“Viet Nam at peace”: the empire strikes back

Philip Jones Griffiths
28 April 2005

When I covered the Vietnam war in the early 1970s, I expressed what at the time was a somewhat controversial view: that it was necessary to look beyond the carnage and understand that the United States of America was endeavouring to impose its value system on the Vietnamese.

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Vietnam was fighting for its independence that would in turn allow it to implement a set of socialist values. The social inequalities that typified the lives of generations of those who lived under colonialism were the force that propelled the population to take up arms, first against the French and later the invading Americans.

By the 1960s the agrarian Confucian culture that had defined the Vietnamese people for more than 2,000 years was under severe attack by US consumer capitalism. Observing the contrast between the people living in the countryside and those in the cities I came to appreciate the role that status played in the life of the community. In the villages the traditional claims of rank provided by wisdom and poetry still held sway, but in the urban areas entitlement to respect was represented by the acquisition of the trinkets and baubles of consumerism.

© Philip Jones Griffiths bus stop

Foreign penetration can now be observed everywhere in Viet Nam. Poster on a bus stop in Ho Chi Minh City that provides shelter from the sun and rain and a place for the weary to rest. The product, which some claim causes bone weakening, tooth decay and obesity, is unpopular as it makes the drinker thirsty.

The war that the US unleashed had as its major pillar the forced “relocation” of the rural population, often from ancestral lands for which they have a special religious affinity, into towns and cities where they could be “free” – a metaphor to disguise the real purpose: the creation of a nation of consumers that could both be controlled and be relied upon to produce profit.

“Relocation” consisted of destroying the fabric of rural society, using every military means possible to uproot the people and lay waste their homes, for the purpose of creating a captive mass of people with their spirits broken in the hope of facilitating easier penetration with a new ideology. Thus millions of villagers were transplanted into urban enclaves to loosen them from their traditional values to make the imposition of new ones easier.

© Philip Jones Griffiths statues

In one of the back streets of Ho Chi Minh busts of the father of the nation, Uncle Ho, stand discarded. A local magazine polled young people to discover that they identified Bill Gates as their personal hero rather than the long-dead leader Ho Chi Minh. Police quickly confiscated copies of the paper and burned them after firing the paper’s chief editor.

Viet Nam at Peace is available from Trolley Books

When the war ended on 30 April 1975, the supply of consumer goods quickly dried up as a vindictive US-led economic embargo took effect, and the remaining samples were rarely flaunted for fear of reprisals by the new regime. The only economic aid to crippled Vietnam came as basic items from the Soviet Union and other Soviet-bloc countries, and until 1978, China.

Revisionist historians still write voluminous tracts explaining away the poverty of those early years as proof of the iniquities of communism, with only a passing reference, if any, to the embargo on the devastated country. It was certainly true that the leadership in Hanoi were better at fighting a war rather than dealing with the economic vagaries of peace. Also the rebuilding was somewhat hampered by the war’s sudden end that had precluded planning for the post-war world. Vietnam was soon classified as one of the poorest countries in the world. Yet the people survived.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the leaders felt they had no choice but to open the country to foreign corporations. The country, especially the south, soon displayed the visible signs of foreign commercial penetration.

Fourteen years on, however, it is obvious that the purveyors of western goods overestimated the willingness of the Vietnamese to participate. A perceptible change has taken place, especially in the last half-decade. Many of the wild excesses of the marketplace have been toned down. The public has become more discerning, and is increasingly sceptical of products whose benefits were previously lauded. Many American and other foreign “joint ventures” have collapsed, resulting in a steady flow of western entrepreneurs to departing aeroplanes – among them the staff of many foreign-owned banks, including the Bank of America in 2004.

In 1997 the Vietnam Economic Times reported:

“Nearly four years have passed since the American trade embargo against Vietnam was lifted. Today, results being posted on foreign business scoreboards, especially for Americans, are in many instances downright disappointing. Some are viewed as flat out failures. Tales of woe circulate in the watering holes frequented by foreigners, with vivid accounts of projects delayed; goals not attained, scuttled schedules and busted budgets. Clearly there are lessons to be learned from the past three years.”

Vietnam’s agricultural sector may tell a different story, as the scale of its rice and coffee exports in recent years suggests. Yet the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit has branded Vietnam as one of the worst places in Asia for foreigners to do business – only slightly better than Pakistan. The world business community despairs at this, but a more sanguine view might be that just as Vietnam was no pushover for the American military thirty-years ago, it is no pushover for the forces of global capitalism.

© Philip Jones Griffiths salute

Children at a celebration near Ho Chi Minh City commemorating the end of the war.

Click here to see more photographs and read three extracts from Philip Jones Griffith’s book Viet Nam at Peace.

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