Commentary Magazine

Who Won Vietnam?

If, as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, then the study of statecraft will provide no end of confirming examples.

On February 5, two days after President Clinton announced in a White House ceremony that he would lift certain American trade restrictions against Vietnam, the front page of the New York Times carried a story in the upper-left-hand corner reporting on the favorable reception this news had received in the streets of Ho Chi Minh City (which some of us will persist in calling Saigon). By and large, the decision had also been well-received in the United States: there was some enthusiasm, perhaps more resignation, but outright opposition was slight.

On that same day, in the lower-right-hand corner of that same page, there was a story with the headline, “Despite Hurting Poor, U.S. to Seek Tougher Embargo Against Haiti.” It went on to describe deteriorating conditions in Haiti, but a Clinton-administration official—an anonymous one, as such spokesmen tend to be when explaining contentious decisions—pointed out that Haitian authorities needed, nonetheless, to be disabused of the impression that American resolve was weakening. “This is,” he said, “a signal that we are in this for the long haul.”

It could be a long haul indeed. The present set of American trade restrictions on Vietnam dates from 1964 when the Democratic Republic of Vietnam—otherwise known as North Vietnam—became the object of American military operations in support of the then-independent Republic of Vietnam—or South Vietnam. The United States terminated its direct combat involvement by virtue of a peace agreement made in January 1973, and the last phase of the struggle ended when the South was overrun by the North Vietnamese army in April 1975. At that point American economic restrictions were extended to what became the newly combined and now renamed Socialist Republic of Vietnam, and—with the exception of the few just lifted by Clinton—they have remained in force to this day.

Actually, the widely-discussed embargo is an amalgam of executive orders and statutes assembled over three decades, few of which had Vietnam as their primary target. Still, Vietnam happens to be a “nonmarket economy country” within the ambit of the Trade Act of 1974 and must thus first conclude with us a trade agreement covering various items, including trademarks and patents. The agreement must then be approved by both houses of Congress. After that, Vietnam could become eligible for “most-favored-nation” (MFN) tariff treatment, without which Vietnamese goods would be at a prohibitive commercial disadvantage in the American market. But negotiations over all this must await the establishment of formal diplomatic relations, presumably in the cards, but not as yet agreed to.

There are still other requirements. For example, the renowned Jackson-Vanik amendment to the governing 1974 trade statute, originally oriented toward the old Soviet Union and its East European satellites and later to China as well, will require the President to certify that Vietnam is making progress toward free emigration before MFN can be granted. And then there are related provisions that would affect Vietnam’s eligibility for credits guaranteed by the U.S. Export-Import Bank and the eligibility of American investors in Vietnam for guarantees from the federal government’s Overseas Private Investment Corporation. For good measure, there is a 1993 statute that will have to be repealed outright, because it specifically prohibits any federally-guaranteed credits of American exports to Vietnam.

All these requirements for congressional action will certainly provide occasions for spirited debate about current practice and past policy—if someone wishes to make use of the opportunities. (In calling Vietnam “one of the world’s worst police states,” Lane Kirkland, the president of the AFL-CIO, may have signaled just such a wish.) In the meantime, the Department of the Treasury has lifted restrictions on the movement of funds between the United States and Vietnam, though some $250 million in Vietnamese assets will remain frozen here.



If, then, these were once sanctions for the long haul, they are now only so much underbrush, sure to be cleared away in the near future. Indeed, much had already happened even before Clinton’s announcement. At the end of 1991, his predecessor, George Bush, had allowed foreign-based subsidiaries of American corporations to negotiate with the Vietnamese, pending later permission to engage in business. And the American government had already stopped blocking loans to Vietnam from international financial institutions like the Asia Development Bank and the World Bank. These were responses to economic reforms the Vietnamese, politically isolated and economically bankrupt after the end of Soviet aid, had initiated in 1989.

Even more significantly, we had operated an office in Hanoi to coordinate efforts with the Vietnamese government in determining the fate of American military personnel still missing in action (MIA’s). In time, U.S. Senators, high-ranking military officers on active duty, and a special presidential emissary—General John Vessey, retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—reported that the Vietnamese were cooperating on the MIA question.

