Politics & Policy

Vietnam On The Mind

Understanding then and now.

HANOI, SAIGON, NHA TRANG — Both the media and the Democrats seem to have convinced themselves that Iraq is turning into another Vietnam — namely, a quagmire in which U.S. soldiers struggle vainly to defeat guerrilla forces that enjoy popular support against a foreign occupation.

That is a false picture on two grounds. First, Iraq is not turning into another Vietnam. And, second, Vietnam itself is not accurately portrayed by the “quagmire” thesis. Indeed, if Vietnam is to be the comparison of first resort in whatever conflict the U.S. finds itself, we need a better understanding of its general significance.

Vietnam was really two wars — a war between the Communist North and the anti-Communist South, and a local skirmish in the Cold War that pitted the U.S. and its allies against the Soviet Union and its allies. North Vietnam won the first of those wars in 1975 — or so it seemed at the time. But the ruthless imposition of a Stalinist straitjacket on the whole of Vietnam led not only to the forced departure of hundreds of thousands of “boat people” but also to hopeless economic stagnation. Victory brought not prosperity but poverty and isolation.

Eventually the North Vietnamese political leadership realized that reform was necessary and in 1988 embarked on a program of liberalization on the Chinese model — that is, a gradualist program of free-market economic reforms under a continuing one-party “socialist” government.

Market reforms were slow, reluctant and inadequate at first, but they have accelerated sharply in the last three years. While Vietnam is still a very poor country — its annual per capita income is only $477 compared to South Korea¹s $18,000 — it is growing rapidly. A visitor to the cities like Hanoi and Saigon is overwhelmed by signs of economic vitality, of small business growth, of a building boom, and above all of a youthful, Westernized, energetic population.

About 70 percent of the Vietnamese were born in the aftermath of the war of which they have little memory and apparently less resentment. Today they seem almost genetically attached to Yamahas or Hondas — no young person walks — as they hurtle along in the unending traffic chaos of even modestly sized cities like the seaside resort of Nha Trang.

It is doubtless a less dramatic picture in the countryside where most Vietnamese still live. But a Martian landing in Saigon or Hanoi today with no knowledge of history since 1970 would assume that the South must have won the war. These cities have all the boutiques and designer labels of London or Venice — and more homegrown entrepreneurial vitality than both. (He would probably dismiss the occasional hammer-and-sickle in neon lights or Red Star poster as the kind of kitsch nostalgia for Marxism-Leninism found also in Manhattan night-clubs or on Paris¹s left Bank.)

A few years ago, the more far-sighted Vietnamese had a saying: “Our past is French; our present is Russian; our future is American.” That future is almost here — with foreign investment beginning to feel secure, with Vietnamese exiles in France and the U.S. returning to establish businesses, and with European, Australian and Japanese tourists discovering that Vietnam offers wonderful beaches, a fine cuisine, and astonishingly low prices. Vietnam would like American tourists to join them in larger numbers — as they surely will when they realize that, in addition to the above benefits, Vietnam also offers tourism without terrorism.

Whether this progress continues will depend, of course, on whether the Hanoi government continues to liberalize. Western investors need the security of the rule of law, especially contract and property law, if they are to remain for the long haul. But the signs are promising. And if that happens, then the North’s victory in 1975 will achieved little more than postpone the rise of another capitalist “Asian Tiger” by about 25 years.

What of the significance of Vietnam as a local skirmish in the Cold War? Here we have the testimony of Asia’s principal elder statesman, Lee Kuan Yew, First minister of Singapore. He has pointed out that the American intervention in the war halted the onward march of Communism southwards for 15 years — roughly from 1960 to 1975. In that crucial period, the new ex-colonial states of Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, maybe India itself, took advantage of this incidental American protection to develop their economies from poor agricultural and trading post economies into modern industrial and information societies. By the time the war was over and North Vietnamese tanks were surging into Saigon, these countries were prosperous NICs (i.e. newly industrializing countries), more or less immune to the Communist virus and capable of resisting external attack.

Nor does the story end with the safety of Singapore. In the late 1980s, when the Soviet politburo was debating perestroika, Mikhail Gorbachev cited its success — tiny Singapore, exported more in value than the vast Soviet Union — as demonstrating the need to dismantle the socialist command economy. (At the exact same moment, Hanoi was embarking on its own hesitant liberalization. Coincidence?)

If Lee Kuan Yew is to be believed, then, the U.S. intervention in Vietnam was a major factor is achieving the West’s overall victory in the Cold War. It held the line while freedom and prosperity were established in non-Communist Asia — and that provided the rest of the world, including the evil empire itself, with a “demonstration effect” of how freedom led to prosperity.

Vietnam and Iraq are not the same story. And there are both similarities and differences between the two. The similarities are (a) that today Iraq is a local skirmish in a wider war that pits the U.S. and its allies and against a loose alliance of anti-Western terrorists; and (b) that we need to make Iraq a “demonstration effect” that stable, liberal, constitutional democracy (in that order) is possible in the Middle East. Such an effect is already dimly visible: Syria in recent days has renounced its one-party system and is taking (modest) steps towards a freer society.

But the differences between Iraq and Vietnam are crucial too. In Iraq the U.S. cannot hope to win the wider war against terrorism or demonstrate the superiority of freedom if it loses — or, worse, gives up — the local battle against al Qaeda and the Baathists. And if Iraq topples over into chaos, it is very unlikely to right itself like Vietnam.

John O’Sullivan is editor of The National Interest. This was first ran in the Chicago Sun-Times and is reprinted with permission.



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