Sixintheworld is not a political blog, nor do I want it to become one, so forgive the coming political musings. If you are here to read travel stories, don’t worry, there are many more to come.
Vietnam, or Nam to those who served there, is a loaded word in the American psyche. It conjures images not only of war but also the domestic unrest it created. Until our recent military engagement, the Vietnam war stood out as a crucible in American history. For thirty years, Americans have lamented losing a war that wasn’t their own and thought about how things could have gone differently. The war stands out as the pit of humility in the center of our usual American bravado. I assume most Americans who spend time in Vietnam end up thinking about the war. I certainly did and after a month of rumination came to the following realizations:
1. False assumptions helped create the Vietnam war. Though the recent actions of our leaders speak to the contrary, Americans are not imperialists. We might invade other countries with McDonald’s, Tom Cruise, and Starbucks, but we have little desire to use guns and tanks to extend our influence. If we were truly imperialist, Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Philippines, and Japan would be states and Canada would be nervous. As a citizenry we believe nations should be free to govern themselves, not coerced by dictators or repressive ideologies. Americans in the 1960’s thought they were fighting to free Vietnam from the snares of communism, but the Vietnamese saw the US as just another imperialist oppressor. The Vietnamese misread our intentions and we misunderstood theirs. They wanted to be free of outside powers and were no more eager to be puppets of Moscow or Beijing than Paris or Washington. We saw Ho Chi Minh as simply another face of Mao or Stalin and would not tolerate his rule.
2. Communism was a very bad thing, bad enough to fight against. Millions of northern Vietnamese suffered for 20 years under communism. After the fall of Saigon, the rest of the country suffered for 15 more. It took the Vietnamese three decades to realize Marxist-Leninsm was unsustainable. Communism sounds equitable to the liberal heart, but it fails to account for human nature. Removing people’s freedom is no way to liberate them. When there is no reward for work, people lose their incentive to perform. Productivity lags, quality suffers, and malaise sets in. After a decade of stagnation, near starvation and an inability to grow, the “communist” leaders in Vietnam have abandoned all but the name of communism. At its peak almost half the world was draped in an ideology that stifled people’s freedom. As heirs to the doctrine of unalienable rights, we necessarily must resist the spread of ideologies that squelch them.
3. The Vietnamese were never good communists, but they were and still are very good autocrats. I have not found a good Ho Chi Minh biography, but from what I can gather, this new Vietnam would please Uncle Ho. He may have been a communist, but he was not a philosopher idealist like Mao or Lenin. Today’s propaganda states that Ho saw the communist ideology as a path to delivering millions of Vietnamese from poverty. Yesterday’s argues he didn’t say much about communism because Mao had already said it all. Today Mao must be turning over in his glass sarcophagus at capitalist China, but Ho would probably be proud of capitalist Vietnam. His primary purpose in life was to establish a self-determined nation. Fighting the French and the Americans was the continuation of a struggle that had gone on for two millennia with opponents such as the Chinese, the Khmers, and the Chams. If only we could learn to separate those mired in an ideology from those who see it as a temporary tool, we might save ourselves a lot of grief. The legacy of Vietnam’s flirtation with communism is the one party system.
4. We lost the war but we won the peace. For the last 20 years I have heard that Vietnam was our big mistake. I studied the war in school and have read a number of books about both the war and its aftermath. Until this visit I was very much in the camp that deemed it a horrific error in judgment, which cost 58,000 American lives and saw millions of Vietnamese killed and displaced. I felt sorry for those who lost family members in an unpopular and fruitless struggle. After spending a month in Vietnam, however, I have been overcome by a wave of irony. We definitely lost the war. There are many reminders here to drive home that fact, but I have to feel in the words of an unpopular dead president that we “won the peace.” This place is an incubator of capitalism. Of course there is still rampant corruption and human rights abuses, but they are gradually improving. Once you pay off the army, the police, or the party, for the most part you can do what you want. Being in Vietnam for APEC was a nice coincidence. We had one friend here who described it as the country’s coming out party. Vietnam today is in many ways the kind of country we were trying to help create. It isn’t exactly the same as the democratic (and corrupt) government we were trying to sustain, but for the average Vietnamese, it creates economic opportunity and protects most of the essential freedoms. They still need to shed the one party system, but with only two million members in a land of 98 million that has to change over the next decade.I still feel the Vietnam war was an error in judgment, but I don’t think the fight to resist communism was wrong. The cause of those who died fighting was just as honorable as those who died resisting fascism.
5. Resisting oppressive ideologies does not always require a traditional war. Many Americans believe we won the Cold War based on the strength of our economy. It could bear the burden of massive military spending while the communist countries’ could not. Others believe it was internal forces that brought down the iron curtain. I think it was a little of both, but in either case, it was not a conventional war that ended communism. It was clear to both the leaders and the people that there was a better life. When enough of the people understood the oppression they were under, and the opportunities they were missing things, things had to change. Money invested in economic aid, economic pressure (not starving people but out-competing them), and mass education appear to be a much more effective means of changing ideologies than blowing people up.
6. Technology, trade and industry are the great liberators of our day. I have always been a believer that the free flow of information created by modern technology, especially the Internet, can liberate people from poverty and repressive regimes. Recently, I have been even more impressed with the impact business and industry have on the world. Before the trip, I was having a little first-world-middle-class guilt. Traveling around nations on the rise and talking with people in their new middle class has washed away a lot of that guilt. I no longer feel that because I have, others have not. Rather than feeling remorse that people work in factories to produce my electronics or in my company’s call center, I am proud to be part of the economy and business that create opportunities for people around the world. This transforming power hasn’t reached the whole world yet. We travelled around enough of China to see the poor countryside. We saw the poor of Vietnam as well. These people stand in stark contrast to the people who are now part of the world economy. Our inflow of capital creates not just factory workers, but a rising entrepreneurial class to serve these new working classes. These people will educate their children and create more economic opportunity for more people around the globe in a virtuous cycle. Their educated children will be more likely to question ideologues. People who have good lives will want to protect not destroy them. There are still plenty of places in the world (like Sudan) where people are so far behind that vision might seem impossible. But perhaps the people of Sudan will create the electronics for the next generation of Vietnamese. That may be utopian, but no more so than talking about the Vietnam of today to a North Vietnamese child growing up in the early 70’s, where the only radios allowed were the ones that tuned into government stations. It still would have sounded impossible to the child of Vietnam in the mid 80’s, when everyone ate meat twice a month, and the best you could aspire to was owning a bicycle.
As Dax and McKane and I were discussing our travels the other day, I asked them where they might go on a similar trip 30 years from now. We wondered whether Iraq might be a stop on their itinerary. It might seem improbable today, but no more so than Vietnam would have seemed when Anne and I were kids. The images of the Iraq war will dwell in their subconscious just as the images of Vietnam dwell in ours. If they are in a conflict-free Baghdad in 2036, will the world really have changed? Will the war have faded in most people’s memory? Will radical Islamic terrorism have gone the way of communism? If so, will the war have sped up or slowed down its demise? Will we have become effective at changing the world through economic growth rather than military might? Most importantly, will we have figured out how to avoid the Vietnams and Iraqs of the future? The optimist within me expects the best. I hope 30 years from now the world is at peace and brimming with opportunity, even in places that know only despair today. The realist in me understands this is a formidable dream and will require work and wisdom which so far have eluded us.
Now back to your regular scheduled travel news….