239. Address by Secretary of State Shultz1

The Meaning of Vietnam

Just a few hundred yards from here stands the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Its stark beauty is a reminder of the searing experience our country went through in its longest war. From a window of my office I can see the crowds of people—veterans, families, old and young—coming to search for names on the black granite slabs, or to search their souls in meditation. It is more than a memorial; it is a living human tribute taking place day after day. This is not surprising. That war left its mark on all the American people.

There are three dozen names that do not appear on that memorial. Instead, they are here in this diplomatic entrance, on our own roll of honor. Many civilians served in Southeast Asia—from the State Department, AID [Agency for International Development], USIA [United States Information Agency], and other agencies. Many of you here today were among them. While the war raged, you were trying to build peace—working for land reform, for public health and economic progress, for constitutional development, for public information, for a negotiated end to the war. I am here to pay tribute to you.

The 10th anniversary of the fall of Indochina is an occasion for all of us, as a nation, to reflect on the meaning of that experience. As the fierce emotions of that time subside, perhaps our country has a better chance now of assessing the war and its impact. This is not merely a historical exercise. Our understanding of the past affects our conduct in the present, and thus, in part, determines our future.

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Let me discuss what has happened in Southeast Asia, and the world, since 1975; what light those postwar events shed on the war itself; and what relevance all this has to our foreign policy today.

Indochina Since 1975

The first point—and it stands out for all to see—is that the communist subjection of Indochina has fulfilled the worst predictions of the time. The bloodshed and misery that communist rule wrought in South Vietnam, and in Cambodia and Laos, add yet another grim chapter to the catalog of agony of the 20th century.

Since 1975, over 1 million refugees have fled South Vietnam to escape the new tyranny. In 1978, Hanoi decided to encourage the flight of refugees by boat. At its height in the spring of 1979, the exodus of these “boat people” reached over 40,000 a month. Tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands never made it to safety and today lie beneath the South China Sea. Others managed to survive pirate attacks and other hardships at sea in their journey to freedom. We have welcomed more than 730,000 Indochinese refugees to our shores. The work of people in this Department has saved countless lives. Your dedication to the refugees of Indochina marks one of the shining moments of the Foreign Service.

In addition to “boat people,” Hanoi has given the world its own version of the “reeducation camp.” When the North Vietnamese Army conquered the south, it rounded up officials and supporters of the South Vietnamese Government, as well as other suspected opponents. Many were executed or disappeared forever. Hundreds of thousands were sent to these camps, suffering hard labor, indoctrination, and violent mistreatment. To this day, upward of 10,000 remain imprisoned. They include Buddhist and Christian clergy and intellectuals, as well as former political figures. According to refugee reports, they face indeterminate sentences, receive food rations below subsistence levels, are denied basic medical care, and are punished severely for even minor infractions of camp rules—punishment often resulting in permanent injury or death.

Hanoi has asserted for years that it will let these prisoners go if only we would take them all. Last fall, President Reagan offered to bring all genuine political prisoners to freedom in the United States.2 Now, Hanoi no longer adheres to its original proposal.

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Another communist practice has been to relocate people in so-called new economic zones. In the years after the fall of Saigon, hundreds of thousands were uprooted and forced into these isolated and barren rural areas to expand agricultural production and reduce “unproductive” urban populations. Many have fled the zones, returning to the cities to live in hiding, without the ration or neighborhood registration cards needed to get food or jobs. Indeed, no one in Vietnam may change residence or place of work without permission, and unauthorized absences open whole families to arrest.

The 24 million people of South Vietnam are now victims of a totalitarian state, before which they stand naked without the protection of a single human right. As Winston Churchill said of another communist state, they have been “frozen in an indefinite winter of subhuman doctrine and superhuman tyranny.”

Compare conditions in Vietnam under 10 years of communist rule with conditions in the South Vietnam we fought to defend. The South Vietnamese Government accepted the principles of free elections, freedom of speech, of the press, and of association. From 1967 to 1971 the South Vietnamese people voted in nine elections; opposition parties played a major role in the assembly. Before 1975 there were 27 daily newspapers, some 200 journals of opinion and scholarship, 3 television and 2 dozen radio stations, all operating in relative freedom.

No, South Vietnam was not a Jeffersonian democracy with full civil liberties by American standards. But there was a vigorous, pluralist political process, and the government intruded little into the private lives of the people. They enjoyed religious freedom and ethnic tolerance, and there were few restrictions on cultural or intellectual life. The transgressions of the Thieu government pale into insignificance next to the systematic, ideologically impelled despotism of the regime that replaced it.

