As President Clinton goes to Vietnam this week, he carries with him a heavy weight of legacy from America’s longest war. Some, of course, is personal: like many men of his generation, Clinton opposed the war and sought to avoid fighting it, decisions that had political consequences he could not have anticipated. He bears a national legacy, too. The Vietnam War still clings to Americans—to those who fought it and resisted it, to those who came of age while it was fought, and even to those who now jam college courses on the war, wondering what it was that so provoked their parents. The war has been credited with, or blamed for, everything from heavy metal rock music to the neo-brutalist architecture of the 1970s. But parts of its legacy are indisputable.
The military professes to have learned its lesson from defeat in Vietnam. Some believe the lesson is that civilians cannot be trusted to run a war, and that war for limited purposes is foolish or impossible. Since civilians will always run American wars, and since modern warfare is in fact more likely to be limited than total, those who wish it were otherwise are bound to be disappointed. More apposite is the lesson that Colin Powell and others claim to have learned from Vietnam: if you’re going to intervene militarily, get clear on your objectives, gather political support, go all out in the air (short of nuclear weapons) and on land, and have an exit strategy. Military planners point with pride to the Gulf War, which they say demonstrated the thoroughness with which they had learned their lesson. Of course, blasting away at Iraqi forces hunkered down in fixed positions in the Kuwaiti desert is hardly the same thing as dislodging determined fighters from jungles in their own countries. It remains to be seen whether Powell’s much touted “airland” war can be effective in more difficult circumstances and terrain.
Along with military lessons come some strategic implications of the Vietnam War. For years after the war, conservatives lamented what they called “The Vietnam Syndrome” in U.S. foreign policy, the alleged reluctance of Americans to use military means to secure their vital interests abroad. This was first of all an ahistorical claim—Americans have always been hesitant to go to war—and in reality the Syndrome was never all it was cracked up to be. Every president since Richard Nixon has had a dust-up of some sort: Gerald Ford tried to rescue the men of the container ship Mayaguez from Cambodia in 1975; Jimmy Carter sent helicopters after American hostages in Iran; Ronald Reagan bombed Libya, sent troops to Lebanon, and invaded Grenada; and George Bush oversaw the Gulf War–after which he crowed, “We’ve kicked the Vietnam Syndrome!” By that time, there wasn’t much left to kick; the demise of the cold war had seen to that.
The Vietnam War left an economic legacy as well. When he dramatically escalated the U.S. war in 1965, President Lyndon Johnson refused to adopt economic measures commensurate with a significant level of commitment. He and his advisers were in denial about the war, and they didn’t want the American people to think that anything big or awful was about to happen in Southeast Asia. The result was what economists call “demand-pull” inflation, in which a sudden upsurge of demand—for military supplies in this case—raises prices and triggers inflation. By the time Nixon arrived on the scene, inflation was being fanned by other factors, among them growing demands for higher salaries and wages to keep up with escalating prices. For baby boomers, just into the job market and starting families in the mid-1970s, inflation became an unwelcome and seemingly intractable fact of life. Boomers thus came to have inflationary expectations; they assume that prices will go steadily up, and therefore spend rather than save. This isn’t especially rational behavior, but it is understandable in light of the economic lessons of the recent past.
President Clinton is likely most familiar with the social and cultural legacy of the Vietnam War in the United States. The war, of course, created deep divisions in American society. With the exposure of government malfeasance during the war, came the erosion of trust in political institutions and leaders. Cynicism about government didn’t begin or end with the Vietnam War, but those who remember the confident pronouncements of the war managers—”The enemy is on his last legs” (William Westmoreland), or “I won’t invade any third countries” (Nixon)—can be forgiven for their skepticism about anything politicians tell them. The Watergate and Iran-Contra scandals thus seem not autonomous acts of deception, but behavior of a piece with the peddling of falsehoods during the Vietnam era. Today’s culture wars are a continuation of Vietnam era conflicts by other means. When neoconservatives or radical rightists flay “tenured radicals” for political correctness, they are talking about the politics of the New Left in the 1960s and 1970s, now allegedly wielded like a weapon by those with influence over the young. The left, declares the right, was wrong about Vietnam then and is wrong about history textbooks, affirmative action, and modern art now. That the right still harbors myths about the war—that the press undercut it, that (again) craven civilians subverted it, that it was all but won when the United States abandoned it—is clear to anyone who reads Commentary or browses the Vietnam War book section at Barnes and Noble.
