Michael Hirsh: Why America's Pullout From Vietnam Worked





[Michael Hirsh covers international affairs for Newsweek out of Washington.]

The Soviet Union was in its final days of existence when I visited Vietnam in late December of 1991. The cold war was about to end forever with the collapse of one of the two adversaries that had kept it going for 40-odd years. A lot had changed in Vietnam, too, I discovered during my trip. The coziness between Moscow and Hanoi, once comrades within the Soviet bloc, had curdled into mutual hatred. Throughout the country, but especially in the North, the Vietnamese had come to despise the large resident Russian population for its cheap spending habits and arrogance. Visiting Americans, by contrast, were welcomed with smiles (“Russians with dollars,” we were called.) On the day I visited the old U.S. Embassy in Saigon—the where some of those iconic photos symbolizing American defeat were taken—I discovered government workmen removing a plaque that once commemorated the North’s victory over the “U.S. imperialists.” In the waning days of that epochal year, 1991, the propaganda against American involvement in Southeast Asia was suddenly no longer politically correct. Hanoi’s new message: Yankee Come Back (and bring your investment dollars). Today Vietnam remains nominally communist, but Hanoi knows it is an ideological relic surrounded by Asian capitalist tigers, all of them U.S. allies or dependents (one reason Vietnam was so eager to have Bush visit last November: it wants to be part of that club). The cold war dominoes did fall—but the opposite way.

This was the “harsh” aftermath that George W. Bush attempted to describe this week when he warned against pulling out of Iraq as we did in Vietnam. His remarks to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Kansas City on Wednesday were an abuse of historical fact—no surprise, perhaps, coming from a president who is just now catching up with the Political Science 101 reading he shrugged off at Yale. Yes, a lot of Vietnamese boat people died on the high seas; but many others have returned to visit in the ensuing years. Above all, we have learned that Vietnam and Southeast Asia were never really central fronts in the cold war (although Korea at the time of the outbreak of war in 1950, when Beijing still kowtowed to Moscow and before the Soviet Union and China split, might have fit that bill). The decision to pull out had very little effect on the ultimate outcome. America triumphed in the cold war because it had the right kind of economy—an open one—compared to Moscow and Beijing, and its ideas about freedom were more attractive to the states within the Soviet bloc than their own failed ideas were.....

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