The War Nobody Won 12

Reagan’s defense secretary, Caspar Weinberger, sounded a similar theme in an address to the National Press Club in Washington in late 1987. Though he favored a major buildup of America’s strategic ar¬senal, he cautioned against U.S. commitments to prop up unpopular, inept and venal regimes in developing countries. Military involve¬ment, he said, must be a “last resort,” undertaken only after every attempt at diplomacy had failed. Most of all, America should avoid armed conflicts unless it could count on the unwavering support of the U.S. public. In short: “No more Vietnams.”
America’s postwar woes paled in comparison to the troubles bedeviling Vietnam. I returned there four times, from 1981 through 1996, and re¬discovered a country ravaged by two generations of almost uninter¬rupted conflict, its problems exacerbated by the blunders of its geriatric leaders, who knew little else than war. They had splintered into rival cliques—some clinging to obsolete revolutionary dogmas, others advo¬cating liberal change, yet others striving for compromise. After careen¬ing from one approach to another, out of desperation they embarked on a series of pragmatic economic reforms. The results were initially spec¬tacular, prompting predictions that Vietnam would shortly catch up with Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand and South Korea, the dy¬namic “little tigers” of Asia. But despite undeniable progress, I found the optimism to be exaggerated—or at least premature. Though the cities were thriving, the rural areas, where four-fifths of the population lived, lagged far behind. With a per capita income of less than three hundred dollars a year, Vietnam ranked with Bangladesh as one of the world’s most destitute lands. Its future was murky.
Reconstructing Vietnam would have been daunting even under the best of circumstances. Its economy was shattered, its social fabric unrav¬eled, its people exhausted, both in the north and in the south. Enormous areas lay in ruins. The death and destruction had ripped apart families whose political allegiances had been further fragmented in what was es¬sentially a civil war. After struggling for survival during the war, the pop¬ulation was now struggling to survive a disappointing peace. More than a million Vietnamese fled abroad, often at their peril.
The Communists had aggravated the devastation. With the same in¬transigence that had inspired their resistance to the Americans, they pur¬sued disastrously sectarian policies. In 1981, Pham Van Dong, then the prime minister, conceded as much as we chatted in an ornate chamber of the Hanoi mansion that had once housed the French colonial gover¬nors. A spry septuagenarian who had consecrated his life to the Communist cause, he was staggered by Vietnam’s plight: “Yes, we de-feated the United States, but now we are plagued by problems. We do not have enough to eat. We are a poor, underdeveloped nation. Vous savez, waging a war is simple, but running a country is difficult.”
A top Communist adviser, Tran Bach Dang, was blunter. In 1990, taken to his home in Ho Chi Minh City by a friend, I was astounded to be back in the same French villa that had formerly lodged American of¬ficials. I had stayed there once in a while, and felt as though I had re¬turned to a haunted house. As we sipped tea in the garden, I was surprised by Dang’s candor. “Our belief in a Communist utopia had nothing to do with reality. We tried to build a new society on theories and dreams—on sand. Instead of stimulating production by giving peo¬ple incentives, we collectivized them. Imagine! We even collectivized barbers. It was preposterous. We were also consumed by vanity. Because we crushed the Americans, we thought that we could achieve anything. We should have heeded the old Chinese adage: ‘You can conquer a country from horseback, but you cannot govern it from horseback.’ ”
I heard an equally virulent analysis from Dr. Duong Quynh Hoa, a prominent pediatrician and longtime Communist, who had been a founder of the National Liberation Front, as the Vietcong was formally called. Outspoken when we first met in 1981, she was just as frank nine years later.
A chic woman who had lost none of her charm in middle age, she came from a rich, Frenchified southern family She had become a Communist in Paris, where she studied medicine during the early 1950s. Back in Saigon, she began picking up tidbits for the Communists by hobnobbing with members of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem’s inner circle and their American patrons on the cocktail circuit. Incapable of fathoming the depths of Vietnamese nationalism, the U.S. officials would never have imagined that this upper-crust Vietnamese lady might be a Mata Hari.
Early in 1968, when the Tet offensive broke out, she bolted to a Vietcong sanctuary in the jungle along with her husband, a mathemati¬cian, and her only child, a young son. There the boy died of encephali¬tis, a calamity from which she never recovered—though, putting his death into the perspective of,Vietnam’s horrendous losses, she stoically remarked to me that “he was only one among millions.” She was ap¬pointed deputy minister of health in the Vietcong’s “provisional revolu¬tionary government,” contrived by Hanoi to legitimize the southern Communist movement, and named a “heroine of the revolution.” As we talked amid the precious Vietnamese and Chinese porcelains adorn¬ing the salon of her comfortable villa, she said, “We had no choice. We had to get rid of the foreigners.” Then she exploded: “I have been a Communist all my life, but now I’ve seen the realities of Communism, and it is a failure—mismanagement, corruption, privilege, repression. My ideals are gone.”
She decried the Hanoi cadres who dominated the south for their blindness toward local characteristics, especially such heavy-handed measures as collectivizing peasants whose desire to own property had prompted many of them to rally to the Vietcong rather than to the Diem government, which had doted on the landed gentry instead of intro¬ducing agrarian reforms.
It intrigued me that she had not been arrested for heresy. Perhaps the Communists abided her in order to appear benign—maybe they reck¬oned that silencing her might alienate her sympathizers. Whatever the case, when I saw her in 1990 she was just as bitter. “Communism has been catastrophic. Party officials have never understood the need for rational development. They’ve been hypnotized by Marxist slogans that have lost validity—if they were ever valid. They are outrageous.”

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