Vietnam is one of the poorest countries in the world. Many of its people are badly nourished; some, particularly children, are starving to death. Vietnam is also one of the world’s largest military powers. It maintains an army of over one million troops, a quarter of them stationed abroad—200,000 in Kampuchea, 40,000 in Laos.
Vietnam has appealed for food aid from the West. Almost none has been given. Hardly any aid of any kind reaches Vietnam now, except from the Soviet bloc. American policy, inspired by China and adopted by Western Europe, is, straightforwardly, to “bleed” Vietnam. In fact, Vietnam has gone on bleeding since the end of the war. When I went there earlier this year—my first visit to the north and my first since 1975 to the south—the place seemed as moving and perplexing as it had before, its problems still insoluble.
The poverty of Vietnam is clear at Hanoi’s airport—the customs area is a decrepit shed. The road into town is crowded with old carts full of wood and bricks and pulled by thin horses or even by people. The bridges over the river, bombed by the Americans, have still not been repaired; traffic crawls across temporary, flimsy constructions.
I was met by a guide from the foreign ministry, an intelligent and friendly man in his thirties who spent the next two weeks with me, We drove in a large Soviet car to the Hoa Bin Hotel. There is one modern hotel, designed by Cubans, just outside the city and two older ones, the Tong Nhat (Reunification) and the Hoa Bin (Peace) in the city center. The Tong Nhat has a faded, 1930s elegance; it is the principal meeting place for foreigners, and several countries actually have their embassies in its rooms. The Hoa Bin is cheaper and more run-down. The interior is cavernous and gloomy, with its walls ripped apart to expose the wiring, and a vestibule in which old Vietnamese men and women sip tea, Lao students strut around, and Russians drink vodka. It is a good place to stop and stare.
Hanoi looks like a pretty pre-World War II French provincial city whose authorities have spent no money on it for years. In the suburbs some workers’ flats have been thrown together since the end of the war for the south. Their construction is so poor that they look much older than the stylized villas built in the French days.
The state shops are empty, gloomy places, with few goods on display and those of poor quality. But in the last year the government has, in an effort to give people more money, lifted all sorts of restrictions on private enterprise. All along the streets are people selling bread, sweet corn, soup. Others refill ballpoint pens with surgical syringes. Cigarettes are sold one at a time. The most sought-after foreign brand is “555” from Britain. A man with a pack of these is rich.
In all the talks I had with officials in Hanoi, one theme predominated, and that was China. The threat from China, China’s conspiracy with the Khmer Rouge, China’s plotting with the United States, China’s collusion with the ASEAN countries of Southeast Asia—this is almost all that officials can talk about when discussing details of Vietnam’s domestic or foreign predicament. Everything tends to be explained or justified by the menace from Peking, though it is hard to say how far officials actually believe the statements they make. A visit to the Chinese border to see the damage inflicted by the Chinese when they invaded in February 1979 to “punish” Vietnam for its invasion of Kampuchea and the overthrow of Pol Pot is de rigueur for any visiting foreigner—rather like a visit to the Great Wall in China itself.
The road north to the province and town of Lang Son leads through rice fields of the Red River delta and then into steep, beautiful, and easily defended mountains. Lang Son itself is on the Chinese side of this range and there, about ten miles from their border, the Chinese stopped. They destroyed much of the center of the town, especially any government or Communist Party building. The population has since returned, but the threat of another Chinese attack is said to be constantly with them. On the hills beyond Lang Son the Chinese have installed a radar station—the great dish constantly circles, a mocking intruder, spying on Vietnamese defenses.
Outside of Hanoi, the markets in the north are bare; they have far fewer goods than one finds today in Kampuchea—no luxuries at all and very few essentials. In Kampuchea you can buy silk (made in Kampuchea), stereos, cognac, beer, lipstick, jewelry, perfume—all smuggled across from Thailand. In Phnom Penh there are photographers and radio repair shops now. There is nothing like that in northern Vietnam, nothing at all. A well-stocked stall in Lang Son has an incongruous supply of pens, padlocks, zippers, playing cards, buttons, thread, tooth-brushes, and a toy pistol. When one sees the poverty of the north one cannot fail to be impressed by the self-discipline that Vietnamese troops seem to exhibit in Kampuchea.
The destructive effects of thirty years of war on the Vietnamese economy can hardly be overstated. The problems faced in 1975 would have proved almost insoluble for almost any regime, let alone one confined by dogma. A confidential World Bank report, written after a staff survey of Vietnam and circulated in 1980, begins: “In the three decades following the end of the Second World War, almost every country has enjoyed substantial economic growth and an improvement in the welfare of its people…. [But] when the war in Vietnam finally ended in 1975, per capita production of major commodities had changed little, or fallen, since the 1940s. Except in some parts of the south the economic infrastructure is less well developed than in most developing countries and the country’s standard of living is one of the lowest.” The Bank report put the standard of living between those of India and Bangladesh.
But the opportunities of peace have been lost. The economy has, if that is possible, suffered almost as badly since the war as during it. In part this reflects the collapse of foreign aid. American money to the south ceased, of course, in April 1975, and millions of people who had lived off it lost their livelihood. In 1978 China cut off all aid to the country as well.
Hanoi had expected in 1975 to have normal relations with the US and then to benefit from peacetime American aid and investment. That did not happen—largely because in 1977 and early 1978, when the Carter administration genuinely sought to restore relations, Hanoi continued to demand “war reparations.” Although Nixon had promised economic aid in a secret (and probably illegal) letter written at the time of the Paris peace accords in 1973, this was an absurd demand to make in 1977 and 1978. It reflected the lack of judgment and arrogance which have so often characterized the party leadership in Hanoi.
When, in 1978, the demand was finally dropped, it was too late; Vietnam’s relations with China had deteriorated to the point of hostility, while relations between the US and China were improving. Zbigniew Brzezinski, in particular, was anxious to improve relations with China rather than Vietnam. Cyrus Vance and Richard Holbrooke, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific, who had made a serious effort to reach agreement with Hanoi, were overridden. 1 The splendid dowdy villa on Hai Ba Trung street, which was to have been the US embassy, is still empty. My guide pointed it out to me in a tone close to sorrow.
Aid has come from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, but it has been neither adequate nor even very effective; a large, though unknown, proportion of it is military not economic aid. The threats of war and then war itself have continued to overshadow the peace. The economy has been further reduced by natural disasters—typhoons, floods, and drought—which have attacked Vietnam with unusual ferocity these last five years. And added to all these disasters has been bad economic planning.
