A famous image of the war – nine-year-old Kim Phuc running from a napalm attack.
The human and economic costs of the Vietnam War were devastating. In September 1945, Ho Chi Minh stood in Hanoi’s Ba Dinh Square and proclaimed the birth of an independent Vietnam. But it would take 30 more years and millions of lives before this dream became a reality. The struggle for Vietnam was one of the 20th century’s great human tragedies. Estimates of the number of people killed there range from 2.5 million to over 4 million; an even larger number were maimed, disfigured, displaced or orphaned. Since the war was fought for civilians, by civilians and among civilians, the majority of casualties were civilians. American planes dropped seven million tons of ordnance – three times the amount they had dropped in World War II – as well as napalm and chemical defoliants. This not only claimed lives, it devastated cities, buildings, infrastructure, farmland and vegetation. Neither this bombing or the ground war was confined by the borders of Vietnam, with both Laos and Cambodia suffering enormous human loss and material devastation.
The United States lost almost 60,000 service personnel and civilians in Vietnam: 58,269 killed and 1,672 missing. America struggled to come to terms with these losses – and to understand the meaning, significance and lessons of the Vietnam War. Many simply chose not to speak of what diplomat George Kennan called “the most disastrous undertaking” in 200 years of US history. But there were also the inevitable justifications, criticisms and retributions. Some shouted that Vietnam was a nationalist conflict which Washington had no business intervening in. Its attempts at state-building had failed utterly, beginning with its flawed choice of Diem as a prospective leader of South Vietnam, through to its propping up of Nguyen Van Thieu and the ARVN. Some claimed the civilian deaths unleashed by American military action – from incidental killings, to atrocities like My Lai, to indiscriminate carpet bombing – left little to differentiate between the US and the communist regimes it was seeking to contain. Critics on the political right-wing argued the war had been winnable but was lost by the politicians, who restricted the terms of engagement, refused to authorise more firepower (including tactical nuclear weapons) and left the army short of men and supplies. Consequently, the defeat represented a betrayal of the US military by civilian politicians.
A wounded superpower
The arguments about the war were heated and visceral and led Americans to question one another’s morality and good faith. The nation grew to distrust its leaders as a result of governmental deceit, and Americans with differing views of the war were distrustful of and hostile to one another. Jack Smith, a psychologist who had served as a Marine in Vietnam, said that everyone blamed everyone else for what had gone wrong: ‘Military men blame policy makers, right-wingers blame the pinkos and the media and protestors, the left blame the right’.
Patrick Hagopian, historian
These debates echoed in discussions about America’s global role. Vietnam was the first war defeat in US history and would shape American foreign policy for several years. Confidence in the Domino Theory was undermined, if not destroyed, while Nixon publicly announced the end of the Truman Doctrine. Public trust in the US government also faded and would take years to recover. World confidence in America as the ‘arsenal of democracy’ also suffered. Washington withdrew significantly from foreign disputes and crises, becoming less interventionist and assertive. It also entered into a period of detente (agreement) with its Cold War rivals, the Soviet Union and communist China. The practical impact of the war on the domestic United States was also profound. Two decades of military intervention and propping up friendly regimes cost the US almost $US170 billion – close to $1 trillion in today’s terms. These war costs stalled some of Lyndon Johnson’s ‘Great Society’ reforms, such as anti-poverty measures and improvements to social security.
The American soldiers who returned as veterans of the Vietnam War faced their own personal challenges, beginning with their homecoming. The men of World War II were welcomed home with crowds, tickertape and fanfare – but Vietnam veterans were received with a combination of indifference, embarrassment and contempt. Some were unfairly harassed and abused by anti-war protestors. Though the majority of Vietnam veterans returned to the US and to civilian life without serious problems, a large number found this readjustment difficult. Thousands struggled to find and hold down jobs, form new relationships and keep their marriages intact. Some battled with alcoholism and drug abuse, while many succumbed to suicide (almost 100,000 to date). A government survey in 1988 concluded that 479,000 people – just over 15 per cent of US service personnel posted to Vietnam – had been diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The symptoms of PTSD included depression, anxiety, nervousness, sleep deprivation, ‘flashbacks’ and social isolation.
