Policy Review, Heritage Foundation : How We Won In Vietnam by Viet D. Dinh

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How We Won In Vietnam

Viet D. Dinh

Policy Review, Heritage Foundation

January 2001

Dr. Viet D. Dinh is Assistant Attorney General for Legal Policy at the Department of Justice. He was Professor and Deputy Director of Asian Law and Policy Studies at the Georgetown University Law Center.


The past two years have witnessed significant developments in United States policy toward Vietnam. High-level congressional delegations to Vietnam led by Sens. Richard Shelby and Chuck Hagel were followed by a visit by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. This past March, as Vietnam launched a propaganda campaign to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the communist victory, William Cohen became the first American secretary of defense to visit the country since the end of the war. Over the summer, the United States and Vietnam signed a bilateral trade and investment treaty and opened the door to the possibility of full economic normalization - a long way from the U.S.-led international trade embargo against Vietnam that started in 1975. The culmination of these developments was President Clinton's trip this November, the first presidential visit to Vietnam since Richard Nixon in July 1969. For any other country of comparable size and stature, this level of attention would be quite extraordinary.

But of course Vietnam is not just another country of marginal international significance. It is a name that remains deeply ingrained in the American psyche as a not-so-gentle reminder of our fallibility. The attention showered on this troubled nation on the other side of the earth to a large extent represents not just an exercise in foreign policy but also a national effort to come to grips with a painful history. It is not only about what we are to do with Vietnam; it is about what we are to think of ourselves.

Former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara touched off a flurry of self-examination with the publication of his book Argument Without End in 1999. "Reassessment" and "closure" became the code words in this process of collective therapy.

The dominant theme of the analyses of the twenty-fifth anniversary of war's end (and the thirtieth anniversary of Kent State) was the recounting of American errors and misjudgments throughout the conflict. In some ways, this analysis was an attempt to cure America of the Vietnam syndrome - the lingering fear of combat that inhibits American resolve for foreign intervention. Knowing our mistakes, or at least thinking that we know our mistakes, we can go forth unencumbered by the experience. And acknowledging mistakes facilitates reconciliation - not just between us and our former enemies, but more important, between conflicting parties and among ourselves.

This past April, as a guest of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Foundation, I returned to the country I had fled. The visit was filled with symbolism. The same people who built the Wall as a memorial to those who died in defeat were reaching out to those who lived through victory. And we witnessed some truly remarkable moments: American veterans greeting and at times weeping with Vietnamese veterans; American business leaders advising Vietnamese political leaders on economic policy; Vietnamese groups asking for American help on projects ranging from elementary education to land mine removal.

But it would be premature to herald a new era of good feelings. Beneath the veneer of symbolism lies a more complicated and recalcitrant reality, and significant obstacles lie on the road toward full reconciliation. Also in April, Sen. John McCain took his "Straight Talk Express" to Hanoi. Reminded of his captors' cruel treatment, mindful of the postwar repression by the communist regime, and observing the culture of corruption and mismanagement in Vietnam, McCain declared bluntly, "The wrong side won the war!" When leaders of the New Economy such as AOL founder James Kimsey, investment banker Herbert Allison, and E-Trade chairman Christos Cotsakos urged Vietnamese leaders to make immediate improvements in the legal, economic, and technological infrastructure to enable the country to join the world economy, the communist officials responded with a 20-year timetable for reforms. And multimillion-dollar offers of free broadband Internet infrastructure to educational institutions were met with polite refusals citing the need for government approvals for such projects.

Such disconnect underscores a second reason Vietnam is important to the United States. The country is among the last in the world, along with Cuba, North Korea, and a few others, where the government still steadfastly clings to hard-line communist rule. This claim to ideological purity is precarious, for nearly everywhere else people have recognized democratic capitalism as the path toward a good, free, and just life. As President Clinton recently declared in a speech at the Georgetown University Law Center, "The twentieth century resolved one big question, I believe, conclusively. Humanity's best hope for a future of peace and prosperity lies in free people and free market democracies governed by the rule of law." In this light, Sen. McCain was not entirely correct to say that the wrong side won the war. America and its allies may have lost the battle for Vietnam, but it won the larger and much more important war, the Cold War struggle against communism around the world.