This issue, the most emotional aspect of contemporary Vietnam policy, has had a long and complex, and occasionally even cynical, history of its own, but its power is still indisputable. It is the only issue to which President Clinton referred in his announcement of last February:

From the beginning of my administration, I have said that any decisions about our relationships with Vietnam should be guided by one factor and one factor only—gaining the fullest possible accounting of our prisoners of war and our missing in action. . . . I have made the judgment that the best way to ensure cooperation from Vietnam and to continue getting the information Americans want on POW’s and MIA’s is to end the trade embargo.

Here the President was surely being high-minded, but perhaps also a bit disingenuous. For the lifting of the embargo had been preceded by a well-orchestrated campaign by the American business community promising that Vietnam would become another China, with comparably dizzying rates of economic growth and concomitantly great opportunities for American investment. And perhaps inspired by the “quick-reaction” air strikes made famous during the Vietnam war itself, our commercial expeditionary forces were primed to move almost immediately.

Thus, companies like IBM, General Electric, Philip Morris, and more than two dozen others had offices in Vietnam on the day Clinton acted. Reuters reported that only ten hours after the lifting of the embargo, American Express had reached an agreement with Vietnam’s largest state-owned bank to facilitate acceptance of the Card throughout the country. It took only a little longer for the local Pepsico representative to install a giant inflated Pepsi can at Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut Airport to attract the attention of the first passengers deplaning into the post-embargo era. But rival Coke was also set to go, having prepositioned bottling equipment in Singapore to transport back to Saigon at a moment’s notice.



Back in the 1960’s, when the Vietnam war had become a bitterly divisive political issue, Senator George D. Aiken of Vermont gained his proverbial fifteen minutes of fame, and a peculiar form of immortality, too, by proposing Aiken’s Formula to end the conflict: declare victory and leave. Since the fall of Saigon in 1975, the preferred formula has been the reverse: declare defeat and return. But the moments have been missed on both counts; in the 1960’s it was too soon to claim victory, and today in the 1990’s it is too late to embrace defeat.

The Carter administration (1977-80) represented mainstream “antiwar” opinion, and was no doubt relieved that it would not have Vietnam to contend with. In general, it had assumed that America’s foreign-policy problems would become less pressing with the Vietnam war out of the way. Yet Southeast Asia remained a frustration. Carter had sought a rapprochement back in 1977, but the Vietnamese, confident in their prowess, did not think they had to make concessions. In particular, they insisted that the United States pay reparations. Though there were no doubt many on the political scene who would have welcomed this acknowledgment of America’s “war guilt,” it was not feasible politically.

Meanwhile, the new Vietnamese authorities were brutal in their reorganization of the South, and provoked a major refugee crisis in the late 1970’s. The horrific fate of these so-called boat people scandalized the world, led to the convocation of international conferences and demarches, and caused the Vietnamese government to lose some of the support it had hitherto enjoyed among Western intellectuals and liberal politicians. By 1980, about 800,000 had fled or been expelled, as the Vietnamese government also turned on its citizens of Chinese descent following the marked deterioration of Si no-Vietnamese relations after 1978.

In adjacent Cambodia, the pro-American government in Phnom Penh fell in 1975 to the now-notorious Khmer Rouge of Pol Pot, who then carried out some of the most loathsome atrocities of the century; millions were murdered. The Khmer Rouge had once been allied with the Vietnamese Communists, but relations between the two began to deteriorate after their joint victories of 1975. In December 1978, Vietnam invaded Cambodia. In our understanding of it then, this represented one of several post-1975 advances for the Soviets. They had established themselves in Angola, in Northeast Africa, and in Aden, and were on the verge of doing so also on the Central American mainland.

Seen in this context, the latest instance of Vietnamese aggression came to be resisted by a regional and international coalition which included ourselves and the Chinese. Whatever the strategic calculation, the result was morally absurd, with the United States now supporting the Khmer Rouge as Cambodia’s legitimate government, as against the Hanoi-backed “puppet regime” in Phnom Penh.

