Reframing the Diplomatic History of the Vietnam War
The diplomatic history of sexual encounters during the Vietnam War bridges the subfields of military history, gender history, foreign policy history, and social history under a transnational lens. Acknowledging the human experiences of war, both on and behind the front lines, improves our understanding of the entire enterprise. Coming to terms with the meaning and repercussions of sex during the Vietnam War presents considerable challenges, as most of the occurences were never documented in detail. Political and social discourse over the war’s morality and the honorability of the US-RVN alliance developed when the world took time to consider whether deeper meanings lay behind the otherwise mundane acts of love, hate, racism, and war. Accounts of whirlwind romances, short times behind plastic sheets with a prostitute, months of persistence to legally enter a loving marriage, and violent assaults all help to illustrate the complex network of sexual encounters that occurred between soldiers and civilians during the Vietnam War. As a symptom of American military escalation, the social and cultural repercussions influenced the political at every level, from local government to heads of state. The relationships, exchanges, and abuses frustrated both military and civilian leadership, who were forced to rethink how to manage the social lives of their citizens in the midst of an already complex war. The aftermath of the disruption caused by the large-scale American presence that succeeded decades of decolonization efforts lingered in the postwar era and continues to inform US-Vietnamese relations today.
In some ways, the idea of sex in Vietnam made a greater impact than the acts themselves for the American public and government. The US media followed social relations from their first run-ins with Madame Nhu’s ban on social depravity, dancing included. Senator Fulbright’s 1966 declaration that Vietnam had become an “American brothel” forced Congress to discuss whether or not the government should care about the sex lives of its soldiers, but escalating disease and birth rates answered that question for them. The aftermath of My Lai and the mixture of hope and tragedy associated with Operation Babylift haunted the Nixon and Ford administrations, which were already unable to minimize the antiwar movements at home and in Vietnam. For American government and military leaders, their goals centered on preventing distractions. They wanted to keep morale high and venereal disease low, and avoid stirring up palpable anti-American sentiment.
The issue mattered considerably more to the Vietnamese. For the South Vietnamese, the realities of social disruption from economic instability caused by overspending soldiers in the cities and the rise of the black market economy, the dissolution of kinship links, and fears of rape presented far more pressing concerns about cultural stability and the RVN’s associations with outside governments. For supporters of the communist government in North Vietnam, including those fighting in the National Liberation Front, US soldier-civilian relationships harked back to the French era, when women were collected and brought to the lines to serve as prostitutes and nursemaids for colonizers. During the American War, women fled their villages for the cities, where the population increased to unmanageable numbers and the demand for sex work stayed high.1 The infiltration of Western culture and the persistence of often indiscriminate violence across the country upset tradition and presented opportunities to build anti-American support in the press.
Above all else, the human interactions at the core of this project shed light on the strained relations between the United States and South Vietnam. Negotiations between the two governments regarding sexual encounters revolved around their sometimes polarized desires for morale and morality, respectively. Practicing the policies on the ground, however, was a very different reality. As the RVN worked with their advisors from Michigan State University to draft anti-prostitution laws, American Foreign Service members openly made purchases from the sex markets. As it worked to shut down city bars with American assistance, MACV helped build areas outside military bases where prostitutes would live and be examined by doctors. Instead of arresting them, South Vietnamese police openly accepted bribes and ran protection networks for prostitutes. Marriage laws were purposely difficult to satisfy, something both governments approved of. Some Americans committed rapes against the population they were sent to Vietnam to protect, and officers rarely prosecuted accusations of assault. Amerasian orphans remained trapped between worlds, vulnerable to the whims of government, until Congress approved more secure pathways for citizenship in the 1980s.
In this culture of contradictions, both nations found their footing as the war went forward. The Johnson administration maintained colonial ideas regarding gender, race, and Asia in general. In addition to their not being able to contain the war, sexuality represented yet another hurdle that seemed unmanageable and only minimally important to Johnson and his advisors. As economic, health, security, and public relations issues grew more acute, however, the United States was forced to respond to social problems. The military relocated the burgeoning troop populations in Saigon to the massive complex at Long Binh during Operation M.O.O.S.E. in 1967, but they brought the sex and black markets with them to carry on in an area known as Sin City. By 1969, the Nixon administration had taken action on several of the issues tied to sexual encounters, including encouraging South Vietnamese city governments to institute sanitation cards for prostitutes and adjusting the timelines on marriage policies. Unsure how to manage the bubbling controversy over the massacre at My Lai, the president requested that his staff arm him with other cases that might be brought to the attention of the press so he would be prepared to manage the fallout. The United States did little to discourage future attacks, and the acquittal of every My Lai defendant aside from Lieutenant Calley only generated more public disappointment and confusion over how to navigate service member–civilian relations in Vietnam. Wartime inflation destabilized the South Vietnamese economy, and an urban dependence on soldier tourism created conditions for a collapse after the 1973 troop withdrawal. In these ways, sexual relationships between American service members and Vietnamese civilians were not simply a colorful background detail but rather contributed to the shaping of decisions, mindsets, and legacies of the Vietnam War.
