By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
The rate of Americans retiring in Vietnam is increasing, the Los Angeles Times reported. Baby boomers are attracted by a booming middle class, lower health care costs, and inexpensive housing. Fifty years ago, a brutal and unpopular war made the idea unthinkable.
The Los Angeles Times story featured a U.S. Navy veteran of the Vietnam War as one example of the recent surge in American retirees settling down for good in the Southeast Asian country. The article said that he and his wife, who live in a 20-floor condo in Ho Chi Minh City, “bought the four-bedroom, 3-1/2 bathroom unit, measuring about 1,840 square feet along with a separate veranda, for about $250,000 in 2011.” Their monthly expenses—including help from a cook and a cleaner—are under $2,000. The standard of living, cheap health care, and thriving middle class are turning Vietnam into the new Florida for some U.S. veterans who are looking for the best overseas place to retire. For a long time, during and after the very unpopular Vietnam War, such an idea was anathema to either country.
Getting into Vietnam
Once a French colony, Vietnam declared its independence when Vietnamese nationalist leader Ho Chi Minh ousted the French in the mid-1950s, amid the Geneva Accords. U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, fighting the Cold War and fearing Vietnam would fall to communism, pledged aid to Ngo Dinh Diem, Minh’s political rival, which would continue until President John F. Kennedy’s time in office.
“Because Diem was so dictatorial and so autocratic, though, and also very corrupt—enriching himself and his immediate family and cronies—he never developed the legitimacy that a ruler needs,” said Dr. Patrick N. Allitt, Calhoon Family Professor of American History at Emory University. “Among Kennedy’s difficulties was the deep unpopularity of the Diem regime.”
Protests against Diem included the famous demonstrations by Buddhist monks who lit themselves on fire in public streets. Eventually, Dr. Allitt said, American ambassadors learned of a planned assassination attempt on Diem and reported it to Kennedy, who instructed them to allow the assassination to proceed. Kennedy had hoped to back a suitable successor to Diem in South Vietnam, but none came.
In 1964, an allegedly unprovoked attack on two American ships by the North Vietnamese led the U.S. federal government to authorize use of force in the faraway country. By 1967, Dr. Allitt said, a half a million American soldiers were engaged in war in Vietnam.
Things Falling Apart
Fighting to support one half of a nation and to defeat the other proved a strange and unusual task for American soldiers, especially with such blurred lines between ally and enemy. In addition, troops rarely felt the unwavering sense of duty to or protection of their own nation that World War II troops had felt before them.
“Morale among the American troops dropped very, very rapidly, and one of the manifestations of this fall in morale was the way in which soldiers would kill their own commanding officers if they thought the commanders were too zealous,” Dr. Allitt said. “This was called ‘fragging,’ because it was possible to roll the fragmentation grenade into the tent where a zealous officer was sleeping and kill him, and then disavow all knowledge of how the action had come about. There were over 700 of these fragging incidents in the late 1960s and early 1970s.”
Drug addiction exacerbated things as well. According to Dr. Allitt, the ease of drug manufacturing in Vietnam led to hospitalizations of soldiers for drug-related problems at a rate four times higher than hospitalizations for combat wounds.
“Eventually, 60,000 Americans died in Vietnam, and 300,000 more were wounded there,” Dr. Allitt said. “At the same time, about two million of the Vietnamese people died.”
Officially, America withdrew from the Vietnam War in 1973. “The Watergate crisis of 1972 through 1974, and the unpopularity of the war, prevented the [American military] from ever returning to Vietnam, even when the North Vietnamese army launched a conventional offensive against the south, and finally overran it in 1975,” Dr. Allitt said.
The Los Angeles Times said that since the end of the war, “innumerable American veterans have returned to Vietnam, seeking understanding, forgiveness, or reconciliation.” With this latest trend in retiring abroad, U.S. veterans of the Vietnam War may be seeking exactly that as they return to live in Vietnam during their retirement years.
Dr. Patrick N. Allitt contributed to this article. Dr. Allitt is Cahoon Family Professor of American History at Emory University, where he has taught since 1988. The holder of a doctorate in history from the University of California, Berkeley, Professor Allitt—an Oxford University graduate—has also taught American religious history at Harvard Divinity School, where he was a Henry Luce Postdoctoral Fellow.