PHYSICAL ECOLOGY OF VIETNAM: POPULOUS NATION, PRECARIOUS GEOGRAPHY, RECENT HISTORY OF WARFARE
by A. Joseph Lynch
Vietnam occupies a precarious, two-thousand mile strip of coastline along the South China Sea. At its narrowest point, however, Vietnam is only 31 miles deep. This position, akin to Israel, strategically leads Vietnam to seek buffer space between its main population centers in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) and the borders of neighboring countries. The Annamite Range, however, does provide a geographic boundary between Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Despite its narrow shape, Vietnam's landmass is roughly the same as Germany. But with 90 million citizens to Germany's 80 million, Vietnam is more populous than Europe's most populous nation. Unlike Germany, Vietnam is heavily forested and mountainous. In fact only 20% of Vietnam is occupied by flat lands.
The twentieth century for Vietnam was marked by war. Following the defeat of Imperial Japan in 1945, the struggle between communist forces within Vietnam fought against French colonial rule. This war, known as the First Indochina War, was fought until 1954. At the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, French forces were defeated leading to the creation of a communist northern Vietnam and a free southern Vietnam below the 17th parallel. During a 300-day movement period, around 1 million (mostly Catholic) Vietnamese moved south. In 1955, Ngo Dinh Diem became the president of the Republic of Vietnam in the south. Eight years later, following Buddhist demonstrations against Catholic Diem, the United States betrayed Diem and his brother to assassination. Three weeks later JFK was killed and 5 years later his brother was assassinated as well. The intertwining of Catholic personalities and history between the Vietnamese and Americans continues. 6% of Vietnamese are Catholics but 25% of Vietnamese refugees in America are Romans.
Without the spiritual leadership of the Diem brothers, the stability of South Vietnam grew increasingly dependent on American ground forces. This second conflict in Vietnam's history we Americans know as the Vietnam War. After suffering the deaths of over 53,000 American soldiers, we withdrew from Vietnam in 1973. Saigon, the southern capital, fell to the communists on April 30, 1975, and Vietnam remains communist to this day. Between 800,000 and 3.1 million Vietnamese died in this war.
Vietnam's third and final major war of the 20th century was fought, not against capitalists, but against fellow communist China. This short war of little more than three weeks is known as the Sino-Vietnamese War. Despite its brevity, Vietnam and China share a volatile history dating back to China's Warring States Period of the third century BC. More recently in the Cold War, Soviet-Vietnamese relations warmed in the wake of the Sino-Soviet split in the 1970's. A 25-year defense pact between Vietnam and the Soviet Union, combined with a Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia led directly to Chinese intervention along its border with Vietnam. The short war acted to demonstrate Chinese power in the region and the inability of the Soviets to protect their ally. Hostility between the two Asian neighbors continues. The present struggle over the South China Sea separates China and Vietnam while driving Vietnam to forge strong relations with the Catholic brother nation of Philippines.