The Vietnam War: no justification, no happy ending

The Vietnam War: no justification, no happy ending

Bob Sheak

Oct 4, 2017, Sept 21, 2018

I wrote this essay awhile ago in response the the Ken Burns’ 10-part documentary on The Vietnam War. I thought then, and now, that his attempt to offer a “balanced view of the war” in which both side were said to be responsible and the US policy was advanced by honest mistakes by well-meaning US leaders was inaccurate. U.S. foreign/military policies since then (and before in many instances) have continued to reflect US economic and political interests rather than the interests of people in the societies the US has attacked. It is now caught up endless wars and threatening yet new wars. It’s important to continually make efforts to unveil the truth about these policies, based unfortunately on misleadingly notions that US foreign policy reflects the desire to advance democratic and altruistic values – or the unwitting but understandable and forgivable judgments of US leaders.

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The 18-hour, 10-part, documentary The Vietnam War by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick aired on the Public Broadcasting System in September. It cost $30 million to produce and reflects ten-years of investigative work by the documentarians, who were “assisted by their producer Sarah Botstein, writer Geoffrey Ward, 24 advisers, and others,” according to Nick Turse (https://theintercept.com/2017/09/28/the-ken-burns-vietnam-war-documentary-glosses-over-devastating-civilian-toll).

There is no doubt that The Vietnam War is a remarkable, creative work that will stir emotions and memories about the U.S. involvement in that war, a war that began for the U.S. in 1955 and lasted until 1975 when negotiations with the North Vietnamese closed the final chapter on U.S. military engagement in that country.

The documentary will ignite multiple opinions on why the war was fought, how it was fought, and why it ended as it did. Nonetheless, as historian and war veteran Andrew J. Bacevich writes, the documentary embodies a high quality of production, a seamless narrative, “cutting from the war zone to the home front (theirs and ours) and back again,” a surprising amount of footage on the North Vietnamese, and “a soundtrack consisting of pop songs from the 1960s and 1970s,” many of them expressing a yearning for peace and an end to the war  (http://thenation.com/article/the-vietnam-war-past-all-reason). Reflecting the widespread appeal of the documentary, the book based on it is already a best seller on Amazon.

Burns and Novick made the film to provide an authoritative factual and visual documentation of that war, to present multiple – in their view equally – valid viewpoints on it, and to bring some closure to and national reconciliation about the bitter and divisive debate that beset the nation during the war and since then.

In my reading of recent commentaries on Vietnam, and despite all of the laudable aspects, the film has some notable shortcomings. I’ll just touch on a few of them.

“All sides suffered equally”

The war, according to Burns and Novick, was “begun in good faith, by decent people” and that it was “a tragedy,” wrongly implying, according to Basevich, that all sides suffered equally. Frank Joyce reminds us that it was the US that invaded and bombed Vietnam, used its air force to spray millions of tons of Agent Orange onto forests and crops, dropped napalm bombs on civilians, and whose troops massacred women, old people and babies and dump their bodies into mass graves (https://www.alternet.org/documentaries/ball-o-confusion-comin-your-tv-ken-burns-pbs-series-vietnam-gives-its-corporate). Joyce continues:

“Truth: The United States government invaded Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos; not the other way around. Before that, the U.S. provided financial and military support to the French war to keep Vietnam a colony. Any suggestion that the U.S. was somehow the victim of the war is not just wrong, it is yet another example of the moral confusion for which our nation pays a far greater price than we are willing to admit.”

There is no doubt that both sides paid heartbreakingly high prices for this war. The costs to the US were immense. Out of the 2,594,000 personnel who served in Vietnam, 58,220 Americans died, 153,303 were wounded and 1,643 ended up missing, according to Alan Rohn (https://thevietnamwar.info/how-much-vietnam-war-cost). Brian Handwerk reports that studies such as the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study, conducted in the 1980s, found that some 271,000 veterans of the war may still had full post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD (http://www.smthinsonianmag.com/science-nature/over-quarter-million-vietnam-war-veteransstill-have-ptsd-180955997).

