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American Diplomacy
Commentary and Analysis

June 2007

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The author of this fascinating account of a return to the scene of one of his early Foreign Service postings has unusually strong credentials for the undertaking he sets for himself: assessing the utility of and rationale for the U. S. war against North Vietnam in the '60s and early '70s. Jim Bullington was there, then and now. His insights clearly have relevance to any assessment of America's twentieth century role in Southeast Asia. -- Ed.

Vietnam Revisited

For those of us who fought the Vietnam War, it would have been impossible in the l960s or 70s to imagine, let alone predict, that anything like today’s Vietnam would emerge in only one generation from the wreckage of American and South Vietnamese defeat. If we could have been prophets instead of Cold Warriors, surely there would have been no war, since the fundamental strategic objectives for which we fought have largely been achieved, for reasons having little to do with the war’s outcome.

This became apparent to me when I visited Vietnam this spring, together with my Vietnamese wife of 39 years, for the first time since 1974. I had read about the changes that were taking place, but seeing and experiencing them was nonetheless dramatically impressive.

Contemporary Vietnam is a country that:

  • Is stable and not threatening to its neighbors;
  • Practices free market capitalism in all but name;
  • Retains a non-democratic, Leninist model political system, but is not especially repressive, does not have a police state atmosphere, and allows its citizens to do pretty much what they want to so long as they don’t oppose the government;
  • Has a dynamic economy that is growing rapidly (seven to eight percent annually since 2000), welcomes American and other foreign investment (including a $1.2 billion Intel chip factory), and conforms to the norms of the global economy (having joined the World Trade Organization in 2006);
  • Cooperates well with the United States on many international issues, such as narcotics trafficking, bird flu, and terrorism; and
  • Eagerly hosts thousands of American visitors, including war veterans and overseas Vietnamese. The Vietnamese people were uniformly friendly, and the only security concern we felt was crossing the streets in the terrible urban traffic.

Even if our side had won the war, succeeding in maintaining an independent South Vietnam with a Korea-like outcome (probably the best that could have been achieved), it’s unlikely that the situation in Vietnam today, from our point of view, would be better than this. It might well be worse, with the north-south conflict still unresolved and a dangerous, hostile regime still governing the north.

This begs the question: Why, then, did the United States fight the war, suffering and inflicting such death and destruction? Was it all in vain?

Nearly a half-century distant from the decisions of the late 1950s and early 1960s that gradually led us into full scale war in 1965, it can be hard to understand why those decisions were made. Indeed, if we focus only on Vietnam, they can seem irrational. It is only in the context of the Cold War that they make sense.

In those years the Communist threat was very real. The Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe, Mao’s victory in China, the unprovoked attack on South Korea, the installation of Soviet missiles in Cuba – these were relatively recent events at the forefront of policymakers’ minds. Communism seemed to be monolithic, on the march, attractive to the countries emerging from colonialism, and highly threatening to American security and values. These perceptions were exacerbated by important intelligence lapses such as exaggerated assessments of Soviet military and economic strength and failure to recognize the early stages of the developing Sino-Soviet conflict.

And now South Vietnam, whose support we had taken over from the French, had come under attack by an insurgency inspired, supported and directed by Communist North Vietnam and ultimately (so it seemed) its Soviet and Chinese sponsors. Surely, most Americans believed, it was time to draw the line and not let this new method of exporting Communism – insurgency – succeed.

By the late 1960s, some of these perceptions had begun to change. The Sino-Soviet split, for example, was recognized, and we were also coming to understand that the conflict in Vietnam was not just a matter of Communist-led aggression but also a nationalist movement and the continuation of a civil war with roots deep in Vietnamese colonial history and even earlier. But by then we were fully at war and deeply committed to preserving South Vietnamese independence and avoiding a humiliating defeat that, it was believed, could undermine our ability to support other Cold War friends and allies.

Given this context, the decisions that led to war and the effort to bring it to a successful conclusion were not irrational, even if, with 20-20 historical hindsight, they can be seen as mistaken. For American leaders to have predicted that a country such as contemporary Vietnam would emerge from our defeat, they would also have had to foresee, among other things, the collapse of the Soviet Union (at a time when it seemed to be winning both the arms race and the space race) and China’s abandonment of radicalism to move to moderation and a market economy (at the time of Mao’s Great Cultural Revolution).

And in fact, in the years following their victory, the Vietnamese leaders showed themselves to be pretty much what we thought they were: brutal Communists who established a harsh police state, killed and imprisoned thousands of their political opponents, trampled on human rights, implemented a command economy that was impoverishing the country, created a massive wave of refugees, sent their army to occupy Cambodia, and invited the Soviets to establish a major naval base at Cam Ranh Bay.

By 1990, however, new leaders had come to power in Vietnam and adopted policies, largely inspired (or forced) by the Soviet collapse and China’s example, to address the country’s economic distress and popular discontent by moving to a market economy and a gentler, more moderate political system (though with the Communist party still in control). A consequent spurt of economic growth was derailed during the Asian economic crisis of the late 1990s but has since resumed. Thus far, just as in China, this system of a capitalist economy and a Leninist-model one-party government seems to be working.

It will probably be many years before we can know if this model, which might be termed Leninist capitalism, is truly viable in the long run, or if economic freedom and growing prosperity must inevitably lead to increasing political freedom, as democratic theorists have long believed should be the case. I think it would be a mistake to count either on the model’s ultimate failure or its evolution to democracy. I saw no signs of serious discontent in Vietnam. People complain about widespread government corruption, but they seem reasonably satisfied about the direction in which the country is heading and are optimistic about the future, particularly when the last of the leaders formed by what they call the American War will have left the scene.

Under present conditions, there is no reason why we should not continue to have positive relations with Vietnam. It is a force for political stability in the region and a likely supporter in any conflict with a potentially aggressive China; we enjoy growing trade and investment ties; and the large Vietnamese immigrant community in America retains deep personal links with the home country. If we can influence the Vietnamese toward democracy, with exchange programs and other forms of gentle persuasion, so much the better. But such efforts should only be a subordinate part of our Vietnam policy, not its basis.


Jim Bullington

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