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Amanda C. Demmer | November 3, 2021

Watch a recording of the event.

Professor Simon Miles spoke with Professor Amanda Demmer about her new book After Saigon’s Fall: Refugees and US-Vietnamese Relations, 1975-2000.

Event summary by Deborah Ades:

On November 3rd , the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy was joined by Amanda Demmer, an assistant professor of history at Virginia Tech. In a conversation with Duke Professor Simon Miles, she discussed her new book, After Saigon’s Fall: Refugees and US-Vietnamese Relations, 1975-2000. Professor Demmer explored the normalization process between the United States and Hanoi through three major post-war transformations: the reassertion of the US Congress in American foreign policy; the Indochinese diaspora and changing domestic and international refugee norms; and the intertwining of humanitarianism and the human rights movement.

Professor Demmer began the conversation by discussing the framing of the book and her motivations for writing it. Describing her choice for the cover of her book, Professor Demmer claimed it was an image “synonymous with American failure” and emphasized how it marked the opening period of one of the largest migrations of the 20th century. By working backwards through the process of normalization, Professor Demmer pulled out the connective thread between the POW/MIA narrative in the post-war moment and the humanitarian discourse around migration, arguing that through a linkage of these two issues, non-executive actors created a window of opportunity to help the South Vietnamese and re-establish diplomatic relations with Hanoi.

Professor Miles brought the discussion to the complex diplomatic question of normalization by asking Professor Demmer to reconcile the political-diplomatic process of rapprochement and the moral abhorrence of the Vietnamese for their humanitarian crimes. Professor Demmer argued the United States dealt with two separate entities at the time, the official government in Hanoi and the South Vietnamese people, explaining the dual policy of sanctions and embargoes alongside humanitarian aid and migration. Professor Demmer described the three phases of US attitudes towards Vietnam: the post-1975 chaos of the withdrawal and Third Indochina War, a coalescence by 1979 to a consensus driven policy where normalization talks are tabled until Vietnam leaves Cambodia and return US POW/MIA, and finally normalization in the 1990s. She emphasized that throughout the process, frequent contacts and cooperation create personal ties between US and Vietnamese officials and bureaucratic links and non-executive actors became the basis for the more well-known economic and diplomatic relations.

Addressing the remnants of the South Vietnamese people as a “ghost nation,” Professor Demmer claims that when the history of Vietnam is talked about in a public-facing way, the South Vietnamese are frequently caricatured and written out of the narrative, and that has led to an effort by the Vietnamese community in the US and in Vietnam to push back against erasure. She brings to light the interesting reversion in international standing that occurred between the South Vietnamese and Hanoi, where Hanoi’s position as victor in 1975 gradually gave way to the South Vietnamese through prolific diasporic activity and the dire economic situation and political reeducation camps in Vietnam. Such a shift was beneficial to US policy makers in a propagandic way in that it helped negotiate with partners in SE Asia and in Hanoi.
Professor Miles then zoomed the conversation out and asked what the post-1975 era of the Vietnam War means for American. Professor Demmer argued the normalization and migration processes of the latter end of the 20th century describe the competing impulses of American foreign policy. She claimed humanitarianism and human rights are often times seen as “salves for violence”, and the post-war period illustrates the circular nature of morality and war. Additionally, the migrations and refugee processes in particular bring up the questions of who can be an American and who gets to make those decisions. Finally, Professor Demmer and Professor Miles discussed the intersection of migration, morality, and foreign policy through the inherent issue of prioritization in immigration and evacuation operations.

The event then opened to audience members for Q&A. Professor Demmer answered questions on everything from parallels to Afghanistan and policy implications to the use of refugee flows in international relations to the intersection of religion and partisanship.