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Vietnam thirty years on - was it worth it?

By Keith Suter - posted Friday, 29 April 2005


April 30, 2005 is the 30th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam war. I have just returned from a conference in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). This was my first trip back since 1974, when I was there doing research for a PhD.

Looking at all the modernisation underway, I wondered what the war had all been about. The Communists may have driven out the Americans in 1975 but capitalism has won the peace.

On April 25, 1976, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam was created, with both parts of the country united. The communist leadership tried to run the country on strict communist lines but it failed.

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In 1986, there was the beginning of greater reliance on market forces: “Doi Moi” (“renovation”). The 82 million people are a tough and resilient people. (I was in South Vietnam during the war in 1974 and was impressed with the stoic fortitude with which they lived their lives in the midst of violence.) The country has still not fully recovered from the war, with its attendant damage, the refugees, and the “social pollution” (prostitution and drugs) which occurred. But the people are determined to succeed.

The country is 109th on the United Nations Human Development Index. Consequently the pace of economic change is coming off a very low base. But there are certainly signs of progress.

It is still an agricultural country with fertile land. Its rice production could make it an Asian breadbasket (not least for China, which is losing its own top soil to roads, factories and so on). Tourism is also flourishing. I saw the forgiving nature of the Vietnamese in dealing with former Western invaders. An American is safer on Saigon streets than he or she would be on most Middle Eastern streets. There is little seething resentment against Americans and the suffering they caused.

Vietnam is expanding its overseas trade. The government aims to have Vietnam become an industrialised country by 2020. The industrialisation process may be helped by Vietnam learning the lessons of developed countries. For example, it can leap over the age of copper in telephone and goes straight into the era of mobile telephones. Vietnam could also become an industrial zone for foreign manufacturers wanting cheap, educated, and disciplined labour.

The tragedy is that Vietnam could have been on this path many years ago.

The Japanese invaded French Indo-China in World War II. After 1945 France tried to retain control of the country but it was beaten at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The 1954 Geneva Peace Accords divided Vietnam temporarily to permit the French to leave the south. But the US refused to have the country reunited fearing that Ho Chi Minh would come to power in a united country. In 1955 the US created South Vietnam, headed by the anti-communist Ngo Dinh Diem. In1957 the insurgency began in the South.

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Washington DC and Hanoi fought two different “wars”. Hanoi fought a protracted guerrilla struggle (like the successful one against France). Washington DC fought a “limited” conventional one in which it thought that technology would win the day.

On August 2, 1964 there was the Gulf of Tonkin “incident” in which North Vietnamese vessels fired on the US ship “Maddox” that had gone too close to the North Vietnamese coast. On August 4 the “Maddox” returned and the attack resumed. Within hours President Johnson went on television to report the attack.

The media and most politicians demanded a quick response. On August 7 came Congress’ Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which was the authorisation to use force and it was the closest the US came to a formal declaration of war.

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About the Author

Dr Keith Suter is a futurist, thought leader and media personality in the areas of social policy and foreign affairs. He is a prolific and well-respected writer and social commentator appearing on radio and television most weeks.

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