Despite the stunning brutality its war with the US, Vietnam is now one of the most pro-American countries on the earth. The discovery of a mutual enemy may explain this turnaround.
It’s unclear how many Vietnamese perished as a result of the Kháng chiến chống Mỹ or ‘Resistance War against America’ but even the lowest estimates number in the millions. During its duration Vietnam became the most bombed piece of land in history as the USAF dropped more bombs than were used by all sides throughout the entirety of WWII. The after effects of a toxic defoliating agent known as Agent Orange as well as unexploded ordinance continued to cause deaths even after the war ended. And even the most sympathetic observer must admit that US forces committed some appalling atrocities against the civilian populations they were supposedly there to protect.
This history meant that I assumed that Vietnam would be a country in which there was strong anti-American feeling. In fact, during my time there I hardly heard any negative comments about America and the Americans I met – including a housemate who was a serving USAF officer! – never seemed to have any problem on account of their nationality. To check I had not gotten a wildly inaccurate view, I checked Pew’s research on global attitudes towards America. It showed that 76% of Vietnamese viewed the US favourably, the 8th highest proportion of the 44 countries surveyed. And rather ironically a higher proportion than in France, the country which the US gave arms and money to in the hope it could keep Vietnam as a colonial possession.
This rapprochement extends beyond attitudes to strong economic links between the two countries and even to co-operation between their militaries.
How to explain this turnaround from deadly conflict to affection? The short answer is I’m not sure but I think the following are probably important factors:
- The passage of time. The Vietnam War only ended forty years ago but that’s long enough to ensure that most Vietnamese have no direct memory of it. It’s a relatively young country so around two-thirds of the population were born after the war ended in 1975.
- They know many Americans opposed the war. If anything, Vietnamese people give ordinary Americans too much credit believing the war to have been an elite imposition on the American public when in fact there was a large constituency for Johnson and Nixon’s assertively anti-communist stances.
- They won. For America the trauma of Vietnam was not simply a matter of the loss of lives and resources. It was also the fact that its eventual defeat meant that it wall in vain. For Vietnam this point is reversed. Victory perhaps makes magnanimity easier.
- America is not a present threat. 30 Rock can make jokes about Uber-Republican Jack Donaghy supporting “the committee to reinvade Vietnam” because it is never happening. Sure Washington would be pleased if the Communist Party followed the lead of Myanmar’s military and used political liberalisation as a way to further distance themselves from China. However, even at the height of the Bush Jr’s hubristic mission about spreading democracy there was never any suggestion this would extend to Vietnam. The era of shadowy groups of CIA sponsored exiles trying to bring about coups in the country is well and truly over.
- The Vietnamese who supported America’s war. The defeated pro-American regimes in South Vietnam enjoyed less support from its population than did the Communist government in the North. That’s why they were defeated. However, such support did exist. Therefore, there is a segment of the Vietnamese people who will have looked favourably upon America all along.
- American culture. The Vietnamese consume American movies, music and fast food just like the rest of us.
- America is hardly alone in having wronged Vietnam. Vietnam is a former French Colony that was invaded by the Japanese during WWII and then by Britain at its end who helped the French take it back leading to a bloody independence war that prefigured the later conflict with the Americans. As for Vietnam’s relations with China that’s going to need a point all to itself….
- America is not China. You might assume on the basis that they are culturally very similar and have similar systems of government that Vietnam would feel a sense of fraternal warmth towards its neighbour to the north. In fact, it is loathed. The same poll by Pew that showed that 76% of Vietnamese people have a favourable view of America shows that just 16% feel the same way about China. Vietnamese national identity rests in large part on collective memories of centuries of trying to resist occupation by the Middle Kingdom. Whatever, goodwill Chinese support during the American War might have generated was quickly dissipated when the Chinese themselves attacked Vietnam in 1978. And there is a real possibility of the two countries going to war again over their competing claims to the Spratly Islands. This later point establishes clear common interests between Vietnam and the US. The former fears that if the Chinese Navy reaches the point where it can dominate the waters in which the Spratly Islands lie then it will be able to take them by force and claim the fossil fuels that go with them. America fear that such domination would allow china to close those waters to the American navy and vessels trading with the US.
My instinct is that it’s the latter is the most important. If that’s the case then ironically the basis of Vietnam’s reconciliation with its erstwhile adversary is fear of a former ally.
Next on Matter of Facts: we’ve seen that the War no longer conditions how Vietnam sees America yet the West still thinks of Vietnam as a war not a country. In tomorrow’s post I explain why it’s important this changes.