The neutralist government in neighboring Laos was swiftly taken over in 1975 by local communists loyal to Hanoi. As in Vietnam, thousands of former officials were sent to “reeducation camps.” Fifty thousand Vietnamese troops remain in Laos to ensure the “irreversibility” of communist control—in Hanoi’s version of the Brezhnev doctrine—and thousands of Vietnamese advisers are in place to monitor Laos’ own “socialist transformation.”

Hmong villagers in Laos who resisted communist control were suppressed by a military juggernaut that relied on chemical weapons produced and supplied by the Soviet Union in violation of international treaties. Six decades of international restraints on chemical warfare have been dangerously eroding in recent years, and “yellow rain” in Indochina was the first major breach—yellow rain, another addition to our vocabulary from post-1975 Indochina.

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Finally, in Cambodia, the worst horror of all: the genocide of at least 1 million Cambodians by the Khmer Rouge, who also took power 10 years ago this month. The Khmer Rouge emptied the cities and murdered the educated; they set out to destroy traditional Cambodian society and to construct a wholly new and “pure” society on the ruins of the old. A French Jesuit who witnessed the early phases of communist rule called it “a perfect example of the application of an ideology pushed to the furthest limit of its internal logic.” We say at least 1 million dead. Maybe it was 2 million. The suffering and misery represented by such numbers are beyond our ability to comprehend. Our imaginations are confined by the limits of the civilized life we know.

In December 1978, Vietnam went to war with its erstwhile partners and overthrew the Khmer Rouge regime. Naturally, some Cambodians at first welcomed the Vietnamese as liberators.3 But as the Vietnamese invaders came to apply in Cambodia the techniques of repression known all too well to the people of Vietnam, resistance in Cambodia grew.

In 1979, Cambodia was ravaged by widespread famine that killed tens, if not hundreds, of thousands. Vietnam bears much responsibility for this famine. Its invasion prevented the planting of the 1979 rice crop; its army adopted scorched-earth tactics in pursuing the retreating Khmer Rouge. Many will recall how the Vietnamese obstructed international relief programs and refused to cooperate with the efforts of the Red Cross and others to establish a “land bridge” of trucks to bring relief into the country from Thailand.4

Today, Cambodia is ruled by a puppet regime stiffened by a cadre of hundreds of former Khmer Rouge; it is headed by Heng Samrin, a former Khmer Rouge himself. The Vietnamese shell refugee camps along the Thai border in their attempt to smash the resistance.

Hanoi’s leaders are thus extending their rule to the full boundaries of the former colonial domain, seeking dominion over all of Indochina. Not only do the Vietnamese threaten Thailand—the Soviets, with naval and air bases at Cam Ranh Bay, are now better able to project their power in the Pacific, Southeast Asian, and Indian Ocean regions and to [Page 1043] threaten vital Western lines of communication in all these regions. Cam Ranh is now the center of the largest concentration of Soviet naval units outside the U.S.S.R.

Retrospective: The Moral Issue

What does all this mean? Events since 1975 shed light on the past: this horror was precisely what we were trying to prevent. The President has called our effort a noble cause, and he was right. Whatever mistakes in how the war was fought, whatever one’s view of the strategic rationale for our intervention, the morality of our effort must now be clear. Those Americans who served, or who grieve for their loved ones lost or missing, can hold their heads high: our sacrifice was in the service of noble ideals—to save innocent people from brutal tyranny. Ellsworth Bunker used to say: no one who dies for freedom ever dies in vain.5

We owe all our Vietnam veterans a special debt. They fought with courage and skill under more difficult conditions than Americans in any war before them. They fought with a vague and uncertain mission against a tenacious enemy. They fought knowing that part of the nation opposed their efforts. They suffered abuse when they came home. But like their fathers before them, they fought for what Americans have always fought for: freedom, human dignity, and justice. They are heroes. They honored their country, and we should show them our gratitude.

And when we speak of honor and gratitude, we speak again of our prisoners of war—and of the nearly 2,500 men who remain missing. We will not rest until we have received the fullest possible accounting of the fate of these heroes.

Retrospective: The Strategic Price

We left Indochina in 1975, but the cost of failure was high. The price was paid, in the first instance, by the more than 30 million people we left behind to fall under communist rule. But America, and the world, paid a price.

Our domestic divisions weakened us. The war consumed precious defense resources, and the assault on defense spending at home compounded the cost; years of crucial defense investment were lost, while the Soviets continued the steady military buildup they launched after the Cuban missile crisis. These wasted years are what necessitated our recent defense buildup to restore the global balance.

