We may have entered Vietnam naively—but not without warnings. In the early 1960s, Undersecretary of State George Ball told President John F. Kennedy if he went ahead with plans to up the U.S. ante from a com¬mitment of “assistance” to South Vietnam to one of “limited partner¬ship,” it would mean “within five years, we’ll have 300,000 men in the paddies and jungles and never find them again.” Mike Mansfield, the Senate majority leader, warned Kennedy, “South Vietnam . . . could be¬come quicksand for us. . . . It is not an American war.” Not exactly words to warm the hearts of Cold Warriors. The position that prevailed was ar¬ticulated by McNamara in January 1964 during testimony before the House Armed Services Committee: “The survival of an independent Government in South Vietnam is so important to the security of all of Southeast Asia and to the Free World that I can conceive of no alterna¬tive other than to take all necessary measures within our capability to pre¬vent a Communist victory.” Having taken those military measures, and then some, McNamara would later say, “I never thought it would go on like this. I didn’t think these people had the capacity to fight this way . . . to take this punishment.”
“Communist” was the operative word in McNamara’s testimony to the House committee. Had Ho Chi Minh been a Buddhist dictator, a Catholic warlord, an imperial soldier of fortune—anything but a commu¬nist—I suspect the United States would have been content to track the war from afar. What the United States went to war against was commu-nism. It just happened to be North Vietnam’s misfortune to be standing in the way. To dismiss Ho as a communist puppet, as administration after U.S. administration did, was a grave miscalculation. It ignored the depth of Ho’s nationalistic passions, and it misrepresented Vietnam as a tool of international communism, which it never was.
Ironically, despite misreading all the signs in Vietnam, the United States ended up achieving the objectives it set out to fulfill by going to war in Indochina. Communist insurgencies in Southeast Asia sputtered and failed. With stability, most of the region—with the notable excep¬tions of communist Vietnam and Laos, military-ruled Myanmar (Burma), and a Cambodia ravaged by Pol Pot’s Maoist-inspired geno¬cide—enjoyed an era of development and prosperity unparalleled in the Third World. The Berlin Wall came down. The Soviet Union collapsed. The achievement of these goals was, to some degree at least, an un¬planned byproduct of the war and was, to a large degree, a result of forces the United States had unleashed on the world: globalization, democrati¬zation, and the opening of free-market economies. In country after coun¬try—from Africa to Asia to Latin America—military governments were retired, political futures were decided by ballot boxes instead of guns, and state-run economies gave way to private enterprise. What brought about Vietnam’s transformation in the 1990s from a rigid, repressive country to one offering increasing personal liberty and economic opportunity had nothing to do with the government’s desire to democratize and every¬thing to do with the forces of globalization.
WHEN I WORKED IN SUB-SAHARAN AFRICA during the 1970s, we used to joke that you couldn’t buy an African government—you could only rent one for a day. Ethiopia, for example, had been a longtime U.S. ally; its next-door enemy, Somalia, was a Soviet satellite state. Then overnight Ethiopia kicked out the Americans and turned to Moscow for military advisers and millions of rubles in aid. Almost simultaneously So¬malia expelled the Soviets, tore down the anti-American posters in Mo¬gadishu, and threw open its arms to the Americans. The flip-flop had less to do with ideology than with who was offering the best deal. In the Central Africa empire, President Jean-Bedel Bokassa, a Christian, pock¬eted $2 million from Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi and adopted the Islamic faith and the name Salah Eddine Ammed. No sooner had Qaddafi gotten on his plane for the flight home to Tripoli than Bokassa said, oops, he’d made a mistake. Ammed the Muslim became Bokassa the reborn Christian.
Vietnam was different. It didn’t beg, and it wasn’t for sale. Sure, it ac¬cepted aid money, sought foreign investment, cultivated friends—but all that bought precious little influence. The World Bank put together an annual package of $3 billion for developmental assistance every year I was in Hanoi. It sweetened the pot with millions more in incentives if Viet¬nam took certain steps toward achieving a free-market economy. Vietnam never cashed in on a penny of the incentive money because it never adopted the extra reforms Western donors wanted. “You can’t pressure these guys,” said Andrew Steer, head of the World Bank’s Hanoi office. “They do things their own way, at their own pace. If they thought we were interfering, I have no doubt they’d say, ‘Thanks for your help in the past and now it’s time for you to go home.’”
This attitude perplexed many Americans. They came bearing gifts. They had lots of advice and an abundance of good intentions. They’d put motorcycle helmets on the kids to make the roads safer and condoms on the men to make families smaller. They’d teach Vietnam about democ¬racy and free enterprise. They’d save the wildlife, protect human rights, wire the country for broadband. Admirable goals all. The problem was that their agenda was often not Vietnam’s agenda. One day a group of two dozen high-tech U.S. executives who had fought in the war flew in. Many, returning to Vietnam for the first time, were millionaire