Sunday, May 01, 2005

Vietnam after thirty years

This week marks the thirtieth anniversary of our final withdrawal from Vietnam. I did not serve there, only witnessing the turmoil that took place stateside. As a college professor I found myself in the thick of the protest movement. Afterwards I thought about the war as little as possible, feeling a need to move on. Two years ago, though, I visited Hanoi and Saigon, on my way to and from Cambodia.

There are similarities and differences between the Vietnam effort and that in Iraq. In neither case was a genuine national interest—a casus belli--evident, at least in the judgment of many informed observers. In both countries, Iraq and Vietnam, the borders are porous, allowing for continuing infiltration of men and materiel. However, the Iraqi insurgents do not seem as well organized as the Communists in Vietnam, and the Islamist support offered outside is less solid than the support of the USSR and mainland China had been.

We hear some of the same rationalizations. We are told that if we don’t fight them over there, we’ll fight them over here. This despite the fact that no connection has been shown between 9/11 and Saddam Hussein’s regime. While the phrase "light at the end of the tunnel" rarely appears, the meme is alive and well with regard to Iraq. "Surely, the insurgency has peaked and were on the road to stability and democracy," etc., etc. Worst of all is the assertion, found for example in a column by Jonah Goldberg, that every once and a while we must smite a small country to show who’s boss.

I was against the war while it went on. Having examined some revisionist accounts seeking to justify it, I very much doubt if the war could have been won. (See, for example "The War We Could Have Won" by Stephen J. Morris in the NY Times, May 1) Still, in a way that is disturbing, the antiwar perspective has framed the historiography of the matter, as I will seek to explain.

There have been countless books and studies about the agony of Vietnam. Most of them concentrated on the period when we were there, from 1960 to 1975. About the suffering of the Vietnamese people afterwards there is mostly silence. In the US the left led us to believe that after we got out and the country was unified, a wonderful period of peace and prosperity would ensue. After all, isn’t that what Communism is dedicated to, the welfare of the people?

To be sure we did learn something about the ethnic cleansing of the Chinese, many of whom were forced to flee in boats. Some information came out about the horrors of the reeducation camps. But the grinding day-to-day reality of the Vietnamese people was not portrayed. There were no glowing accounts of the wonders of the New Vietnam—because for twenty-five years there were no such wonders.

There has been, then, with regard to the total picture of modern Vietnam an appalling degree of bad faith. This in turn is connected with the differential treatment of fascism as against Marxism. Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and the rest killed far more people than the fascists, but somehow our mainstream opinion, not just that on the left, seeks to draw a veil over crimes done in the name of Communism. Communists were "idealists" and "internationalists." It is somehow not relevant that they brought unparalleled misery to the vast numbers of human beings unlucky enough to be under their control.

At last things are better now in Vietnam, as a result of following the Chinese path to individual initiative and entrepreneurship—engines of progress that had been so long suppressed, creating an endless and unnecessary cycle of misery. Without the Chinese example next door, the misery that stemmed from a false ideology would still prevail. We know that it is false, because nowadays the Chinese and Vietnamese profess one set of beliefs and act on another.

Now that matters have improved, it seems that the Vietnamese do not want to inquire too closely into what happened during that dark quarter of a century. Given the tight hold of the regime, it is probably not healthy to do so. Indeed, Prime Minister Phan Van Khai recommends that all sides "close the past, look to the future."

Closure has still not been achieved over here. We Americans are told, ceaselessly, that we lost the war. Actually we did not. From the vantage point of Saigon it looks very much as if we won it. The French influence is mostly gone. Saigon is a kind of blend of Las Vegas and Houston. American free enterprise rules. Personally Americans are popular in Vietnam today.

At last Vietnam is in a position to begin to take its place in the world of prosperous nations. All that is due to capitalism—a system we were told must be extirpated from the country. It seems that correct economic and management principles are finally taking hold—-but what a long, horrible detour was needed for that result to take place.

1 Comments:

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