Coming off the 16th green at the Danang Golf Club the other day, I was distracted from the lovely view of the South China Sea by an unusual structure. It was a squat, square little stone and concrete building atop a dune, with a small entry down a flight of stairs and slits for windows. I recognized it, thanks to some old movies, as a pillbox, a fortification used by armies in the last century to protect a machine gun and its gunners from enemy fire. In this case, someone at the golf club later told me, it was an old French fortification, and I suspect it was probably used by the French to defend against a Japanese attack during World War II. (A corner of the pillbox is at left in the photo above.)
The fortification was a reminder of the many wars fought over Vietnam in the last century, and it was not the only one in and around Danang. Remnants of the American military presence still stand not far from Danang Golf Club, the shells of old concrete airplane hangars that were part of the enormous and unsuccessful American effort to keep the Vietnamese communists from uniting their country at the expense of America's Cold War surrogates in South Vietnam.
As I walked to the 17th tee I found myself thinking about that war and why it was fought. We were told that if South Vietnam fell, communism would roll across the countries of Indochina, with Thailand and Cambodia falling next. And if that happened, the Red Chinese might extend their sway over all of Asia, as governments of smaller countries realized that the West couldn't protect them. And if that happened, the Soviet Union and China would control the Eurasian land mass. NATO would crumble in the face of this power and aggression, and the United States would have to bow to the will of the communists or face extinction. So we had to fight in Vietnam. It was called the Domino Theory.
In a way, the Domino Theory was looking pretty prescient as I stepped onto the 17th tee. We did lose the war, and the Chinese presence and influence are indeed growing in Vietnam. But it hasn't exactly happened in the way John Foster Dulles warned us it would. The golf club I was playing at is a joint venture involving investors from Hong Kong. There's a casino down the road that reputedly is owned by Chinese gambling barons. Chinese money, along with Japanese, Korean, and Western money, is reputedly involved in several of the five-star resorts that have recently been built or will soon be built along China Beach. But I don't think Dulles and his Cold War colleagues envisioned the red hordes setting up country clubs with villa lots and hiring Greg Norman to design their golf course, which is what happened at Danang Golf Club. I don't think the domino theorists were thinking of casinos and spas when they warned of the red menace.
As I got ready to hit my tee shot, the sounds of a raucous party filled the air. In a villa fifty yards behind me, a bunch of kids were jumping in a pool, shouting and laughing. My Vietnamese caddie wrinkled her nose when I asked her who they were. "Chinese," she said. I sensed that she felt about Chinese tourists the same way that a classic Parisian waiter feels about American customers: their money spends, but do they have to be so uncouth? So maybe that was it, I thought. We had to fight in Vietnam to preserve the serenity of future golf courses.
OK. I'm being snarky, which is a weakness of mine. But the question is a serious one. Was the American war in Vietnam necessary?
It's impossible to tell how the future would have unfolded if the United States had said, "Let Vietnam have an election for a government to rule the entire country, the way we promised it could in Geneva in 1956. And if Ho Chi Minh wins, we'll deal with it." But I would say the probability is that China and Vietnam, along with the supposed domino countries like Thailand, would look pretty much the same as they do now. I believe that nations change and evolve based on their own will, their own circumstances, their own traditions, their own cultures. The most pernicious ideologies and governments tend to burn themselves out. Their people get tired of them. China was not going to stagger under the fanatical misrule of the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward indefinitely. The Chinese are too pragmatic, too materialistic for that. