Our Loss Was Our Gain in Vietnam

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Sometimes it is better to lose.

Thirty years after the last helicopter beat a hasty retreat from a Saigon rooftop, U.S. credit card companies American Express and MasterCard were boldly advertised in Vietnam over the weekend on parade floats marking what was once thought to be an ignominious American defeat. If then-President Ford had not possessed the courage and wisdom to order the end of the U.S. occupation of Vietnam, we probably would still be embroiled in combating a never-ending insurgency.

Instead, the United States is now the biggest marketplace for exports from Vietnam, which began abandoning a failed centralized economy two decades ago in favor of Chinese-style capitalist market reforms. In defeat, the U.S. was able to economically exploit Vietnam without spending U.S. dollars and lives on a hopeless occupation. As reported Saturday in the Los Angeles Times by David Lamb, the newspaper’s former Hanoi bureau chief, the main message from Hanoi’s still avowedly communist leaders is that their country guarantees a favorable business environment for foreign investors.

“Ironically, if you took away the still-ruling Communist Party and discounted the perilous decade after the war, the Vietnam of today is not much different from the country U.S. policymakers wanted to create in the 1960s,” Lamb wrote. “It is a peaceful, stable presence in the Pacific Basin, with an army that has been whittled down to 484,000 troops. Its economy, a mix of Karl Marx and Adam Smith, has the highest growth rate in Southeast Asia. Private enterprise is flourishing, a middle class is growing, poverty rates are falling. The United States is a major trading partner, and Americans are welcomed with a warmth that belies the two countries’ history.”


So, if it turns out we can get along just fine with a communist Vietnam, why did we once upon a time try to bomb it “back to the Stone Age,” in the words of U.S. Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay?

The answer begins with the fact that the proponents of the Red Scare of the ‘50s and ‘60s grossly misunderstood the role of nationalism and self-determination in the ostensibly communist revolts that took power in Vietnam, China and elsewhere.

Rather than joining to squash the capitalist West, as the domino theory argued, these revolutionized countries most often battled one another. After our defeat by communist Vietnam, for example, Hanoi promptly diverted its troops to defend against an invasion from communist China. Now these historical rivals compete for shelf space in Costco and Wal-Mart. The exploitation of their cheap labor by gleeful Western investors is renewed proof of the viability of Marx’s labor theory of value and the dominance of capital.

Where Marx was totally wrong, of course, was in the fantasy that the international solidarity of workers of the world would overwhelm nationalist and religious identity as the main engine of history. Oddly, whether out of fear or through demagoguery, generations of U.S. policymakers made this same error, terrifying voters with the specter of a communist movement with a timetable for the takeover of the world.

It never happened. In all communist countries, ideological purists who believed in such internationalist solidarity were overwhelmed by nationalists and pragmatists. This was the essence of dictator Josef Stalin’s rejection of ideologue Leon Trotsky’s notion of permanent global revolution. Stalin’s occupation of Eastern Europe, agreed to by Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill as a reward for the enormous Soviet role in defeating Adolf Hitler, was the exception. More common was how Soviet power was quickly challenged in Yugoslavia, where the communist leader Josip Broz Tito had led an indigenous movement against the Nazis.

There, as in every other instance of successful “communist” expansion, victory was due to home-grown movements more opposed than supported by self-centered Moscow. Stalin even initially supported Chiang Kai-shek over Mao Tse-tung, which was the beginning of the Sino-Soviet dispute.


So why didn’t the U.S. recognize this pattern during the Cold War -- particularly with regard to Vietnam -- and back off? After all, nobody then or now could plausibly deny that Vietnamese revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh was first and foremost a popular nationalist. As President Eisenhower wrote in his memoir, if free elections had been held across Vietnam after the defeat of the French, Ho would have won 80% of the vote.

Yet while Ike himself resisted committing significant forces to the conflict, his three immediate successors in the White House ignored his warning. Lyndon Johnson, who told his national security advisor, McGeorge Bundy, “I don’t think it’s worth fighting for,” nonetheless sent half a million troops to do just that. The result? Three million Vietnamese and 58,000 Americans dead in a war without purpose.

Sound familiar?