43 Years Following American Withdrawal, Vietnam is the Loser
“I survived, but it’s not a happy ending.”
Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried
Forty three years ago, to this day, the bureaucrats who had been facilitating assassination, obliteration and camps of concentration were tending bonfires. They were making crisp a paper trail that led all the way to Washington.
A rare thing happened as those papers burned and the Hueys took on their final load: a superpower conceded defeat. Opening the way to the rag-tag forces that the USA had been carpet-bombing, gassing and turning into soap, right back to Kennedy. The hounded Vietcong and northern army had finally reached their goal: a grey bastion which would soon take the name of Ho Chi Minh.
The South Vietnamese General Duong, the latest in a long line of Western puppets, ordered his men to lay down their weapons. And much to their relief they stood by as Minh’s tanks and red flags filled the city. At last, it looked as if this poor, beleaguered army had managed to pull off an almost impossible task.
Taking on the combined forces of colonial France, Imperial America and their multi-national (and largely Korean) mercenary allies, the popular forces in Vietnam reunified their nation, and installed a government which represented the mass for the very first time. A remarkable event for any former colonial possession, but particularly this one.
But anyone who has read histories which go beyond 1975 know that the country and its people never really recovered from the wounds that war inflicted. The lush tropical rain-forested landscape which defined Indochina was reduced to mush, utterly deformed — a hellish representation of its former self. Agent Orange ensured many of the populace shared a similar make-over.
Chemical weapons, supposedly rejected by all civilized peoples as they dragged themselves out of that great meat-grinder called the Great War, made a gruesome come-back. In the 1960s, the Vietnamese became unwitting subjects in a succession of chemical trials.
Unsurprisingly for those suffering the White Man’s Burden, American strategists of the day found Asians a more acceptable target for testing these weapons (or “defoliants”) than actual guinea pigs. Rodents, in comparison, have the unfortunate tendency of eliciting sympathy in their captors.
Over three million Vietnamese were directly affected (same estimate for the number killed during the Vietnam War). In the forty years since, many of those have developed terminal illnesses or disorders of the brain. But exposure hasn’t limited itself there. It invades the ovaries as much as the cortex, and shapes future progeny. Today, babies are being born with twisted and missing limbs; oblong heads drooping as if struck by a stroke; torsos peppered with seeping bulges that bring to mind smallpox or the Black Death; others with blackened ovals where eyes should be.
The political leadership of the newly unified Vietnam did initially seek recompense. They demanded, and sometimes pleaded, with Washington for ‘clean-up’ funds. Or, at the very least, information about what their nation had been hit with. Nixon reluctantly promised $3.3 billion in secret talks (and before the potency of Agent Orange was fully appreciated). But the funds never arrived as Congress never sent them. Instead American law makers busied themselves conceiving of more and more ludicrous conditions for the plaintiff to meet (such as conjuring up dead POWs for return to the States). And in a cold aside by a US ambassador, the Gooks were informed that, seeing as both sides suffered during the conflict, any talk of reparations was simply “extortion”. Those who despised any talk of “moral equivalence” in such matters, were only too eager to draw a farcical equivalence of victimhood.
As of yet, the compensation agreed upon in 1975 has not materialised.
With a subsequent US embargo on Vietnamese goods, the latter country was forced into the suicidal embrace of the Soviets. This only went to intensify Western demonisation of that former colony, with several commentators declaring that this proved the Vietnamese liberation forces were little more than Ruskie stooges all along. (Ho Chi Minh cited Jefferson as an influence at the struggle’s outset.)
Not unlike Cuba, whose population made the same grievous error of choosing their own government (if not through the ballot box), American representatives could not forgive Vietnamese insubordination. A good Third World leadership would turn its country into a glorified sweat shop, its people into low-wage workers — like the much celebrated Suharto’s Indonesia. (Wolfowitz, that great democrat and liberator of Iraq was stationed there, and showered the ruthless dictator with praise.)
Regardless, the Yanks got their way in the end. As the USSR fell, any illusions remaining of an independent, egalitarian Vietnam went with it.
It has the political class which Minh had helped create, which has been responsible for the most painful insults. Vietnam, the new Mandarins claim, is now a “socialist-orientated market economy”. For those unfamiliar with Newspeak, in practice this means the worst elements of both systems: a neo-liberal economy reliant on cheap labour, mixed with an overbearing state in matters of military, policing, justice and free expression. The Economist magazine, which is not unsympathetic, described the current leadership as “ardently capitalist communists”. Vietnamese politicians have claimed (as if to help quell their inner demons) that there is simply no alternative.
Somewhere in this process throwing out Das Capital and adopting Thatcherism, there has been a tempering of any criticism against the US and other aggressors — such as their trading partner, South Korea. The Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes opened in 1975 was renamed the more economically-pleasing “War Remnants Museum”. Truth and reconciliation, Hanoi’s great and good have decided, is going to have to wait.
Thankfully there are those with an eye on more than the bottom line. NGOs have been successful in bringing some semblance of normalcy back to the country. Project RENEW is a fine organisation which helps locals in clearing the countryside of unexploded bombs and mines. It could be argued that General LeMay’s threat to bomb Vietnam back into the Stone Age was, well, spot on — more explosives were dropped on it than Germany during the entirety of WWII (this attack-dog of JFK was also responsible for the fire-bombing of Tokyo). But RENEW is making progress, with many guilt-ridden American veterans volunteering their services.
Christopher Hitchens made his reputation in opposition to the American War on Indochina and, even when he appeared to ally himself with US power years on, this tragic episode left an important impression upon his amygdala. He wrote in 2006:
Of this Vietnam syndrome, some of us have sworn, there will … be no forgetting, let alone forgiving, while we can still draw breath. But some of the victims of Agent Orange haven’t even been born yet, and if that reflection doesn’t shake you, then my words have been feeble and not even the photographs [of them] will do.
Spare a thought for that triumphant moment forty-odd years ago, and what it meant for the Vietnamese. No one should ever have to endure a victory like that.