Vietnam in perspective
For Americans of my generation, it is hard not to note the end of the Vietnam war 40 years ago. But the most notable thing is how little difference that war makes in today’s world. A war that killed millions over two decades, including upwards of 58,000 Americans, left a big mark on the American psyche, but did little to change the course of world history. It didn’t even do permanent harm to the relationship between Vietnam and the US, which is today a friendly one only inches short of an alliance.
On a trip to Vietnam a few years ago, I discovered that the “American” war is remembered in the North for the bombing and in the South for the abandonment of our allies. One Northerner asked me why the United States opposed the independence and unity of Vietnam. When I responded that the Americans thought they were fighting against Communism, not the independence and unity of Vietnam, he looked puzzled. If that was the case, he admitted, maybe it was not such a bad idea. After all, antiquated Communist ideas and cadres are now regarded with disdain by many Vietnamese, even this Northerner whose parents were party members.
The Vietnam war may be but a blip in world history, but it changed (as well as ended) a lot of lives. Hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese fled. Over a million went through horrendous re-education camps, where torture and abuse were common. A generation of Americans found it difficult to find their footing, including many of those who served in the armed forces and many of those who didn’t. The American military professionalized, so it no longer relies on the draft. Many young Americans can’t remember that it ever did.
Once the Americans were gone, Vietnam invaded Cambodia to depose the Chinese-allied Khmer Rouge. China invaded Vietnam in response. The dominoes weren’t so much falling as scattering.
Even that proved ephemeral. Since the 1970s, Asia has seen a dramatic and sustained decline in both intra- and inter-state conflict. The reasons for this are much debated. Is it a successful process of state consolidation and even modest democratization? Is it Asia’s focus on economic development or its peculiar cultural characteristics? What role has the American security umbrella played? Will peace continue? Or does China’s rise inevitably mean maritime and other frictions with its neighbors (including the US) that will end the long Asian peace?
I don’t know the answers, but a great deal depends on them. While I have focused on the Balkans and the Middle East for many years now, I have to wonder whether war and peace issues won’t be shifting eastward along with world population, economic growth, international trade, military power and energy dependency. For the moment, state competition in the Asia Pacific is mainly non-military, with the important exception of Beijing’s claims in the East and South China Seas. But the Chinese seem no less anxious to avoid war than most of the rest of Asia, even if they don’t shy from occasional provocations.
Forty years is a long time. Vietnam looks very different at this generational distance. We should try to maintain that perspective when evaluating today’s events. They are likely to look very different 40 years from now.