50 Years After Gulf of Tonkin: We Now Know Vietnam Lost the Vietnam War

Keith Naughton | Public Affairs Consultant

Did the people of Vietnam celebrate the 50th anniversary of what has become known as the Gulf of Tonkin incident this week? It did mark the beginning of the final act in the 30-year armed effort to expel foreign influence from Vietnam.

Perhaps they took a break from stitching together Nike sneakers and assembling electronics in Chinese factories to celebrate their victory over colonialism. But I doubt they get much time off.

For America, the Vietnam War was a bloody, expensive, futile campaign that ended with the final defeat of the South in 1975. The accepted narrative of the Vietnam War is of the persistent Vietnamese evicting the venal French and hapless Americans. In doing so, they struck a great blow against imperialism, colonialism and capitalism and for socialism and the non-Western world.

What is missing from this narrative is one critical fact: The real loser of the Vietnam War was Vietnam.

Nearly 40 years after the fall of Saigon, Vietnam’s per capita income is only $1,617. The country ranks 121st on the United Nation’s Human Development Index.  Vietnam remains a police state where the communist party only permits enough capitalism to prop itself up economically. But the best way to show Vietnam was the real loser is by comparing the country to Japan and South Korea, the other two East Asian nations subject to direct American military intervention. The appropriate comparison is at end-of-conflict, plus 40 years.

Japan in 1945 was a nation pulverized and impoverished by World War II with limited arable land and few natural resources. However, by 1985 Japan had built a prosperous, democratic society. Its per capita income was $11,461 and its ranked 4th on the Human Development Index. Japan did have the advantages of a skilled population and the organizational experience gained over several decades of industrialization. Still, a remarkable achievement.

South Korea possessed none of Japan’s advantages in 1953. The nation had been dominated for centuries by China, only to trade China for a brutal Japanese occupation beginning in 1895. The postwar partition left most of the industry and natural resources in the North.  After 1953, South Korea was confronted by an implacable northern enemy and its allies to the west and north. To the east, South Korea faced its former imperial master, Japan. Yet, within 40 years the country had joined the developed nations of the world with a per capita GDP of $8,422 and a Human Development Index ranking of 33rd in the world. The country made fitful progress over the years to become a democracy by the early 1990s.

These facts and figures are more than an historical curiosity. They reinforce the fact that it is not natural resources that drive prosperity; it is how a given society organizes itself. For all its difficulties, free market capitalism and pluralist democracy with individual rights is by far the best system for both prosperity and human development. Collectivist, authoritarian nations provide only for the elite and oppress the masses (make no mistake, the more collectivist, the more authority the state must retain and project).

But there is another problem that affects our current foreign policy.  There is a faction in America that looks down at a proactive America on the world stage. This faction considers Vietnam a prime example of the errors of aggressive American military and political involvement. They think American foreign policy should be essentially passive. President Obama falls into this camp.

Their evidence is faulty and incomplete. The failure to consider both the war and its aftermath is like reading a mystery novel and stopping before the final chapter. And the final chapter, Vietnam’s continued economic malaise and persistent police state, shows that America was strategically correct in its position opposing the communist North.

This is not to say that the war in Vietnam could have been won. The South was far too mired in corruption and was identified with the old colonial regime. Even though the communists were not overwhelmingly popular in Vietnam, the unpopularity of the regime made subversion easy for the North. You can’t save people who don’t want to be saved.

The American experience in Vietnam was expensive, divisive and ultimately futile. However the success of the communists was a catastrophe for the people of Vietnam. And 89 million Vietnamese are paying the price for that catastrophe every day.

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