And the economic costs for the U.S. were staggering. According to Rohn,

“The Department of Defense (DOD) reports that the United States spent about $168 billion (worth around $950 billion in 2011 dollars) in the entire war including $111 billion on military operations (1965 – 1972) and $28.5 billion on economic and military aid to Saigon regime (1953 – 1975). At that rate, the United States spent approximately $168,000 for an “enemy” killed. However, $168 billion was only the direct cost. According to Indochina Newsletter of Asia Resource Center, the United States spent from $350 billion to $900 billion in total including veterans’ benefits and interest.”

But for the Vietnamese, civilians as well as combatants, the devastation and casualties of the war were by most conventional measures greater than they were for America. Lawrence Wittner reports on some of the evidence.

“…the people of Vietnam paid a very heavy price for their independence from foreign domination.  Some three million of them died in the American War, and another 300,000 are still classified as MIAs.  In addition, many, many Vietnamese were wounded or crippled in the conflict.  Perhaps the most striking long-term damage resulted from the U.S. military’s use of Agent Orange (dioxin) as a defoliant.  Vietnamese officials estimate that, today, some four million of their people suffer the terrible effects of this chemical, which not only destroys the bodies of those exposed to it, but has led to horrible birth defects and developmental disabilities into the second and third generations.  Much of Vietnam’s land remains contaminated by Agent Orange, as well as by unexploded ordnance (UXO).  Indeed, since the end of the American war in 1975, the landmines, shells, and bombs that continue to litter the nation’s soil have wounded or killed over 105,000 Vietnamese — many of them children (http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/05/18/the-vietnam-war-after-40-years).

In his Intercept article cited earlier, Nick Turse adds some numbers to Wittner’s summary, citing research done by Harvard Medical School, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, and a Vietnamese government estimate. According to these sources, 5.3 million Vietnamese civilians were wounded, 11 million civilians were driven from their lands and made homeless at one time or another, and as many as 4.8 million were sprayed with toxic defoliants like Agent Orange.

Highlighting how Vietnamese civilians paid a very high price during the war, Turse reports the following.

“War is not combat, though combat is a part of war. Combatants are not the main participants in modern war. Modern war affects civilians far more and far longer than combatants. Most American soldiers and Marines spent 12 or 13 months, respectively, serving in Vietnam. Vietnamese from what was once South Vietnam, in provinces like Quang Nam, Quang Ngai, Binh Dinh, as well as those of the Mekong Delta – rural population centers that were also hotbeds of the revolution – lived the war week to week, month after month, year after year, from one decade to the next. Burns and Novick seem to have mostly missed these people, missed their stories, and, consequently, missed the dark side of the conflict.”

Turse continues:

“To deprive their Vietnamese enemies of food, recruits, intelligence, and other support, American command policy turned large swathes of those provinces into ‘free fire zones,’ subject to intense bombing and artillery shelling, that was expressly designed to ‘generate’ refugees, driving people from their homes in the name of ‘pacification.’ Houses were set ablaze, whole villages were bulldozed, and people were forced into squalid refugee camps and filthy urban slums short of water, food, and shelter.”

Turse spent a decade gathering evidence for his book, Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam. His investigative work for the book is based not only on archival research but also on many visits to Vietnam and interviews with Vietnamese peasants, officials, and others. In his article he provides the reader with glimpses of what it was like to be a Vietnamese civilian during the years of the war, especially while under numerous US bombing and artillery attacks. By the way, Turse refers to Pentagon figures for January 1969 alone, when “air strikes were carried out on or near hamlets where 3.3 million Vietnamese.” What did he learn from his interviews?

“They talked about homes burned again and again and again, before they gave up rebuilding and began living a semi-subterranean existence in rough-hewn bomb shelters gouged into the earth. They told me about scrambling inside these bunkers when artillery fire began. And then they told me about the waiting game.

