Understanding what happened in Vietnam 40-plus years ago is a matter of great interest as Americans consider the future of our involvement in Afghanistan. Last November, Newsweek ran a cover story titled, "How We (Could Have) Won in Vietnam."
It is clear to me from three visits to Vietnam in the past two years -- including one with an adult group I led in January and one with Millsaps College students in May -- that the real lesson begins with the omission of the "(Could Have)" from that title.
The United States has won in Vietnam. The American victory, which was delayed by more than forty years by the fighting of the war, has finally been achieved despite the efforts of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon to block it.
The United States lost the war, but it has decisively won the peace. The struggle, President Johnson famously said, was for "the hearts and minds" of the people in Vietnam. Hearts and minds are not won through the force of arms; they are won through the force of ideas and culture.
As long as Vietnam kept fighting, it could not lose the military war.
Once the United States stopped fighting, it could not lose the peace.
And if the United States had never fought the war in the first place, it would have won that cultural war much earlier.
Sign in store window in "Ho Chi Minh City" (Saigon)
The Communists won the initial war through physical guerilla warfare. The United States has won the larger struggle for the hearts and minds of the people through cultural guerilla warfare.
Our visas read "The Socialist Republic of Vietnam." The reality is that today this nation is "The Capitalist Non-Republic of Vietnam." A one-party political system remains in effect, and there are intermittent, half-hearted attempts to block information from reaching the people. Sometimes you can get on Facebook; sometimes you can't. Sometimes CNN and the BBC are available on television; sometimes they're not.
One of the TV stations in our hotel in Hoi An during the May trip had Victoria's Secret fashion shows running back-to-back around the clock. I would bet that these replaced CNN or the BBC and the government thought showing beautiful women parading in underwear as a substitute for accurate news would lessen the complaints about blocking information.
A woman we asked about various prohibitions and persecutions under the harsh Communist rule during the decade following the fall of South Vietnam in 1975 responded with a sentence that epitomizes Vietnam today: "But now -- it's OK!"
Pick almost any antecedent for "it," and that assessment applies. It could be the new Vietnamese national motto: "But now -- it's OK!"
As for the "socialist" part of the country's official name, it is about as accurate as those who scream about President Obama being a "socialist." Capitalism reigns supreme everywhere one looks.
If anything, this formerly Communist nation has taken laissez faire too far. In deference to their Marxist heritage, the Vietnamese don't like to describe their current reality by using that vulgar word, "capitalism," so they speak instead of a "market economy."
Vietnam today is less socialist than my home state of Mississippi. I'm serious. We badly need universal healthcare in America, but we do provide Medicaid for the poor. Some of our public schools leave a great deal to be desired, but free education is available through high school. We have Social Security. Not so in Vietnam, where the poor must pay both for medical care and to educate their children from middle school up and there are small old age pensions only for government employees.
I expected to see Ho Chi Minh spinning in his glass coffin when we visited him in Hanoi, but he appeared to be serene in the face of the collapse of his revolution through what might be termed the Great Bourgeois Cultural Revolution.
Freedom is a contagion that spreads on its own; it is a self-replicating bacteria; but it cannot be weaponized and spread by warfare.
The situation in Afghanistan is much more complex and difficult, and the lessons of Vietnam may not be applicable. But we should at least be clear about what those lessons are.
So, remove the "(Could Have)." "How We Won in Vietnam" was by ending the war.
Robert S. McElvaine is currently completing a book manuscript on the first half of the 1960s, "Oh, Freedom!" - The Young Sixties. He will lead a trip to Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos in January. Click here for information.
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