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The Many Ends of the Vietnam War

April 30, 1975 is commonly understood to be the dramatic endpoint of the Vietnam War. For the victorious Vietnamese, what they called the liberation of Saigon marked a “total victory after thirty years of grim and bloody sacrifice.”[1] For those Vietnamese who lost, the events of late April evoke the collapse of their country, the erasure of their nation from the geopolitical map, an indescribable loss. Accordingly, for Vietnamese communities in the United States, April 30th is commemorated as a day of grief and mourning, “Black April.”  For the U.S. government, the rapid fall of Saigon spurred a hasty, humiliating exit immortalized in Dutch photographer Hubert Van Es’ (in)famous image of a U.S. helicopter frantically evacuating individuals off a rooftop in downtown Saigon. Although the Peace of Paris Accords had brought the last of U.S. combat troops home in March 1973, the inglorious exit in April 1975 was depicted then and has been generally remembered since as a fitting conclusion to the nation’s first military loss, the exclamation point at the end of a long line of failures and embarrassments in which the limits of American power were thrown into sharp relief. Concluding the narrative of the Vietnam War on April 30, 1975 seems obvious (even if for many, painful) insofar as the war was finally over. Except, it wasn’t.

There is much truth to the adage that wars are easy to begin and hard to end. Scholars have shown how marking the formal, legal end to armed conflicts is much more difficult than it appears at first glance.[2] When we acknowledge that “all wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory,” the picture becomes infinitely more complex.[3] Although a profound turning point, April 30, 1975 did not mark a definitive end to the Vietnam War but the start of a new chapter in U.S.-Vietnamese relations. Although the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) collapsed, many of its citizens who were aligned with the U.S./RVN maintained their national identity as South Vietnamese long after 1975.[4] In the ensuing two decades, the United States, the South Vietnamese people, and the government of a unified Vietnam governed from Hanoi, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV), all had to contend with the reality that the war remained ongoing even as each group made efforts toward postwar reconciliation and peace. The dualities, ironies, and paradoxes of the decades after 1975 are only decipherable once we acknowledge that, rather than diametrically opposed, war and peace are often entangled.

When I teach the Vietnam War, therefore, we encounter April 30, 1975, not on the final day of the semester but with three or four weeks left to go. During the last portion of the class, we examine the myriad of ways the war persisted, including the Indochinese diaspora. The departure of over three million people from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia between 1975 and 1995 marked one of the largest migrations of the late twentieth century. In the twenty years after 1975, over one million Vietnamese ultimately resettled in the United States through journeys that involved clandestine flight or emigration programs that brought individuals directly from Vietnam to the United States. The vast majority were former American allies and their close family members. Despite the tendency to frame refugee migrations as parenthetical to or found in the postscript of the “real” war, the recent conflict in Ukraine serves as a vivid reminder that displacement and dislocation are part and parcel of the wartime experience. For those who risked everything on the high seas (the so-called “boat people”), who attempted daring overland escapes (the “land people”), or who endured prolonged and uncertain stays in refugee camps throughout Southeast Asia, the Second Indochina War (what we call “the Vietnam War” in the United States) remained ongoing, even as the Third Indochina War (armed conflict between the communist states of China, Vietnam, and Cambodia) erupted.

Contemplating the ways the Vietnam War persisted after 1975 also demands that we recognize the war’s nebulous geographic boundaries. Although called “the Vietnam War” by Americans and “the American War” by victorious Vietnamese, this was never a conflict fought purely between Americans and Vietnamese, nor was it limited to Vietnamese soil. The Ho Chi Minh Trail, for instance, ran through Laos. More U.S. bombs rained down on Laos than any other nation during the Vietnam War, during which time the small, landlocked nation “absorbed more bombs per square mile than any country in the history of warfare.”[5] The CIA was also active in Laos, where it recruited over 30,000 men and boys to form a “Secret Army” aligned with the U.S. and South Vietnamese, who became the target of extermination attacks after 1975. The Ho Chi Minh and Sihanouk Trails also ran through large portions of Cambodia. The nation served as a hideout and launching area for the National Liberation Front (which the U.S. derogatorily referred to as the “Viet Cong”) and was the target of both a fourteen-month secret U.S. bombing campaign (“Operation Menu”) and Nixon’s “incursion” in April 1970. I therefore include Cambodian and Laotian experiences when teaching about the Indochinese diaspora; the Vietnamese “boat people” were perhaps the most visible of the migrants, but they constituted only one part of a much larger and more complex migration. I also devote a class period to the Cambodian Genocide, an event which most of my students have never heard of before (I assign Loung Ung’s At First They Killed My Father, which has also been turned into a film directed by Angelina Jolie). Any study into post-1975 conditions in Laos or Cambodia belies the assertion that after 1975 the people of Indochina were at peace.