The first five-year plan (1976-1981) was almost a caricature of the 1940s Stalinist plans imposed on Eastern Europe, concentrating on heavy industry—steel, chemicals, cement, heavy machinery—at the expense of agriculture and fishing. It was nonetheless intended to make Vietnam self-sufficient in food. It did nothing of the sort, partly because of widespread resistance by the peasants to the government’s programs for collectivization and its controls on private trade. Grain production, in particular rice, was supposed to be increased 54 percent during the five-year period, but it rose by only 4 percent. Instead of growing 21 million tons in 1980, as planned, only 14 million tons were harvested. Last year, official rice rations in the north were cut to 13 kilos a month. That is two kilos fewer than recommended as the minimum by the World Health Organization and, incidentally, much less than most people now eat in Kampuchea. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization reckons that the country will be short 2 million tons of rice this year and has recommended emergency food aid of 384,000 tons to offset serious shortages in the central provinces.
In the agricultural cooperatives I visited in both northern and southern Vietnam I was given impressive figures for the increase in agricultural production. In fact yields per hectare fell during 1979 and 1980, in good part for lack of fertilizers. Among the main targets of the Chinese invasion in February 1979 were Vietnam’s phosphate mines, from which a large proportion of the country’s fertilizers were produced.
Between 1976 and 1980 real Gross Domestic Product grew at only 3 percent a year instead of 14 percent as planned. The population is growing at 3 percent (fastest in the south where there is almost no contraception) so this means no increase in real wealth per person. People are poorer now than they were during the war. The average income in Vietnam today is only $160 a year.
Among the poorest people are government workers. Their salaries start at only 60 dong a month. They are allowed to buy 13 kilos of rice a month at a very low price—0.40 dong a kilo. On the free market in the north rice costs up to 10 dong a kilo. But there is not much meat available at controlled prices. On the free market meat will cost about 25 dong a kilo; a chicken will cost 50 dong, close to a month’s wages.
After rice the most important staple food in Vietnam is fish. But the fish catch has fallen drastically in recent years, from about 610,000 tons in 1976 to about 350,000 tons in 1980. As a result the Vietnamese were able to eat an average of only 9.5 kilos of fish last year; in 1976 they had had 16 kilos. What happened? Fuel and nets have been short, but boats have been shorter still. Loaded with people, they have sailed away.
Recently the government has acknowledged some of the failures of its economic planning. Last December the Party secretary, Le Duan, told the National Assembly: “In the recent past our party and state have committed the greatest shortcomings and mistakes in economic planning…. Due to our shortcomings there continue to exist many problems which have caused the masses to feel displeased.” Now the government, trying to overcome resistance to its collectivization programs and its rigid planning, has embarked on fairly extensive economic reforms, in both industry and agriculture. Their principal aim is to increase incentives, to extend the scope of private enterprise, and to encourage profit taking, both for individuals and in the cooperatives.
The government has abolished all restrictions on the movement of privately produced goods. Cooperatives and state enterprises are now allowed to sell anything they produce above the plan at free-market prices. At the same time small industries and handicraft producers can take out bank loans to build up their businesses. In Hanoi families who have rooms on the street have converted them into little coffee shops, where coffee is delicious but expensive. Others run restaurants for both Vietnamese and foreigners. They pay huge taxes to be allowed to stay open.
In the north 98 percent of agriculture is collective, but a part of rice production has now been taken out of the socialist market. Collectives are divided into production brigades within which families are supposed to deliver certain quotas. Those quotas have now been frozen until 1985. If farmers produce more than the quota they can dispose of it as they wish. They can sell to the state, where the price will be low but where they can buy other goods at low prices. Or they can sell on the free market for larger sums.
All this has helped to make the food production figures look better on paper. But that has not necessarily fed people in the north, which traditionally has a deficit in food. (During the war North Vietnam received 500,000 tons of grain a year from China.) Very little of last year’s excellent crop in the south came north because Vietnam’s transport and logistics are so poor.
Here again the war is largely to blame, Hardly any investment was made in the commercial docks in Saigon during the war—the vast military ports at Newport, Cam Ranh Bay, and Da Nang are of limited value to the peacetime economy. And, the World Bank notes, “while navigable rivers and canals were allowed to silt up, over 100 mostly military airfields were built in the south. Major highways were upgraded to modern standards, while local roads fell into disrepair.” In the north it was all the authorities could do to keep open the roads, bridges, and rail lines which were bombed by the United States.
There is still little transport of goods between regions, let alone between north and south. The Hanoi-Saigon railway (1,730 kilometers) has been reopened but trains are neither regular nor reliable; there just is not the rolling stock.
In the old days a significant part of Vietnam’s goods came and went by rail through China. Since China closed the railway in 1978, the sea has been the only route. The principal port of entry, through which 60 percent of Vietnam’s imports now come, is Haiphong. Haiphong harbor, as everyone knows, was severely bombed. It is still a shambles.
The only Westerners to go regularly to Haiphong are Swedish aid officials; since Sweden, almost alone, has continued an extensive aid program to Vietnam, it has a special status. One official described the chaos to me. “The docks are filled. The other day I saw a transformer. It had been dropped from a crane, its crate was broken and its side was smashed in—useless. Bags of cement were piled with coal and rice all mixed up. In one warehouse X-ray films were scattered around the ground. Blue paint was spilled over piles of cloth. At times crates have been simply bulldozed out of the way to make way for another ship. I talked to the captain of an East German vessel who just gazed around and said, ‘We are building solidarity here, but much of it is lost.’ ” Earlier this year, according to the Far Eastern Economic Review, a team of Soviet shipping experts was appalled to find that goods that had been dispatched from the USSR in 1968 were still rotting on the docks of Haiphong. The Russians apparently asked to be allowed to clear the mess themselves; the request was refused.
Part of the problem at Haiphong is that many of the skilled dock workers were ethnic Chinese who were forced to leave. Like the Chinese coal miners from the north they fled overland to China or by boat to Hong Kong during 1978 and 1979. But since then the relevant ministries have failed to replace them, although there is no shortage of labor around Haiphong. Indeed, such are the opportunities for personal enrichment that workers are said to pay large bribes for the privilege of being in Haiphong.
The Hanoi press constantly describes serious crimes at the port. Early this year Radio Hanoi reported, “In Haiphong everyone is talking about and closely watching a new and vital…campaign to track down and apprehend criminals, maintain social order and security, and strengthen market management.” It announced that sixty-nine gangs each containing five or more people had been arrested; one such gang had twenty-seven members.
