The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

Viet Nam:
Has Viet Nam Returned to the Camp of Imperialism?

Nov 2, 1997

Viet Nam has recently reappeared in the world community, looking to reestablish friendly relations with the West in order to attract foreign investment and to develop itself, after 20 years of apparent isolation. The Vietnamese government has changed its laws and procedures to make it more enticing for foreign countries and multi-national corporations to invest money in manufacturing, extraction or distribution in Viet Nam. It has invited in the corporations of Viet Nam’s old enemies—France, Japan and the United States among them. It even offered 200 million dollars in compensation to Americans whose property was confiscated in South Viet Nam when the war ended in 1975.

The investors of the world have been quick to take advantage of this opening. Since 1988, foreign investment has about doubled every two years, with Japan, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong each pouring in one to two billion dollars a year. Although U.S. relations have been normalized only since 1995, more than 200 U.S. companies spent close to a billion dollars on Vietnamese projects in 1996. Unocal of California and France’s Total are jointly exploring what the World Bank estimates are vast oil and natural gas reserves off the coast of Viet Nam. Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries is bidding on projects to rebuild roads and power stations. France’s Alcatel and Telecom are putting in lines for hundreds of thousands of telephones.

In a special economic zone south of Ho Chi Minh City (the former Saigon), 31 corporations have opened manufacturing plants which get special assistance with utilities, taxes and transportation. Nike opened a garment plant in Da Nang in 1996; Motorola is opening a parts plant. Microsoft has even published a version of Windows 95 in Vietnamese.

So much investment in so short a time is seen as a proof of U.S. magnanimity in bringing its resources to Viet Nam. It is seen, or at least implied, as proof that the terrible situation of Viet Nam, its poverty and underdevelopment, is the responsibility of the Vietnamese leaders and their stubborn policy of opposition to the West in order to create an independent, even socialist Viet Nam. Since the foreigners have rushed in with money and resources, this is presumably proof that the hold-up before was the Vietnamese policy.

In fact, history, when it is not rewritten by apologists for imperialism, must be read a little differently. When Viet Nam’s peasants had to fill in more than 20 million bomb craters in order to continue farming, the women loaded their baskets with dirt and dumped it in the holes. They did it not because they wanted to, nor because they were forced to do it by leaders who wanted to rebuild the country without help from elsewhere, but because the country had no backhoes or tractors to do it for them.

The government of Viet Nam had hoped for war reparations, that is, for help from the United States since the time of the peace negotiations, when the Nixon administration hinted that they were ready to give post- war assistance. If the Vietnamese appeared to have a policy of going it alone, it was because their former enemies, and chiefly the United States, denied them assistance.

The U.S. government and politicians now prefer to forget this piece of history. But it was the U.S. government which kept up a pressure on its own corporations and its allies for 20 years, a pressure designed to deny the Vietnamese help in rebuilding their war-torn country. Only in July of 1995 with the normalization of relations and the opening of the U.S. embassy in Hanoi did the U.S. government end this pressure.

The Road to Development?

Despite its recent spectacular annual growth rate of over 9%, Viet Nam remains primarily a poor agricultural country. Four out of five of its 75 million people live in rural villages, which rarely have electricity, telephones, or indoor plumbing. Only one in four cities has a treated, piped water system; only one person in 500 had a phone as recently as 1992.

The per capita income for Viet Nam is given as about $200 annually in U.N. statistical sources. While wages have risen slightly, especially around Ho Chi Minh City, Nike’s wages (reported recently in the New York Times to be $1.60 per day or $38.40 per month for a 48-hour work week) seem an improvement only by comparison with the official minimum wage of $14 per month.

The country can no longer afford completely free education and rural clinics at the same time it allows a growing budget deficit in order to update and modernize a dilapidated infrastructure of bombed out cities, fields, bridges, roads, harbors, pipelines. Power is still intermittent, even in the cities; the main form of transportation there is the bicyclist with a pedi-cab.

