Vietnam delusion endures


LONDON — Communist party congresses are generally tedious events, and the 11th Congress of the Vietnamese Communist Party (Jan. 12-17) was no exception. The changes in personnel at the top were decided by the elite inner circle of the party long before the congress opened, and the rhetoric was in the same wooden language that communists always use.

The nation must “renew the growth model and restructure the economy to speed up industrialization and modernization with fast and sustainable development,” outgoing party leader Nong Duc Manh told the congress on opening day. “The strategy is to strive toward 2020 so that our country will basically become an industrialized nation.” Novel approach, isn’t it?

The talk was all about fighting inflation and corruption (there’s quite a lot of both those things in Vietnam), while maintaining a high economic growth rate (6.8 percent last year). Ordinary people are struggling to maintain their standard of living (although they are far better off than they were 20 to 40 years ago), and resent being bossed around by the communist elite — but they feel helpless to do anything about it.

In other words, it’s not all that different from the situation in, say, Thailand, just a little to the west, apart from the fact that the economic elite in Vietnam are Communist Party members and their businessman cronies.

Thailand is technically a democracy, but if you are a rural “red shirt” in Thailand, your views on those in power will be little different from what many Vietnamese peasants privately hold about the Communist Party. It’s a more traditional elite in Thailand, but it clings to power just as tightly, and rewards itself even more lavishly.

So what was it all about? Why was there a 15-year war in Vietnam (1960-75) that killed 58,000 American soldiers, and between 1 million and 3 million Vietnamese? The U.S. government insisted at the time that it was about stopping communist expansionism in Vietnam before it swept through all of Southeast Asia. The communists, who controlled North Vietnam, said it was only about reuniting the country.

Who was right? In retrospect, it’s clear that the communists were telling the truth. They won the war in Vietnam despite all the efforts of the United States, but the “domino effect” in the rest of Southeast Asia never happened. In fact, the Vietnamese communists never even tried to knock the dominoes over.

Apart from invading Cambodia in 1978 to drive out the Khmer Rouge, a much nastier group of communists, from power, communist-ruled Vietnam has never sent troops abroad or interfered in the internal affairs of other countries in the region. After a decade, all Vietnamese troops were withdrawn from Cambodia and Hanoi virtually no influence there today.

As for some vast communist plot to overrun Southeast Asia, it was never more than a fantasy. Indeed, within four years of uniting Vietnam, the communist regime in Hanoi was at war with communist China over a border. In a perfect world, most people would probably prefer to spare their country the burden of a generation of communist rule, but Vietnam is not a disaster, and it is no threat to anyone else.

So, how did three American presidents allow themselves to be misled into fighting such a pointless, unwinnable war? Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were all intelligent men, and Eisenhower also had much experience at the highest level of military and diplomatic decision-making.

To varying degrees, they all fell for a strategic vision of the world that was mere fantasy, driven by ideology. Or rather, in Eisenhower’s case and to some extent also in Kennedy’s, they found it politically impossible to resist the demands of those who did live fully within that fantasy. So American foreign policy had little connection with reality for several decades, and a lot of people died.

The point is that this sort of thing happens all the time. The “war on terror” now is functionally almost indistinguishable from the anti- communist crusade of the 1950s and 1960s, although the actual wars involve much lower levels of casualties. For Vietnam in 1960, read Iraq in 2003 — or, perhaps, Iran the day after tomorrow.

It doesn’t only happen to Americans, of course. The various British invasions of Afghanistan in the 19th century were driven by the conviction that the rapacious Russians wanted to seize Britain’s Indian empire, although the thought hadn’t even occurred to the Russians. Germans spent the decade before the First World War worried that they were being “encircled” by the other great powers.

But these delusions mainly afflict the great powers, because weaker countries cannot afford such expensive follies. They have to deal with reality as it is — which is why the Vietnamese communists, for example, never dreamed of trying to spread their faith across the rest of the region. They were and are pragmatic people with purely local ambitions, so the resolutions of the 11th Party Congress are of little interest to anybody else.

Gwynne Dyer’s latest book, “Climate Wars,” is distributed in most of the world by Oneworld.