In April a warehouse said to contain the personal effects of newly arrived Soviet officials was burned to the ground. Vietnamese officials declared that it was the work of Chinese saboteurs, but other reports said that the fire was started by dockers in order to conceal just how much of the Russians’ supplies had already been stolen from the warehouse. The port director and some hundred other people are reported to have been arrested.2
Even if goods do eventually get out of the port there are not enough trucks or enough fuel to carry them up the narrow pitted road to Hanoi. Most of Vietnam’s fuel comes from the Soviet Union; in 1979 Moscow provided about 1.5 million tons of refined petroleum. It is not enough, and there are constant shortages, but at least until recently fuel has been extraordinarily cheap. The price has been only $4 a barrel. During recent negotiations on a new price, the Russians are reported to have asked for $32 a barrel and to have settled for about $16. The increase of 400 percent would still leave Vietnam in a very favorable position compared to most other nations, but it will cause great havoc internally.
Just how much Soviet aid has been provided in addition to subsidized fuel is not precisely known. The Russians are said to have provided up to one million tons of wheat per year (only 700,000 tons in 1980) and 200,000 tons of fertilizer. They have not helped much with transportation. They promised at one stage to restore the railway from Saigon to Hanoi, but have not done so. They are building a dam, a power station, and a cement plant. At least 10,000 Vietnamese go to Moscow for training of different sorts every year. And, of course, the Russians give large quantities of military aid, without which Vietnam could not sustain the war against the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and its occupation of Laos, as well as its defenses against China. Western diplomats in Hanoi put the military costs to the USSR at about $2 billion a year.
What do the Russians get in return? They have acquired, with considerable grumbling from their Eastern European partners, a new member of Comecon, an outpost in Southeast Asia, and an ally in “liberation” struggles and in various acts of Soviet imperialism—Hanoi has faithfully praised the Soviet assault upon Afghanistan. The Russians also have use of the former US air base at Da Nang and of the airfield and naval base at Cam Ranh Bay. They are prospecting for offshore oil and if sufficient quantities are found they and their other partners will benefit from any surplus not needed by the Vietnamese. They are well established in Kampuchea—hundreds of Khmer students go off for training to the USSR and Eastern Europe every year. (There is said to be already some tension between the Vietnamese and the Soviets in Phnom Penh—Kampuchean officials are attempting to develop independent relations with Moscow so as not to be dependent exclusively upon Vietnam.) Above all, perhaps, they have a most willing ally in their ceaseless struggle against the Chinese.
I talked at length about China with Hoang Tung, editor of the Party paper Nhan Dan, member of the central committee, and one of the most frequent and articulate spokesmen on Vietnam for visiting foreigners. In his smart red leather jacket, he would have seemed at home on the Left Bank. He told me:
There were three possibilities in 1975. One, that relations with the US would improve. Two, that Vietnam and China could follow different roads without war. Neither of these happened. The third took place: the US and China moved together and Vietnam was alone. US-Sino relations have had a very bad effect on Vietnam and on our relations with Southeast Asian countries, who have colluded against us.
The Chinese plan was to consolidate Kampuchea and to bleed us gradually in the south with Pol Pot. So we did not have peace in which to rebuild. Now we want to rebuild and develop the economy but we have had to increase military spending. The two are irreconcilable. But people’s expectations are not high. They understand the conditions.
About the violence of the Khmer Rouge, he said, “First of all the Khmer people are very violent and secondly Pol Pot and Ieng Sary were copying the Cultural Revolution.” He pointed to a book by a French communist writer, Alain Roux, Le Casse Tête Chinois, and said that in it there is a conversation in which Mao tells Haile Selassie that 50 million people died in the Chinese revolution. “Chinese strategy was to destroy Khmer culture and nation and replace it with the Chinese.” When I asked him how many people he thought were killed during the Cultural Revolution, he cited figures from Taiwan. “I don’t talk of people killed but of the victims. One hundred million people suffered. Taiwan says that sixty million people were killed. I follow many sources of news and think thirty million.”
Colonel Bui Tin, deputy editor of the People’s Army newspaper, writes under the name Thanh Tin. “The Chinese border is as tense as ever,” he told me. “Every week there are about ten provocations.” When I asked how many Vietnamese troops were stationed there, he replied, “Enough to repel ten divisions of Chinese, 600,000 men.” As for the size of the Vietnamese army now he would only say it “is much more numerous than in 1975.”
How much Soviet aid was coming to Vietnam? “Enough to repel aggression. Much more than the combined Soviet-Chinese aid during the war against the Americans. We also have economic aid and Soviet trainers. Vietnamese troops have been sent to the USSR for training. We are much stronger now than during the war in the south.”
What has the Soviet Union asked for in return? I asked. “It’s not a matter of exchange but of mutual interest—a strong Vietnam is good for Soviet strategy.”
“What is Soviet strategy?” I asked.
“To help develop revolutionary movements.”
“In Southeast Asia?”
“In all the world. What Reagan called international terrorism.” I asked whether this did not contradict the assurances that Vietnam has given that it would not try to bring about the revolution in Thailand. “I see no contradiction here, because the revolutionary movement in Thailand is not formed yet.”
Had Vietnam been distributing any of the vast pile of weapons left by the Americans? Colonel Bui Tin acknowledged, in effect, that it had. In El Salvador? “It’s not fair to say the US can help the junta but we cannot help our friends. We do our best to support revolutionary movements in the world. We don’t have to ask permission from Washington.”
There are said to be about 6,000 Russians in Vietnam now, and several thousand more East Europeans and Cubans. When I was in the departure lounge at Hanoi airport, it was filled with Russians. A big woman with very narrow heels and very wide hips walked around smoking furiously. There were three rather slimmer girls in jeans, also smoking fast. A large group of large men arrived accompanied by Soviet security officers who hovered obviously around the door, looking like security men everywhere. Sitting by himself was a well-dressed man, fleshy and elegant, in a wool overcoat and a fedora hat and gloves. Like almost all the others he left when the flight to Da Nang was called. There are said to be many Russians in Da Nang, some involved in oil exploration, some at the old US air base, which is now a landing field for the Soviet long-range reconnaissance aircraft that Western defense experts call Bears.
None of the Russians had much to say to the Vietnamese with them. The scene reminded me of a lunch party I went to in Saigon in 1972. It was given by the minister of economy and was attended by several senior officials from the US embassy. Then too the Vietnamese and the foreigners scarcely spoke to each other. On both occasions the foreigners barely disguised their contempt. On both occasions the Vietnamese simply looked patient.
