With a Free Enterprise Vietnam, Who Really Won the War?

News Abroad

Mr. Thompson, Professor of Public Administration, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, is the author of Legalized Gambling: A Reference Handbook (Santa Barbara and Denver: ABC-Clio, 1994 and 1997-2nd ed.).

Over the year-end, I visited Vietnam, and I revised some thinking.  I now conclude that we won the Vietnam War.  We just weren’t there for the victory party.

I was in Vietnam to visit my son, a school teacher at the South Saigon (yes! SAIGON) International School.  I rode on a “cyclo” from the Ho Chi Minh Post Office, filled with merchants hawking goods, to the Ben Thanh Market—from one hot spot of capitalism to another.  I took a train trip to the ocean beach at Mui Ne, staying at a Western-style resort.  I rode on a bus through incredible motorcycle traffic to Cat Tien National Park.  There I asked our German guide (he was from the Deutschland equivalent of our Peace Corps) to tell me just what inside Vietnam was “communist.”  Upon reflection he said, “Well, I guess about the only thing is this park.  It is owned by the government.  I can’t think of anything else.

I’ve come to the conclusion that he might be right.  About the only thing communist I found in the country was the national park, along with city parks and a few museums.

The American-Vietnam War was fought with multiple goals—although they were ill-explained and very murky.  One rationale for the war was the “domino theory.”  Concomitant with containment (as expressed first by George F. Kennan in 1947), the domino theory held that if communist forces could be victorious in one country, then those forces would seek to conquer the next adjacent non-communist country, until all countries had fallen like dominos.  The whole world was the target of domino thinking, as expressed in the manifesto of Marx and Engels.  If South Vietnam fell to communists supported by the Soviet Union and China, we expected Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Burma, Singapore, Malaysia, and the Philippines to fall as well, then Asia as a whole—and then the world.

President Lyndon B. Johnson stated in a speech on April 7, 1965, “Over this war…is another reality:  the deepening shadow of Communist China.  The rulers in Hanoi are urged on by Peking.  This is a regime which has destroyed freedom in Tibet, attacked India, and been condemned by the United Nations for aggression in Korea.  It is a nation which is helping the forces of violence in almost every continent.  The contest in Vietnam is part of a wider pattern of aggressive purpose.”

There were also ideological reasons for being in this war.  We wanted to demonstrate the viability of free enterprise capitalism in competition with state ownership of commerce.

President Johnson continued his speech with the hope that even our adversary could see the wisdom of working together for more commerce.  “I would hope that the Secretary General of the United Nations could use the prestige of his great office…to initiate, as soon as possible, with the countries of the area, a plan for cooperation in increased development.  For our part I will ask the Congress to join in a billion dollar American investment in this effort as soon as it is underway….The task is nothing less than to enrich the hopes and existence of more than a hundred million people.”

There was a humanitarian goal in the war.  Johnson spoke of terror and violence in South Vietnam.  “It is a war of unparalleled brutality.  Simple farmers are the targets of assassination and kidnapping.  Women and children are strangled in the night because their men are loyal to their government.  Small and helpless villages are ravaged by sneak attacks.  Large scale raids are conducted on towns, and terror strikes in the heart of cities.”   

Whatever our goals, we abandoned notions that our forces would overturn the existing communist regime of North Vietnam, but would be used to defend the survival of the free enterprise regime of South Vietnam.  We did so thinking we were preserving the “independent nation of South Vietnam.”  “We want nothing for ourselves, only that the people of South Vietnam be allowed to guide their own country in their own way.”  No notice was given to the fact that there was only one nation of Vietnam until the French left in 1954.  Our efforts were to support a divided Vietnam—not to promote a united, independent nation.  There had been one Vietnam for over a thousand years.  There were two Vietnams only for a decade.

In 1973, the U.S. participated in peace talks that promised that a South Vietnamese regime could be preserved.  We agreed to disengage and remove our troops and forces, and the North agreed that they would not take over the South. Political realities led to different results.  Our withdrawal was accompanied by a withdrawal of funding for our military effort by Congress.  In turn, North Vietnam took over the South.  In 1975, North Vietnamese troops captured Saigon.

