But the system that worked so well for wartime North Vietnam proved itself ill-suited for peacetime Vietnam. In a high-tech, information- driven, globalized economy, patience, caution, and narrow focus are not virtues. What count are decisiveness, flexibility, and transparency—the very attributes that are anathema to a secretive Communist Party. The Party leadership today is composed of men who over the course of many years shared the same experiences, the same views of the world, the same joys and traumas. I’m sure they would happily go back to the past, if they could do so with pockets full of dong. They entered the future reluctantly and with few fresh ideas.
“Marxist-socialism together with nationalism helped in the primary task of liberating the country,” wrote Pham Ngoc Uyen, one of the Party’s respected elderly intellectuals, in an unusually candid assessment. “But af¬ter 1975, Marxist-socialism failed to help solve the crucial task of combat¬ing poverty and backwardness. Therefore, our people are silently aban¬doning it. The new revolution is one of brains, not guns, but Vietnam can only succeed if communism bows out in favor of the free market.”
The most powerful man in Vietnam was the secretary-general of the Communist Party, Le Kha Phieu, a man of seventy who had climbed the hierarchy as a commissar within the army. He was of the old school, con¬servative and suspicious of the intents of outsiders, but it was difficult to discover intimate details of his personal life or how he considered the changes taking place around him. The public viewed him as an institu¬tion, not a person. Every time I’d run across one of Phieu’s comments in the media, I’d make a note of it in my computer. Sometimes his remarks reflected a realization that change was both necessary and inevitable, but more often his Cold War language seemed, in a contemporary world, as outdated as Latin. Some of his comments I noted were:
. 1966: Capitalism is backward. It does not meet the peoples needs for happiness. It will definitely be replaced.
. 1994: Peaceful evolution is our gravest danger. Resist all efforts by outsiders to introduce it. It will bring only anarchy, chaos from which none will profit.
. 1997: The economic reform effort must be intensified.
. 2001: We are determined to safeguard [political stability]. This is the best opportunity to build socialism and build our armed forces. Our fatherland is a focal point which hostile forces constantly seek a way to contain, sabotage, assimilate, and subvert.
The politburo was comprised of Phieu and seventeen other members. More than half were sixty-five or older. They were the Party’s top power- brokers and, as a group, held unlimited authority and were basically ac¬countable to no one but each other. They didn’t give interviews and, ex¬cept for Phieu and the prime minister, weren’t quoted in the press. They lived in villas near fit) Chi Minh’s mausoleum and met at the nearby for¬mer French colonial high school on Hoang Van Thu Street. How often they met, what they talked about, how they reached decisions—all were a mystery to virtually everyone.
Sometimes, sitting in a coffee shop or a pub, I’d ask the waiter or bar¬tender how many members of the politburo he could name. Two or three was average; six, exceptional. When A. C. Nielsen pollsters asked the postwar generation of Vietnamese in 1999, “Do you know who your leader is?” 56 percent said “no.” That didn’t mean they couldn’t name the prime minister or the Party secretary-general; it meant that they, like the population as a whole, didn’t know who was really calling the shots.
In theory, the Party’s highest organ was the National Party Congress, an unwieldy group of about 1,200 members who met every five years. It selected the 150 members of the Central Committee, which in turn de¬cided who would be in the politburo. There was also a National Assembly that acted as the legislative arm of the politburo. But in reality it was meaningless to make a distinction between the politburo and the govern¬ment. The politburo decided; the other bodies confirmed.
From time to time there were whispers of disagreements within the politburo—a wrangling between pro-Soviet and pro-China cliques in the 1980s, squabbling between the conservatives and the reformists in the 1990s—but the truth is that even the most informed diplomatic analysts didn’t know what went on behind the closed doors of the old French school that served as Party headquarters. The Party’s inner sanctum was a self-perpetuating fraternity, as closed to scrutiny as the Masons.
It always surprised me when a bright young Vietnamese told me he was a Party member, because communism was viewed as irrelevant by most educated Vietnamese who weren’t on the state payroll. Few paid any attention to the slogans and banners. But ask ordinary Vietnamese if they were communist and they would probably say yes. What they meant was they were nationalists, not that they were advocates of Marxist economic and political theory.
If the genius ofleadership is to understand the pulse of a nation and move people toward a desired destination, the politburo was distinctly lacking in whiz-kid qualities. Its members were neither well-educated nor well-traveled. Many understood little about the world. This was a se¬vere intellectual limitation, and it is no wonder the leadership clung to the reins of privilege as tenaciously as any fading American politician no longer in step with his constituency.

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