Alexander Pope once commented that he never knew a man who could not bear another’s misfortunes perfectly like a Christian.
That capacity extends across time as well, hence the calmness with which we regard the jitters and alarms of previous eras. We are surely not the first generation to believe that our own time is uniquely dangerous and particularly frightening. Moreover the pace of events today, combined with modern communications and consciousness, has led to shortening of perspective as what is ” our times.” While 20, 30, or 40 years ago is still vivid to many, to some it seems to be a different era belonging to ” history.” Yet it was not very long ago in historical terms, and while our present concerns are different, it is at least partially because of our wrestling in the past.
It not takes an effort to recall how worried we were about the state of the world back in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. We remember the excitement of President Kennedy’s call to arms (and that is what it was) and forget why it stirred us so. We forget how nervous and pessimistic we were about the drift of events: the Soviet pressure on Western Europe; Berlin; the Middle East, and Afghanistan; the imminent collapse of the colonial system in Africa and the openings that would give the Russians; Sputnik, and various types of military gaps as American military invulnerability was challenged.
Among those worries was Asia with a brooding, malevolent regime in Mainland China, their ferocious puppet in North Korea, and the apparently insoluble complex of political, economic, and social problems afflicting the “smaller” nations on the rimland of the Asian continent: South Korea, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Burma, Thailand and the countries of the old French Empire in Indochina. Then there was India and Pakistan and their needs and claims on our attention.
Finally, and probably best embodying our worry about “The Far East,” there was Japan. We were not yet far away from the emotions of the Second World War and we were confused by the post-war relationship and the new alignment dictated by the Cold War. The problems and worries of those years were probably best exemplified by the bone-chilling films of the shouting, screaming, snake-dancing, disciplined armies of Japanese youth demonstrating in the streets of Tokyo. That was the image that really worried us. It conjured up all the problems we faced: Communist influence and manipulation, radical movements among the young, generation gaps, anti-Colonial and anti-White hatred among the populations of the Third World, the fragility if not inapplicability of democratic government, and of course the conflict between the Rich and Poor Nations.
The tide of world history threatened to overwhelm us and all we could do was flounder around and castigate ourselves for our faults. Does anyone remember The Ugly American – book and film – and recall which of its characters was the Ugly American? But the dominating image was always the Japanese student-rioters with their measured chants and slogans. They were the dragons of those days; and they disturbed and frightened us.
But Saint Kennedy came and we went out to slay the dragons. And we all know what that led to: Vietnam, and, except for a few unreconstructed types, we all know that led to defeat. We lost, and lost badly. It was the wrong war in the wrong place for the wrong reasons. We wasted our seed on alien soil, so endeth the lesson.
However, given that it has been for some time conventional wisdom that defeat in Vietnam was total, foretold, and deserved, it might be time for a little revisionism. The end of the Cold War might just be the occasion for some speculation as to whether the conventional wisdom is indeed wise, or at least accurate. The Asia of today is not the Asia of the early 1960’s and the most obvious event which lies between the two periods and the two Asias is the Vietnam War. Maybe, in the light of later developments, history might now say that the American involvement in Vietnam while tragic was also truly historic.
Let us return to the days of yesteryear, when the Soviet challenge to the West and its institutions began to look very serious. A new Administration took over in Washington and stated clearly its intention to react vigorously to this threat. The new leadership admitted that the world was a dangerous place, proclaimed its allegiance to Western democratic ideals and its willingness, indeed its eagerness, to defend those ideals by meeting the threats in the open field.
The Far East or Asia was a major area of conflict where our primary antagonist, the USSR, was busily stirring up trouble and challenging traditional American interests. China had turned into a monster in league with the Soviets, and we had just barely fought them off in Korea. Everywhere one looked one saw countries afflicted by political, economic, and social instability. Between Australia and Alaska the outlook was grim.
So we did a bit of this and a bit of that: SEATO, PL 480 food assistance, the Peace Corps and mutual defense agreements, and some economic assistance. Mostly, however, in the 1960’s we went to war in Vietnam. We picked up the gauntlet we thought had been thrown down. We were ready to pay the price of being free men.
A decade or so later it was all over. The involvement had turned into a major war in Southeast Asia and we had lost it. We were chased – horse, foot, and guns – from Vietnam and our Vietnamese allies were soon after crushed. All of Vietnam was united under a Communist government, and a couple of near-by dominoes had fallen. The United States had been humiliated and its policies almost universally believed to have been horribly mistaken if not criminal in intent. Scars criss-crossed the American soul as well as its external image. Hubris had received its traditional reward.
But in all the agonizing then and since over Vietnam and the repercussions in America, few have bothered to look around the area, to run their eyes over developments in Asia, and to relate them to the war and its admitted agonies for the major protagonists.
