Did We Really Win the Vietnam War?

March 9, 2010

On a recent trip to Vietnam I could not help think about the end of the war in 1975 with the rescue helicopters on the roof of the US Embassy and desperate Vietnamese trying to get out of the country before the Vietcong captured Saigon. The Vietnam War is often described as this country’s most serious military defeat with 58,000 dead, 1300 MIAs and the onset of self-doubt and reluctance to challenge communist insurgency. Despite the upbeat promises of victory by the generals ( “the light at the end of the tunnel”), the exaggerated daily body counts of the enemy, and the constant reminder about falling dominoes in South East Asia, the US was never able to master jungle warfare.

Thirty-five years later the war is not only a distant memory in Vietnam, but also we just may have won the hearts and minds ( and pocketbooks) of the Vietnamese people. Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are booming examples of the capitalist ethic. In Hanoi I stayed in the Hanoi Hilton, not the prison where John McCain endured unbelievable torture, but the American hotel chain. Examples of United States corporate presence are everywhere – Chevrolet SUVs, Apple iPhones, Miller and Bud, and always the face of Colonel Sanders hawking Kentucky Fried Chicken. Looking up from my hotel in Ho Chi Minh City I turned and saw the Prudential Financial Center.

While the Vietnamese have been open to our products, we have also fostered a vibrant trade relationship with them. Since the beginning of diplomatic relations during the Clinton presidency, Vietnam has found the United States a welcome market for its goods – textiles, wood products, silk, shoes and low level computer components. I happened to glance at my Rockport shoes while in Hanoi and was surprised to see Made in Vietnam on the label. Since opening up Vietnam to the global economy, the United States has become a major trading partner with over $ 15 billion in trade annually.

I was most surprised to see little public display of the materials of warfare from the 1970s. Other than the war museum with rusted out US helicopter gun ships and jet fighters, the Vietnamese show little interest in discussing that period or shoving their victory in the faces of Americans. If there is any animosity about foreign intervention it is directed at the Chinese, who historically have invaded and dominated their neighbors to the south. In fact this year is the 1000 anniversary of the Vietnamese leader, Ly Thai To’s great victory over the Chinese. Parks in Hanoi were full of flowery celebrations recognizing the liberation of Vietnam from Chinese control.

Traveling through the country it is difficult not to run into American tourists. Last year over 300,000 visited Vietnam and more are expected in the coming years. Many from the Vietnam War generation want to return out of curiosity and the lure of lush highlands and beautiful beaches; others to perhaps purge those visions of napalmed children and massacres of unarmed villagers. But for whatever reason, there is a growing bond between Vietnam and the United States and the movement of people between both countries. Every morning outside the US Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City long lines of people with their papers in order enter the fortress-like compound hoping to get a visa to head to the states where areas such as Orange County, California have become “Little Saigons.”

But as I moved around Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City I was constantly reminded that this remains a communist country. The hammer and sickle flag blows into the wind next to the Vietnamese flag with its gold star over a field of red. The picture of Ho Chi Minh is everywhere exhorting the populace to work hard, be ethical and take pride in the revolution. When I left the country, the US Embassy issued a report highly critical of human rights abuses by Vietnamese officials. Vietnam may be capitalistic in the Chinese mode, but it is a one party state which does not tolerate political dissent or opposition organization.

The Vietnam conflict has for years remained to many a disturbing military defeat. But Vietnam today is a far different country from what it was during the war. In fact to see Vietnam now it is possible to come to the conclusion that we just might have won the war.

Vietnam – A New Found Friend

November 3, 2009

I had the pleasure of attending a luncheon yesterday for the Vietnamese ambassador to the United States. As I was sitting there and later listening to the ambassador’s remarks, I recalled a different era of U.S.-Vietnam relations. Sad memories of an unwinnable war crossed my mind – the 58,000 U.S. soldiers dead, the massacre of hundreds of innocents at My Lai, the disturbing photo of the naked young Vietnamese girl running away after being burned with naplam, and the desperate residents of Saigon trying to get on the last helicopter out of the city before the Vietcong took control.

Fast forward to the luncheon and the ambassador and I found out that not only does time heal most ( but certainly not all) wounds, but that given time an old enemy can become a new friend. Vietnam resumed diplomatic relations with the United States in 1995 and since that time trade has jumped from over $ 100 million a year to $ 15 billion. The United States is now Vietnam’s largest trading partner and both the Bush and now Obama administrations are pushing for an expansion of ties, especially education ties. And to show how relations have really changed, in the coming weeks the Vietnamese defense minister will arrive in Washington to work out a new military arrangement with the United States.

But as with any war, remants of the conflict remain. There are still over 1000 soldiers who are missing in action in Vietnam; thousands of locals continue to suffer the effects of Agent Orange- the defoliant that we used to clear the jungle hiding places of the Vietcong; and there are many Vietnamese-Americans who continue to pressure our government to end this new push for economic and cultural openings, as they remind our government that Vietnam remains communist and authoritarian.

Listening to the ambassador with all these images running through my head, I could not help but think of Afghanistan – to many the 21st century version of Vietnam. Just like Vietnam, we seem to be heading to the conclusion that more is better as thousands of U.S. soldiers will add to our manpower commitment. Just like Vietnam, the government talks about winning the hearts and minds of the people, even though a tiny minority of the people have given their hearts and minds to the U.S. backed government. And just like Vietnam, we as a people are told that leaving the country or scaling back our commitment will lead to dire consequences, this time in the war on terrorism. Back in the 70’s it was called the domino theory – lose Vietnam and the whole of southeast Asia would turn communist.

If there are any lessons to be learned from the Vietnam War, they are that military assumptions, diplomatic slogans and strategic doctrines can be way off the mark and that fear of failure or defeat is such a powerful motivation that alternative tactics and critical analyses sadly fall by the wayside. The result is the real possibility of a military and political  quagmire.

It is important to remember that after we left Vietnam, southeast Asia did not fall prey to falling dominos of communism. The United States remained active in the region, communism collapsed, China became a market-based powerhouse and a model for economic development, and after twenty years of seeing those helicopters leaving Saigon, Vietnam opened itself to business with America.

So before we go headstrong into Afghanistan and commit thousands of troops to help secure the country and win the hearts and minds of the people, the Obama administration would do well to think about Vietnam, once an enemy and now a new found friend.