But Viet Nam’s life expectancy of 65 years, infant mortality rate of 31 per 1,000, and 90% literacy compare favorably with the rest of the underdeveloped world. Its neighbor Thailand, recently seen as an underdevelopment success story, has slightly better life expectancy and infant mortality, but slightly worse literacy rates and more difficult access to health care. Viet Nam is not in worse shape, and occasionally is in better shape, than other countries of the world which were never separated from the rest of the world economy, or which never had to rely solely on assistance from the Soviet Union and its allies because imperialism treated it as an outcast.

Viet Nam’s Bloody History

Above all, Viet Nam’s underdevelopment comes from the last hundred years of its history, during which it was plundered of its wealth by the French, spent 40 years in wars against the world’s great powers, and then was prevented by the U.S. blockade from having normal relations with the rest of the world for another 20 years.

After the French navy completed the conquest of Viet Nam in the late nineteenth century, French settlers quickly expanded rice production in the fertile south of the country. Cochinchina was known as the rice basket of Asia. Sometimes two crops a year

were available for sale, especially to neighboring China. Coal, mined in the north, was also a valuable resource which the French began to sell to China and Japan. A number of French colons and a handful of Vietnamese, among them some ethnic Chinese living in Viet Nam, made their fortunes trading these commodities. There was also money to be made in control of alcohol, tobacco and opium monopolies held by the French administration.

In 1907, the first French planters brought into Viet Nam the hevea plants they had been developing for rubber. The plants grew well there, creating such fortunes as Michelin’s, when the auto industry expanded the demand for rubber tires. In 1939, the profits of the 19 largest rubber plantations in Indochina together were 300 million francs, an enormous sum at the time.

Viet Nam was certainly developed, at least in a few sectors, by the French, but developed to benefit only the French planters and the traders who controlled the resources from which they took their profits. For the vast majority of the Vietnamese, conditions were hideous and remained so.

Most of the population remained destitute illiterate peasants, tied to their ancestral villages and the whims of their landlords, on whom the French relied to reinforce colonial domination. At the worst point during the economic depression of the 1930s, the peasants reported that the landlords took 10 out of every 11 bags of rice they produced, leaving them to starve. "If they wanted your daughter, they took her. If you couldn’t pay your taxes, they beat you to death." Until 1937, the law decreed that peasants owed the state a certain number of days of free labor per year. Such labor had built a railroad the French wanted between Hanoi in the north and Saigon in the south, costing the lives of one third of the Vietnamese and Chinese laborers working on the project. On the rubber plantations, conditions were so hideous that the 80,000 Vietnamese working there annually had a death rate four times the national average.

The French may have given the usual justifications for colonialism, such as bringing modern education and civilization to a backward country. But in fact, their policy was to keep their colonial subjects uneducated. Before World War II, there were only three high schools and one university in the entire country, the latter with fewer than 1500 students. By most estimates, less than 5% of the population had any education. School teachers were frequently targets of French repression, jailed for spreading seditious ideas about literacy or suffrage.

War and Yet More War

Viet Nam gained nothing from the defeat of French imperialism at the beginning of World War II. The Japanese army had invaded Indochina to secure their supply lines to the Dutch East Indies, which had the oil so desperately needed by the Japanese military. The Japanese added their own oppression and exploitation to that of the French colons, in whom they found some willing collaborators.

The occupation took a really brutal turn as the war was ending. In early 1945, the Japanese army, with its warehouses full of Vietnamese rice, forced the peasants to plant jute and cotton instead of rice. In the north, where the land is less fertile and the average farm is a fifth of an acre, this policy guaranteed hunger. When flooding began in the summer of 1945, starvation followed. The figures given by Western historians indicate that one of every five people starved to death in northern Viet Nam by late 1945.

French weakness at the end of World War II and the Japanese surrender gave an opportunity for nationalist forces to attempt to create an independent nation. With perhaps only 5,000 adherents, the Viet Minh was able to take over the central and northern regions of the country. But De Gaulle had made no secret of French intentions to continue the French colonial empire after World War II.

As soon as the French were able to send troops back into Viet Nam, they insisted on colonial dominance, which they re-established first in the south where they were stronger and the Viet Minh weaker. So began a war, with yet more loss of life and destruction of the country, which continued from November of 1946 on and off until the Vietnamese victory at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.