There were also physical problems to cope with, such as the effects of chemical defoliants. An estimated 18 million gallons of defoliant, bearing codenames like Agent Blue and Agent Orange, was dropped by US planes over the course of the war. The aim of this mission was threefold: to remove jungle and vegetation cover being used by the Viet Cong; to destroy Viet Cong food crops; and to persuade Vietnamese villagers to move away from Viet Cong strongholds and into protected ‘Agrovilles’ and strategic hamlets. These defoliants denuded large areas of Vietnam, leaving farmland barren and untouchable for several years. But they also had an insidious impact on people, both local civilians and the Americans and their allies. One of the most common defoliants, Agent Orange, was later found to contain a carcinogenic dioxin. Vietnam veterans in the US, Australia and other countries have suffered from increased rates of cancers and birth defects, possibly as a result of their exposure to Agent Orange.
The human costs
The human costs of the war in south-east Asia were greater by several orders of magnitude. While the number of American deaths was well documented, neither the South Vietnamese, the North Vietnamese or the NLF (Viet Cong) kept stringent records about personnel or losses. American ‘body counts’ of the enemy were notoriously unreliable, often little more than ambitious estimates. Thousands vanished, lost in thick jungle, obliterated by bombs or incinerated by napalm. Conservative estimates suggest the war claimed around 1.9 million Vietnamese lives, as well as 200,000 Cambodians and 100,000 Laotians. The true figures, however, are probably much higher. Also, these estimates do not include post-war deaths from famine and disease; or the millions killed by regimes like the Khmer Rouge, who came to power largely because of the disruption created by the Vietnam War. Between 3.2 million and 5 million people were also disabled, disfigured or seriously wounded.
|South Vietnam (military)
|South Vietnam (civilians)
|North Vietnam (military)
|North Vietnam (civilians)
A wave of refugees
The victory of communist regimes in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos also triggered one of the largest refugee crises in history. Between 2-3 million people are believed to have fled these countries in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, most packed into overcrowded boats. Most of these vessels were converted fishing boats, poorly maintained and unsuited to the open ocean; they were manned by fishermen unfamiliar with navigating the open sea. Some boats even left without a fixed destination in mind. From 1975 to the early 1980s the world press was filled with horror stories about boats sinking or disintegrating at sea, and thousands of refugees drowning, starving or being murdered by pirates. As many as one-quarter of ‘boat people’ – as they became known – are believed to have perished at sea. The vast flow of refugees led to humanitarian camps being set up in Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia and other Asian countries. Almost two million refugees were eventually relocated to the US, Australia, Canada, France and other European countries.
This mass exodus – along with the physical devastation of the war and the socialist policies imposed by new regimes – generated years of famine and suffering in south-east Asia. A decade of warfare left Vietnam – particularly its northern provinces – utterly devastated. US Air Force commander Curtis Le May had once promised to “bomb [Vietnam] back to the Stone Age”, a promise that was very nearly delivered. Vietnam’s infrastructure, one of the few positive legacies of French colonialism, was in ruins. There was little that had not been bombed, blasted or shot up – from roads to railways, buildings to bridges, ports to power stations. Agricultural land was poisoned with defoliant or set alight after being drenched with napalm or diesel. Vietnamese farmers could not return to some areas for years – and when they did, they faced the danger of triggering land mines and unexploded aerial bombs left by departing forces. Even today there are an estimated 4-6 million items of unexploded ordnance still scattered around Vietnam.
1. The war claimed between 2.5-4 million lives, the vast majority Vietnamese civilians – plus almost 60,000 Americans.
2. Defeat led to a period of despondency in the US, along with debates and recriminations over America’s involvement.
3. Many US war veterans struggled to readjust to civilian life, suffering from psychological effects or illnesses.
4. Economic impact was felt in both nations, especially Vietnam, which suffered inestimable damage to infrastructure.
5. More than two million people fled south-east Asia, leading to a refugee crisis and massive resettlement programs.
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “The costs of the Vietnam War”, Alpha History, accessed [today's date], http://alphahistory.com/vietnam/costs-of-the-vietnam-war/.