For thirty-five years, I have heard that we had “lost” the war.  However, what I saw over the recent holiday leads me to reject that conclusion.  The war was “won.”  The trouble is that we were not around long enough to see the victory.  Ironically, “our” victory was won, not by American troops, but rather by the Vietnamese armies and the Vietnamese people.

The communist takeover did originally, as Washington feared, result in the loss of liberty, property, and life – an almost inevitable consequence of war, as the North Vietnamese Army punished many in the South.  It was also a result of the imposition of communist ideology.  Private property was seized and free enterprise activities were forcibly restrained.   

But more was happening.  The U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam guaranteed the collapse of the already fragile Cambodian government, which was deposed and replaced by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge.  The massive wave of violence we feared would be set into motion in southern Vietnam came to Cambodia.  Pol Pot’s imposition of peasant communism led to the evacuation of Cambodia’s cities, forced labor in the countryside, and mass murder in the “killing fields.”  The killing focused on political rivals—such as Buddhist monks and entrepreneurs—and on those of foreign heritage, including Chinese and Vietnamese.  Over two million were murdered in the Cambodian genocide.

With no American forces left in Vietnam, we were hardly in a position to stop the killing. Still, the U.S. did little in using diplomatic pressure to stop Pol Pot.  Instead, the Carter administration gave support to Pol Pot by backing the United Nation’s recognition of his government.

But the killing in Cambodia did come to a stop.  How?  The Khmer Rouge conducted border raids into Vietnam, and Vietnam reacted.  On December 25, 1978, Vietnam invaded Cambodia.  Pol Pot was deposed, a new government put into place, and the killing ceased.  The new communist government of a united Vietnam ended the genocide.

The new puppet government in Cambodia was also communist, but did this mean that dominos were falling? Hardly.  While pursuing the goals of Kennan’s containment policy, our efforts were based on an assumption that by being brother communists-in-arms, the Chinese and Vietnamese loved each other.  Not so!  They enjoyed a millennium of animosities that were only temporarily held in check by the American conflict (and in the previous wars with the French and Japanese).  China and Vietnam were traditional enemies.

When Vietnam achieved its unity, the country expelled people of Chinese heritage.  China took umbrage.  In February 1979, China quit playing dominos, sending 120,000 troops into Vietnam.  Vietnam fought back, stopping the Chinese before they could reach Hanoi, and counterattacking across the Chinese border.  Within a month, China withdrew from Vietnam.  The only thing defeated was the domino theory. 

As the killing stopped, and the game of dominos ended, there was an end to communist ideology.  The imposition of communist economics led to conditions that the United States had predicted.  There was a lack of productivity, a shortage of goods, and starvation. Rice, the country’s leading agricultural crop, had to be imported from India. The Vietnamese are natural hustlers with boundless energy, witnessed in their determination to stand up to the Americans, the French, the Chinese and the Cambodians. Yet, they were now told to stand in line and bow to the edicts of ideological government bureaucrats.  Their energy was capped.

Their leaders were not entirely blind.  One common story is that a leading general took the podium at the 6th National Congress in 1986.  He said, in effect, that he had not asked the people and his troops to shed their sweat, tears, and blood “for this!”  They had fought for a better life.  Things were only worse.  He called for the party to “let the people be free to use their intrinsic energy to produce goods for their own benefit.”

The leaders could not quarrel with the general, and an era of doi moi (renovation, renewal and reform) was initiated by that year’s party congress.

The Vietnamese regime is still led by the Communist Party of Vietnam, but what they have, economically, is what the American military fought to defend.  Free market businesses, capital investment, manufacturing, and export development have been part of doi moi.  Poverty was cut in half, income doubled, economic growth became rampant, and food is now   exported.  The people are not hungry.   Changes in the economic structure led the U.S. to drop an embargo in 1994, and Vietnam is now part of the World Trade Organization. 

Saigon is still “Saigon” to the people, although the government calls it Ho Chi Minh City.  In the south of the city, a Taiwanese company reclaimed thousands of acres of swampland and developed a major suburban-like community called

Phu My Hung.  There shopping centers and commercial streets are found with restaurants, hotels, single family houses and apartment complexes.  The neighborhood houses the South Saigon International School, owned by Taiwanese, but giving instruction in English to children from Vietnam and 30 other nationalities. 