“Just how long did you stay in your bunker? Long enough to avoid the shelling…but not so long you were still inside it when the Americans and their grenades arrive. If you left the shelter’s confines too soon, machine-gun fire from a helicopter might cut you in half. Or you might get caught in crossfire between withdrawing guerrillas and onrushing US troops. But if you waited too long, the Americans might begin rolling grenades into your bomb shelter because, to them, it was a possible enemy fighting position.”

Bear in mind that, in the first years of the escalated war, Secretary of State Robert McNamara and other top administration officials held the view that “victory over the Viet Cong was to be achieved by quantifiable ‘kill ratios,’ to reach the elusive tipping point where the insurgency could no long replenish its troops,” according to Reed Richardson (http://commondreams.org/views/2017/09/28/ken-burns-vietnam-war-object-lesson-failures-objective-lens). Richardson continues: “This approach hard-wired incentives to secure a high ‘body count’ down the chain of command, with the result that US soldiers often shot civilians dead to pad their tallies and thereby move up in the ranks.”

 Why did the US escalate the war, first in supporting the French colonialists, then in supporting and propping up an unpopular puppet president and government in South Vietnam after having sabotaged a national election that would have kept Vietnam undivided, then through a US-planned overthrow of that president, followed by an enormous escalation of the US military involvement in the war, both in the number of troops and the scale of the bombing?

 Why did President Johnson authorize an escalation of the war?

In the final analysis, it was President Lyndon Johnson’s decision not only to continue the war in Vietnam but escalate it – again and again – to the point where there were over 500,00 US troops in the country by the late 1960s and a scale of massive bombing greater than even during WWII. Nick Davies reports, “The US dropped more high explosives on Vietnam than the allies used on Germany and Japan in the second world war” (https://www.theguardian.com/news/2015/apr/22/vietnam-40-years-on-how-communist-victory-gave-way-to-capitalist-corruption).

Bacevich points out that Burns and Novick do not attempt to answer the question of why Johnson followed this path, despite having deep reservations. Here’s what Bacevich writes on this important question.

“Their lack of interest in this central issue [that of Burns and Novick] is all the more striking given the acute misgivings about a large-scale US intervention that Lyndon Johnson repeatedly expressed in the fateful months between late 1964 and early 1965.” …. The anguished president doubted that the war could be won, didn’t think it was worth fighting, and knew that further expansion of US involvement in Vietnam would put at risk his cherished Great Society domestic-reform program. He said as much in taped conversations with Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, National Security adviser McGeorge Bundy, and his friend Georgia Senator Richard Russell, among others. Despite his reservations, Johnson – ostensibly the most powerful man in the world – somehow felt compelled to go ahead anyway. Yet Burns and Novick choose not to explore why exactly Johnson felt obliged to do what he did not want to do.”

Bacevich offers his own generalized explanation on why the U.S. continued and then escalated the war. It was because “a brain-dead national security establishment [was] unable to conceive of political alternatives to escalation; a fear that admitting military failure will exact unacceptable political costs, whereas the costs of perpetuating an unwinnable war are likely to be tolerable; and, perhaps above all, the iron law of American exceptionalism, centered on the conviction that Providence summons the United States to exercise global leadership always and everywhere, leadership having long since become synonymous with a willingness to use force.”

Misconceived US policies prior to the US escalation.  Prior to the US escalation in 1965, the US governments under Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson hoped that a South Vietnamese government would emerge that would win the support of the south and carry the war successfully against the enemy largely with its own troops and, of course, US weapons, a small number of special forces, and military advisers. However, as historian Alfred McCoy writes in his new book, In the Shadows of the American Century, the US supported Ngo Dinh Diem from 1954 to 1963 because he was an anti-communist, even though his regime had only “a narrow political base within the army, among civil servants, and in the minority Catholic community.”

