In response to:

In a Grim Country from the September 24, 1981 issue

To the Editors:

Your readers are indebted to William Shawcross for a penetrating and insightful analysis of the relations among the United States, Soviet Union, and China and how these are affecting—indeed, controlling the destiny of—Vietnam [NYR, September 24]. He notes, quite correctly, the determined US campaign to isolate Vietnam both diplomatically and economically, a campaign being pursued with vigor among our allies and within the various organizations of the United Nations system. And his lengthy description of Vietnam presents the grim conditions that obtain there today with uncompromising zeal. However, we consider Shawcross’s portrayal of Vietnam to have been consistently mean-spirited and petulant and to have been sprinkled with internal inconsistencies and other errors of commission and omission as well. The following brief rejoinder is based on a long-term scholarly interest in the area and, more specifically, on our sixteen days of travel throughout Vietnam last year (the fifth visit in a decade for one of us).

There is no denying that Vietnam’s economy is in a shambles today. Almost a century of French colonial domination and exploitation, five years of Japanese occupation and ruthless exploitation (1940-1945), a vicious and draining eight-year war of independence from France, the latter financed in its endeavors largely by the US (1946-1954), a devastating fourteen-year war of consolidation, primarily the result of US involvement (1961-1975), and a number of more recent disrupting and exhausting military involvements with Kampuchea and China have inexorably led to this state of disarray. Of overriding importance was the US strategy of destroying Vietnam’s natural resources as well as its agriculture, industry, transportation, infrastructure, and certain segments of its society. This systematic and relentless decade-long campaign against a people and their resource base has left unbelievably long-lasting, widespread, and deep scars.

Shawcross found Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) altogether brighter and more bustling than Hanoi. That may be the case, but Shawcross gives the impression that this is preferable to the drabness of Hanoi. To the contrary, we found Hanoi to be a clean, quiet, and austere, though ever busy, city. Hanoi was a city populated by friendly, warm, and shy people from whom emanated a sense of pride in their independence. It was possible for us to wander there anywhere freely and comfortably, day or night. Ho Chi Minh City, however, is dirty, noisy, brash, and otherwise unpleasant. It is for the most part unsafe to walk in after dark. Ho Chi Minh City has not as yet recovered from the massive wartime intrusion of US forces, money, and mores. Nor has this city, with its prewar (1960) population of 1 1/2 million recovered from its influx of 2 1/2 million rural war refugees.

As Shawcross points out, the southern bureaucracy today includes many civil servants from the north. This situation has been necessitated in no small measure by the truly outrageous US wartime program of assassination of many thousands of the most able local leaders (our so-called Phoenix program). It is also in part the result of keeping the collaborators with the former US-supported regime out of offices of responsibility (a number of whom are still incarcerated in so-called re-education centers).

The officials of Ho Chi Minh City are grappling heroically, and with modest success, with overwhelming public health and other social problems. They must (with extraordinarily limited resources) cope with vast numbers of disabled military and civilian war victims, over a million unemployed, several hundred thousand war orphans, plus untold numbers of drug addicts and former prostitutes. Unlike Shawcross, we found the treatment of the orphans in orphanages—including the Amerasian ones and the handicapped ones—to be intelligent and compassionate, limited only by a paucity of human and material resources. To a culture in which children are revered, it borders on slander to suggest that the children in the orphanages receive no love. And the so-called child labor which Shawcross decries we found to be an appropriate component of a program of job training (plus a way of earning pocket money), carried out each afternoon following a morning of academic studies.

Vietnam is burdened by a ponderous and otherwise inefficient bureaucracy, but it is certainly not so inept as not to have recognized its overriding agricultural problems. The development of agriculture was, in fact, the major focus of its second (not first) five-year plan, of 1976-1981, and not, as Shawcross suggests, heavy industry. The goals were not attained for a combination of reasons including the overwhelmingly severe war damange to the nation’s natural resource base and infrastructure, its abject poverty mitigated only modestly (and much less than expected) by foreign aid, a concatenation of the floods and other natural calamities normal for that region, and social strains between north and south.

Shawcross notes that he was provided with falsely impressive figures at some local level on increases in agricultural production. In fact, had he done a little homework he would have found that Vietnam’s General Statistical Office has annually published and widely disseminated rather detailed agricultural and other statistics in three languages (Vietnamese, Russian, English) that now span the years 1975-1979 and present a far from rosy picture. Thus, the total area devoted to agriculture in Vietnam has increased quite slowly since the end of the so-called Second Indochina War, as has total yield. Yield per unit area has, however, remained essentially constant during this time (indeed, for at least the past two decades).


Vietnam’s population during this same time (1975-1979) has been increasing at the distressing compound growth rate of 2.4%, which leads to a doubling time of 29 years (but not at Shawcross’s 3.0%). As a result, Vietnam’s agricultural production per capita remains at a level below the minimum required for adequate nutrition on a nationwide basis, a tragedy which during this period has been partially offset each year by imports. Symptoms of undernourishment are widespread and those of malnutrition can be found as well, especially in the north. On the other hand, it was ridiculous for Shawcross to report that children are starving to death.

A lengthy catalog could be prepared of questionable information presented by Shawcross. He announces, for example, that the Vietnamese army has a strength of over a million when our Central Intelligence Agency pegs it at 600 thousand. His unnamed sources convince him that the USSR provides Vietnam with $2 billion per year in aid when the best estimate of our State Department is half that amount. Moreover, we found Shawcross’s several digressions on the ethnic aspects of sex irrelevant, not to say questionable and offensive. It really adds little if anything to our understanding of Vietnam to learn—according to Shawcross—that Russians in Vietnam do not have as much sex at Saturday night dances as they like, that Swedes there are sullenly sex starved, that Hungarians fondle Czechs in public, and that Laotian boys find him sexually attractive.

Perhaps our greatest distress with Shawcross’s account of Vietnam is that buried within the numerous denunciations and criticisms are hints of the basis for a more understanding and sympathetic interpretation of the very difficult conditions in Vietnam today. We sensed that surely he intended to stimulate a reversal of our anti-Vietnam strategy that jeopardizes Vietnam’s hard-won independence by driving it ever more nearly into the Soviet orbit and that perpetuates the suffering of its population. But, regrettably, that is not the message that came through.

Arthur H. Westing

Hampshire College

Amherst, Massachusetts

Carol E. Westing

Federal North Elementary School

Greenfield, Massachusetts

William Shawcross replies:

The Westings are mistaken; I never wrote that “Laotian boys find me sexually attractive.” I have no evidence on that matter, nor do I intend to seek any. I merely reported that one young man approached me with a bizarre suggestion. As for the rest of their letter, I am sorry to say that it contains many errors and misunderstandings. Perhaps it is enough to observe that it was not I but a former communist minister, Dr. Hoa, who “slandered” Vietnam by saying that children in orphanages receive no love; that the World Bank is the source for the 3 percent population-growth figure; that the estimate of one million in the armed forces comes from “The Military Balance” of the Institute of Strategic Studies; that figures from the 1976-1981 plan show clearly its emphasis on heavy industry; that I wonder whether the Westings would think Chilean children making jeans for the USA were being given “an appropriate component of a program of job training,” etc. I am, however, extremely fond of Vietnam, and my article reflected that.

This Issue

December 3, 1981