat people for government harassment or discrimination.

On 26 September 1989, the last Vietnamese troops withdraw from Cambodia.



In July 1989, the U.S. and Việt Nam negotiate an agreement to release more individuals from reeducation camps and allow them to emigrate. Under the Special Release Reeducation Center Detainee Resettlement Program (known as the Humanitarian Operation or "H.O." Program), the first group of former Vietnamese political and reeducation camp prisoners (roughly 7,000) is admitted to the United States in 1990. Over the course of the following decade, over 166,000 former re-education camp detainees and their family members enter the U.S.



Starting on 2 July 1993, the United States takes several steps toward diplomatic normalization, including agreeing to let multilateral lending agencies (World Bank and Asian Development Bank) make loans to Việt Nam. On 3 Feburyar 1994, President Bill Clinton lifts the U.S. trade embargo against Việt Nam that was in place since 1964, allowing U.S. firms to export to Việt Nam and to compete for business opportunities in Việt Nam that had been previously closed. In 1995, the U.S. opens normal diplomatic relations with Viet Nam. Việt Nam opens an embassy in Washington, D.C., on 5 August 1995, and the U.S. Embassy opens in Hà Nội the following day.



From July 1996 to February 1997, Malaysia, SingaporeIndonesia and Thailand close their last Vietnamese refugee camps as the United Nations withdraws funding, and they begin to repatriate their final boat people holdouts, voluntarily and involuntarily, back to Việt Nam.


On 17 October 1996, a CBS News program, “48 Hours,” reports labor abuses at several Nike shoe factories in Việt Nam, where workers have been hit, forced to kneel or physically abused as punishment for supposedly poor-quality work. Workers are typically paid $40 per month, or 20 cents per hour. Nike Corporation takes no responsibility for their subcontractors in Việt Nam. This sparks a wave of protests over the use of sweatshop labor in apparel manufacturing over the next decade.


On 19 June 1996, the U.S. Senate approves measure to compensate more than 200 Vietnamese commandos for time spent in Vietnamese prisons after the CIA and U.S. military infiltrated them into North Vietnam in the 1960s. Despite contracts assuring the commandos would be paid $2,000 annually even if captured, they were written off as dead by the United States. Many of them languished in prisons for as long as 25 years before being freed. Public Law 105-18, signed on 12 June 1997, earmarks $20 million for reparation payments.



On 10 April 1997, Douglas ("Pete") Peterson, a former prisoner of war during the Việt Nam War, is confirmed by the Senate as the first U.S. Ambassador to Việt Nam since the War. Viet Nam, in turn, names Lê Văn Bàng as its Ambassador to the United States. Both men arrive at their respective embassies in Hà Nội and Washington, D.C., on 9 May 1997, and serve until 2001. 


On 3 January 1997, Hong Kong closes its infamous Whitehead Detention Center, which held 29,000 Vietnamese refugees at the height of the crisis. On 8 May 1997, the last of Vietnamese boat people to voluntarily return home from Hong Kong board a UN flight back to Việt Nam. Since the UN's repatriation program started almost ten years ago, about 57,000 people have returned voluntarily to Việt Nam. However, nearly 3,000 people remain in Hong Kong.



In Westminster, CA, on 15 January 1999 (just before the Tết holidays) Little Saigon video store owner Trường Văn Trần sparks rallies drawing as many as 15,000 against his displaying of the flag of Communist Việt Nam and a picture of the late Communist leader Hồ Chí Minh in his shop, Hi-Tek Video. The incident leads to months of protest and sharp debate on First Amendment rights. After unsuccessful attempts from the community to evict Trần and put an end to his antics, he is arrested for video piracy on 5 March 1999 and subsequently removed from his store.


On 31 December 1999, Việt Nam and China sign the China-Vietnam Land Border Treaty. The agreement settles most of the outstanding border disputes along the two countries' common 740-mile border, eight years after normal relations were reestablished in 1991, and ends more than eleven years of diplomatic frost following a bloody border clash (Sino-Vietnamese War) in February-March 1979.



The last Vietnamese refugee camp, Pillar Point in Hong Kong, is closed on 31 May 2000, marking the official end of the Vietnamese refugee crisis for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).