Among other misbegotten policies, the Diem regime resisted the implementation of rural reforms that “possibly could have won him [Diem] a broader base among the country’s peasant population” (p. 67). The regime was plagued from 1960 to 1963 by Buddhist riots in the cities and spreading communist rebellion in the countryside. In these pathbreaking years, McCoy writes,

“…the US mission in Saigon tried every conceivable counterinsurgency strategy to eradicate the Viet Cong – bringing in helicopters and armored vehicles for conventional mobility, deploying Green Berets for unconventional combat, building up regional militias for localized security, and constructing ‘strategic hamlets’ to isolate eight million peasants inside fortified compounds theoretically controlled by Diem militia. Nothing worked. By 1963, the Viet Cong had grown from scattered bands of fighters into a guerrilla army that controlled more than half the countryside” (pp. 67-68). During this period, “the country…collapsed into further military coups and countercoups that crippled army operations. Over the next thirty-two months, Saigon had nine different governments and a change of cabinet every fifteen weeks – every one of them incompetent, corrupt, and ineffective” (p. 68).

The U.S. government’s justifications for the escalation of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War in 1965

The escalation was precipitated by a lie involving what is referred to as “the Tonkin Bay incident.” But there were also deeper reasons having to do with how the U.S. government conceived of America’s geo-political interests in the “cold war.” First, consider the lie.

The Lie

In an article titled “The Truth about Tonkin” for the Naval History Magazine, Lieutenant Commander Pat Patterson identifies the evidence.

“Questions about the Gulf of Tonkin incidents have persisted for more than 40 years. But once-classified documents and tapes released in the past several years, combined with previously uncovered facts, make clear that high government officials distorted facts and deceived the American public about events that led to full U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War” (https://www.usni.org/magazines/navalhistory/2008-02/truth-about-tonkin).

Patterson’s evidence is impressive.

“Nearly 200 documents the National Security Agency (NSA) declassified and released in 2005 and 2006, however, have helped shed light on what transpired in the Gulf of Tonkin on 4 August. The papers, more than 140 of them classified top secret, include phone transcripts, oral-history interviews, signals intelligence (SIGINT) messages, and chronologies of the Tonkin events developed by Department of Defense and NSA officials. Combined with recently declassified tapes of phone calls from White House officials involved with the events and previously uncovered facts about Tonkin, these documents provide compelling evidence about the subsequent decisions that led to the full commitment of U.S. armed forces to the Vietnam War.”

Wikipedia provides a concise summary of the incident (https://en/wikipedia.org/wiki/Gulf_of_Tonkin_incident). The Gulf of Tonkin lies off the coast of North Vietnam.

“The Gulf of Tonkin incident (Vietnamese: Sự kiện Vịnh Bắc Bộ), also known as the USS Maddox incident, was an international confrontation that led to the United States engaging more directly in the Vietnam War. It involved either one or two separate confrontations involving North Vietnam and the United States in the waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. The original American report blamed North Vietnam for both incidents, but eventually became very controversial with widespread claims that either one or both incidents were false, and possibly deliberately so. On August 2, 1964, the destroyer USS Maddox, while performing a signals intelligence patrol as part of DESOTO operations, was pursued by three North Vietnamese Navy torpedo boats of the 135th Torpedo Squadron.[1][5] Maddox fired three warning shots and the North Vietnamese boats then attacked with torpedoes and machine gun fire.[5] Maddox expended over 280 3-inch and 5-inch shells in a sea battle. One U.S. aircraft was damaged, three North Vietnamese torpedo boats were damaged, and four North Vietnamese sailors were killed, with six more wounded. There were no U.S. casualties.[6] Maddox “was unscathed except for a single bullet hole from a Vietnamese machine gun round”.[5]

“It was originally claimed by the National Security Agency that a Second Gulf of Tonkin incident occurred on August 4, 1964, as another sea battle, but instead evidence was found of ‘Tonkin ghosts’[7] (false radar images) and not actual North Vietnamese torpedo boats. In the 2003 documentary The Fog of War, the former United States Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara admitted that the August 2 USS Maddox attack happened with no Defense Department response, but the August 4 Gulf of Tonkin attack never happened.[8] In 1995, McNamara met with former Vietnam People’s Army General Võ Nguyên Giáp to ask what happened on August 4, 1964 in the second Gulf of Tonkin Incident. “Absolutely nothing”, Giáp replied.[9] Giáp claimed that the attack had been imaginary.[10]