Vietnam thus remains important to the United States because it represents one of the last venues for the battle of ideas between democratic capitalism and totalitarian communism to play itself out. Engaging with postwar Vietnam diplomatically and economically serves the same purpose as military intervention during the conflict. That purpose, now as then, is to promote U.S. strategic interests, as well as respect for the rights of man and the betterment of life for people anywhere.

But there is one crucial difference. The United States and its allies have already triumphed in the global battle of ideas. The success or failure of our effort to draw Vietnam into the community of democratic nations will not affect that victory. Unlike the 1960s and 1970s, whatever happens in Vietnam now will not have calamitous collateral effects on our global foreign policy objectives. Thus, the paradox of Vietnam: In the years since we lost the war, we have won it.

The meaning of containment

First, some historical perspective on the purposes and context of the war. The rhetoric of the Vietnam War was containment. For decades after the fall of Saigon, antiwar commentators seized upon that rhetoric and belittled its attendant domino theory to argue against the wisdom of the war. After Vietnam (and Cambodia and Laos) fell, so goes the argument, communism did not spread throughout the region. Therefore, the war was unnecessary and ill-advised - and, lacking in moral purpose, was arguably unjust. But the Vietnam War had implications far outside the country, the region, or the reach of falling dominoes. It reflected a larger strategy of maintaining an alliance system against communism.

Underlying the theory of containment, as outlined in George Kennan's famous "long telegram," were two basic propositions. First, the communist bloc was monolithic and thus presented a menace without breaks or fissures. Second, just as that monolith was unbroken, so too must the Western line of containment permit no breach. As fissures became apparent within the communist bloc, most notably between the Soviet Union and China, and the first proposition proved untrue, the policy prescription needed to be revised to the extent that it predicted a catastrophic end should there be a breach in the line of containment. That does not mean, however, that the second proposition needed to be, or was, rejected in toto. As Henry Kissinger argued in an influential essay at the time, regardless of the wisdom of the initial decision to intervene in Vietnam, continued involvement was undoubtedly in the U.S. interest once a half million troops were on the ground: American credibility was at stake.

Thus - as the commentators from Stratfor.com, an influential U.S.-based private intelligence gathering firm, noted in a cogent analysis - Vietnam was not only about containment of the "red menace," but presented a test of the credibility of American commitment and resolve. The strategy was to encircle the communist bloc in a web of alliances secured by American promises of assistance - financial, military, and, if necessary, nuclear. John F. Kennedy inaugurated his presidency by announcing what came to be the Kennedy Doctrine: a promise to "pay any price, bear any burden, . . . support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty." Like any unenforceable promise, the value of the American commitment depended wholly on our delivering when called upon.

Vietnam was such a call. As Arthur R. Schlesinger Jr. recounts in A Thousand Days, Kennedy "undoubtedly felt" that "an American retreat in Asia might upset the whole world balance." That threat to the world balance comes not from a fanciful notion that Southeast Asia would become a breach in the fence through which communism would spread throughout the free world. Rather, the threat came from a fear that the entire fence (or significant parts of it - say, Europe), woven together by American alliances and commitments, would unravel if the allies saw that America's commitments weren't worth the paper they were written on.

The argument that our involvement in Vietnam was a mistake rests ultimately on the assumption that the democratic alliance was unnecessary to defeat communism or that the alliance would not have unraveled had America not intervened in Vietnam - in other words, an assumption that the grand strategy itself was ill-conceived. But let us remember that the grand strategy ultimately worked. Vietnam, despite the military defeat, was a demonstration of U.S. credibility and resolve in the larger global struggle against communism. It was a demonstration that, in the final analysis, may have contributed to American success in the Cold War or, at the least, prevented our failure.