The Vietnamese should have problems like these. The Americans lost 58,000 men in Vietnam. The Vietnamese suffered perhaps two million dead between 1965 and 1975, and since then many others have died from unexploded ordnance, land mines, and exposure to residual toxins. The destruction of the country itself was terrible: rural areas were depopulated as their residents fled the fighting, defoliation tore the land and burned away the jungle, and cities, especially Saigon, were overwhelmed with desperately poor refugees. Vietnam soon found itself at war again, this time with its neighbors Cambodia (Kampuchea) and China. The new government made things worse, “re-educating” those it deemed likely to disagree with its policies, callously abetting a mass exodus of ethnic Chinese in particular, and hamfistedly pushing collectivization on a people exhausted by war and strongly attached to their land. The first Five-Year Plan (1976-1980) of the postwar Vietnamese government failed to raise living standards in much of the country.
In 1986, the Vietnamese introduced economic reforms, known as doi moi. The reformers rolled back socialism, restored private land ownership, and sought foreign investment. The leading economic indicators—GNP, per capita income, agricultural production, and so on—have risen in the years since doi moi was announced. And the reforms have brought renewed American interest in Vietnam. In 1994, President Clinton lifted the U.S. trade embargo, and a year later extended diplomatic recognition to Hanoi. Last July, the U.S. and Vietnam signed a bilateral trade agreement, and the Vietnamese opened a stock exchange. U.S. companies have not rushed into Vietnam, but they are clearly interested in cultivating furrows plowed decades ago. Days after the embargo ended, Coca Cola began advertising its products in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) with the slightly ominous slogan, “Glad to see you again.”
Whether these early signs of concord between the two former belligerents will amount to anything is a bit unclear. Not all Americans are sure they want normal relations with the Vietnamese, and several veterans’ groups in particular have been vocal in their opposition to normalization unless and until the Vietnamese government complies with their impossible demands for an accounting of Americans still Missing in Action in Vietnam. The Vietnamese also have some ambivalence about reconciliation with their powerful former enemies. Most Americans who go to Vietnam these days, as scholars, students, or tourists, wonder how they’ll be treated. Do the Vietnamese hate us? The answer is complicated. There is some evidence, especially outside large cities, that the Vietnamese have not forgiven Americans for their role in the war against their country. More than that, it is hard for Americans to know what Vietnamese really feel about them, since the Vietnamese see no reason why they should reveal their innermost thoughts to strangers from another place. (This is not “inscrutability” for its own sake, but a desire to deny the power of knowledge of oneself to an outsider.) Still, most Americans who meet Vietnamese in the street find them friendly and apparently willing to let bygones be bygones. The people of Hanoi and Saigon, at least, seem to be, like folks in Atlanta were said to be some years ago, too busy to hate; they are hard at work trying to make it in an emerging economy. When I was in Vietnam two years ago, I was struck by the sheer busyness of people. I was prepared for a good deal of enterprise in the south, but I was surprised by the level of activity on the streets of Hanoi, where fancy new shops were selling things like appliances and motorbikes. Well-heeled Vietnamese were building houses on the outskirts of town—many, I was told, were former Communist party apparatchiks. A colleague reported on an encounter with a young man who had just set up his own Internet business. Would the government restrict his activities? My friend asked. The young man thought that as long as his remained a small operation there would be no trouble. For all of this enterprise the Vietnamese would like American help, with investment, technology, and perhaps even trade—though, as Andrew Wells-Dang has pointed out, the Vietnamese are unlikely to find markets in the United States anytime soon. (http://www.fpif.org/briefs/vol5/v5n26vietnam.html)
Vietnamese often seem amused that Americans want to talk about the war. It happened, and the Vietnamese remember it, they say, but it was, after all, only one of many wars the Vietnamese have fought against foreigners throughout their history. The Vietnamese have gone to war against the Chinese, Cambodians, French, Japanese, Thais, Koreans, and Australians, along with the Americans. They simply cannot afford to harbor grudges against all these people, or they’d have no friends or trading partners. The Vietnamese I met two years ago were all very friendly. (My colleagues and I seemed particular targets of beggars in Saigon, and speculated that these unfortunate men, many of them South Vietnamese army veterans, hoped to play on our guilt about their fate, but they probably couldn’t distinguish us from Europeans; we were targeted for our privilege, not our nationality.) An observer in Vietnam during the summer of 1998 was startled to discover that the Vietnamese were rooting for the French side to win the World Cup.