“The outcome of these two incidents was the passage by Congress of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which granted President Lyndon B. Johnson the authority to assist any Southeast Asian country whose government was considered to be jeopardized by ‘communist aggression’. The resolution served as Johnson’s legal justification for deploying U.S. conventional forces and the commencement of open warfare against North Vietnam.

“In 2005, an internal National Security Agency historical study was declassified; it concluded that Maddox had engaged the North Vietnamese Navy on August 2, but that there were no North Vietnamese naval vessels present during the incident of August 4.

To complete the story, the Wikipedia account of the incident describes Johnson’s response to order the bombing of North Vietnam and the U.S. Congress supported his decision through a joint resolution.

“President Johnson, who was up for election that year, ordered retaliatory air strikes and went on national television on August 4. Although Maddox had been involved in providing intelligence support for South Vietnamese attacks at Hòn Mê and Hòn Ngư, Johnson denied, in his testimony before Congress, that the U.S. Navy had supported South Vietnamese military operations in the Gulf. He thus characterized the attack as “unprovoked” since the ship had been in international waters.”

Then the U.S. Congress acted.

“As a result of his testimony, on August 7, Congress passed a joint resolution (H.J. RES 1145), titled the Southeast Asia Resolution, which granted President Johnson the authority to conduct military operations in Southeast Asia without the benefit of a declaration of war. The resolution gave President Johnson approval “to take all necessary steps, including the use of armed force, to assist any member or protocol state of the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty requesting assistance in defense of its freedom.”[42]

The US and the Cold War

Robert Freeman addresses this issue in his article “Choosing Quagmire: The Essential Context of Vietnam” (http://commondreams.org/views/2017/09/30/choosing-quagmire-essential-context-vietnam). The context was the Cold War, “the 45-year conflict between the U.S. and the Soviet Union that began at the end of World War II.” The U.S. government had convinced itself in the 1950s-1960s that it was losing this war, though this was overblown and perhaps served the military and international interests of the U.S. administration, the Pentagon, and national security establishment.

Still, there were reasons to justify the U.S. government’s paranoia about the Soviet threat. First, the Soviet Union had done the bulk of fighting to defeat Hitler, losing 70 men for every one the U.S. lost in World War II,” though the U.S. military, government, and media paid almost sole attention to the military achievements of U.S. and allied forces and stoked an American mythology of the war. Second, the Soviet Union had – and continued to have – a powerful military force. The Soviets finished the war “with control of more than 150,000 square miles of Eastern Europe – Poland, East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria.” Third, economically, the Soviet Union’s economy had done well during the Depression and continued to grow after WWII. There was never mass unemployment in the Soviet Union. So, the “communist” system during the 1950s and 1960s still posed a seemingly viable alternative to the system of capitalism in the U.S. Fourth, the Soviets had beaten the U.S. into space and launched Sputnik in 1957.

Freeman summarizes: “In other words, in light of its military record, its basic organizing system, its economic accomplishments, and even its scientific achievements, the Soviet aura of power and prestige at the end of World War II was at an all-time high. If the Cold War was to be a contest of rival systems, it was not at all clear at the outset that the U.S. and its system would prevail.”

At the same time, Freeman points out, the US “was the only major combatant in World War II that had not been physically devastated by the fighting. Its industrial systems were enormously boosted by wartime production. It enjoyed the protection of two vast oceans. Its economy was by far the largest and most dynamic in the world. It had the world’s largest air force and navy and held a monopoly on the atomic bomb, not to mention a demonstrated willingness to use it.” Despite all this, the U.S. “the managers of the emerging American empire managed to convince themselves, or at least their people, that they were at risk, and they responded accordingly.”

