If you come to Việt Nam as a first time tourist, of course you will have to visit the obligatory top tourist sites. Many of those tell the story of what we Americans call the Việt Nam War, and which Vietnamese unsurprisingly call the American War. In Hanoi, there is the gigantic mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh (complete with mummified body, in the great tradition of Lenin); and then the grim little building known as the “Hanoi Hilton” — the one-time French colonial prison in the downtown area that was converted to house American POWs during the period 1963-73. John McCain famously spent several years there. In Saigon, there is the museum now bearing the name “War Remnants Museum” which, we were told, formerly had the name “War Crimes Museum.”
That museum’s earlier name — War Crimes Museum — gives the better indication of its perspective on the story of the war. The Americans were “murderous oppressors.” Along with their colleagues from “mercenary satellite countries” (e.g., UK, Australia) they propped up the “puppet régime” in South Việt Nam, and viciously attacked the brave Vietnamese peasants. After many great victories, the Vietnamese finally achieved “complete liberation” of the country in 1975. Although much of this rhetoric seemed harshly anti-American, we were informed that it had been meaningfully toned down (including the museum’s name change) in the years since the American-Vietnamese reconciliation that occurred in the mid-1990s under President Clinton.
Comparing the narrative in the museum to the situation in the country today gives cause for reflection on what it means to “win” a war in today’s world. Consider two perspectives on the situation of Việt Nam. The first is the conventional narrative, focusing on the military history of who fought and who won and lost on the battlefield. The second is my report of what can be observed on the ground in Việt Nam today.
Perspective 1. Việt Nam had become a colony of France in the mid-19th century; but during World War II, France had been defeated by Germany, and Việt Nam quickly became a very low priority of the remaining Vichy government. With the French completely distracted, the Japanese invaded Việt Nam starting in late 1940, and by 1945 were mostly in control. Then came their sudden defeat and surrender in August of that year. In September 1945 (actually, right on VJ Day itself), a guy named Ho Chi Minh — a Vietnamese Communist who had studied and trained in Moscow in the 1920s to become a revolutionary — showed up in Hanoi and declared the independence of Việt Nam under his rule. Meanwhile, back in Europe, Soviet dictator Stalin took the opportunity of the end of World War II to throw down the “iron curtain” across Eastern Europe, sweeping some ten or so new countries into the Soviet bloc. By 1947 President Truman had announced the so-called “Truman Doctrine,” which sought the containment of Soviet communism to the territories it already controlled, thus kicking off the Cold War.
Against this background, the United States and Britain were only too happy to facilitate having newly-constituted France, now led by Charles de Gaulle, move back into Việt Nam. At first France dealt with the independence/communist forces of Ho Chi Minh as a low level insurgency. Then China “fell” to communist forces under Mao Zedong in 1949 — rather a significant setback for nascent efforts at “containment” of communism. By the early 1950s, Ho’s Viet Minh forces were getting serious funding from both Mao’s China and Stalin’s Soviet Union. In 1954 the Viet Minh besieged and defeated a big chunk of the French military at a battle called Dien Bien Phu. France promptly threw in the towel in Việt Nam, and began its final evacuation. That left Ho in control in the Northern half of the country, and a complete power vacuum in the Southern half. Without doubt, if the U.S. had done nothing, Ho and his Soviet/Chinese-backed forces would shortly control the whole country. Would the U.S. just stand idly by and watch yet another “domino” fall in what then seemed like the inevitable march of communism to final world domination?
From there you probably know the history. As a way to stem the seemingly irresistible tide of communism, the U.S. decided to back a prominent Vietnamese Catholic and non-communist named Ngo Dinh Diem to become premier of the new country of South Việt Nam, providing financial and advisory support. But the guerrilla insurgency only continued and escalated. By 1965 the U.S. had about 25,000 “advisors” in the country; and then the real escalation began — up to as many as about 600,000 U.S. combat troops in the country at times in the late 60s and early 70s. As the effort showed little progress toward military victory, it rapidly lost political support in the U.S. In the 1973 Paris Accords, the U.S. agreed to withdraw its troops and cease direct military action in the region. In 1975 North Vietnam (backed by the Soviet Union and Communist China) achieved complete military victory over the South. It had “won” the war. By the same measure, the U.S. had clearly “lost.”
