China v. Vietnam v. America: How Quickly We All Forget

American napalm, that was so four decades ago.

The left loves to excoriate America’s strategic, altruistic, and ultimately flawed foray into Southeast Asia as cynical corporate imperialism. Noam Chomsky is particularly fond of this interpretation. But LBJ’s escalation of America’s participation in Vietnam’s civil war goes hand-in-hand with his beliefs about the ability of government to remake society and the world. The Great Society and Vietnam War were flip sides of the same coin. Champions of the left such as FDR, LBJ, and Obama in recent years, have characteristically opted to ally with corporations to advance their altruistic goals, which creates dissonance within the left driven by a misunderstanding of cause and effect. Corporations become the boogeymen that drive war, when in fact well-meaning, left-wing pipe dreams animate conflicts that corporations then more than willingly accommodate. Conservatives, supposedly so pro-corporate, have made less use of them than liberals.

I digress. Back to Southeast Asia. While the Vietnam War is a favorite topic of American-haters, Vietnam doesn’t share their obsession with getting stuck in the past. The other day The Diplomat published an excellent article that explored both Vietnam’s strategic considerations and its historical consciousness. America’s massive crime of getting involved in that far off land appears to be little more than a blip.

First, the strategic:

Why is the poorest and arguably the most vulnerable TPP country [Vietnam] so unreservedly enthusiastic about a trade deal that activists say would contain many elements detrimental to the interests of its most marginalized people?

Clearly, the overwhelming reason is a desire in Vietnam for closer relations with the United States in the shadow of a China that is now flexing its muscles…

With a Pew survey in 2014 showing that 76 percent of Vietnamese embraced the United States as a helpful ally, “the TPP is being sold as a counter to China’s domination,” Dennis McCornac, a professor of economics at Loyola University in Baltimore (Maryland), told The Diplomat. “Although the extent to which it will hurt China is unknown, the recent events have created an environment in Vietnam in which anything that hurts China is interpreted as being good,” McCornac says.

Time may heal wounds. Necessity heals them most quickly. One need look no further than Nixon and Mao bridging the unbridgeable divide. Amusingly enough, Vietnam is taking a page out of Mao’s playbook: make friends with those far away in order to counterbalance threatening neighbors. In a vacuum, the trade deal doesn’t add up financially, but it make sense to trade cash for security.

Secondly, historic consciousness. Hanoi’s strategic assessment of today is nothing new. Oddly enough, or so it seems, throughout the 1960s Hanoi cast a wary eye to the north even as China shipped them supplies to overcome the American-backed regime in Saigon. In an unusual moment of historical awareness, even Chomsky acknowledged that Hanoi did not see America as the great foe:

Chomsky recalled that the first morning he arrived [at Hanoi], he was taken to the war museum to listen to long lectures with dioramas about Vietnamese wars with China many centuries ago. “The lesson was clear,” he said in an interview, “you happen to be destroying us now, but you’ll leave. China will always be here.

Not unexpectedly China and Vietnam came to blows in 1979. The war was brief and ended in a draw but the point was made by both sides. China: mind yourself. Vietnam: we will resist you as we have for centuries.

The simmering enmity between China and Vietnam stands in marked contrast to their respective views of the USA. Granted, both sides have reasons to dislike the Americans, and while China jostles the US in Thucydidian fashion, neither Asian power nurses an inherent resentment of the US. She is simply too young, and her involvement in their affairs too brief. It should not surprise us then that the Vietnamese, especially the young, view America positively:

According to the 2014 Pew survey, an overwhelming majority of young Vietnamese (89 percent) look more favorably on the United States than do their seniors (64 percent). “The young people feel a disconnect from the leadership that secured Vietnam’s independence and sovereignty,” said Abuza. “Anyone born in the past 30 years has known nothing but peace.”

Remarkably, 64 percent of the older generation look upon the USA favorably. Based on the leftwing’s moral condemnation of America’s war in Southeast Asia, you’d never think this possible. The simplistic, American-centric morality tale withers once the people are allowed to speak—a people’s history, indeed.

As for the young, the majority don’t remember the Vietnam War and times have gotten better. But they do remember China because of their history of antagonism and the simple fact that it’s the very present 500 pound gorilla next door. In this way, the conflict with America is a blip on the historic timeline for Vietnam. China is not.

The irony in all of this: Hanoi wants and is finally getting what America was offering all along: investment and an alignment with American interests. Democracy will follow eventually (or so goes the American script). In this way, America ultimately won the Vietnam War.

P.S. An anecdote: my Vietnamese students have little if any ill will for the USA. It’s amusing when my colleague (a Chomsky lover) tries to get them worked up about how awful America was to them. It’s ancient history, man. They love American money and products (education!). But “them” is itself a sloppy formulation. My school’s Vietnamese teacher is from Hanoi. Many of our students hail from Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) and they hate her. She treats them like yokels because of their Southern accent, culture, and political antagonism (Chomsky would have you forget that after the partition of 1954, close to a million fled from north to south). These are wrinkles to the story that get ignored in a mindless dash to savage America. There are only victims and victimizers, and America plays the starring role.

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