For a time, the United States retreated into introspection, self-doubt, and hesitancy. Some Americans tended to think that American [Page 1044] power was the source of the world’s problems, and that the key to peace was to limit our actions in the world. So we imposed all sorts of restrictions on ourselves. Vietnam—and Watergate—left a legacy of congressional restrictions on presidential flexibility, now embedded in our legislation. Not only the War Powers Resolution6 but a host of constraints on foreign aid, arms exports, intelligence activities, and other aspects of policy—these weakened the ability of the President to act and to conduct foreign policy, and they weakened our country. Thus we pulled back from global leadership.

Our retreat created a vacuum that was exploited by our adversaries. The Soviets concluded that the global “correlation of forces” was shifting in their favor. They took advantage of our inhibitions and projected their power to unprecedented lengths: intervening in Angola, in Ethiopia, in South Yemen, and in Afghanistan. The Iranian hostage crisis deepened our humiliation.

American weakness turned out to be the most destabilizing factor on the global scene. The folly of isolationism was again revealed. Once again it was demonstrated—the hard way—that American engagement, American strength, and American leadership are indispensable to peace. A strong America makes the world a safer place.

Where We Are Today

Today, there are some more positive trends. In Asia, the contrast between communist Indochina and the rest of the region is striking. Indochina is an economic wreck; the countries of ASEAN [Association of South East Asian Nations] are advancing economically. In 1982, their per capita income averaged $770; Vietnam’s was $160. ASEAN is a model of regional cooperation. It is now our fifth largest trading partner. In the past 5 years, total U.S. trade with East Asia and the Pacific surpassed our trade with any other region of the world. Our relations with Japan remain excellent and our ties with China are expanding. The regional picture is clouded by the growing Soviet military presence and by Vietnam’s continuing aggression. But a sense of community among the Pacific nations is growing. A decade after the war, America is restoring its position in Asia.

At home, the United States is recovering its economic and military strength. We have overcome the economic crisis of the 1970s and once again are enjoying economic growth with stable prices. We are rebuilding our defenses. We have regained the confidence and optimism about the future that have always been the real basis for our national strength. We see a new patriotism, a new pride in our country.

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A lot of rethinking is going on about the Vietnam war—a lot of healthy rethinking. Many who bitterly opposed it have a more sober assessment now of the price that was paid for failure. Many who supported it have a more sober understanding now of the responsibilities that rest on our nation’s leaders when they call on Americans to make such a sacrifice. We know that we must be prudent in our commitments. We know that we must be honest with ourselves about the costs that our exertions will exact. And we should have learned that we must maintain the ability to engage with, and support, those striving for freedom, so that options other than American military involvement remain open.

The Relevance of the Vietnam Experience

That experience has many other lessons. We acted under many illusions during the Vietnam period, which events since 1975 should have dispelled. We have no excuse for falling prey to the same illusions again.

During the Vietnam war, we heard an endless and shifting sequence of apologies for the communists: that they were “nationalists”; that they were an indigenous anticolonial movement; that they were engaged in a civil war that the outside world should not meddle in. As these arguments were proved hollow, the apologies changed. We heard that a communist victory would not have harmful consequences, either in their countries or the surrounding region. We were told that the communists’ ambitions would be satisfied, that their behavior would become moderate. As these assertions became less convincing, the apologies turned to attack those who fought to be free of communism: our friends were denounced as corrupt and dictatorial, unworthy of our support. Their smallest misdeeds were magnified and condemned.

Then we heard the theme that we should not seek “military solutions,” that such conflicts were the product of deep-seated economic and social factors. The answer, they said, was not security assistance but aid to develop the economy and raise living standards. But how do you address economic and social needs when communist guerrillas— as in Vietnam then and in Central America now—are waging war against the economy in order to maximize hardship? Our economic aid then, as now, is massive; but development must be built on the base of security. And what are the chances for diplomatic solutions if—as we saw after the 1973 Paris agreement7—we fail to maintain the balance of strength on which successful negotiation depends? Escapism about the realities of power and security—that is a pretty good definition of isolationism.

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And finally, of course, the critics turned their attack on America. America can do no right, they said. Now, criticism of policy is natural and commonplace in a democracy. But we should bear this past experience in mind in our contemporary debates. The litany of apology for communists, and condemnation for America and our friends, is beginning again. Can we afford to be naive again about the consequences when we pull back, about the special ruthlessness of communist rule? Do the American people really accept the notion that we, and our friends, are the representatives of evil?