The best place to see the Russians en masse in Hanoi is at the International Club dance on Saturday night. This features a loud band, a lot of drinking, and not as much sex as many of the participants would like. The band is from Laos, now an underpopulated tributary of Vietnam. Lao students came to Hanoi and they run the black market and other fringe activities; they prance around in blue jeans and Adidas T-shirts and shoes—the ultimate status symbols—change dollars, sell rare items smuggled over the Mekong from Thailand, even do some pimping. To my astonishment I was solicited by a Lao boy who whispered in my ear “Fais l’amour?” It was unclear whether he was offering himself or someone else.
On Saturday nights Lao boys dance provocatively with each other and make eyes at the sullen, sex-starved Swedish engineers who have come from Bai Bang, where they are building a paper mill. The Vietnamese hostesses, who can say Nej as well as Non, sit together at one table by the band, dance demurely, and leave on the dot of 10:30 PM. In one corner, close to the drinks—vodka, Angolan rum, and very nasty Bulgarian white wine—sit the Russians. They consume, as always, enormous quantities, shouting earnestly at each other above the tuneless blare of the music. Elsewhere Hungarian diplomats fondle the wives of their Czech counterparts. A maître d’hôtel flaps around in a faded dinner jacket and an old man takes flash photographs of the revelers. I paid him for some pictures of my fellow guests and he promised to deliver them in a couple of days; he never did. Meanwhile a man from the Egyptian embassy cavorted with an expensive Polaroid, introducing himself to Czechoslovak officials with the words, “I am the Israeli ambassador.”
Sometimes, I was told, the evening ends in disaster, as happened recently when a Lao boy started to make a pass at a Swedish engineer. Then tables and chairs were smashed, and so were heads. That didn’t happen the night I was there; by midnight everyone had staggered off. Those who had drunk more than two glasses of the Bulgarian wine must have felt very sick. I soon left for Ho Chi Minh City.
“Ho Chi Minh Ville,” as it is called on the maps, doesn’t really exist. Tawdry, brash, touching, and brave, Saigon is still Saigon. Six years after the city was conquered, or liberated, the Saigonese are still suspicious of their occupiers. In some ways the men from Hanoi are having as much trouble as the French and Americans before them. During the war Hanoi promised that reunification would take place gradually. It was hurriedly imposed on the south in 1976. And it has not worked. Vietnam is still two lands.
Saigon is altogether brighter and more bustling than Hanoi. Girls wear bonnets, some still ride Hondas (with gasoline somehow found on the black market), and in the downtown streets, when I was there, one could hear pop music.
The fake fronts of the old bars, which turned them into perpetually darkened caves for wretched GIs to fumble with wretched bar girls, have been torn down. The bars were completely closed for a while as the government tried, vainly, to abolish all private enterprise. But during my visit private business was being encouraged again and the bars were packed with young Vietnamese who somehow had money, but no work and not much hope. Most of the bar girls (not all) had vanished, but the music of the Sixties and early Seventies blared defiantly across a decade and more.
Some of the tunes played were deliberately ironic. “We gotta get outta this place, if it’s the last thing we ever do.” “Spaceship to the Moon.” “Yesterday.” Perhaps most poignant of all in the city of the boat people, a song by the Caribbean group Boney M:
I see a boat on the river
It’s sailing away
Down to the ocean.
Where to, I can’t say.
The most extraordinary contrast between Saigon and Hanoi is that the streets and markets of Saigon are packed with things for sale. Some of them are left over from the American years—cameras, cassettes, televisions, electric toasters, and so on. Some of them come from families selling their possessions to buy places on a boat or official exit visas from corrupt officials—old books, ivory carvings, pieces of jewelry, ceramics, and jade. And much comes in care packages from relatives abroad on the weekly Air France jumbo jet, Saigon’s one direct link with the outside world. Throughout the center of the city are stalls piled high with cases of Heineken, bottles of cognac, whiskey, wine, cartons of cigarettes.
The streets are still filled with urchins who, as in the old days, beg and shine shoes, and sell peanuts or cigarettes, and sleep in doorways. It was a shock to see the children of GIs and Vietnamese women, now teenagers. They have no place in the new Vietnam and they are not cared for by anyone. A couple of half-American girls work as prostitutes and hang around the hotels every night. Stanley Karnow has suggested that the United States should follow the example of France, which has agreed to take all Eurasian children born between 1946 and 1955, or that at least American charities should send money to help get these kids off the streets.
The dollar is king in Vietnam. When I was there the black-market rate was fully ten times that given by the state banks, and some foreigners have had even officials offer them rates five or six times bank rates. In July the government tried to diminish the black market by both raising the official exchange rate 300 percent and issuing a new scrip which foreigners must use to buy everything they obtain officially. Bizarrely this scrip is designed to look very like the dollar. Bernard Estrade, the excellent Agence France Presse correspondent in Hanoi (the only noncommunist correspondent stationed there), reported wryly: “Some Western diplomats were intrigued by the idea of Vietnam printing American dollars.”
Another extraordinary twist to the black economy in Saigon is that many of the people trading most actively and profitably are those seeking to leave the country under the official exit visa program. Once you have an exit visa from the government you are deprived of many civic rights but you are, unlike anyone else, allowed to possess dollars. The government has given thousands of exit visas to people who will never be given entry permits to other lands because they have no connections abroad. These people use their status in limbo to get rich.
Stranger still, the government encourages them. In order to pull in dollars to augment the meager treasury stocks, the Saigon authorities sell vast quantities of Western liquor and cigarettes for dollars. The stuff is then offered on the black but open market for large amounts of Vietnamese dong, with which, in turn, people buy more dollars, with which they buy gold, with which officials can be bribed to give more legal exit visas to facilitate illegal departure by boat.
Everywhere I went in Saigon children, and grown-ups, shouted “Lien So, Lien So,” meaning “Soviet, Soviet.” The one phrase a Westerner needs to know is “Khong Phai Lien So“—“I am not a Soviet.” Russians are not popular in the south; they are much less obtrusive than Americans were, but also much less rich. They are known as “Americans without dollars” and many people blame them for the poverty which has followed the end of the war. Nowadays there are fairly frequent reports of their being attacked. Just before I arrived a Frenchman and English girl in Dalat were taken for Russians by a gang of kids who stoned them and had to be chased away by police firing shots in the air.
All visiting foreigners, and especially journalists, are expected to take a fairly standard official tour of Saigon. I saw the home where former drug addicts are rehabilitated with some success; I missed the home for the redemption of prostitutes but saw an orphanage, where to my dismay (and to the embarrassment of the director, who was anxious not to admit it) children from eight upward were making clothes for export to the USSR. “That’s called child labor,” I said. She had no reply. I was taken to a cooperative that made buckets and lamps in the Chinese quarter of Cholon, to see how well those Chinese who had not left by boat were still doing, and to a bicycle factory that was taking advantage of the new piecework schemes. Visitors also tend to be taken to interview “the Buddhists,” “the Catholics,” “the intellectuals.” I was taken to see “the actors and actresses”; they turned out to be singers in traditional opera who could not explain let alone justify their enormous salaries of over 2,000 dong a month.