But the fight of the Vietnamese was not over even then. By this time, the American government had poured more money into supporting the French effort to keep their Indochinese empire than they spent on France’s share of the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe. This money would have been sufficient, if not to turn Viet Nam into a developed country, at least to considerably modernize the country. Instead the money was used to support war and bring more destruction.

Whatever propaganda about independence had been convenient to the Americans during World War II, by the mid-1950s, imperialism was not going to let any "raggedy ass little fourth rate country," as Lyndon Johnson put it, interfere with the way the world’s superpowers made their decisions about the division of Viet Nam.

By conservative estimates, the country lost more than a million people in the war with the United States; another million were wounded, and 300,000 Vietnamese were listed as missing in action. Perhaps half a million children were orphaned and millions of peasants were forcibly moved to new homes and fields. Aerial bombing and spraying of deadly defoliants killed half the country’s water buffalo, wiped out the foliage, and made much of the land infertile for years afterward. Today land mines continue to maim a population with an unusually high 6% rate of deformities, another legacy of what they call the American war.

War by Other Means

The United States and its allies were defeated, finally driven from the South in 1975. But the United States did not stop its warfare. It just continued the war by means other than military ones. In 1975, U.S. imperialism imposed an economic embargo against Viet Nam. Even countries willing to trade for Vietnamese rice, once production returned, had to avoid U.S. reprisals. As the dominant power in the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the United States prevented Viet Nam from obtaining loans and international aid. The Vietnamese could obtain no aid from anywhere in the world except the Soviet bloc nations, which had been supplying the North Vietnamese for some time. The Soviets continued to supply food, energy, technical assistance and loans on favorable terms for some years after the war, but this was insufficient assistance to reconstruct the war-torn country. And by the early 1980s, Soviet political and economic difficulties forced them to retrench.

In addition, Viet Nam faced a constant threat of invasion from China, egged on by the United States, which forced the Vietnamese to invest a large part of their meager resources in their military. When Vietnamese troops entered neighboring Cambodia to deal with the ruthless Khmer Rouge, the United States prevented its allies from delivering even emergency food and medical supplies. So it was the U.S. government which continued the hostilities for two decades, in order to punish Viet Nam for the military defeat the United States had suffered. Not the Vietnamese.

During the 40 years that Viet Nam and the imperialist powers were at war, the refusal to compromise came always from the imperialists, not the Vietnamese. The Viet Minh was ready to compromise, and said so openly. Ho was ready to find ways to maintain an independent Viet Nam within the French Union, the new name for the French empire. In 1946, Ho waited patiently in France for four months for the French government to recognize this independence and to establish new links between France and Viet Nam. Instead, the French government voted to send 25,000 French troops to wage war to quell the Vietnamese uprising.

The same thing occurred with the United States. At the 1954 negotiations in Geneva, the Vietnamese agreed to have an election scheduled for 1956 to vote on reunification. It was Diem, backed by U.S. dollars, who made sure no election took place. And when rebellion broke out in the South to overthrow a rotten regime and to obtain the reunification of the country, it was the United States which sent military advisers, and finally troops, 7,000 miles away in order to prevent this reunification, even though it posed no threat to U.S. interests.

Thus it is truly ironic when U.S. mouthpieces claim today that Viet Nam has finally done an about-face, forced to abandon its stubborn anti-U.S. stance in order to come back begging for capitalist investment. This is an attempt to cover up not only the defeat the U.S. suffered 20 years ago, but also the failure of U.S. policy during the two subsequent decades. This attitude also attempts to reinforce the propaganda, based on the collapse of the Soviet Union, that socialism can only lead to poverty and underdevelopment, whether or not the nationalist government of Viet Nam had anything to do with socialism. This supposed change in Vietnamese policy is considered another proof to the rest of the world that it is useless to defy imperialism. Even with a military victory, a country will decline, not rise, if it goes against the wishes of the imperialists.

It is an attempt finally to cover up the fact that poverty and underdevelopment in the entire world, especially in Viet Nam, is completely the responsibility of imperialism, first and foremost of the United States. But for the poor and oppressed of the world, it is doubtful that the claims of the U.S. government and media will cause them to forget the main lesson of the Viet Nam war from 20 years ago: the biggest imperialist superpower in the world is not invincible.