The American people believe in their country and in its role as a force for good. They want to see an effective foreign policy that blocks aggression and advances the cause of freedom and democracy. They are tired of setbacks, especially those that result from restraints we impose on ourselves.

Vietnam and Central America

Vietnam and Central America—I want to tackle this analogy head-on.

Our goals in Central America are like those we had in Vietnam: democracy, economic progress, and security against aggression. In Central America, our policy of nurturing the forces of democracy with economic and military aid and social reform has been working—without American combat troops. And by virtue of simple geography, there can be no conceivable doubt that Central America is vital to our own security.

With the recent legislative and municipal elections, El Salvador has now held four free elections in the past 3 years.8 When the new assembly takes office shortly, El Salvador will have completed an extraordinary exercise in democracy—drafting a new constitution and electing a new government, all in the midst of a guerrilla war. The state of human rights is greatly improved, the rule of law is strengthened, and the performance of the armed forces markedly better. Americans can be proud of the progress of democracy in El Salvador and in Central America as a whole.

The key exception is Nicaragua. Just as the Vietnamese communists used progressive and nationalist slogans to conceal their intentions, the Nicaraguan communists employ slogans of social reform, nationalism, [Page 1047] and democracy to obscure their totalitarian goals. The 1960 platform of the communists in South Vietnam promised:

Freedom of expression, press, assembly, and association, travel, religion, and other democratic liberties will be promulgated. Religious, political, and patriotic organizations will be permitted freedom of activity regardless of belief and tendencies. There will be a general amnesty for all political detainees [and] the concentration camps dissolved. . . . [I]llegal arrests, illegal imprisonment, torture, and corporal punishment shall be forbidden.

These promises were repeated time after time. We find similar promises in the letter the Nicaraguan revolutionary junta sent to the Organization of American States in July 1979. The junta, which included the communist leader Daniel Ortega, declared its “firm intention to establish full observance of human rights” and to “call . . . free elections.”9 The Nicaraguan communists made the same commitment when they agreed to the Contadora Document of Objectives in September 1983, and when they said they accepted the Contadora draft treaty of September 1984.10

What the communists, in fact, have tried to do since they took power in Nicaragua is the opposite: to suppress or drive out noncommunist democratic political forces; to install an apparatus of state control down to the neighborhood level; to build a huge war machine; to repress the Roman Catholic Church; to persecute Indians and other ethnic groups, including forcible relocations of population; and to welcome thousands of Cuban, Soviet, East European, PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization], and Libyan military and civilian personnel. They have formed links with PLO, Iranian, and Libyan terrorists, and are testing their skills as drug traffickers. Like the Vietnamese communists, they have become a threat to their neighbors.

Broken promises; communist dictatorship; refugees; widened Soviet influence, this time near our very borders—here is your parallel between Vietnam and Central America.

Brave Nicaraguans—perhaps up to 15,000—are fighting to recover the promise of the 1979 revolution from the communists who betrayed it. They deserve our support. They are struggling to prevent the consolidation and expansion of communist power on our doorstep and to [Page 1048] save the people of Nicaragua from the fate of the people of Cuba, South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Those who assure us that these dire consequences are not in prospect are some of those who assured us of the same in Indochina before 1975.

Particularly today, what can we as a country say to a young Nicaraguan: “Learn to live with oppression; only those of us who already have freedom deserve to pass it on to our children”? What can we say to those Salvadorans who stood so bravely in line to vote: “We may give you some aid for self-defense, but we will also give a free hand from a privileged sanctuary to the communists in Nicaragua to undermine your new democratic institutions”?

The critical issue today is whether the Nicaraguan communists will take up in good faith the call of the church and of the democratic opposition for a cease-fire and national dialogue.11 This is what President Reagan called for on April 4.12 What does it tell us about the Nicaraguan regime that it refuses dialogue combined with a cease-fire? What does it tell us about who is prolonging the killing? About who is the enemy of democracy? What does it tell us about the prospects for peace in Central America if the democratic forces are abandoned?

The ordeal of Indochina in the past decade—as well as the oppressions endured by the people of Cuba and every other country where communists have seized power—should teach us something. The experience of Iran since the fall of the Shah is also instructive. Do we want another Cuba in this hemisphere? How many times must we learn the same lesson, and what is America’s responsibility?

America’s Responsibility

Today, we remember a setback, but the noble cause of defending freedom is still our cause. Our friends and allies still rely on us. Our responsibility remains.

America’s Armed Forces are still the bulwark of peace and security for the free world. America’s diplomats are still on the front line of efforts to reduce arsenals, settle conflicts, and push back the danger of war.