Much of the time I was free to move around on my own without any guide. I met, driving a cyclo, an old man I had known in the American days when he drove one of the little ancient blue-and-white taxis that puttered around Saigon tied together with string. After the “liberation” the government dispatched him, along with several hundred thousand other Saigonese, to “New Economic Zones” in an attempt to reduce the war-swollen population of the city and to increase food production—as well as to disperse the often unemployed and potentially hostile members of the urban population, many of whom were refugees.
To improve agricultural production was essential. During the war over one million hectares of farmland in the south had been abandoned. Only in 1976 did the total cultivated land reach the level of the 1940s again. Yet population had doubled over the same period. Today the amount of land cultivated per head—0.10 hectares—is one of the lowest of any agricultural economy in the world.
But in many cases the sites chosen for the New Economic Zones were not abandoned farms or villages but land which had never been worked. The government was unable to provide people with enough tools or fertilizer to nourish the soil; bad conditions worsened with drought in 1977 and floods in 1978. “I stayed there a year,” said my driver, “but I couldn’t make a living. So my family came back to Saigon illegally. Now we sleep in the streets.” He said he was far poorer than before 1975, so what was communism all about? Yet he was lucky—he probably earned ten times the salary of a government worker.
One night I took his cyclo down to Cholon, the Chinese quarter. Saigon, shortly before midnight, was already a sleeping city, with children bundled up in blankets on the streets, and just a few aging prostitutes being cycled around by their pimps. Cholon, however, was alive, despite the hour and despite the exodus of boat people. The restaurants were still filled, street stalls were still busy in the light of paraffin lamps, selling rice, meat, and the universal symbol of cash if not status—Japanese stereo radios.
Twice I took a cyclo into another suburb, to a little Vietnamese bar I had heard about from a friend. It was a simple, charming place on the banks of the river and one seemed there to be back in the Fifties, long before the Americans and before the communists arrived. The furniture was rattan; the lampshades were green cognac bottles with the bottoms knocked out and with scenes of Vietnamese villages etched on them. The clients were all Vietnamese, and much older than the kids who hang around the cafés downtown. They drank espresso coffee, orange juice, or crème de menthe frappé. An old man played the piano gently and a saxophonist joined in. A few of the clients sang quiet Vietnamese songs about freedom. These songs had been banned under the anticommunist regime before 1975 and they were still banned today. Neither ban was very effective.
On my second night people began to talk to me—about their fears, about their relatives in California and in reeducation camps, about their sons fighting in Cambodia, about the difficulties of making a living, and about their fragile hopes for the future. One girl, who wanted to leave Vietnam, gave me her photograph.
I asked to see a typical cooperative farm in the Mekong Delta, that miraculous leaf of land through which the rivers filter like a million tendrils and which is fertile enough to feed the whole country. In 1976 the government started to collectivize land here as elsewhere in the south. But the peasants refused to go along and today less than a third of southern farms have been collectivized; the rest are still farmed under the “Land to the Tiller” reforms devised by the Americans, and implemented by the Thieu regime.
A Vietnamese friend laughed when I said I was going to see a cooperative near Can Tho. “You’ll only see the orchards,” she said. She was right. We traveled by boat up a stream to the fine concrete house of a cheerful old man. He had a visitors’ book filled with the names of all those “foreign friends” from East and West, like Wilfred Burchett, who had been brought to admire his condition. After all the usual production figures had been recited to me, it became clear that this peasant had been very rich before 1975 and was very rich today. The explanation lay in four portraits hanging along one wall; they were of four of his children and each had been killed fighting in the ranks of the Viet Cong.
During the war, the old man said, there had been quite a lot of fighting nearby, but this specific area was considered by the Americans to be pacified. “I built my house in 1971 because I had a lot of money, but then I allowed it to be a liaison place for the Viet Cong.” Now the orchards all around are cooperatively owned but he has retained a good deal of land himself. He has 320 square meters of vegetable garden, twenty pigs and four fish ponds, and coffee trees all his own. “It sounds a good life,” I said, “but not quite what I expected to see. May I ask how much money you make?”
“Oh,” he said, “in a good year I make about thirty to forty thousand dong.”
“What do you spend it on?” I asked.
“Oh, I repaint my house, or give it to my children. Or I ask thirty friends to lunch.”
Back in Can Tho I asked to be taken to a more representative peasant family; I was told that it was not possible and that the old man had not been exceptional. My poor guide, who earns 720 dong a year and lives in one tiny room in Hanoi, did not appear to agree.
Next we went to a small handicrafts factory that has just been set up to export baskets to Poland. The director, a beautiful woman in her fifties, had been fourteen years in the Viet Cong. She was a naval officer charged with unloading ships which came from the north to the Delta. “The Americans always tried to intercept our ships, but did not often succeed,” she said.
At the children’s hospital in Can Tho the director, Dr. Kien Tungh Khan, had been trained in Moscow and sent down the Ho Chi Minh Trail to the south in 1971. She worked in the jungle about forty miles from Saigon. “We were well supplied with drugs in those days,” she said. Today there is a terrible shortage. “They came from East Europe and the USSR, also from France and of course from the American-controlled areas. People used to cross the lines frequently.”
The same day I met the Party secretary for the whole region, Comrade Thiep Binh. This was unusual, because foreigners normally get to see only people from the propaganda sections whose principal task is to answer questions. Thiep Binh had been sent from Saigon to Can Tho in 1979 after Hanoi acceded to Western pressure to limit the flow of boat people. His predecessor had been profiting too obviously from the traffic. In Saigon people spoke of Thiep Binh as a decent, humane man.
He received me in the Party guest-house, a large suburban villa which boasted red pelmets over every door, wearing sports slacks and Ho Chi Minh sandals. He did not tell me anything very new, but seemed modest and pleasant. He was born in the north in 1918. “But I took up my revolutionary work in the south in 1940,” he said, “and many northerners would not now think I was one of them. During the Thieu regime I was a political commissar. I lived in a resistance area, but I traveled quite often into the Thieu areas, even to Can Tho city. That was quite normal for an activist.”
When I was last here such members of the communist maquis were invisible workers in another Vietnam, one which few foreigners ever saw and at whose extent we could only guess. To see them now, and to get a sense of how they had been able to work in a region nominally controlled by the Thieu government was to glimpse only a small corner of the revolution, but it helped to underline the futility of the American effort.