The end of the old forms of colonialism

There was an additional reason for U.S. cold-war policy, and that was “the global movement of anti-colonialism that began at the end of World War II.” Freeman makes these points.

“Between 1945 and 1965, more than 100 new nations came into existence through this national independence process. It’s easy to see why. The Europeans had bankrupted themselves, both morally and financially, by starting not one but two World Wars within just 30 years. They could not plausibly retain their imperial domination of the developing world any more.

“So, developing world countries which made up most of the world were now in play. Would they be picked up by the Americans or would they go to the Soviets? It was literally going to be the greatest land grab in the history of the world.  From the beginning, however, it looked to be going badly for the U.S.

“India gained independence from Britain in 1947. It immediately declared itself socialist and put itself into the Soviet camp.  In 1949 when the communists won the civil war in China, American fear turned to panic.

“The Soviet Union, India, and now China, together representing 4/5ths of the land mass of Asia and more than half of all humans on the planet, had thrown in with the Soviet side. It really looked to the U.S. like it was losing the Cold War. This was the impetus for McCarthyism in the 1950s. But worse was still to come.

“First, in the Korean War, the U.S. could only fight the Soviet-backed North to a draw. The mightiest military on the planet could not win. Then, when the European imperial states would not give their colonies independence, the colonies began to go to war to achieve it, just as the Americans had, in 1776.

“Indonesia fought a bloody war to secure national independence from the Dutch. Kenya fought an eight-year war with England to gain its independence. Angola fought the Portuguese for 13 years to win its freedom. And so on throughout much of the developing world.

“And when they did go to war, since the capitalist European states would not give them their freedom, the colonial states sometimes turned to the Soviet Union for help.  This is what happened in Cuba.  The U.S. refused to recognize the revolution that overthrew the grotesquely corrupt Fulgencio Bautista so Castro turned to the Soviets for help.

So, Freeman argues, Vietnam was a part of a larger upsurge of nationalist revolutions that were changing the political-economy of the globe, and U.S. leaders decided that they would not let Vietnam fall into the Soviet camp. At the same time, it is clear that Ho Che Mein, the leader of North Vietnam and the most popular figure in the whole of Vietnam in the 1950s and 1960s, was a nationalist most of all and wanted Vietnam to be an independent country. However, when faced with a U.S. policy that was antagonistic to his leadership, he turned to the Soviet Union for assistance and got it. It went like this.

“…in February 1946, the president of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh, approached U.S. president Harry Truman, asking for American help in evicting the French, much as the French, ironically, had helped the Americans evict the British 170 years earlier. But Ho Chi Minh was a communist, and the U.S. was engaged in the larger, life-and-death planetary war against communism. So, Truman turned Ho down, and helped the French instead.”

“And so, with nowhere else to go, Ho turned to the Soviets for help, to fight not only the French but, eventually, the Americans as well. This was the “original sin” that poisoned the U.S. position in the eyes of the Vietnamese people. It is what made it impossible for the U.S. to ever “win the hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese people.”

Whither Vietnam?

Despite the devastation, Vietnam has managed to make some uneven economic progress in rebuilding its economy and country in recent decades, becoming more and more ensconced the capitalist global economy in the process.

Historian Lawrence Wittner offers these upbeat observations of contemporary Vietnam from his research and a visits to the country.

