We inaugurate herewith a new section of American Diplomacy, replacing the Letters to the Editor heading previously listed under the “From the Editor” section. The purpose is to give more prominence to readers’ comments on our articles and other aspects of the journal and to encourage a dialog in which authors will be able to respond if they wish. We hope readers will accept this invitation to send us both brief letters and lengthier, more substantive comments.To launch this new section, we feature below the comments of R. J. Del Vecchio on J. R. Bullington’s “Vietnam Revisited” article, currently in the Commentary & Analysis section. Mr. Del Vecchio served in Vietnam in 1968 as a combat photographer with the First Marine Division. He returned to civilian life and a career in industrial chemistry but retained a lively interest in the Vietnam War, on which he has written and lectured. Recently he has been involved with The Vietnam Healing Foundation (www.thevhf.org), a charity that assists disabled South Vietnamese Army veterans, and in that connection he has visited Vietnam twice since early 2006. -Ed.
In his recent discussion of “Vietnam Revisited,” James Bullington provides a needed clarification about the original involvement of the United States in the conflict there. It has become too easy and too common for recent generations to take a cursory look at the war and then Vietnam today and find themselves puzzled at, and highly critical of, America’s participation in that tragic series of events.
However, in describing Vietnam today he characterizes it as “not especially repressive,” not really a police state, and a country where the people can do pretty much as they want, aside from opposing the government.
Anyone visiting Vietnam as a tourist and especially as any sort of VIP will receive that impression, and also will note the great improvement in the lives of the people compared to the first decade after Saigon fell. But anyone visiting Germany in 1936 would have come away with equally positive impressions of Hitler’s regime, and in fact some famous Americans (e.g., Charles Lindbergh) of the time did exactly that. The economy was bustling, the severe political unrest and social instability of a decade earlier were gone, the trains ran on time, and the people in the streets looked happy.
Of course, if you tried to stop by that little camp just outside Dachau that had been in operation for three years by then, or interview any of those who had opposed National Socialism, your stay in Germany would have become somewhat less pleasant and certainly much shorter.
Today, if you want to get to most of the highland regions of Vietnam where the various Montagnard tribes live, you will find it very difficult or impossible to do so, and if you wish to interview any of the Vietnamese Mennonite pastors currently under investigation you will receive short shrift from the authorities. If you want to talk to the head of the Unified Buddhist Church (UBC), which was the largest religious body in South Vietnam and a thorn in the side of Ngo Dinh Diem (its monks were the famous self-immolators protesting his government), you will discover there is no longer any UBC. When its leaders would not accept government domination after Hanoi took over, the government simply dissolved the church, and its head monk, Thich Huyen Quang, has been under house arrest for over 20 years.
If you talk to young children about their schooling, you discover that their ability to sing the songs and recite the poetry about Ho Chi Minh are as key to promotion to the next grade as is their regular schoolwork. If you talk to young adults about the war, all they know is that the United States invaded as an imperialist power and was defeated through the inspired leadership of the Communist Party. They know almost nothing about the role of the South Vietnamese in defending themselves, and have never heard of the National Liberation Front, the nationalist body allied with Hanoi that was supposed to lead the South after “liberation” but instead was dissolved by Hanoi within a few months.
It’s true that there are no swaggering storm troopers on the streets of Saigon today, but every Vietnamese knows that the government has very limited tolerance for any sort of dissent. Once World Trade Organization membership was achieved, a crackdown on dissidents began which has been noted by several international humanitarian agencies and characterized by one (Human Rights Watch) as the “worst in 20 years.” The iron fist is still there, even if the velvet glove is now thicker and prettier. Mail is opened, phone calls monitored, and internet messages analyzed whenever it suits any government agency. Our ambassador, Michael Marine, recently resigned after an incident in which he and Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez were blocked by Hanoi police from trying to help the wife of an imprisoned journalist. In his April press release Ambassador Marine listed numerous problems in Vietnam today, including harsh suppression of all dissent and widespread corruption. Corruption has achieved levels far beyond what went on under the Saigon regimes, but there is little appeal for the average citizen under the unchallengeable bureaucracy of the Party.
There is something that says a great deal about Vietnam today. In the thousand years of Chinese domination, and entire French colonial period, no one ever sold Vietnamese young women abroad. But today there is a thriving business in Vietnamese “brides,” and men in Taiwan, China, Korea, and Thailand purchase young girls in various forms of bridal markets. No occupying force was ever able to erode Vietnamese culture and values, but the past thirty-plus years of “direct transition to socialism” have done more to change things than ever before in the country’s history.
Vietnam has lost the great majority of its native forests, due in part to uncontrolled clear cutting for the export trade. The government tries to blame much of this on Agent Orange, even though the greatest losses in forest area took place from 1990 to 2005. Those of us who were there to see re-growth in sprayed areas within months know that the effects of the defoliants were far from permanent. Agent Orange is also blamed for essentially every birth defect in the whole country, including children I saw this year in an orphanage with brittle bone disease and hydrocephalus, neither of which is remotely related to dioxin exposure.
During the war, the politburo considered “dich van,” the propaganda arm of their policy, to be as important as the military arm. They honed those skills, and in the end it was (by their own admissions) that which contributed most to their final victory. When you discover an effective tool, you keep it for more use, and they are masters of cynical but highly effective use of publicity and misinformation to further their ends. Yes, things are enormously better in many ways in Vietnam than they were; but it is a police state, run by an oligarchy whose primary focus is the benefit of the ruling elite. The vision of an enlightened system taking care of a happy people is an attractive one, but it is a deception that we should not allow ourselves to accept. The road to human rights in Vietnam remains a long, unpaved one stretching into the distance.
R. J. Del Vecchio
I appreciate this thoughtful and informative commentary, and find nothing in it with which I would disagree except in terms of perspective and emphasis: Corruption is indeed pervasive in Vietnam (but not as bad as what I’ve experienced in some other countries, for example, Nigeria); Vietnam is run by a self-perpetuating oligarchy focused on its own welfare (as is the case in numerous countries throughout the world, especially the poorer and less developed ones); and dissent is not tolerated (as it is not in many countries with which we have good relations, e.g., Saudi Arabia). In making comparisons I would put today’s Vietnam in a category with contemporary China or Russia (not with Mao’s China or Stalin’s Soviet Union). Finally, I was reflecting in the article more on how far Vietnam has come since the post-war decade rather than on how far it has yet to go. And while I agree that the road to human rights in Vietnam remains long and unpaved, I think we can do more to shorten and smooth it by positive engagement in trade, investment, cultural exchanges, etc., than by keying our relations primarily to Vietnam’s internal political system. — JRB