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date: 18 October 2019

Summary and Keywords

It is a truism in the history of warfare that the victors impose the terms for postwar peace. The Vietnam War, however, stands as an exception to this general rule. There can be no doubt that with its capture of the former South Vietnamese capitol on April 30, 1975, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam won unequivocal military victory. Thereafter, the North achieved its longtime goal of reuniting the two halves of Vietnam into a new nation, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV), governed from Hanoi. These changes, however, did not alter the reality that, despite its military defeat, the United States still wielded a preponderant amount of power in global geopolitics. This tension between the war’s military outcome and the relatively unchanged asymmetry of power between Washington and Hanoi, combined with the passion the war evoked in both countries, created a postwar situation that was far from straightforward. In fact, for years the relationship between the former adversaries stood at an uneasy state, somewhere between war and peace. Scholars call this process by which US-Vietnam relations went from this nebulous state to more regular bilateral ties “normalization.”

Normalization between the United States and Vietnam was a protracted, highly contentious process. Immediately after the fall of Saigon, the Gerald Ford administration responded in a hostile fashion by extending the economic embargo that the United States had previously imposed on North Vietnam to the entire country, refusing to grant formal diplomatic recognition to the SRV, and vetoing the SRV’s application to the United Nations. Briefly in 1977 it seemed as though Washington and Hanoi might achieve a rapid normalization of relations, but lingering wartime animosity, internal dynamics in each country, regional transformations in Southeast Asia, and the reinvigoration of the Cold War on a global scale scuttled the negotiations.

Between the fall of 1978 and late 1991, the United States refused to have formal normalization talks with Vietnam, citing the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia and the need to obtain a “full accounting” of missing American servicemen. In these same years, however, US-Vietnamese relations remained far from frozen. Washington and Hanoi met in a series of multilateral and bilateral forums to address the US quest to account for missing American servicemen and an ongoing refugee crisis in Southeast Asia. Although not a linear process, these discussions helped lay the personal and institutional foundations for US-Vietnamese normalization.

Beginning in the late 1980s, internal, regional, and international transformations once again rapidly altered the larger geopolitical context of US-Vietnamese normalization. These changes led to the resumption of formal economic and diplomatic relations in 1994 and 1995, respectively. Despite this tangible progress, however, the normalization process continued. After 1995 the economic, political, humanitarian, and defense aspects of bilateral relations increased cautiously but significantly. By the first decade of the 21st century, US-Vietnamese negotiations in each of these areas had accelerated considerably.

Keywords: Vietnam, United States, normalization, POW/MIA, Indochinese diaspora, Amerasians, reeducation camp detainees, boat people, refugees, Agent Orange

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