The end of the ‘American War’, or the ‘Vietnam War’ as it is better known by the US and its allies, was a defining moment in the history of both protagonists. For Vietnam, it was a vision of peace and prosperity, while the people of the United States were plunged bitter recriminations and self-doubt.
A harsh awakening
However, the victory elation was short-lived for the Vietnamese. The legacy of the American war was a wasteland over much of the country, the almost total destruction of the country’s infrastructures, and a deep and bitter divide between the North and the South. The country was diplomatically isolated, and both Cambodia and China were considering exploiting its perceived weakness.
Even before the South fell, supporters of the Saigon regime began to flee the country, fearing retribution. After the victory, the outflow became a torrent as hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese scrambled to escape across land, or as the ‘boat people’. Most of them were intellectuals, entrepreneurs and ethnic Chinese, thereby further depleting the pool of talent available to rebuild the shattered South.
A nation ‘non gratia’
Instead of promised reparations, the US imposed a tight economic embargo, and pressured other countries to do the same, making Vietnam a international pariah.
Even Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia in response to incursions and massacres of Vietnamese people by the genocidal K’hmer Rouge was treated as a hostile invasion of a sovereign nation. For ridding the world of one of the most obnoxious regimes ever, Vietnam received only vilification and condemnation the international community.
Deprived of loans and foreign aid, and reeling an ill-advised attempt to apply Soviet-style collectivisation of agriculture, Vietnam turned to the USSR. Anxious to establish a military presence in S.E. Asia to counter the American threat, the Soviet provided aid in exchange for naval bases.
However, the plight of the Vietnamese worsened, and, by the mid-eighties, inflation was running at 700% and starvation was claiming yet more victims.
With the continuing survival of Vietnam in the balance, drastic action was necessary. In 1986, the Party Congress swept away the panoply of Soviet-style communism. Collectivisation and central planning were abandoned, agriculture and retail activities were ‘privatised’, foreign investment was encouraged and Vietnam embraced the market economy.
The new approach was called ‘doi moi’. The term has no real equivalent in English – a combination of reform, renovation and new thinking gives a flavour of the concept. Regardless of the complexities of its meaning, doi moi was far more than a new policy. It was a complete reversal of what had gone before, and unique among the world’s socialist states.
An admission of failure?
The Sixth Vietnam Communist Party Congress of 1986 wound together the main threads of Vietnamese history to create the doi moi programme. Elsewhere, such a radical transformation could occur only by revolution. Little wonder that then, and still today, Vietnam’s abrupt change of direction was looked upon abroad as economic opportunism, a tacit admission of the failure of socialism and an acceptance of Western-style economic and social reforms.
Taking the long view
Although doi moi was a public recognition of the shortcomings of the Soviet version of Marxist-Leninism (later vindicated by the collapse of the USSR in 1991), it was neither opportunism, nor a desire to emulate the Western model.
Ever since the experience of Chinese domination, the Vietnamese have always taken the long view, placing expediency above ideology with the protection of the Vietnamese nation as an over-riding consideration. Recognising that economic strength and stability were prerequisites of free universal education, health care and welfare provision, doi moi effectively put the socialist vision ‘on hold’ to allow the country to rebuild.