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The larger lesson of the past decade is that when America lost faith in itself, world stability suffered and freedom lost ground. This must never happen again. We carry the banner of liberty, democracy, the dignity of the individual, tolerance, the rule of law. Throughout our history, including the period of Vietnam, we have been the champion of freedom, a haven of opportunity, and a beacon of hope to oppressed peoples everywhere.

Let us be true to the hopes invested in us. Let us live up to our ideals and be their strong and faithful champion around the world.

  1. Source: Department of State Bulletin, June 1985, pp. 13–16. All brackets are in the original. Shultz spoke at the Department of State. The Department transmitted the text of Shultz’s address to all East Asian and Pacific diplomatic posts in telegram 126117, April 26. (Department of State, Central Foreign Policy File, Electronic Telegrams, D850290–0429) In his memoirs, Shultz recalled that April 29 “was the tenth anniversary of the fall of Saigon. Should the administration say anything at all on the occasion, and if so, what? The overwhelming weight of opinion, expressed with increasing vehemence, was ‘don’t open old wounds.’ I decided that a speech should be given, and I began to work on a draft, with the help of a few close associates, in a process that often became intense.” Shultz noted that he delivered the address in the diplomatic lobby of the Department, adding: “Emotions ran high. There were both cheers and tears. When it was over, I was wrung out. Reporters asked Ronald Reagan whether I was speaking for the administration in my comments on Vietnam. ‘Damn right he was,’ the president responded.” (Shultz, Turmoil and Triumph, pp. 552 and 553)
  2. On September 11, 1984, in testimonies before both the Senate and House Judiciary subcommittees on refugees and immigration, Shultz indicated that the administration would grant asylum to political prisoners held in Vietnamese re-education camps. See Bernard Gwertzman, “More Vietnamese To Get Permission to Enter the U.S.: Shultz Announces Move,” New York Times, pp. A1, A12, and Lena H. Sun, “U.S. to Grant Asylum To Vietnam Prisoners,” Washington Post, p. A14; both September 12, 1984.
  3. In an April 24 note to Hill, handwritten on the stationery of the Policy Planning Council, Rodman wrote: “I have kept in, though toned down, the analogy on page 6 of the Cambodians welcoming the Vietnamese as liberators with the Ukrainians welcoming the Nazis. I think this is an effective way to blunt the current argument that the Vietnamese in Cambodia are a big improvement over the Khmer Rouge. (See last week’s Newsweek.) We can discuss. Peter.” The note is attached to an April 24 set of draft talking points on the Vietnam address. (Department of State, Executive Secretariat, S/P Files, Memoranda and Correspondence from the Director of the Policy Planning Staff to the Secretary and Other Seventh Floor Principals: Lot 89D149, S/P Chrons 4/1–30/85)
  4. See footnote 3, Document 133.
  5. Ambassador to the Republic of Vietnam from 1967 until 1973; Ambassador at Large from 1973 until 1978.
  6. See footnote 5, Document 191.
  7. See footnote 5, Document 8.
  8. The national legislative election took place in El Salvador on March 31. Duarte’s Christian Democratic Party claimed victory. For additional information, see James LeMoyne, “Duarte’s Party Claims Victory: Christian Democrats Say They Have Majority in Salvador,” New York Times, April 1, 1985, pp. A1, A10, and Michael Getler and Robert J. McCartney, “Duarte’s Party Is Said to Win Overwhelmingly,” Washington Post, April 2, 1985, pp. A1, A23.
  9. The junta released its letter to OAS Secretary-General Orfila on July 13, 1979. (Warren Hoge, “Nicaraguan Rebels Turn to O.A.S., Call Terms of U.S. ‘Irreconcilable’,” New York Times, July 14, 1979, p. 4) For additional information, see Foreign Relations, 1977–1980, vol. XV, Central America, Document 268.
  10. See footnote 2, Document 214.
  11. See footnote 9, Document 237.
  12. In remarks made at the White House on April 4, the President stated: “The formula that worked in El Salvador—support for democracy, self-defense, economic development, and dialog—will work for the entire region. And we couldn’t have accomplished this without bipartisan support in Congress, backed up by the National Bipartisan Commission on Central America, headed by Henry Kissinger. And that’s why, after months of consulting with congressional leaders and listening carefully to their concerns, I am making the following proposal: I’m calling upon both sides to lay down their arms and accept the offer of church-mediated talks on internationally supervised elections and an end to the repression now in place against the church, the press, and individual rights.” (Public Papers: Reagan, 1985, Book I, p. 401)