- Singapore and Hong Kong competed for the title of most prosperous city-state cum shopping mall.
- Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Singapore quietly formed their own regional organization which has gone from strength to strength.
- The Republic of Korea and the government of Taiwan implemented enormously successful economic development programs.
- And Japan moved in the 60’s and the 70’s into the ranks of the industrial powers.
Where are the Japanese student snake-dancers of yesterday? Why they mostly graduated and became business executives busily driving their American and European competitors to the wall. All, even the comparably less successful like the Philippines, have achieved levels of political and social stability and economic prosperity that would have been inconceivable in the pre-Vietnam War period.
Even the Chinese dragon was tamed – more or less. President Nixon initiated and successfully pursued a dramatic foreign policy which resulted in Mainland China’s becoming the People’s Republic of China to the conservative as well as liberal wings of the American political spectrum, in a political shift which was probably one of the most important developments of the Cold War, that is, at least since China went Communist in the first place. The recent visit to the US of the current Chinese president, with all its angst and arguments, is a far cry from the problems we thought we had in the days when we saw China as the junior partner in the coalition determined to destroy us. And, mirabile dictu, diplomatic and trade relations have been recently established with Vietnam.
All of these developments, except of course the rapprochement with Hanoi, either took place or began during our 12 year struggle in Vietnam. Cannot one make a case that, at least partially, they took place because of that struggle? Events have repercussions, even if unintended; and the war itself became a major incentive for Asia manufactures and services. War has often been a spur to economic activity and so it was in the Far East. We may not have planned it that way, but so it turned out.
A recent edition of the The Economist magazine pointed out that in the early 1960’s western economists viewed Asia as a gloomy place but that the years since had produced dramatic economic growth. The magazine’s explanation included a number of explanations for this development yet did not even mention that the most important ongoing event of the 60’s and 70’s – the very decades of dramatic economic and political growth – was the Vietnam war. That the war was a very unhappy and tragic event for many does not mean that it might not as well have had positive repercussions as well. (The Economist’s attitude is surprising as that magazine constantly reminds its readers of the Law of Unintended Repercussions).
It is at least worth considering the possibility that the driving element of the Asian economic miracle was, in fact, the Vietnam War. After all, for over ten years the United States Government poured truly enormous sums of money into the area to support the war effort, in addition to the personal spending of the hundreds of thousands of American military and civilian personnel who served in the active zone of operations. It was deliberate American policy to do so, and Asian entrepreneurs grabbed the opportunity, creating everything from the tourist to the personal electronics industries. Asian businessmen and technicians learned and honed their skills in meeting the personal and corporate needs of the American military community which lived in the region during the war. Why, the market in Thai porcelain elephants alone must have created several small fortunes!
That the private sector appreciated the opportunity and took advantage of it is to its credit. But the fact that the opportunity existed arose from the war should not be overlooked. In essence, in pursuing the war, the American government created effective economic demand for the Asian private sector, thereby solving the old chicken and egg problem of economic development.
Another possible effect of this process may be the current fashion for free market economics. The prospects offered to Asians by American spending to support the war were so glittering, and the pursuit of gammon eventually so sucessful, that the devotion of the Asian political and intellectual classes to state managed economic policies (almost universal in the Third World up to the collapse of the USSR) was seriously undermined. When the USSR finally collapsed, the economic “Tigers” of Asia led the Third World multitudes into the new promised land of market economics. It was in Asia, after all, that the efficacy of export-led development for undeveloped countries was demonstrated. What has not been acknowledged, however, is that the first major export market for these countries was the “Vietnam War.”
The number-crunching to prove this thesis has not been done, to my knowledge, but the evidence surely lies in the Department of Defense budget for those years. The amounts therein covered dwarf all forms of bilateral and multilateral economic assistance, including the efforts of the comparatively munificent World Bank.
In addition to this central economic activity, the political and psychological implications of our involvement should not be overlooked. These are more ambiguous, as well as more controversial, but we should at least contemplate the impact that our presence and our commitment (for many long years) must have had on other peoples’ and other governments’ calculations. That the US was fighting in Vietnam surely was not a fact to be ignored in Beijing and other capitals.
During the decade of the 1960’s, the active American role in Vietnam was a major factor of political life in the Far East. The domino theory is not discredited if one considers the possibility that the decade-long American effort in Vietnam produced the economic and political change discussed above, thereby eliminating the structural weaknesses on which the theory was based. After all, when we left, two “dominos” did fall. Together with some of the blame for the what happened in Vietnam and Cambodia and Laos must go some of the credit for the Association of East Asian Nations and regional economic and political development. We were part of the history of that period and therefore deserve part of the responsibility and credit for the picture which presents itself today
Maybe we did provide a shield for much of Asia; maybe we were the Spartans at Thermopolae.