Again and again, we heard the Vietnamese make a distinction between the American government, on whom they blamed the war, and the American people, virtually all of whom, they seemed to think, opposed the war. Many of the Vietnamese we met were government officials and scholars, far too sophisticated to believe that things in the United States had been that simple. But there is obvious utility in the view that the American people were overwhelmingly on the side of the Vietnamese. If the war was perpetrated by a small and willful group of men and staunchly opposed by the heroic masses, it confirms communist theory about the way government really works in a capitalist state. More than that, it makes reconciliation a lot easier. An unrepentant Henry Kissinger would not be welcomed in Hanoi. A contrite Robert McNamara was acceptable, and so were we. Our first evening in Hanoi, the vice chairman of our host organization told us that the remnants of a B-52 bomber graced a pond in his home village. Abruptly he stopped, looked at us sharply, and said: “Sorry to mention the war.” The story, and the apology, had a purpose: he wanted us to know that the war was on his mind, that he was proud his country had won it, and that we were nevertheless blameless as far as he was concerned.
Visitors to museums in Vietnam—I think particularly here of the Army Museum in Hanoi and the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City—are struck by the starkness, and grisliness, of many of the displays. Weapons are proudly on display, and alongside the tanks and planes one finds cruder devices, including animal traps and vicious-looking punji stakes, exhibited with apparent relish. There are photos of captured prisoners, and the language of the captions is uncompromising in its condemnation of French and American imperialists. How to square this discomfiting candor with Vietnam’s apparent desire to let bygones be bygones? It should be said, first of all, that these museums are less confrontational than they used to be: the War Remnants Museum used to be called “The Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes,” which proved inimical to tourism. More importantly, the vivid displays serve to remind Vietnamese visitors, most of them too young to remember the American War, let alone the struggle against the French, that constant vigilance is essential, given Vietnam’s history and location. Vietnam has frequently had powerful enemies, and the government wants the younger generation to keep that in mind.
Prospects for U.S.-Vietnam relations remain clouded. President Clinton will find a country moving cautiously toward greater openness in its economic intercourse, and haltingly toward greater political freedom. In Hanoi in 1998, we spoke—ironically on the same day—to William Bach, then the head of the United States Information Service in Vietnam, and to Professor Bui The Giang, a Communist member of the Vietnamese parliament. Bach was discouraged by what he’d seen of the country and its bureaucracy. Talk of reform, he said, was just talk. Vietnam remained stubbornly dedicated to communism, much like North Korea and Cuba. “Market socialism,” the buzzword in Hanoi as in Beijing, was to Bach an oxymoron; Vietnam’s pursuit of foreign capital was halfhearted and hedged about with conditions. Giang’s perspective was different. He admitted that the Communist Party had erred in pushing the country too hard toward an ideologically rigid version of socialism between 1975 and 1986. Doi moi was a necessary course correction. It had made foreign investment easier, privatized a number of industries and services, and changed contract law to encourage innovation. With it came a Vietnamese glasnost: the Vietnamese Assembly, once the home of what critics called “the nodding MP’s,” now actually debated legislation in meaningful ways. An exam system, not Party nepotism, determined government hiring and promotion. The bureaucracy had been streamlined. And so forth.
At the same time, Giang said, Vietnam was not America and did not wish to be. The regime was convinced that the “big economic operators” must remain in the public sector; one couldn’t trust private owners to allocate fertilizer fairly, for example. Southeast Asia was then still in the throes of the Asian economic slump, and Vietnamese were congratulating themselves that their persistent commitment to government control had insulated them from the worst of the shocks. (Giang told us that 28,000 workers in foreign-owned businesses had been laid off in 1997.) The government fears the result of greater political openness even more. The Vietnamese synonym for “freedom” is “license,” and people are wary of admitting western vices–among them drugs, prostitution, and juvenile delinquency. This, too, is a legacy of the American War.
The president, in short, should not expect too much from his visit. The Vietnamese will treat him with warmth and friendship. They will toast him and show off their recent accomplishments. But in the end they will move ahead deliberately and carefully on trade and in the area of human rights, keeping their own counsel, and guarding their hard-won independence.