To be sure, U.S. withdrawal from and cessation of assistance to South Vietnam, which precipitated the communist victory in 1975, sorely tested the value of the American commitment and accordingly the strength of the Western alliance. Hanoi's victory in Southeast Asia led the American people and U.S. allies to question the United States' willingness or institutional political ability to "pay any price, bear any burden" to fight communism. These were uncertain times for those relying on the United States. But those who would look to the outcome of the war to argue that U.S. involvement in Vietnam was unnecessary bear the burden of showing, counterfactually, that a U.S. failure to respond to the situation in Vietnam as early as Kennedy's administration would have had no impact on the collective alliance against communism. At the time, Charles de Gaulle and other European leaders were openly questioning the value of guarantees from America to act against immediate self-interest by fighting communism in situations that did not pose a direct threat to American security. If 58,000 American lives, billions of dollars, and decades of domestic turmoil still did not erase doubts about the U.S. commitment, imagine how those doubts would have been expressed had the United States blithely ignored a call on its guarantee. And, let us not forget, the policy of appeasement prompted by war-weary malaise of the 1970s did not win the Cold War. Vigilance during the 1980s did, a point relevant to current United States-Vietnam policy to which I will return.

Recognizing that Vietnam was not an isolated defeat but rather part of an honorable and ultimately successful struggle for freedom and prosperity gives due credit to the contribution of our principal ally during this struggle, the Republic of Vietnam. It refutes the notion that South Vietnamese were mere pawns for or puppets of the United States - a charge frequently made by antiwar protesters in order to portray U.S. intervention as unjust. Nothing could be further from the truth. The South Vietnamese fought the war and sought U.S. help because they believed in the same principles of freedom and democracy for which America was the beacon. They included the hundreds of thousands of North Vietnamese, my father's family among them, who constituted the one-way exodus from the north when the country was partitioned in 1954 - driven from their homes by fears of communist rule and the hope of a good, free life. Those hopes led the South Vietnamese to fight for what remained of their homeland and, in the case of a quarter million of them, to give their lives to the cause.

More important from the U.S. perspective, this recognition also validates the sacrifices of American soldiers who fought, suffered, and died for the same cause. Such validation, nay, honor, is natural for any country that sends its young to war, but has long been withheld by people mired in antiwar ideology and confused by protest rhetoric. Former Secretary of the Navy James Webb, a combat marine in Vietnam and an expert chronicler of the soldier's experience, poignantly made the point in a Wall Street Journal essay on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the war's end:

-- (DrX@CarịTra.com), November 19, 2004


[Continued from above ]

"History owes something to those who went to Vietnam, and to the judgment of those who believed the endeavor was worthwhile. We can still debate whether the war was worth its cost, but the evidence of the past 25 years clearly upholds the validity of our intentions. This proposition may sound simple, but to advance it is to confront the Gordian knot of the Vietnam era itself. "

The evidence of the past 25 years to which Webb refers is indeed the best illustration that the United States, despite the military defeat, prevailed in the larger struggle for a future of peace and prosperity through democratic capitalism. Days after the fall of Saigon, Stanley Hoffman wrote in the May 3, 1975 issue of the New Republic: "In this respect Vietnam should teach us an important lesson. On the one hand Hanoi is one of several among the poorest nations in the world that have tried or will try to create a collectivist society, based on principles that are repugnant to us, yet likely to produce greater welfare and security for its people than any local alternative ever offered, at a cost in freedom that affects a small elite." Tell that to the millions of Cambodians who lost their lives in the killing fields as a sacrifice at the altar of one-step collectivism. Or to the hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese, my father among them, who were sent to "re-education camps" after the war, where many of them perished. Or to the families and relatives of South Vietnamese considered suspect by the Hanoi government and thus deprived of access to the basic necessities of food, clothing, and shelter. Or tell it to the millions of Vietnamese, my family among them, who found communist persecution unbearable and took to the high seas in a diaspora of anything that floated.