“Traveling through Vietnam during the latter half of April 2015 with a group of erstwhile antiwar activists, I was struck by the transformation of what was once an impoverished, war-devastated peasant society into a modern nation.  Its cities and towns are bustling with life and energy.  Vast numbers of motorbikes surge through their streets, including 4.2 million in Hanoi and 7 million in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon).  A thriving commercial culture has emerged, based not only on many small shops, but on an influx of giant Western, Japanese, and other corporations.  Although Vietnam is officially a Communist nation, about 40 percent of the economy is capitalist, and the government is making great efforts to encourage private foreign investment. Indeed, over the past decade, Vietnam has enjoyed one of the highest economic growth rates in the world.  Not only have manufacturing and tourism expanded dramatically, but Vietnam has become an agricultural powerhouse.  Today it is the world’s second largest exporter of rice, and one of the world’s leading exporters of coffee, pepper, rubber, and other agricultural commodities.  Another factor distancing the country from what the Vietnamese call ‘the American War’ is the rapid increase in Vietnam’s population.  Only 41 million in 1975, it now tops 90 million, with most of it under the age of 30 — too young to have any direct experience with the conflict.”

Wittner adds:

“Vietnam has also made a remarkable recovery in world affairs.  It now has diplomatic relations with 189 countries, and enjoys good relations with all the major nations.”

“Victorious in war but defeated in peace”

It would be nice to end on this positive note. However, Wittner’s observations miss deeper realities of contemporary Vietnam. In an in-depth article published by The Guardian, Nick Davies (cited earlier) writes:

“In spite of losing the military conflict, the Americans and their allies [South Koreans] have returned with the even more powerful weapon of finance, forcing the Vietnamese down a road they did not choose. Now, it is their leaders who are telling the biggest lie of all” (https://www.theguardian.com/news/2015/apr/22/vietnam-40-years-on-how-communist-victory-gave-way-to-capitalist-corruption).

Davies describes the immediate post-war situation in the mid-1970s. The US left Vietnam in a state of physical ruin, with devastated roads, rail lines, bridges and canals, paddy fields littered with high explosives and Agent Orange, two-thirds of the villages in the south destroyed, orphans roaming the street, and a heroin epidemic. The new government “estimated it was dealing with 10 million refugees; 1 million war widows; 880,000 orphans; 362,000 war invalids; and 3 million unemployed people.” The country was having to import rice. The US never delivered on the $3.5 billion reconstruction payment agreed to at the Paris negotiations ending the war. The US imposed a trade embargo. Vietnam’s socialist project began to collapse and its initial policies failed to give peasant farmers incentives to produce. By the late 1980s, “the leadership was forced to allow the peasants to start selling surplus produce, and so capitalism began to return.”

Then the shift to more capitalism occurred with some rapidity. By 1994, “the US was appeased and lifted the trade embargo,” and the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund began to help. By 2005, “Vietnam was part of the global capitalist economy.” State-owned companies were sold to private investors. In 2006, it was given membership in the World Trade Organization.

In the process, however, inequality and corruption increased. Some evidence: “Transparency International last year [2014] reported that Vietnam is perceived to be one of the most corrupt countries in the world, doing worse than 118 others and scoring only 31 out of a possible 100 good points on the index.” And further: “A 2012 report of the World Bank notes that ‘inequality is back on the agenda.’ Between 2004 and 2010, income of the poorest 10% of the population fell by a fifth, it found, while the richest 5% in Vietnam were not taking nearly a quarter of the income.” And then “millions of farmers have been driven off the land to make way for factories or roads.” Hundreds of thousands of workers have been made redundant “as the private owners of the old state-owned companies set about cutting costs.” Now an increasing number of Vietnamese workers try to get by in the informal sector of the economy, with no protection against exploitation by employers. Healthcare and schooling are no longer free.

Final thoughts

If the US had supported Ho Che Minh after the Vietnamese had defeated the French colonialists in 1954, the history of Vietnam may well have turned out differently. Vietnam could have started out with a popular president, rich farm land, rivers, and forests, and a political culture based on egalitarian values. Today, such an option seems more remote than ever. Much of what I’ve written here is missed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War. They hoped that their documentary would help to heal the divisions in the U.S. and bring a kind of reconciliation between the Vietnamese and US peoples. But, in trying not to take sides, they fail to help viewers understand the depth and terrible long-lasting consequences of what the US did to Vietnam. The documentary also fails to grasp the larger geo-political dynamics that limit the options of small countries in the global capitalist economy.

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