Around the corner is the Phu My Hung Bookstore.  Most books are in Vietnamese, but I ventured to look around.  They had American news and travel magazines.  There was also an English language book which I purchased: “Viet Nam Vision 2020:  The 10th National Congress of the Communist Party of Viet Nam.”  The book explained that the country was enjoying the twenty-fifth year in a row with economic growth, average growth was 5.5% a year, second worldwide only to the Chinese. Agriculture output doubled in fifteen years.  Vietnam was second to Brazil in exports of coffee, fourth in rubber exports, and fourth in timber and wooden furniture. There are thirteen automobile assembly plants in the country.

State owned enterprises are being replaced by private concerns.  “The overall number of private enterprises had increased from 132 in 1991, 80,000 in 2003, and 170,000 in 2006.”  There are 9.7 million “individual businesses,” and half of the families in Vietnam are involved in owning businesses.  Seventy-three countries had made investments in the country.

There is concern with corruption in the bureaucracy.  The 2020 “Vision” Report decried bribery and corruption among party officials, indicating that the “party had disciplined 40,000 party members in the form of being blamed, warned, expelled, dismissed or sent to jail.” 

The notion of the victory of American values is reflected in goals of the party expressed in the report:

To strongly liberate the production force, promote all potential as well as human resources.…To strongly move to a market economy, comply with market principles…To encourage all people to raise their incomes through lawful means….To make significant changes in administrative reform, and reduce red tape, corruption, and wastefulness….To implement a system of distribution basically according to work results, economic efficiency, the level of contributions of capital and other resources.…To create a favorable legal environment, mechanisms and policies to tap all social resources for development….To effectively manage the operations of basic markets in line with a healthy competition pattern….To steadily develop the financial market….To develop the real estate market, including the market of land use rights…To make land a real source of capital for investment….To swiftly draw investment capital...for carrying out important projects on oil and gas exploitation…

The report further urged that “there must be help for the development of enterprises, with no direct interference in their production and business….Efforts must be made to ensure that all citizens have free rights to invest and do their business without limitation in all fields…”

Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee don’t need the Republicans to hire Newt Gingrich to write another “Contract with America.”  The Republicans need only look to Vision 2020 Report of the Communist Party of Vietnam for their 2010 platform.  The war was won!

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More Comments:

Arnold Shcherban - 3/20/2010

What lesson (unless you call war crimes a lesson) are you talking about, Mr Nielsen?
How dare you? Isn't a speck of decency left in your bones?
As if Vietnamese and Cambodians are the ones who invaded American territory and with the help of some American states killed more than two million Americans destroying their economic and social infrastructure, and eventually the USA citizens prevailed teaching them a lesson of never ever attacking any democratic country... As if any government ask and invited the USA to attack Vietkong and its North Vietnamese supporters, bombing a hell out of latter, and killing hundreds of thousands of non-combatants along with military men...
As if victorious Vietnamese and, especially Cambodian Red Khmers, have not in their turn, taken murderous revenge on their own nationals for murderous, unprecedented in history, massive carpet and civilian-object target bombing and other terrible crimes committed by US proxies...
The communists did get public support in both Thailand and Phillipines (and still getting it in Phillipines), but
their ranks in those countries were greatly decimated by that time by the
local brutal regimes, practically installed and maintained by the US governments and American military bases in the region.
The terrible loss of human life in the result of US aggression in South-Eastern Asia had little, if anything, to do with it, as it can be easily verified from historical sources.

Arnold Shcherban - 3/19/2010

Or spare us the concern for the Eastern European environment...
It is money and profit, not even ideology, the greedy gastons
of this world are concerned with.
The capitalist form of production, which exists/ed in the most parts of the world devastated (and continue to do so) the environment hundreds of times more than socialist regimes did.
As far as the people's sacrifice goes,
the gastons want us to forget that the imperialist states of Western Europe were the ones who prepared and started the only two World Wars in the history of mankind. Those wars, alone, together with their immediate and less immediate comsequences account for the great majority of loss of human life and destruction of economic and social infrastructure in Eastern Europe.
It is high time for gastons to end Big ideological Lies and come on level with historical reality and truth.

