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History, The Socialist Republic of Vietnam

Pol Pot regime, Chinese leaders, Communist leaders, Chinese troops, Mekong Delta

In 1976 the South was officially reunited with the North in a new Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Under the leadership of Le Duan, party chief since the death of Ho Chi Minh in 1969, Communist leaders in Hanoi adopted an ambitious plan to bring about the creation of an advanced Communist society. However, extensive war damage, lack of foreign investment, managerial inexperience, and the passive resistance of millions of people in the southern provinces all combined to defeat the program. By the end of the decade, the economy was in shambles, and popular hostility to the leadership had reached alarming heights. Thousands of people, many of them ethnic Chinese merchants and their families, fled the country in flimsy boats or across the border into China.

A foreign policy crisis worsened the domestic problems. For decades, Communist Party leaders had planned to unite Vietnam with revolutionary governments in neighboring Laos and Cambodia to form a militant alliance against the threat of imperialism. By the end of 1975, Communists had come to power in both countries, but the new government in Cambodia, under the leadership of militant revolutionary Pol Pot, was suspicious of Vietnamese intentions. Pol Pot refused to join with Hanoi, and Cambodian troops attacked Vietnamese villages near the Cambodian border. Pol Pot also demanded the return of territories in the Mekong Delta that the Vietnamese had seized from Cambodia’s predecessor, the Angkor Empire, during their “march to the south” centuries before.

In December 1978, after abortive efforts to bring about a compromise, Vietnam launched an offensive to overthrow the Pol Pot regime and install a new pro-Vietnamese government in Cambodia. They accomplished this in early 1979; however, the Vietnamese government had underestimated China’s interest in the area. Long suspicious of Vietnamese plans to dominate all of Indochina, Chinese leaders warned Vietnam that any attack on Cambodia would be viewed as a grave threat to the peace. Adding to China’s suspicions was the fact that Vietnam had recently signed a military security pact with China’s bitter rival, the Soviet Union. Furthermore, Chinese and Vietnamese troops had recently clashed on their mutual frontier, and the Chinese government bitterly criticized Vietnamese mistreatment of its ethnic Chinese population.

Less than two months after the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, China launched a brief but bitter assault into northern Vietnam. Although Chinese troops withdrew a few weeks later, they remained along the common frontier, forcing Vietnam to maintain a high defense posture in the area. In the meantime, Vietnam was forced to station nearly 200,000 occupation troops in Cambodia to protect the pro-Vietnamese government it had installed there.

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