The most immediate effect of the Vietnam War was the staggering death toll. The war killed an estimated 2 million Vietnamese civilians, 1.1 million North Vietnamese troops, 200,000 South Vietnamese troops, and 58,000 U.S. troops. Those wounded in combat numbered tens of thousands more. The massive U.S. bombing of both North and South Vietnam left the country in ruins, and the U.S. Army’s use of herbicides such as Agent Orange not only devastated Vietnam’s natural environment but also caused widespread health problems that have persisted for decades.
In July 1976, the new unified Vietnam was officially reunited as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV), with its capital at Hanoi. Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City. Even though Vietnam had succeeded in evicting the United States, its military problems were not over. In neighboring Kampuchea (as Cambodia was now called), Communist dictator Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge forces began a reign of terror in the hope of creating a pre-industrial utopia, murdering around 2 million people in so-called “killing fields.”
In 1978, the SRV invaded Kampuchea to stop the Khmer Rouge. Although Vietnam’s invasion of Kampuchea put an end to the killing fields, China was threatened by Vietnam’s extension of influence in the region and began a border war with Vietnam. After decades of conflict, Vietnam found itself with the world’s fourth-largest army but one of the world’s poorest economies. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, it began to turn more toward capitalism and a liberal economy.
By 1975, Vietnam was off the Gallup Poll list of top issues in the United States. Aside from concern for remaining U.S. prisoners of war (POWs) still in Vietnam, Americans became less and less concerned with events within the country. Nonetheless, the war had lasting effects. Combined with the Watergate scandal, it inspired widespread public distrust of the U.S. government and made the military less popular, at least in the short term. The draft has not been used since.
The Vietnam War also has played a large role in American popular culture, especially in film. Prominent films such as Taxi Driver (1976), Coming Home (1978), The Deer Hunter (1978), Apocalypse Now (1979), Platoon (1986), Full Metal Jacket (1987), and Born on the Fourth of July (1989) dealt with topics ranging from the brutality of the war itself to the difficulty of Vietnam veterans’ attempts to readjust to American society and cope with war trauma after returning to the United States.
In 1975, it appeared that the Vietnam War was a clear loss for the United States. But while much of Indochina did become Communist, validating the domino theory to an extent, the war left mostly psychological scars in the United States. It did not affect the United States’ status as a superpower, and though North Vietnam “won” the war, realizing Ho Chi Minh’s lifelong dream, Vietnam’s postwar period was filled with more fighting, poverty, and suffering for its people. Today, as capitalism makes inroads in Vietnam, one would hardly suspect that Communists won the war in 1975.
The wars in which the United States had previously been involved, especially World War II, had been winner-take-all wars in which few considerations other than ultimate victory or defeat affected U.S. military policy. The Vietnam War was fundamentally different for the United States, as it was essentially a proxy theater of the larger Cold War with the USSR. Vietnam thus was asymmetrical: whereas North Vietnam’s objectives were simple and straightforward, the United States was burdened by a whole host of other issues in its dealings. Ultimately, Vietnam was an entirely new kind of war for the United States, one that still remains morally and historically problematic. Though far smaller and more geographically confined than the great world wars earlier in the century, Vietnam completely changed the way the United States approached military action and helped define the role of the United States within the new world order.