Most relevantly, tell that to the people of Vietnam who lived under communist rule throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Instead of welfare and security, what they got was repression of all basic freedoms; dire poverty caused by central economic mismanagement and official corruption; and a government so bellicose that, during the early 1980s, it continued to build up its military even as its people suffered the most severe drought of the country's recorded history.

It would be wise for us to keep the brutality of the communist regime in mind as we confront Vietnam's wavering efforts at economic liberalization. For a casual apologist or a strict isolationist, the response would be easy, if misguided. But those who believe in change through constructive engagement must walk a tightrope to ensure that our efforts serve our ultimate goals - a free people and free market democracy governed by the rule of law, a Vietnam which enjoys the peace and prosperity we have helped to secure elsewhere in the world.

Continuing the effort

In 1986, prompted by the withdrawal of foreign aid by a Soviet Union undergoing perestroika, Vietnam began a fitful effort at market reforms. The country began to look to foreigners for the capital investments necessary to jump-start the badly mismanaged economy. And it has made a conscious effort toward regional and international cooperation, joining the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum and applying to accede to the World Trade Organization.

The Vietnamese government is traveling on this journey less as willing (but begrudging) companion than as a stowaway. The hesitation stems from the government's contradictory desire to liberalize the economy, a step necessary to stem the country's slide into the ranks of the world's poorest nations, while at the same time maintain fealty to communist ideology, which is essential to the party's monopoly on power. The efforts at legal and economic reform are fitful and their success correspondingly sporadic because the government is confronting the fundamental paradox of its policy: Can capitalist economics coexist with communist rule?

The program of reform and renovation, doi moi, began at the Sixth Communist Party Congress in December 1986. The next two years were chaos. Although the government had decisively abandoned its system of total economic command and control, there was no clear replacement. Severe macroeconomic imbalances ensued. The budget deficit swelled to 10 percent of gross domestic product. Savings were negative, and the value of exports was less than half the import bill for 1988.Inflation was well into three digits, hovering between 300 and 500 percent per year from 1986 to 1988.

It was not until March 1989 that Vietnam significantly departed from the old Stalinist-Maoist model of economic development. At last, official price controls were abolished, and consumer goods sold through state outlets were priced at the free (black) market level. The dong was devalued drastically to bring the official rate in line with the prevailing market rate. The government abandoned official allocation of resources and planning targets and granted state enterprises more autonomy. The Seventh Communist Party Congress in 1991 sanctioned a path toward economic reform, and the government prodigiously drafted legislation designed to facilitate the transition to a market economy - the Civil Code, the Law on Private Enterprises, the Company Law, the Law on Land, the Law on Foreign Investment, and the Bankruptcy Law. The government also reorganized its bureaucracy to improve efficiency and curb corruption. Styled as an effort to "smooth the country's transition to a market economy," Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet merged eight government bodies into three "superministries" in October 1995 -including the Ministry of Planning and Investment, officially created "to improve the environment for foreign investors." The fervor for reform was so dramatic that Do Muoi, then secretary general of the Communist Party, in early 1996 declared, "Our present slogan must be capital, capital, and more capital."

The economy responded favorably to the package of reforms. Real GDP growth steadily increased, and inflation, after its peak in 1988, came under control. The world community greeted Vietnam's reform effort with enthusiasm. The IMF resumed lending in October 1993, and the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank soon followed suit. The United States in 1994 lifted its 20-year embargo on trade and later that year normalized diplomatic relations. Foreign investors - casting their gaze on Vietnam through glasses tinted rosy by history and symbolism - rushed in. In 1996, foreign direct investment totaled $8.3 billion, or more than a third of the country's GDP.

