Vietnam is never far out of mind, so when I read in the Washington Post
that Vietnam veterans are serving in Iraq
, also never far out of mind, I notice. One of the Vietnam vets commented that the Vietnamese embrace of American culture means that we didn’t lose Vietnam. “They love us over there,” he says. That gives him a sense of accomplishment for his Vietnam service; it motivates his work in Iraq. He is a retired officer, now contractor on a reconstruction project. Other Vietnam vets are soldiers, still serving in a long career. One is a former Doughnut Dolly
, now coordinating transportation services.
Regardless of their experience in Iraq, what the contractor says about American culture in Vietnam rings true, all reports from veterans returning to Vietnam bear that out. So we didn’t lose, at least not in the way that we think. Make no mistake about it, the United States lost the war. North Vietnam and its South Vietnamese allies routed America and its South Vietnamese allies. They outlasted our willingness to pour manpower and money into the effort. And then they pushed us out. No ifs, ands or buts, North Vietnam bested the US in a war. That final chopper on the embassy roof leaves no doubt.
But a funny thing happened. Our ideas remained in Vietnam. Not too surprising since our ideas, in fact, pre-dated our arrival; Ho Chi Minh quoted America’s Declaration of Independence in asserting Vietnam’s independence from France. Those ideals were obscured in the long war and its aftermath but they were not forgotten. Along with those ideals, Vietnam also possessed the initiative and dynamism of the south, characterized by gaudy, go-go Saigon. One of my sharpest memories of Vietnam is Vietnamese energy and endurance. So many that I saw were hard at work making life in a difficult environment. Others were challenging a far more powerful military for their country, living on the land, hiding supplies under rocks in the jungle. Saigon was capitalist central where everyone seemed to be on the make. I always wondered how boisterous Saigon and dour Hanoi would get along together. I knew that the outgoing capitalism of the south would not stay repressed for long.
And, three decades later, I see that I was right. Vietnam is firmly part of the capitalist world, exporting goods made by a disciplined, energetic work force. Communist ideology and icons remain but they do not affect the nation’s ability to trade and compete in the world economy since the US lifted sanctions about ten years ago. Vietnam may lack political freedom as we define it but my guess is that concept is less important than making a living. As long as they can live peacefully and support their families, Vietnamese probably have as much freedom as they want. I can’t speak for them, so I don’t know for sure but I no longer see the massive exodus that characterized the immediate post-war years as America’s South Vietnamese allies and economic refugees fled the new Communist state.
So the US failed to achieve its mission in Vietnam. The Communists won. But Vietnam is neither threat nor danger to the US these days. Hasn’t really been a problem since they pushed us out. Vietnam removed the Khmer Rouge government in Cambodia, a move welcomed by the US even as we denied the legitimacy of the resulting government. More recently, economic development and industry are beginning to offer the Vietnamese opportunity. So why did the United States support 30 years of war against Vietnam. What was so bad in the Fifties and Sixties that we had to invest hundreds of billions of dollars, 58,000 dead Americans, countless thousand Vietnamese dead and a poisoned, ravaged landscape? Vietnam does not stand the test of history. It was a high cost policy that yielded few benefits that would not have occurred anyway.
But something remained. A united Vietnam now welcomes Americans as much as our South Vietnamese puppets did 40 years ago. Sure there’s bureaucratic foolishness
and state minders, but all accounts of Vietnam report that Vietnamese are happy to see Americans in their country. Perhaps because they can now welcome us as equals, citizens of independent nations. The welcome speaks well of the many Americans who served in Vietnam. Obviously, we left a favorable impression on the Vietnamese during our 30 year presence despite the depredations we inflicted on them. Or maybe they just want our money; Vietnam remains a poor country so our money is no doubt welcome. But the friendliness and hospitality shown American visitors (Larry Hienemann’s Black Virgin Mountain
recounts many friendly encounters during a recent visit) suggests more than greed. Their friendliness and enthusiasm for America and things American tells me that our ideas prevailed.
American influence in Vietnam is in spite of, not the result of, our intervention in that country. Our ideas arrived ahead of us; our intervention did not introduce them. Ho Chi Minh knew whereof he spoke when he used our words. Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points
(number 5 specifically) were an early basis for asserting Vietnamese independence. He knew Americans as allies against the Japanese. America, the icon of liberty, not America, the destroyer, came first in the Vietnamese mind. The only influence our long intervention had in their war was to introduce Americans and Vietnamese as individuals, an introduction that cemented a personal bond between these two peoples.
I personally don’t know that I made a particular impression on any Vietnamese. My contacts with individual Vietnamese were few in number and minimal in nature. As one in a large body of Americans, my experience was that of an occupier, a foreigner exerting force against a local population. I can’t imagine that lingering as a positive in the Vietnamese mind but, apparently, as a body we Americans made a favorable impression on many.
Looking back, I see Vietnam as a missed opportunity for both nations, largely due to American miscalculation. We were so traumatized by a newly assertive Soviet Union that we could not see past Ho Chi Minh’s Communism. We were unable to recognize a legitimate nationalism and opposition to foreign occupation that spoke to generations of Vietnamese history and tradition. All Americans saw was a veneer of Communist ideology and association. Both nations paid dearly for America’s mistake. The costs came in the war’s casualties and destruction, the post-war re-education camps and economic sanctions. Had we actually listened and understood, perhaps America would have supported a nation with a long history of independence and in later years not feared the many national liberation movements that followed. At worst, Vietnam would have been an independent member of the Communist world, another Yugoslavia.
Now you might say that times were different and decisions made in the chaos and fear that followed World War II are easy to second guess long after the fact. But that’s what history is for, to make judgments, to assess and understand. And just because the process of judging is fraught with difficulty and interpretation, it is inevitable and essential if we are to avoid making similar devastating mistakes. America has much to take pride in for its assistance and aid to the world after World War II. The Marshall Plan, providing a military buffer against Soviet aggression and supporting democracy in Europe and Japan are our legacy to the world. So is Vietnam and its ravaged history and land, only now healing. Truly a missed opportunity.
I salute my veteran brothers and sisters serving in Iraq. I sincerely hope that your efforts will contribute to the welfare of the Iraqi people, that they will not have to wait three decades to speak well of Americans.