Perspective 2. Some 44 years later, here’s where we are:
The Soviet Union is long gone. Its former European satellites also threw off their yokes, now almost 30 years ago. Communist China is not completely gone, but substantially transformed. The handful of countries that continue to adhere to socialism as an actual economic system (North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela) have become economic basket cases, with their citizens stuck in intentionally-inflicted poverty if not starvation.
Here in Việt Nam, if you go to a museum or historical site, chances are that there will be several groups of school children around, from kindergarten age through high school. As you walk near them, they will likely say something like “How are you?” or “What is your name?” Even 6 and 7 year olds. They are practicing their English. Every school child in Việt Nam learns English from the earliest years. At a few special schools, another foreign language might also be available from early ages — French. But Russian? Chinese? Are you kidding?
Everyplace there are guides, I keep peppering them with questions. One tells me, the goal of everyone in Việt Nam today is to send their children abroad to get a better education. Where? The U.S. is the first choice, followed by the UK, and then Australia. The unifying theme is the English language. It is the language of opportunity.
Street signs. In Hanoi (by far the poorer of the two major cities), there is a substantial smattering of signs in English. In Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), signs in English are pervasive. You will also see some French in both cities, particularly in restaurants and some museums. Chinese? Only in writing made more than a century ago. Russian (cyrillic)? Absolutely never.
Tourism promotion is everywhere.
Any business in this country will gladly take U.S. dollars in lieu of the Vietnamese currency. Indeed, the U.S. dollars are far preferable.
The government-controlled press is obsessed with the need to attract private investment to the country in order to grow the economy. Just today it is “Private capital is key for Việt Nam’s energy development.” On December 26 it was “Việt Nam’s actual FDI surges 9% in 2018.” There are many, many more such if you have the stomach to read a news service that really does resemble Pravda in its heyday. The articles recognize that attracting private investors requires allowing the investors to keep the returns that their investments generate. Less clear is the extent to which the government follows through on that.
As we travel about, we pass large new-looking factories operated by foreign companies from not just the U.S., but also countries like Japan and Korea (e.g., Samsung). A gentleman we meet on a hiking trail is a businessman from Australia whose company has recently made a substantial investment.
There is no love lost between Việt Nam and its northern neighbor China. Several people express concern that China is burdening Việt Nam with debt, but no one can get information on the exact amount. As we drive along a highway east of Hanoi, a major railway construction project parallels our route, including a large bridge across a wide river which ends suddenly on either side without connecting to anything. Nobody is working on the project, which appears to be abandoned. We are informed that this was a Chinese-sponsored project that somehow got dropped several years ago after billions had been spent. I can’t find anything about it on the internet, but then I don’t have appropriate Vietnamese-language search terms.
Turning from the category of economic reality to the category of lip service, Việt Nam continues to proclaim itself the “Socialist Republic.” Hammer and sickle flags still fly casually everywhere, with nobody seeming to realize their association with mass killings of tens of millions. Here is one such flying beside a typical four-lane road outside Hanoi:
Yet, despite the strong dislike of China among ordinary citizens, and the tense relationship between Việt Nam and China, it appears that Việt Nam is closely following the Chinese political model of tightly-controlled one-party rule, even as the economy completes a transformation from socialism to market capitalism. The one-party dictatorship is the legacy of Việt Nam’s dalliance with communism.
So with the perspective of the last 44 years, who “won” the Việt Nam War? The U.S. is very close to achieving all of its principal objectives without having risked any more lives or fired any more shots since 1973. Probably, about the same economic situation would prevail today if there had never been any Việt Nam War. Although proclaiming itself a “socialist republic,” Việt Nam is not part of an aggressive and militaristic communist bloc that continually threatens its neighbors. Its citizens are chasing prosperity through private property and free exchange just as fast as they can chase it. The only thing left of “socialism” is a government sector much larger than it needs to be or than it should be.
It would be nice if today’s government of Việt Nam could find itself feeling secure enough to stand for election like grown-up governments do; but there is no current prospect of that. On the other hand, achieving a government willing to conduct periodic elections was never really one of the main objectives that the U.S. was hoping to accomplish with its military force those many decades ago.