Thomas Stephens - 3/11/2010

One can see environmental degradation either way. Communist ideology was largely about materialism and production and the state being in charge of that over the individual. The ideology of government control of the economy may have fallen by the wayside, because it's not productive, but the materialist ideology is stronger than ever. The worst polluters in the world now are these communist (in name and lack of human rights only) nations that are now operating fully capitalistic: China, Vietnam.

Tim Matthewson - 3/6/2010

The Question seems to answer itself. Both were a waste of time. Perhaps if we had been a little more patient we could have avoided the loss of all that blood and treasure.

Lars Bjorn Nielsen - 3/6/2010

The collapse of the Soviet Union had little to do with the war in Vietnam.
The great move by Nixon, when he allied USA with China against the Soviets was much more significant, but final collapse of the Soviet Union occurred, because Mihail Gorbatjov believed in communism with a friendly face. He therefore loosened repression, and that was, what brought down the Soviet empire.

Lars Bjorn Nielsen - 3/6/2010

I personally believe, that the vietnam war taught the communists a lesson. Because although they won a victory in Vietnam, the price was much too high. It took more than 30 years to win if You include the war with the french, more than 1 million people died, and the country was completely devastated.
Therefore, the communists did not get support in neighbouring countries like Thailand or the philippines, simply because the costs of victory were too high.

Lars Bjorn Nielsen - 3/6/2010

I visited Vietnam last year, and I can only agree. Vietnam today has a capitalist kind of economy, but with some social responsibility too.
It also seemed on the surface, as if some freedom of speach was allowed.

Robert Lee Gaston - 3/5/2010

During my last trip to Vietnam, (Late 1980’s) it still felt like two countries. The communist, bureaucratic and corrupt North and the freewheeling South ,where communism is still in place, but largely ignored. Don’t get the idea that either are workers a paradise. I have never seen places where workers are treated so badly as in communist countries.
For the guys who spent some time abroad in South Vietnam in the 1960s: The central highlands are still the wild west. The last I heard it was still a military district, and the hill folks are still taking heads. The IDrang still gives you the creeps during the night.

That said, I think Vietnam would have been a lot better off without the war.

Robert Lee Gaston - 3/5/2010

In Eastern Europe, the struggle between liberal capitalism and socialism began in earnest in 1914, and lasted until the early 1990s. They really do not know how many people died. I’ll guess between two and three hundred million.
You need to have a look at Eastern Europe if you ever need to know the impact of socialism on the environment. Most of the rivers there have a heavy metal base of sludge, that will probably never go away. For example, as much as 95% of the water in Poland’s rivers has been deemed unfit for human consumption.

Helen Clark - 3/1/2010

Firstly, you're about fifteen years too late or more to be amazed that they have capitalism. People were writing about that back in the early 90s.
Second, the war was fought, by them, for more than communism.
Next, there was no Vietnam for one thousand years. The south and centre have been ruled by many dynasties including the Khmer and the Champa. Now, the idea that the only communist thing in Vietnam, where crackdowns by the party are in progress against democracy advocates and anyone criticising the relationship with China and the government has a tight rein on currency and heavy hand in state owned enterprises, is the parks is silly. Ludicrous, naive and idiotic also. Why is it that everyone who flies in here and sees a KFC decides that the commies must be dead? Marx might be spinning so fast in his grave he'll actually burrow down to China, but that doesn't mean the US won the war.

John D. Beatty - 3/1/2010

The United States wasn't in Vietnam to "win" anything; it was there to assist the regime in Saigon fend off invasion from the north.

The only "victory" that resulted from the American presence in Southeast was the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union. If the Soviets couldn't reunify Germany in the spring of 1968, when the US was at its most distracted, they would never be able to. The "proletarian" revolution failed in Southeast Asia, not the streets of Moscow.

Think on that for a while.

Fahrettin Tahir - 3/1/2010

Let us hope North Korea follows.

All those poor millions who died for ideology!

Lewis Bernstein - 3/1/2010

More than 58,000 Americans and more than 1 million Vietnamese died for old men's geopolitical fantasies. When the rest of the world turned left the US turned right and resolved to support the status quo at home and abroad.

Thang My Ngu - 2/28/2010

This is interesting. What about all the former communist countries in Eastern Europe now developing a market economy and a capitalist system? Did they have to go through any war? Did they have to lose any war? Who "won the war" by sacrificing 58,000 men so they could develop a liberal capitalist system in their countries?