America’s more than 1.5 million Vietnamese-Americans this week will mourn the 35th anniversary of the fall of Saigon and the Republic of [South] Vietnam.
Defying conventional wisdom, many will remember and honor the bravery and sacrifice of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. They want recognition for the heroic struggle that South Vietnamese troops put up against overwhelming odds after the withdrawal of American forces and the cutoff of U.S. military aid. Fortunately, a new group of revisionist scholars is setting the record straight, even in the face of the long history of American media and academic malfeasance on the Vietnam disaster.
The mourners also will recall the enormous loss of life and suffering — “the bloodbath” which, again, conventional wisdom has tried to deny — that followed Saigon’s fall. Thousands died in “the Vietnamese gulag,” communist “re-education camps” where Prime Minister Pham Van Dong publicly admitted that more than 1 million people had been imprisoned. Few but the Vietnamese remember that in addition to the 255,000 boat people who reached the shelter of the miserable refugee camps, thousands drowned at sea, often refused entry by neighboring countries.
That is not in any way to minimize the enormous loss of life and the sacrifice of Americans in what was a noble if tragic struggle. But it is an effort to retell the whole story of “Vietnam” for fellow Americans, particularly younger generations who have grown up amid a vast media and pseudo-scholarly distortion of facts. The remembrance also glories in the thousands of young Vietnamese now serving with distinction in the U.S. armed forces.
Unfortunately, in Vietnam itself, the oppression continues unabated. The communist regime persecutes religious and ethnic minorities, and in its own ham-handed way, attempts to stamp out political dissent. An endlessly feuding politburo guides the one-party state — so enmeshed in petty personal rivalries and ideological confusion that it publicly arrested the Communist Party official newspaper editor after he wrote an anti-Chinese editorial. And, since 1995, when Sens. John McCain of Arizona and John Kerry of Massachusetts — both veterans of the war — pushed for U.S. diplomatic recognition without quid pro quos, official Washington has obfuscated the true nature of the regime. U.S. policy has naively and ignominiously sought favor with Hanoi through economic and trade concessions in a fruitless effort to promote political liberalization.
Although Vietnam’s economic team long ago adopted “the Chinese model,” tattered Soviet-style central planning, incompetence and unbridled corruption have led to shortages, inflation and rising debt. Nevertheless, the indomitable Vietnamese entrepreneur, with his traditional thirst for education that finds an echo in the success of America’s Vietnamese immigrant communities, has produced a growing gross national product for a youthful population nearing 90 million.
Ironically, remittances from the American emigres to unfortunate relatives left behind has been the most powerful economic prop for the regime, totaling as much as $8 billion in 2008. That compares with $5 billion annually in aid from the multilateral agencies and bilateral aid programs. These remittances contribute 5 percent of the GDP, adding to the money sent home by a half-million workers abroad and spending by another 400,000 ethnic Vietnamese tourists annually. Capital from the American emigres, often arriving via the black market, funds small entrepreneurs who make Greater Ho Chi Minh City-Saigon the country’s overwhelming economic hub, the cash cow for Hanoi’s kleptocrats. The U.S. remains Vietnam’s largest official investor as well, with some $1 billion in registered capital. More foreign investment would come were it not for the tangle of kickbacks and intrigues between the central Hanoi government and regional party bosses.
Trying to counteract the effects of the worldwide credit crunch and recession, the communist planners in 2009 threw more than $1 billion — over 1 percent of GDP — at the currency. But while credit expanded by nearly 40 percent, the price of dollars soared despite two massive devaluations.
Exporters, struggling with the high-priced dollar, have difficulty financing dollar imports of raw materials and components in the battle against their heavily subsidized Chinese competitors. And foreign exchange outflows are draining reserves. The business community is bracing for another round of inflation, probably even greater than the crisis year of 2008.
The struggles of daily life, especially among the unemployed youths for whom both the French and American wars are a distant past, ignore the continued preoccupation with “Vietnam” in the United States. Hollywood’s Vietnam War movies, for example, despite the widespread appeal of American popular culture, have elicited little interest.
Much more important now, the Vietnamese look over their shoulder at their neighbor and traditional enemy, China. Despite border agreements following the short but bitter war in 1979 in which Hanoi bloodied Beijing’s nose, disputes continue over islands in the South China Sea. And a flood of clandestine Chinese imports have wiped out many of Vietnam’s cottage industries in the north.
Bloggers on both sides keep up a steady chauvinist debate over old issues. And everyone waits for some new and spectacular development that will end the current malaise.
• Sol Sanders, veteran foreign correspondent and analyst, writes weekly on the convergence of international politics, business and economics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.