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Vietnam, the US and China


If history proves anything, it is that nothing can be taken for granted.   Men and parties that rule nations fall all the time—as witnessed today in much of the Middle East, a region that was once considered stable.  The American Central Intelligence Agency, a huge, highly expensive operation with many analysts paid to predict the future, was utterly surprised when the Soviet Union fell apart and the whole Eastern Communist bloc dissolved with it. Change is the norm today, everywhere, and rulers who think they will be in power forever—even if they try to repress signs of discontent—have a poor sense of history.  What is certain is that the Americans have a motive to see that the regime in Vietnam that defeated them militarily fall because of its own failures.

Given the tremendous and growing disparity between Vietnam’s nominal Marxist-Leninist ideology and its state-led capitalist practice, Vietnam is as ripe for overthrow as any nation has ever been, and Vietnam’s present rulers should take very little for granted–no more, indeed, than those who ran the former U S S R.  Basic change is very likely to occur in Vietnam: how and when cannot be predicted precisely, but the anomaly between its ideology and its practice is too overwhelming to persist indefinitely.  The higher levels of the Party are now very corrupt and increasingly cynical, and the patriotic legitimacy it had when it led the struggle against the French and then the Americans is gone. The younger generation of Vietnamese increasingly regard the Communists as corruptionists who practice nepotism.

When I was last in Vietnam in 1987 I saw corruption at all levels, and nepotism is the way many nations are ruled—Vietnam is no exception.   All this means the Communist Party is losing its legitimacy and relying on its security apparatus to stay in power, but police will not return the consensus of support from the masses it had during the war against the United States, a consensus based in very large part on nationalism–although many peasants were also for a more just land tenure system and Communist appeals attracted them. And caused them to make immense sacrifices.  On the contrary, using its security system to control public opinion is more likely to further alienate the public. It is a liability, although the Vietnamese Communists have a large one, and effective in the short-run.  But as we see in the Middle East (or the Bolshevik Revolution under Lenin) soldiers and police can also switch sides, which can produce real crises for the status quo.

The Saigon-regime leader, Nguyen Van Thieu, was corrupt and nepotistic also, had a security apparatus (also corrupt) and fell apart despite the fact the Saigon-regime had superior military power to that the Communists possessed.  By losing its legitimacy the Communists make themselves ripe for replacement, even overthrow.
The replacements may, in fact, be worse (they have been in various nations) but that thought is not likely to occur to those who regard the present rulers in Hanoi as the fount of all evil.

The regime is likely to fall—I am surprised it has lasted as long as it has—next month or five years from now–it is impossible to tell.   But peasants are a danger to it (as they are in China) because too many are being displaced to build, among other things, industrial zones, open pit mines, and golf courses while many leaders of the Communist Party, who are increasingly factionalized and split, enrich themselves.

There are reports that the American government has specialists on Vietnam who are also thinking about how and why the Communist government might be replaced.  These reports are probably true.  They believe that the spread of American culture (mainly music) will eventually bring down the regime—but that may very well be wishful thinking.  American-style culture has existed in Vietnam for decades.  Far more important, in my opinion, is the Communist Party’s loss of legitimacy due to corruption and nepotism, and the élan it once had.  It has developed economically but the benefits of economic growth have been very unequal—as it is in China also.

And no less important is the fact that fissures among Communist leaders have emerged; many know about them and effectively they are public, and this split never existed to this extent before.  Basing Party rulership on cronyism makes such opposition all the more easy and justifiable. The system of control that the Communist Party elite has worked out is to some crucial extent also self-defeating.  A split at the top was the prelude to the Soviet Union’s demise, and the leading opponent among the famous leaders in Vietnam is Vo Nguyen Giap, the architect of the Communist victories in the first and second Indochina Wars and the last living Communist “founding fathers.”  He is vocal, has even talked of forming a new party, and any effort to silence Giap might alone trigger mass resistance against existing Party leaders. Having the venerable Giap on its side might very well embolden the potential opposition, which also includes some members of the Communist Party who do not like the way it has been going–and still believe in the ideals, which led to the emergence of the Party in the first place.

The Obama Administration–which includes many people besides the President– is in an ambiguous position: the present Vietnamese regime is ready to be a part of an anti-Chinese coalition the U. S. is talking about forming as an aspect of its yet-vague Pacific strategy that will presumably preoccupy it over the next 10 years, but I think over the next decade the U. S. is likely to be distracted by crises elsewhere—where is unknown but its similar resolution in 2002 to focus on China was impossible once it decided to fight wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—whose outcome remains unknown but were certainly not American victories in the sense it hoped for.  Given the nature of the world today, it is impossible to know what will occur 10 years from now.  Shooting or other crises will define its priorities. It would be naïve for the Hanoi regime to assume the American-led coalition would ever emerge over the next decade, though in fact—if precedent is any indication—Vietnam is able to be very naïve in conducting its foreign relations.

The American Government would be happy, though, were the Communist-led regime to capsize.  The U. S. lost a war with it and the collapse of the present Communist government would give many important people in Washington a certain solace.

The United States has since 1945 felt responsible for every corner of the world, and this sense of having a global mission makes it impossible to know where it is going to place its resources ten years from now. Its military is now increasinly involved in Africa. The Vietnam Government should be aware that American intentions today are not what they do a year from now, much less ten. Its placing confidence in present U.S. promises and intentions flies in the face of historical experience.

It is not certain in this world what will happen next: neither the careful observer nor the people in power know.  Vietnam may or may not implode, but Communist states have ceased to exist, and there is such a discrepancy between its nominal ideology and practice—as there is in China also—that the men and women who now rule

Vietnam would be foolish not to take into serious consideration what events elsewhere—the entire Eastern Bloc—means for their future also.  Vietnam “Communism,” as it still likes to call itself, can last forever or it might fall next month—but the state has problems and if it does nothing then the contradiction between its nominal ideology and practice will eventually catch up with it. Their present policies are likely to be challenged, somehow, and at some time.  If they ignore these questions they ignore the meaning of recent history, not only in the Eastern Bloc but in many Muslim nations also. Making an alliance of some sort with the United States against China—which I think will never emerge in the form the U.S. envisages today—will not resolve its basic problems.

GABRIEL KOLKO is the leading historian of modern warfare. He is the author of the classic Century of War: Politics, Conflicts and Society Since 1914 and Another Century of War?. He has also written the best history of the Vietnam War, Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, the US and the Modern Historical Experience. He can be reached at:

A version of this article in Vietnamese by the BBC.

GABRIEL KOLKO is the leading historian of modern warfare. He is the author of the classic Century of War: Politics, Conflicts and Society Since 1914 and Another Century of War?. He has also written the best history of the Vietnam War, Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, the US and the Modern Historical Experience

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