The U.S.-Việt Nam Bilateral Trade Agreement is signed on 13 July 2000, clearing the way for an open economic relationship that is meant to reduce tariffs on goods and services, protect intellectual property and improve investment relations. The Agreement goes into force on 10 December 2001, and extends to Việt Nam a conditional most favored nation (MFN) trade status, made permanent in 2006 with Việt Nam’s entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO).


On 16-19 November 2000, President Bill Clinton visits Việt Nam, becoming the first U.S. president to do so since Richard Nixon’s visit in 1969, during the height of the Việt Nam War.



Often offended by the usage of the Vietnamese Communist flag at many universities, local schools and cities to represent the Vietnamese American community, Vietnamese Americans throughout the U.S. begin to collectively address the issue. In October 2002, a Virginia-based organization, the National Congress of Vietnamese Americans (NCVA). with the help of State Senator Robert Hull, seeks legislation to officially recognize the yellow flag with three red stripes (the flag of the former Republic of Vietnam) as the official flag of Vietnamese American communities. Although this particular attempt fails, it rallies other Vietnamese American communities to seek similar action. On 19 February 2003, Westminster City Council, CA, passes a resolution to officially recognize the South Vietnamese flag and to fly it at all public functions. Soon thereafter, the Vietnamese-American Public Affairs Committee kicks off a nationwide campaign to pass similar "Vietnamese Heritage and Freedom Flag" resolutions throughout the U.S. As of 2015, 20 states and over 80 cities have signed resolutions to recognize the Vietnamese Heritage and Freedom Flag.



On 9 October 2003, Việt Nam and the U.S. agree to allow passenger and cargo flights between the two countries for the first time since the end of the Việt Nam War. The American market accounts for 10% of Việt Nam's aviation business, and the percentage would likely increase with direct flights making travel quicker and more convenient. On 4 December 2003, this agreement is finalized as the Air Transport Agreement.


On 22 November 2003, the U.S. Navy missile frigate USS Vandegrift docks in the port of Hồ Chí Minh City, a symbolic act aimed at boosting relations between Việt Nam and the United States. Many of the crew are sons and daughters of Việt Nam War veterans. It is the first US. ship to dock in Việt Nam since the end of the war.


On 10-12 November 2003, Việt Nam's Defense Minister Phạm Văn Trà meets with U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in Washington. This is the first time a senior Vietnamese Communist military official has visited the U.S.


On 10 July 2003, Governor Gray Davis of California approves Assembly Bill 78 sponsored by Assemblywoman Sarah Reyes of Fresno. AB 78 expresses the Legislature's encouragement for 7-12 social studies classes to include the instruction on the Vietnam War, including the "Secret War" in Laos, and the role of Southeast Asians in the war. AB 78 encourages the use of personal testimony of Southeast Asians within this instruction. However, the bill provided no funding for such instruction. Furthermore, the bill sparked controversy among Mong groups who felt excluded other language in the bill grouping them together with Hmong or with Southeast Asians in general.



After 12 years of talks, Việt Nam becomes the 150th member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) on 11 January 2007. The move facilitates Việt Nam’s continued growth and integration into a global economy. In the first five years after joining the WTO, Việt Nam’s GDP (gross domestic products) increases nearly 2.3 times, and its GDP per capita also doubles.



On 6 December 2008, Joseph Cao is elected in Louisiana to the U.S. House of Representatives, becoming the first Vietnamese American Congressman. A Republican, Cao represented a district that includes the populous city of New Orleans and the Vietnamese American enclave in New Orleans East known unofficially as Versailles. Cao only served one term, losing his office in 2010.



For more information on more recent events in Vietnam, please see the BBC - Vietnam Profile (dated 26 Feb 2015).


For a constantly evolving but more current list of prominent Vietnamese Americans in entertainment, culture, and politics, please see the List of Vietnamese Americans on Wikipedia.


Adapted by Sylvia Chong from Vietnamese Americans: Lessons in American History: An Interdisciplinary Curriculum and Resource Guide, by the Orange County Asian and Pacific Islander Community Alliance and the Vietnamese American Curriculum Project Committee (Garden Grove, CA: The Alliance, 2001).

(2) Timeline: After the Vietnam War (1975-present)