This gave rise to a bizarre ad-hoc coalition of “doves” who had opposed the pro-American regimes in both Saigon and Phnom Penh on ethical grounds, and “hawks” who had argued against having any truck with the vile Pol Pot for the same reason. One supposes that embarrassment at finding themselves yoked together removed the incentive for either group to make the truly horrible events in Cambodia into much of a domestic political issue; but in any case they certainly made any Vietnamese-American rapprochement impossible.

The civil war in Cambodia went on until 1991, little noticed, but no less cruel for that. The Vietnamese began troop withdrawals in 1989 as the Soviet Union’s international position was crumbling, and the Cambodian civil war was suspended by an agreement brokered by the United Nations, which called for a new elected government. The infamous Pol Pot boycotted the elections and returned to the jungles, certainly not a good omen for the future of Cambodian comity. Nevertheless, the Vietnamese withdrawal from Cambodia removed the other major obstacle to a new Vietnamese-American “dialogue.”



It is a mark of the great transformation of Asia these past twenty years that the parties to the great Vietnam debate must now contend for claiming the credit, rather than for fixing the blame. As in the world at large, events have moved in our direction throughout Asia. What did American policy in Vietnam have to do with it?

The hawks had argued that a forced withdrawal from Vietnam would lead to a toppling of the famous “dominoes,” to neutralism in Japan, to a major adverse shift in the global balance, and so on, but none of it happened. The doves, having campaigned mightily to characterize Vietnamese (and Cambodian) Communism as a benign, even progressive, phenomenon, were chagrined first by its awesome brutality and then, ultimately, by its pathetic ineffectuality at everything except political repression. Both sides would now agree, of course, that history records few victories as Pyrrhic as the triumph of the Vietnamese Communists in 1975, but they continue to dispute its cause. Has our current ability to begin reestablishing our position in Vietnam come about because of the war we fought there, or in spite of it?

It is the latter answer that can be detected behind the readiness of the current administration to let the Vietnamese so easily off the hook. After all, the President himself is an unrepentant dove, and his foreign-policy machinery is staffed with people who made their careers opposing the Vietnam war (and then lost them, for a while, by their failure to help President Carter deal with the war’s aftermath).

Nor is it only in relation to Vietnam itself that the old antiwar ethos lives on. It can also be seen at work in such other moves as the recognition of the old pro-Soviet and pro-Cuban MPLA government in Angola; the demurral at administering the coup de grâce to the Castro regime in Havana; the campaign to install Jean-Bertrand Aristide—the 1990’s successor to Nkrumah, Mugabe, Nyerere, and the other now-forgotten but once widely bruited hopes for the salvation of the third world—as President of Haiti. And with regard to more serious things, the persistence of the old ethos may help shed light on the grumpy, halfhearted, world-weary, and tepid tone of the Clinton administration’s approach to the reconstruction of Russia and Central Europe.

Ironically, however—and much as it may wish to throw a lifeline, perhaps just for old times’ sake, to an anachronistic regime whose total collapse would be too much to face for those who once expressed such high hopes for it—the White House, whether consciously or not, is now embarked on a campaign of massive destabilization of the Hanoi government. That government has made a mess of things these past nineteen years: not only has it failed to win over the millions of Vietnamese who opposed it before 1975; it has also made countless new enemies for itself. Current political dissent and human-rights protests throughout the country are but the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Despite the hundreds of thousands who have fled, and the tens of thousands who have been “reeducated,” the remaining millions who were involved with and supported us when we were there have learned nothing to indicate that their support was misplaced.

Moreover, the Vietnamese diaspora outside the country, about 400,000 in the United States alone, is by itself a powerful subversive force. Some 100,000 overseas Vietnamese now return to visit each year, a necessary link in Vietnam’s connection to the world economy, but one that will only exacerbate discontent with the regime among those still living under it. A new American “invasion,” this time made up of entrepreneurs instead of soldiers, can only reinforce that discontent and thereby contribute to the further weakening of the Communist regime.