But reform gave way to retrenchment. Much of the renovation program is predicated upon ideas, such as the recognition of property and commercial rights, that challenge traditional communist ideology. Hard-liners insisted on a dominant state role in determining future economic development, and, indeed, even during the 1986-95 reform period, the state sector increased its share of GDP relative to the private sector. In early 1996, the government instituted a campaign denouncing "cultural pollution" and the "quiet revolution" by foreign diplomatic and business interests. The party vowed that the country would not "stray onto the capitalist path" and recommended that the state sector approximately double its share of GDP to 60 percent in the next 25 years. The Eighth Party Congress in June 1996 signaled the continuing shift of power away from reformers toward more hard-line conservatives. The size of the politburo was expanded, and the number of members with military backgrounds increased from four to six.

In November 1999, the party used its anticorruption campaign to purge top-level officials who were outspoken advocates of reform. The highest ranking official sacked was the deputy prime minister, who had complained that "all state corporations do is sit on their behinds and demand further support and protectionism" and advocated accelerated privatization of state-owned enterprises. The same day as the purge, leaders made their first statements about an impasse on the bilateral trade agreement Vietnam and the United States had been negotiating since 1996.

The U.S.-Vietnam trade agreement would serve American business interests by opening up a market of 80 million people to more liberalized trade and investment. It would also advance American diplomatic interests by establishing firmer ties to a country bordering China. For Vietnam, an agreement promises an enhanced standard of living for its people by increasing productive capacity through foreign investments and providing easier access to cheaper and higher quality imports. Vietnam would also be able to export to the United States more products currently encumbered by high tariffs. The World Bank estimates that, in the first year of normal trade relations, apparel exports would increase tenfold from 1996 levels, to $384 million, and overall Vietnamese exports to the United States would double, to $1.3 billion. In July 1999, negotiators reached accord and signed an agreement in principle, which was to have been finalized at a September 1999 ceremony during the APEC meeting in New Zealand. The politburo balked, however, and the signing ceremony was cancelled at the last minute.

-- (DrX@CarịTra.com), November 19, 2004.

[ Last Part ]

The reason is simple: The bilateral trade agreement threatened the fundamental ideology of the conservative Vietnamese leadership and its hold on power. The agreement was a comprehensive accord with detailed provisions for all trade and services sectors and specific guarantees against appropriation of U.S. investments in Vietnam. It also contained a firm timetable for implementation. Such widespread reform would significantly reduce the scope and economic influence of state-owned enterprises and thus diminish the control (and opportunity for graft) of the party, specifically of its politically powerful and ideologically conservative military. It would require reform of the inefficient state banking system, long the subsidizer of stagnant state-owned enterprises. And the agreement would open the gates to an influx of foreign products and professionals, thus introducing "social evils" dangerous to communist solidarity and heightening fears of a quiet revolution by foreign interests. It would also have exposed Vietnam to the strong currents of international currency flows, the hazards of which had recently been demonstrated in the Asian financial crisis of 1997. Conservatives saw currency instability as a further threat to party control.

Foreign investors' response to these developments in politics and policy was dramatic. In January 2000, foreign direct investments dropped to 1992 levels. And the November 2000 issue of the official Vietnam Investment Review (which, incidentally, has lost its foreign financial backing) reported that for the first 10 months of 2000, foreign direct investment was half the amount for the comparable period in 1999 and thus "is still at a record yearly low." Earlier this year, the Economist chronicled this "rags to riches to rags story" and bid in its title, "Goodnight, Vietnam." In July, perhaps in response to the continuing slide, Vietnam capitulated and signed the bilateral trade agreement. Whether the agreement will be ratified by Congress and the National Assembly and whether it will be implemented according to its timetable remain to be seen. The struggle within the Hanoi government shows no sign of having been resolved.

From bullets to ideas

I f this analysis appears to resemble old-time Kremlinology, that is because it does. But there is a larger theme. The conservative Vietnamese leadership's resistance to economic and legal reforms and its fear of a quiet revolution illustrate its recognition that current relations with the United States are part of the same struggle between democratic capitalism and totalitarian communism that once took the form of war -a war the communists thought they had won. But the military struggle has been transformed into one over economic and social influence. The current questions of reform are the new battlegrounds.