Examining military sexual behavior brings the added challenge of deciphering whether certain elements of it developed from military training, the conditions of war, or the personalities of individual soldiers. The end results did not change regardless of cause, but pinpointing unique aspects of the Vietnam era helps distinguish it from other American wars. Similarly, the shift in international attitudes toward sexuality helps to frame the willingness to discuss the encounters in coming-of-age memoirs, and is typically associated with a discourse on manhood and warfare in the wake of the 1960s counterculture and sexual revolution. The public’s ideas about and desensitization to sex set them apart from their parents’ World War II generation, who also frequented brothels but didn’t write about it nearly as much. As the historians Petra Goedde, Mary Louise Roberts, Sarah Kovner, Katharine H. S. Moon, Beth Bailey, and David Farber have shown, sex with civilians was not novel during the Vietnam War but rather an exaggerated part of a much longer military tradition.
By treating the often caricatured subject as a serious topic deserving of dedicated analysis, studies of prostitution bring balance to the history of sexual and social policies during the Vietnam War. Adopting approaches used by scholars of the Philippines, World War II, the postwar occupation era, and the Korean War, I have shown the undeniable role that the social behavior of US service members played in the military and diplomatic history of the war. In the field of Vietnam War studies, Heather Stur’s work on gender and Meredith Lair’s scholarship on base life for soliders provided invaluable insight into how the military in Vietnam viewed women and supplied their troops. This volume builds on elements of each of these previous works while adding to the conversation by focusing on personal relationships and continuing to incorporate Vietnamese perspectives. Government documents from the United States and the RVN, as well as their allies in Australia and France, complemented sources from popular culture, memoirs, interviews, and contemporary news to bring together a transnational study. By viewing foreign policy and military history from the bottom up, scholars benefit from more human perspectives and insights that bridge several subfields for a different understanding of war making.
Still, in many ways this book cannot adequately address several of the issues regarding the effects of the war on South Vietnamese women and civilians that an intensive oral history project might be able to. Rather, it presents the role of a specific group of women in the unique vantage point of living among and with American forces and engaging in some form of intimate contact with them. By not limiting the project to the war years of 1965 to 1975, I make it clear that the meanings of interracial sexual encounters rested heavily on the memory of the French colonial era, and that their legacies lasted far beyond the fall of Saigon. The war did not end in 1975 for those who had worked with or loved Americans. Many endured years of imprisonment or reeducation, as well as the lifelong effects of venereal disease. Those who associated with Americans risked great hardship in the wake of the US military’s exit from Vietnam and faced harassment, arrest, reeducation, torture, or even death. The tens of thousands of Amerasian “children of the enemy” have struggled to receive equal treatment in the eyes of their fellow Vietnamese.2 By examining what service member–civilian relationships looked like, how the United States and RVN governments responded to them, as well as how and why they were remembered, this work uncovers many more questions that could be pursued about the intersections of war and society during the Vietnam era.
With the continued, albeit increasingly open, communist leadership today, we cannot be sure how much remains repressed about the war, the aftermath of the fall of Saigon, and the years of restructuring that followed. Even with so much already written on the Vietnam War, the opening of archives and embrace of foreign scholars means that much more remains to be written on these important topics.
It has taken the United States a long time to come to terms with the Vietnam War from an official standpoint, although the popular legacy remains conflicted. Political relations only just started to stabilize over the past two decades. As Jeffrey Olick has argued, the scope of the trauma of Vietnam explains why it remains “an ongoing problem” in American public memory.3 As the years have passed, diplomatic and cultural ties have strengthened over mutual interests in increasing trade and tourism. In 2014 Vietnam reopened its adoption program to the United States. Wrestling with the war’s legacy must also contend with racism in American society against people of Asian descent. Numerous scholarly studies have shown how Asian Americans have suffered from a striking surge in racist attacks since the COVID-19 outbreak reached the United States in 2020, the long-term fallout of which remains to be seen.4
The memory of the war is still vivid for both nations despite the fact that the generation who fought it is beginning to pass away in increasing numbers.5 The search for lost loves and forgotten children surfaces in the news every few years. In Vietnam, the war is not remembered in as blatantly sexualized a way as it is in the United States but rather is recalled with an emphasis on human trauma and collective victory. Within the United States, the persistence of the sexualized Vietnamese civilian has the potential to shape American behavior in other wars. Far fewer military-civilian relationships appear to have taken place during the twenty-first-century wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, although a few marriages have been reported.6 Much work remains to be done on these conflicts, as well as on how sexual encounters have evolved within the US military as more American women travel to combat regions and physical contact with civilians has become more limited. With women now eligible to participate in all branches of American military service, the nature of training and daily social contacts will inevitably adapt. The lessons of the American War in Vietnam’s soldier-civilian sexual encounters offer a useful reminder of the impact of war on society as well as of how seemingly mundane interpersonal relationships can dictate policy and demand the attention of world leaders.