One hears it said in Reagan’s America, or one reads in magazines like the Economist, that America could have won the war in Vietnam “if its hands were not tied” and “if the war had not been lost on television.” General Haig, among others, has said as much. This is dangerous nonsense. It serves only to feed the illusion that “next time” things might go better. Half a million American troops failed to “pacify” South Vietnam. The enemy was everywhere and his cause, which was widely seen as nationalism before communism, was then popular, and irresistible. This is certainly not so today; but many of those who are now disillusioned and despise this government also despised Thieu in the old days and opposed his regime. Doan Van Toai, the refugee author of The Vietnamese Gulag, who now charges that the Vietnamese are “being treated like ants by the communists,” also describes how throughout the war he worked in a Saigon bank as an informer to the North Vietnamese.3
Back in Saigon, I went on my own to the children’s hospital Number Two, the former Hospital Gralle, close to the US embassy, in search of Dr. Duong Quyen Hoa. She is an astonishing woman. A member of the rich Saigon bourgeoisie, she secretly joined the Communist Party in 1959, and worked clandestinely for the revolution in Saigon until the Tet offensive of 1968. Then the Party sent her to the maquis and she became minister of health in the Provisional Revolutionary Government, living mainly in the forests near the Cambodian border, and was dispatched on various propaganda trips throughout the world. After the 1975 victory she returned, still as minister of health, to Saigon and to her old house—still intact, filled with priceless ceramics. After reunification was imposed by the north in 1976 she became deputy minister of health in the new government. In 1977 she became disillusioned with government, resigned, and returned to her career as a pediatrician. Since then she has set up the only center in South Vietnam for supplementary feeding of undernourished children.
Dr. Hoa is known to almost all foreign aid officials who come to Saigon, both for her energetic soliciting of funds and drugs for her nutrition center, and for her frank criticisms of the regime. For someone who was a dedicated Party worker for years she speaks forthrightly about Party rule and its failures in the south. In the Soviet Union as in China criticisms such as hers are not permitted. Nor were they in communist Vietnam until recently and there is no guarantee that such relative tolerance will continue. Indeed, in the last few weeks there is evidence of a much tougher line being taken. The only noncommunist paper in Saigon, Tin Sang, one of whose editors assured me he was content to follow the government line, has been shut down. There is a renewed drive against “corruption” and free-market activity (most of the bars have been closed), and government leaders are making more emphatic demands for orthodoxy.
Dr. Hoa had much that is alarming to say about Vietnam’s food crisis. In a recent survey she found that 38 percent of the children in Saigon are suffering from malnutrition. Food shortages are much more serious in central and northern Vietnam. “Half of the population is permanently undernourished,” she says. “A whole generation of Vietnamese is at stake.”
This was not always so. The provision of basic social services for all was one of the major achievements of the north after 1954, and the World Bank mission which I have already quoted was impressed by Hanoi’s attempt to extend such services in the south. Even now, officials of UNICEF and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in Hanoi speak well of the government’s commitment to spread scare resources among ordinary people. But of course, a principal reason for that scarcity is the enormous military budget. And these same aid officials are appalled at the managerial incompetence of the government, the time it takes to obtain decisions, the fighting between ministries, and so on. As Vietnam’s economic crisis worsens so bureaucratic jealousies are becoming worse.
Fully a third of the children brought to Dr. Hoa’s clinic are children of government workers. Whoever the parents are, they often bring the babies too late, after they have been fed too long on rice gruel and treated with traditional herbal medicines. Many of those children who survive will be permanently damaged.
As we walked around a woman came running up carrying a very sick child. It was her fifth, she said. She had no money. She had fled from a New Economic Zone and was now begging in the streets of Saigon. Please would Dr. Hoa take the child? “What can I do?” asked Dr. Hoa. “If I take him he’ll just end up in an orphanage. There are thousands like him. They get enough food but no love.”
Dr. Hoa reckons it costs about $60 a month in supplementary food and drugs to save and feed a child. She does not get much help from the government of Vietnam or its socialist allies. Indeed, Party officials never visit her clinic. “They prefer to put red scarves round the necks of healthy children, and call them pioneers, rather than face the reality which is here,” she says, waving at the pitiful bundles of skin and bone.
Until now, most of the help came from Western charities and relief groups like the American Friends Service Committee, Oxfam, the World Council of Churches. Now, however, because of the Western (originally Chinese) policy of “bleeding” Vietnam as punishment for its invasion and occupation of Kampuchea, even humanitarian aid is threatened. This year the EEC rejected an annual request from UNICEF for milk powder, butter, oil, and high protein foodstuffs for Vietnamese children. The US has insisted that the UNDP impose unique restrictions on its aid to Vietnam. The United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization appealed for 384,000 tons of emergency food aid for Vietnam. The appeal has been almost completely ignored in the West.
US officials have now openly stated that they will use the “food weapon” against Vietnam. Earlier this year the US government forbade the Mennonites to ship 250 tons of wheat flour to Vietnam. After fierce lobbying the ban was overcome but this was the first time since the end of the war that the US government tried to prevent a private group from sending food to Vietnam. Whatever one thinks of the Vietnamese occupation of Kampuchea, that seems a petty act. All the more so in view of Reagan’s decision to restore grain sales to the Russians despite their occupation of Afghanistan.
Dr. Hoa does not blame only the outside world. The government’s priorities have been entirely wrong, she says, with too much emphasis on heavy industry. “When I talked about nutrition five years ago people didn’t understand what I was going on about.” Mindful of the political tensions, Dr. Hoa does not advocate the extension of economic or development aid to Vietnam. She only wants emergency humanitarian aid to stop children dying. “The simplest drugs and supplementary foods are what we need,” she says. She seems unlikely to get enough of them. As Vietnam is “bled” those who bleed to death will be mostly children.
Some critics who talked to me more privately than Dr. Hoa also did not absolve the Vietnamese government of responsibility for such a state. Their view—and it is the more impressive for the fact that they were until recently staunch defenders of the revolution—is that Hanoi has betrayed its promises. The south was not liberated, as promised; it was conquered. The Provisional Revolutionary Government was composed of nationalists as well as communists; but only the communists have prominent positions now. Most PRG people hoped for a federation; but reunification was forced on the south. Of course, as Dr. Hoa says, the murder of thousands of PRG cadres during the Phoenix Program made this easier.