While President Gerald Ford proclaimed the war “finished as far as America is concerned” in late April 1975, the war also persisted for many Americans, even as a large portion of the country was eager to move on from the conflict.[6] In my course we examine the campaign to provide a “full accounting” of missing American servicemen, an initiative which cost billions of dollars and became a primary means through which Americans discussed, remembered, and continued to fight the Vietnam War after 1975. For those missing a loved one and the millions who believed in the existence of live American POWs being held against their will in Vietnam, the war endured in “the intimate sites of the family.” [7] The conflict also lingered for U.S.-RVN affiliated Vietnamese incarcerated in “reeducation camps,” Indochinese families who chose to flee Southeast Asia, and for many of those who chose to remain.

In my course we also explore how the war persisted on cultural, economic, and political levels. As Jill Lepore observed, “writing about war can be almost as difficult as waging it and, often enough, is essential to winning it.”[8] This insight forces us to consider the myriad of ways war can continue long after the shooting stops. Despite Hanoi’s unequivocal military victory in April 1975, the United States retained its stature as the most powerful nation in the world, a country which still controlled not only national, but also—thanks to Hollywood’s global reach—much of the international memory-making about the conflict. I therefore challenge my students to take seriously Edwin Martini’s assertion that by mobilizing these and other tools the United States “continued to wage economic, political, and cultural war on Vietnam long after 1975.”[9] If war is politics by other means, then can politics, too, be war by other means?

When do wars end, and who gets to decide? These deceptively simple questions are actually quite difficult to answer. When I teach the Vietnam War, therefore, one of the short answer questions on the final exam is always some version of: when did the Vietnam War end, and does the conflict have different end dates for different groups involved? My goal with this question is not to elicit a specific answer but to challenge students to wrestle with the complexity of the question.

April 30, 1975, was a day that changed lives, fates, and nations. It is for good reason that its anniversary prompts reflections, recollections, and commemorations about what Americans call the Vietnam War. As we contemplate a series of Vietnam War–related anniversaries this spring, we are, in some ways, reflecting on a variety of perceived endpoints. These considerations can and should include a multitude of questions. Foremost among them should be: what was over, what endured, who or what do our current stories serve, and might we want to revise them? I challenge readers to pick up a pen.

Amanda C. Demmer is an assistant professor at Virginia Tech, where she researches and teaches about war, diplomacy, and migration. Her first book, After Saigon’s Fall: Refugees and U.S.-Vietnamese Relations, 1975–2000, was published in 2021 with Cambridge University Press.

[1] Truong Nhu Tang, A Vietcong Memoir: An Inside Account of the Vietnam War and Its Aftermath (1986), 263.

[2] Mary L. Dudziak, War Time: An Idea, Its History, Its Consequences (2012).

[3] Viet Thanh Nguyen, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War (2016), 4.

[4] This premise is supported by much of the scholarship in the field of Critical Refugee Studies. See, for example: Long T. Bui, Returns of War: South Vietnam and the Price of Refugee Memory (2018), 17.

[5] Alfred M. McCoy, “America’s Secret War in Laos, 1955–75,” in Marilyn B. Young and Robert Buzzanco, eds., A Companion to the Vietnam War (2002), 284.

[6] Gerald Ford, “Remarks of the President to the Tulane University Student Body,” April 23, 1975,, accessed March 2, 2023.

[7] Sam Vong, “‘Compassion Gave Us a Special Superpower’: Vietnamese Women Leaders, Reeducation Camps, and the Politics of Family Reunification, 1977–1991,” Journal of Women’s History, 30 (Fall 2018), 108.

[8] Jill Lepore, The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity (1998), ix.

[9] Edwin Martini, Invisible Enemies: The American War on Vietnam, 1975–2000 (2007), 3.

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