The Vietnam War continues to hover over the American consciousness decades after it has ended. One reason is the war in Iraq, which has been going on for over five years now and which for some has parallels with the Vietnam War, and the other reason is that the Republican presidential candidate, John McCain, was a prisoner of war in Vietnam for five and a half years.
As with the war in Iraq, there are generally two competing narratives concerning the war in Vietnam. One side argues that the war was unwinnable and that we should never have gotten involved there in the first place. The other side claims that America would have won a military victory in Vietnam if our efforts were not undermined by a biased media that misrepresented the war to the American people, and antiwar demonstrators who gave encouragement to the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong.
This week's issue of The Economist contains a special report on Vietnam (subscription required). Upon reading it, I could not help but think how modern day Vietnam renders this debate moot. A few snippets from The Economist report below are rather telling.
On the economic front:
An agricultural miracle has turned a country of 85m once barely able to feed itself into one of the world's main providers of farm produce. Vietnam has also become a big exporter of clothes, shoes and furniture, soon to be joined by microchips when Intel opens its $1 billion factory near the capital, Hanoi. Imports of machinery are soaring. Exports plus imports equal 160% of GDP, making the economy one of the world's most open.
Vietnam's Communists conceded economic defeat 22 years ago, in the depths of a crisis, and brought in market-based reforms called doi moi (renewal), similar to those Deng Xiaoping had introduced in China a few years earlier. As in China, it took time for the effects to show up, but over the past few years economic liberalisation has been fostering rapid, poverty-reducing growth.
And in the foreign policy realm:
Vietnam has carefully rebuilt relations with both America and China. It is probably more enthusiastic about its friendship with America, which has more to offer it in terms of foreign investment and expertise. In November two American warships became the first to visit northern Vietnam in peacetime. Even before the restoration of relations Vietnam was co-operating with America in searching for the remains of soldiers missing in action.
Vietnam's overriding interest in its foreign relations has been to accelerate its economic development. The main point of having “friends everywhere” is to seek their investment and their technical help. Another goal is seeking and maintaining trade access for Vietnamese farm produce and manufactures. Vo Tri Thanh, a trade economist in Hanoi, argues that Vietnam could play a positive role in the Doha round of world trade talks as a fairly poor country that nevertheless strongly supports freer trade. In the absence of progress on the Doha round, Vietnam is seeking bilateral and regional trade deals. It has started talking to Japan about a free-trade agreement, and diplomats say there is a chance that the limited trade-liberalisation pacts struck with America could develop into a full-blown free-trade deal.
And to think that some Americans several decades ago believed that if we did not fight them in Saigon, we would have to fight them in San Diego!
No longer a source of refugees fleeing desperate poverty or a Marxist state seeking to export its revolution elsewhere (though some will dispute that that was ever a goal of the Vietnamese Communists in the first place), Vietnam is an increasingly prosperous country that is generally at peace with its neighbors. It has had diplomatic and trade relations with the United States for over a dozen years, during which time our greatest source of conflict has been over catfish. If a gung-ho supporter of American military intervention in Vietnam had fallen asleep in 1965 and woke up today, he might be forgiven for thinking that America had won the war in Vietnam. In other words, apart from still being politically a Communist one party state, Vietnam today probably looks pretty much like what supporters of the war had hoped it would turn out to be some forty years ago if things had turned out like they planned. As for whether or not our military involvement in Vietnam helped or hindered the present day state of affairs, that is a different academic debate.