In this belief, the leadership is correct - just as the North Vietnamese generals were correct that the Vietnam war was not simply a military conflict, that it had to be fought in American domestic politics as well as on the battlefield. Indeed, Vietnam has acknowledged that it lost 1.4 million soldiers during the war, compared to 58,000 Americans and 250,000 South Vietnamese. Victory came only when the United States, weary of the war effort, withdrew troops from Vietnam and the Congress in 1974 denied $800 million in essential military aid to the Republic of Vietnam.

What, then, should be the policy objective of the United States toward Vietnam today? Just as Vietnam has recognized that further economic reforms pose a threat to communist power, the United States should recognize that it is engaged in battle on the final front of the advance of democratic capitalism. Just as the North Vietnamese generals saw the relevance of American politics to the Vietnam war, our diplomats should view United States policy toward Vietnam as an effort not simply to define relations between the two countries, but also to touch the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people and to nudge the government onto the path toward democratic capitalism.

This is not a war of bullets and bombs, but a battle of ideas and institutions. The Clinton administration deserves credit for negotiating a tough trade and investment treaty and for resisting Vietnamese intransigence in the process. The next administration needs to continue this work and ensure that the agreement is ratified and will be implemented fully according to its strict timetable. Completion of this process would provide the stable, transparent, and accountable economic infrastructure necessary for Vietnam's continued progression toward a market-oriented economy.

But free markets are only half of the ideal of democratic capitalism; free peoples are the other half. In the West, we have the privilege of academic debate over the meaning of terms such as political expression, freedom of religion, and freedom of the press. Often our scholars conclude that these principles cannot be objectively determined in a manner satisfactory to all peoples. And the attempts of our legal experts to define them with a precision adjudicable (if not enforceable) by international judges bring justifiable snickers from tough-minded diplomats. But there can be no doubt that these principles have been grossly violated by the Vietnamese communist regime. In the final fronts of the struggle against totalitarianism, the rights of man take on their core meaning and essential importance.

Amorphous notions of political expression have real significance in a regime that punished enemies through a process of reeducation that often blurred with eradication; that unfailingly imprisons those who have the courage to suggest an alternative to the official line; and that thwarts any effort, however meager or ineffectual, at social organization. Freedom of religion begins to sound concrete when religious leaders are persecuted and imprisoned and their followers immolate themselves in vain protest. And freedom of the press becomes more than a slogan in a climate where a newspaper sponsored by the state, as all publications are, is shut down because it dared suggest that people are "worried and sad" that the government banned firecrackers during Tet (lunar new year) celebrations.

Never mind that all of these freedoms are nominally protected by Vietnam's constitution. Their exercise is punishable because it violates the more significant constitutional provision conferring a monopoly of power on the Communist Party. The United States must take a hard line on Vietnam's abuse of its people, because this is the very essence of the struggle.

The typical Vietnamese response to foreign insistence that the country respect the rights of its people, a claim that these demands are an intrusion on domestic sovereignty, rings hollow. The Vietnamese leadership out of necessity has abandoned its Marxist- Leninist ideal of command and control collectivism. It now simply clings to political control. The same vigilance and pressure that dragged Vietnam onto the path toward a market economy needs to be applied to weaken its grip on totalitarian authority.

To keep in sight that we are continuing a larger effort for democracy and capitalism is to protect against erosion of core American ideals through the process of engagement. It is to work so that the Vietnamese people see the promise of freedom and democratic political expression in an economy and society protected by the rule of law.

Equally important for our own nation, such a recognition will put the Vietnam war into the proper, broader historical perspective. It will help to heal the lingering wounds of that sad era and lead Americans to realize that their soldiers did not die in vain, that their veterans are deserving of honor and gratitude, and that their triumphant ideals and institutions were and are worth fighting for.

Vietnam Forgets Those Who Lost by Seth Mydans

-- (DrX@CarịTra.com), November 19, 2004.

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