The War Nobody Won 15

Ironically, one of the worst camps was Poulo Condore, the island where the French colonial administration jailed Communist suspects during the 1930s and the Saigon regime later incarcerated its critics. And Communists were no more humane toward their prisoners than their oppressors had been toward them. Undernourished or afflicted by dysentery and malaria, inmates were frequently shackled in the sun for hours without water, tortured, or summarily executed. Many had been adversaries of the Saigon authorities, some were even Vietcong veterans regarded by northern Communists as potential dissidents. In 1981, a Hanoi cadre defended the purges, telling me, “We must clean out the bourgeois rubbish.”
Apart from its inhumanity, the gulag deprived the country of profes¬sionals who might have contributed to its recovery. Many were pun¬ished simply because they had been educated in America or employed by the Saigon regime, often in minor jobs. As Tran Bach Dang told me, “We should have forgiven them. Instead, we squandered a source of tal¬ent and got untrained, idiotic bureaucrats. It was a national loss—and, I must confess, I share the blame.”
Under world pressure, the Communists finally conceded to free the prisoners—on condition that the United States admit them. Many set-tied in “Little Saigon,” an enclave of Vietnamese immigrants south of Los Angeles, where, their lives broken, they subsisted on welfare or, at best, worked at menial tasks.
Another poignant heritage of the war was some fifty thousand “Amerasian” children fathered by U.S. troops. The majority of them were in Ho Chi Minh City, Danang and other cities, where the GIs had congregated. Showcase orphanages cared for a few but most were treated by the Vietnamese as outcasts, and denied schooling and even food ra¬tions. Those I observed in 1981—some of them with blond hair and blue eyes, others partly black—had been reduced to peddling or beg¬ging on street corners. The pretty girls appeared to be destined for pros¬titution. Their mothers, often ostracized by their families, nagged international refugee agencies to find the fathers, usually identifying them as just Joe or Bill or Mac—to whom they had been “married” six¬teen or seventeen years before.
At first the Communists were reluctant to permit the Amerasians to leave, hoping to use them as chips in their diplomatic bargaining with the United States. President Reagan and Congress, for domestic politi¬cal reasons, also flinched at revising the American immigration laws. But finally the two sides relented. By 1990, accepted by either their fathers or by foster homes, some forty thousand kids had gone to America and the others were scheduled to depart.
Nothing dramatized the repugnance of the Vietnamese toward the poverty and brutality more graphically than the postwar exodus from Vietnam—the biggest migration of modern times. More than one mil¬lion escaped, mostly by sea. Many died from exposure or drowning, or were robbed, raped or murdered by pirates who ply the waters off Southeast Asia. At least a half million also fled Cambodia and Laos, the other states that had comprised French Indochina, after the Communists took over those countries. A total of about one million from the three lands settled in the United States, but hundreds of thousands languished for years in squalid refugee camps in Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. Unless they could prove that their mo¬tives had been political rather than economic, they ran the risk of being repatriated to Vietnam—as many were, kicking and screaming, by the British authorities in Hong Kong. Yet others, unfazed by the danger, continued to flee.
By 1985, Vietnam’s economy was crumbling. In parts of the north, where food was traditionally scarce, famine menaced some ten million people. Industry was at a standstill while the jobless and underemployed roamed city streets. Trade was paralyzed except for a lively black market in everything from aspirin to dollars, smuggled in or sent back to their families by Vietnamese abroad. Rumors spread of a possible revolt against the regime.
Alarmed, the Communist hierarchy convened urgently in Hanoi in December 1986 and, after much wrangling, elected as general secretary Nguyen Van Linh, a seasoned revolutionary of seventy and former party boss of Ho Chi Minh City, in the hope that the flexible strategy he ad¬vocated would check the economic slide. But, apprehensive lest reforms weaken its power, the party vested considerable political authority in a hard-line group headed by Le Duc Tho, who had exasperated Henry Kissinger during their marathon peace negotiations in the early 1970s. The precarious equilibrium kept Vietnam’s policies oscillating over the years ahead.
Though conservatives were doing their best to thwart change, Marxist tenets had been diluted or scrapped. The managers of state enterprises were now directed to make their own decisions, forget government sub¬sidies, show profits and either function efficiently or fold. Now the guru was Paul Samuelson, the liberal American Nobel economist, whose textbook had been translated into Vietnamese. “So you have embraced capitalism,” 1 ribbed the suave foreign minister, Nguyen Co Thach, a vocal reformer. Objecting to the blasphemous term, he replied, “Absolutely not! We have simply adopted a market economy and the laws of supply and demand.”
To justify the switch, party propagandists dredged up—or maybe in¬vented—one of Ho Chi Minh’s hitherto unknown homilies: “The poor should get rich and the rich should get richer.” The program, called doi moi, or “new structure,” was a Vietnamese version of perestroika, Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms in the Soviet Union. It virtually dissolved the egre¬gious farm collectives and, though private ownership was not restored, peasants could rent land in long-term leases and work as their ancestors had for centuries—as families. No longer required to deliver most of their output to the regime at fixed prices, they could sell it competi¬tively at free markets.
The innovations, coupled with the natural resilience of the Viet¬namese, began to pay off.

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