The War Nobody Won 14

Vietcong couriers would slip into Saigon to pick up his reports, which he wrote in invisible ink made out of starch. Or, summoned to confer¬ences, he drove through the night to a camp north of the city, terrified that he might be checked by government troops—or, paradoxically, am¬bushed by the Vietcong. Without ever bearing arms or wearing a uni¬form, he rose in the Communist ranks to colonel.
The first disclosures of An’s past, by me and others, elated right-wing critics of the U.S. news media. Here was evidence, they alleged, that the American press had allowed itself to be swayed by the Vietcong. Refuting the charge, An said, “Nonsense. That would have blown my cover.” Most of the information he the Vietcong was the same as his dispatches to Time’s editors. “It wasn’t particularly con¬fidential—the government army’s strength and deployments, which commanders were capable or incompetent or corrupt. And also gos¬sip—who’s sleeping with whose wife or girlfriend. I also gathered polit¬ical tidbits, mostly from talk in the Saigon cafes.”
In the spring of 1975, notified that the Communists were planning a final offensive, An feared for his wife and four children should there be a showdown battle for Saigon and sent them to New York aboard an air¬plane chartered by Time. He stayed behind to tend to his ailing mother, and brought his family back shortly afterward. “It was the stupidest thing I ever did,” he said wearily.
The Communists, leery of his American connections, ordered An to Hanoi for a year of brainwashing. Following his return to Ho Chi Minh City, however, they kept him under virtual house arrest, removing his telephone and denying him visits by foreigners like myself. Still, they consulted him on international affairs, paying him the pension of a re¬tired brigadier general, roughly thirty dollars a month, which he supple¬mented by breeding dogs. He too was gloomy. “I admired the Communists as nationalists,” he said, “but their ignorance and arrogance have only given us misery.”
One night over dinner in Saigon, he repeated to me that his love for Vietnam had not diminished his love for America. “Remember that old Josephine Baker song?” he asked—then chanted softly, “J’ai deux amours…
Giddy from their wartime success, the Communists unveiled an ambi¬tious plan aimed at expanding the economy by 14 percent a year. It foundered. Economic growth barely attained 2 percent annually, trailing a birthrate of 3 percent, one of the highest in the world—a trend that reached back more than a half century. Despite wars and such calamities as typhoons, floods and droughts, the population had tripled since 1930, while food production hardly doubled. Vietnam was mired in poverty notwithstanding the dynamism of its people, who, given incentives, might have matched or even surpassed the economic achievements of other Asian nations.
The Communists initially went wrong by their slavish adherence to the outmoded Marxist tenet that economic growth hinged on promot¬ing big industries like steel and chemicals. But they lacked the capital and the skills for the effort, even though their Soviet and East European allies furnished them with loans and technicians. They also counted in vain on $4.7 billion in “war reparations” from the United States, which Nixon had secretly promised them in early 1973 as an induce¬ment to sign the cease-fire treaty. Without the hard currency to import raw materials, the country’s handful of factories were operating in slow motion or not at all. The output of coal, once a major export, had dwin¬dled for lack of conveyers and trucks. Banal items like soap and needles could not be found in Hanoi, where the only department store was empty—except for window presentations of goods absent from the shelves.
Haiphong, the principal northern port, was paralyzed. Half of the unloaded freight, most of it from the Soviet Union and other Communist countries, had been stolen or left to rot on the docks. I saw crates of equipment piled upside down or rusting from neglect. The harbor was congested with ships as Vietnamese officials, calibrating their demands to the wealth of the carriers, exacted bribes to permit cargoes to pass customs. The Japanese, able to afford the top tariff of five thou¬sand dollars, could turn around in three days while the less affluent might be detained for three months. Hanoi’s proclamations of proletarian unity to the contrary, Communist vessels were harassed and subjected to lengthy delays until they too kicked in.
The Marxist economic plan had also envisioned supplies of food pouring into the cities from the collective farms as indoctrinated peas¬ants produced for the state. But villagers, accustomed to tilling their own soil, defied the scheme—particularly in the fertile Mekong Delta south of Saigon. Instead of delivering rice, vegetables and meat to official pro¬curement agencies, they sold their output on the black market. In sev¬eral places they even butchered their water buffalo, their indispensable beast of burden, rather than have them confiscated and, rather than cul¬tivate crops for the government, left thousands of acres fallow.
The rice harvest, slated to reach twenty-one million tons in 1980, was five million tons below that target three years later. During my stay in Vietnam in 1981, the cereal ration dropped to thirty pounds a month—most of it tapioca and other starches, which the Vietnamese detested. Meat was rare and fish, the main protein in the Vietnamese diet, was scarce—either because thousands of fishermen lacked fuel for their boats or were fleeing. At her hospital, Dr. Hoa showed me babies crammed four or five to a crib, or sleeping on the floor, their bellies bloated by severe malnutrition. “The situation is ‘invivable,’” she said with a sigh. “Where do we go from here?”
A vindictive policy of repression further maimed the economy. When the Saigon officials surrendered to Bui Tin in 1975, he assured them: “All Vietnamese are the victors and only the American imperialists have been vanquished. If you love the nation and the people, consider today a happy day.” But the Communists interned more than two hundred thousand South Vietnamese civil servants, army officers, doctors, lawyers, teachers, writers and other intellectuals in concentration camps euphemistically called “reeducation” centers.

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