So it is that the old antiwar establishment now in power will in all likelihood finish the work of Johnson, Nixon, and all their backers.

Similarly, and again whether it knows it or not, the White House is now embarked on a campaign to resist the expansion of Chinese influence into Indochina. This particular aspect of our Vietnam policy in the old days was the one most cavalierly dismissed, but it is the one of the present day most frequently (if only quietly) acknowledged. The “Greater China” brought about by the success of China’s post-1980’s reforms is a pervasive concern throughout the region, and a desire among the Thais, the Indonesians, and all our other old friends in the vicinity that we go back to Vietnam is one reason why things have proceeded so smoothly. What we are pursuing here is a traditional balance-of-power objective, which people who have disdained balance-of-power diplomacy are now free to adopt through the comparatively genteel means of trade, educational exchange, tourism, and “dialogue.”



In the end, the great turn of events in Asia and the world since 1975 may serve to deprive the Vietnam war of its political and, especially, its metaphorical, value. Which is to say that “Vietnam” may not always serve as shorthand for policy error of the worst sort.

“Their Vietnam”—that is what we tried to make of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. And it did eventually lead to the ruin of the Soviet Union, to the collapse of its empire, to the discrediting of its governing ideology. Even the Vietnamese themselves experienced “their Vietnam” in the invasion of Cambodia. Today’s Vietnam is but a pale shadow of the country that used to boast of its successes in driving out the American invaders, as it now quite abjectly inveigles for their return.

Indeed, of all those who failed to learn the “lessons of Vietnam,” the Hanoi regime and its Soviet patrons have surely been the most damaged: they read their favorable reviews in the American press and seem actually to have believed them.

We on our side seem to have done much better by our Vietnam. An interim assessment was offered back in 1985, when the then-Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, addressed a joint session of Congress. The United States, he said, had followed a consistent policy in Asia for 40 years, and the wars in Korea and Vietnam were necessary parts of it; as the preeminent power, the United States had “to settle and uphold the rules for orderly change and progress.” The gap between the future prospects of the pro-Western states in Southeast Asia and the pro-Soviet Vietnamese had already opened. “Vietnam’s attempt to carve out an empire for itself has resulted in its stagnation. . . . It is bogged down in a guerrilla war in Cambodia and will be worn down in a clash of wills on the Sino-Vietnamese border,” Lee predicted.

In the meantime, he went on to note, economic progress in East and Southeast Asia was continuing apace and was causing the rest of the third world to rethink its policies. “Once infatuated with socialist economic policies of nationalization and autarky, third-world nations and their leaders have come to realize that stagnation and decay have followed these policies.”

In Lee’s part of the world, the most important convert was, of course, China, “once a ceaseless spoiler of other countries’ plans as it undermined their stability through support to guerrilla insurgencies throughout Southeast Asia.” But, Lee thought, it seemed that China had decided to end three decades of Maoist seclusion, give up the export of revolution, opt instead for an open door to trade and investment, and build its power in the world by those means.

It is now almost a decade since these observations, and today one could expand them to cover the ultimate demise of the Soviet Union itself. How, for example, did the 1988 Olympic games in Seoul or the accelerating boom in Southeast Asia affect Soviet officials and citizens who were exposed to them? Can we imagine that a Soviet elite—having grown unhappily accustomed to the idea of Moscow’s backwardness vis-à-vis the great cities of Western Europe or the United States, and then having sullenly resigned itself to lagging behind contemporary Tokyo—could no longer abide a system which had made Moscow inferior even to the likes of Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur? Absolutely the last straw, one suspects, and a droll comeuppance to a Soviet Union that once felt it had much to gain from involvement in Indochina—where, as things turned out, it bet on the wrong horse.

But that bet was placed decades ago when neither hawk nor dove could imagine that America’s road out of Vietnam and back into it would follow such a strange and improbable route, one that has now doubled back on itself, but with a still uncertain itinerary.

About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.