But worst of all has been the system of reeducation. No one expected that. The Americans had predicted a blood-bath in Vietnam if they left, and this did not happen here, as it did in Cambodia. Instead many thousands of Vietnamese have been sent into reeducation camps. They are given no trial and no sentence. They therefore have no idea whether they will be detained for a few weeks, a few months, or a few years. Some have been in the camps since 1975.
No one knows how many people have been or still are imprisoned. The estimates range from more than 200,000 to about 20,000. Some of these people had high, and not so high, positions under the Americans and President Thieu. But by no means all. They include many intellectuals and professional people who opposed Thieu.
In Can Tho I met a doctor who had welcomed the “liberation.” But he had been arrested in 1978—three years after the communist victory—and sent off to reeducation camp for eighteen months. He had once served as a medic in the Thieu army, and he assumed this was his offense. His “reeducation” consisted of cleaning latrines. He was not told how it had been judged successful. Now that he has been released he has to report his every movement to the police, like every other former prisoner. He wants to leave the country, for he sees no future for his children.
Officials in Hanoi and Saigon blandly try to justify the reeducation system by saying that it actually protects human rights—since no one is tried, no one has a criminal record. Such sophistry seems to embarrass some officials, who laugh as they recite it.
Some foreign journalists have visited reeducation camps. I did not ask to do so, feeling that I could not know whether I was seeing typical prisoners in a typical camp or privileged people in a show camp. I did not want to be an ignorant voyeur. I did, however, ask to see three specific political prisoners in the Saigon prison. They were Vo Long Trieu, a former member of parliament and editor of a paper that opposed Thieu; Dai Van Toc, another writer and politician who was in opposition to Thieu; and Thach Phiem, a former Cambodian diplomat, arrested in 1978. My request was refused.
Amnesty International has taken up the case of political prisoners in Vietnam and, unlike the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, or China, Vietnam has responded to Amnesty’s concern. An Amnesty mission was allowed to visit Vietnam in December 1979. Only in the last few weeks has its report of the visit together with subsequent exchanges with the government been published.
The report states that “compulsory detention without trial for the sake of ‘reeducation’ violates basic principles of justice.” Amnesty was not impressed by the government’s explanations regarding threats to its national security. It recommended the system be abolished, and that an independent commission examine the cases of all those currently detained. “Where it is found that grounds do not exist for specific criminal charges, the individual should be immediately released. The decisions of the commission should be binding.”
These and other recommendations were disputed in a memorandum from the Vietnamese government which claims that the total number of people to have been in long-term “reeducation” since 1975 is 40,000, of whom over 20,000 have already been released. Among these is Cao Giao, a journalist who used to interpret for foreign reporters during the Thieu period and who figures largely in Tiziano Terzani’s book Giai Phong! The Fall and Liberation of Saigon. Despite his known enthusiasm for “liberation” and revolution, he was arrested in June 1978 and held without trial. He was adopted as a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International; a few months ago he was finally set free, along with a group of other prisoners.
People like Dr. Hoa believe that the arbitrary and unpredictable system of reeducation has been one of the major hindrances to genuine reconciliation between north and south. An instructive and depressing contrast could be made with Hungary. Within a few years of the 1956 revolution the Party leader who had been imposed by the Soviets to crush the revolution embarked on a relatively tolerant policy that has been pursued ever since. “Who is not against us, is for us,” promised Janos Kadar, reversing Stalin’s snarling threat “he who is not for us is against us.” Until such tolerance is extended from north to south Vietnam, poverty will not be the only reason many people seek to flee.
There are two ways of leaving Vietnam—officially and by air, or unofficially and by boat. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has a program for Vietnam called “Orderly Departure,” set up in 1979 in an attempt to stem the flow of boat people. It has been an almost total failure, in good part because of Vietnam’s refusal to give exit visas to many of those who can also obtain entry visas to other lands. In Vietnam the corruption of poor officials sometimes softens the rigidity of the state, But the conditions, the lies, the patience, the limbo, and the many bribes needed to leave officially seem to many people unending. It is a bitter comment on the program that such people consider that the more certain and cheaper way to leave is still by boat at a cost of about $2,000 per person, even though the police now try to stop boats and imprison would-be refugees—which means more bribes. They are willing to face the known and terrible dangers of both storms and Thai pirates, who rape and murder almost at will.
Last year at least 76,000 boat people arrived in other countries of Southeast Asia. This is a staggering number, yet it went almost unnoticed in the West, so transitory is our sense of disaster. As the poverty of Vietnam increases, so the numbers of people leaving for economic as well as political reasons are rising still higher. By the end of July some 53,000 boat people had reached other Southeast Asian shores since the beginning of 1981. Their composition is changing. Back in 1979 the boat people were mostly Chinese; now they are mostly Vietnamese, and among those from the south are an increasing number of peasant boys who do not want to fight in Kampuchea.
Ostensibly it is in Kampuchea that one can find an answer to the terrible riddle of Vietnam’s future. Vietnam’s invasion of 1978-1979 saved Kampuchea from the Khmer Rouge. Making use of international aid, Vietnam has built a reasonably effective administration in Kampuchea, one that is certainly tolerant by comparison with that of the Khmer Rouge. The “subtle genocide” by the Vietnamese feared by François Ponchaud and some of the refugees he talked to in 1979 has not taken place; and harvests have improved.4 Life inside Kampuchea seems relatively stable to a visitor, and the regime has some domestic legitimacy. It has none internationally; two and a half years after its creation, the government in Phnom Penh is recognized only by the socialist bloc and India. The Khmer Rouge retain Kampuchea’s seat in the United Nations.
While General Haig was touring China and Southeast Asia in June he and his staff stated their policy of “bleeding” Vietnam in particularly chilling form. Assistant Secretary John Holdridge said it was no use normalizing relations with Hanoi. “If you give them what they want, this does not make them change their policy in any way. So we will seek, if we can, to find ways to increase the political, economic, and, yes, military pressures on Vietnam, working with others in ways which will bring about, we hope, some change in Hanoi’s attitude toward the situation.”
The possibility of renewed American military involvement (even indirectly) in Vietnam was made the more grotesque by the fact that Holdridge made his statement in Peking. The United States government is slipping, almost obsequiously, into a military and political partnership with China against Vietnam—when less than fifteen years ago the United States repeatedly declared it was in Vietnam for the purpose of keeping “Red China” out of the region. This policy is in theory intended to induce the Vietnamese to compromise on Kampuchea.
That such a compromise would be in the best interests of the region I have no doubt. Without it, aid to Kampuchea as well as Vietnam will have been cut off by the end of this year, and the recovery which has taken place there will be in jeopardy. Vietnam’s insistence that the situation is “irreversible” and its refusal to acknowledge that there is something wrong about occupation of a small country by a larger, traditionally hostile neighbor are grossly offensive to all independent nations. (Tito, no particular ally of China, led the opposition of the nonaligned countries to Vietnam on this issue, not long before he died.) The Vietnamese leaders, complaining continually about the threat they face from their own neighbor, China, can hardly fail to understand that.
But at the same time, Vietnam’s enemies have helped to ensure that no alternative is possible. With breathtaking ease, China has induced both Thailand and the Western nations to build up the Khmer Rouge along the Thai border to such strength that they cannot be discounted; indeed, whereas in 1979 they were almost destroyed, now they must seriously be considered in any discussion of Kampuchea’s future. UN officials have recently told me that the Khmer Rouge are now strong enough to mine the principal roads and are mounting heavier and heavier attacks in many parts of the countryside. Both the Chinese and General Haig are aware that for most Cambodians nothing is more terrifying than the return of the Khmer Rouge in any form or alliance, and that their reemergence as a considerable force is the best possible argument for the continued presence of the Vietnamese.
Could it be that that is what China and the Reagan administration actually want? After all, it gives them both the perfect excuse for continuing with the bleeding process, thus punishing Vietnam not only for its Kampuchean policy, but also for all its other crimes—in particular its alliance with Moscow and its victory over the United States.
The ASEAN countries, Thailand included, now seem to be reconsidering their commitment to the Chinese line. They, like Dean Rusk before them, see Chinese dominance of the region as a long-term threat and they do not want a permanently weakened Vietnam which is an ineffective buffer. In July at the United Nations Conference on Kampuchea, attended by over ninety countries but boycotted by Vietnam and its communist bloc allies, ASEAN put forward a resolution which was meant to be conciliatory to the Vietnamese. It called, for example, for the disarming of the Khmer Rouge before any UN-supervised election in Kampuchea. This was opposed by China and, of course, by the Khmer Rouge themselves, who were represented by Pol Pot’s partner Ieng Sary. In these discussions the United States refused to argue for the ASEAN position; indeed, ASEAN diplomats say that they were shocked to have Haig’s aides John Negroponte and John Holdridge urge them not to thwart the Chinese. China had its way.
Western officials claim that support for the Khmer Rouge is essential to put military pressure on the Vietnamese, but that they have no wish to see Pol Pot and Ieng Sary ever return to power. At a reception given during the UN Conference Haig and his aides spent their time trying to escape the public embrace of Ieng Sary, and Mrs. Kirkpatrick has said that she herself could never cast the US vote for reseating the Khmer Rouge at the UN when it comes up in September—she will have a deputy do it. This hypocrisy is appalling. By adopting the Khmer Rouge, by rebuilding them on the ground, by promoting them in the councils of the world, we have made them, as the New York Times has pointed out, “our monsters.” If any regime is “totalitarian” rather than “authoritarian” it is the Khmer Rouge. So much for the Reagan-Kirkpatrick Haig principle; how odd that it should be the Vietnamese who are giving them the opportunity to flout it.
American and Chinese officials claim that Vietnam must have a “breaking point.” Such statements echo derisively through the last twenty years. Certainly the Vietnamese leadership must be concerned by the country’s economic condition and by the disillusion which seems for the first time to be infecting even the Party itself. The press and radio are filled with reports about and warnings against crime, corruption, and despair. But the dogmatic old men in Hanoi have never before shown any willingness to retreat in face of their enemies, whatever price their people must pay. They have begun to create a federation of Indochina under their control, a longstanding ambition. The cost is terrible. But so long as they and China see themselves as implacable foes (as they will at least as long as the Sino-Soviet dispute continues and Vietnam is allied to the USSR) the risks of allowing a non-aligned government to develop in Kampuchea—as the UN Conference demanded—are seen as greater. The Vietnamese ambassador to the UN actually declared the conference “a gross violation of territorial sovereignty and of in-international law.” Such rigidity is truly a cause for despair.
America is not now one of the main players in the travails of Indochina. It does, however, have great influence and it could be using its good offices to seek rapprochement. It is not. Nor are the Vietnamese. One day, perhaps, the two countries, will come to terms with each other and their past; it is tempting, but probably foolish, to wonder whether just as only Nixon could have accepted China on America’s behalf, so Reagan and Haig could do the same for Vietnam. There is no sign of that; instead, each side is employing the rhetoric of the past to cloak the present and to jeopardize the future.
Those who suffer most directly from the current deadlock are the people of Indochina. But the stability of Southeast Asia will suffer too, and so will both the people and the policies of the United States. The “lesson of Vietnam” is not—as Reagan, Haig, Nixon, and their supporters on the born-again right would have us believe—that the big stick must be wielded more brutally around the world and that Vietnam must be bled while the USSR is fed. No rational policy aimed at stopping the wars, military occupations, starvation, and suffering in Indochina will emerge from American fantasies of revenge. The only people to benefit will be the Soviets, who will be able to extract more and more from Vietnam.
I flew out of Indochina on the weekly Air France flight from Saigon to Bangkok, with an ease and in a comfort that seemed in the circumstances shocking. I thought of all the millions of people struggling to survive and bring up their children in the vortex of geo-political anger that Indochina remains. Many, including my guide, are both stoical and optimistic. Others are not. I thought also of all those hundreds of people who at that very moment were struggling, in frail craft in the South China Sea below me, for promised lands that may in fact disappoint many who survive the voyage. A few hours before I left I had coffee with friends in a bar filled yet again with the wistful words of Boney M:
I see a boat on the river
It’s sailing away
Down to the ocean.
Where to, I can’t say.
My friends were planning to take a boat from the Delta to Thailand in two days’ time. They promised to write to me when they reached shore. No letter has arrived.
September 24, 1981
Holbrooke believes that Vietnamese intransigence over “reparations” reflected in part very bad advice given them by leaders of the American antiwar movement who insisted, with scant political acumen, that such an acknowledgement of US guilt both should and would be made by the Carter administration. Aid would certainly have followed recognition anyway. ↩
Far Eastern Economic Review, June 12, 1981. ↩
The Boston Review, May/June 1981. ↩
I reported on Ponchaud’s fears in the New York Review, January 1, 1980. My view then, based on the few reports coming out of Phnom Penh, the warnings of the vietnamese themselves, and the terrible spectacle of dying refugees along the Thai border, was that Cambodia could be “on the edge of extinction.” Such fears, fortunately, proved exaggerated; there never was, as some relief agency officials had originally predicted, on the basis of Vietnamese and Heng Samrin government information, a danger of “two million dead by Christmas.” The aid given since then by the West has been essential in beginning to restore the economy. ↩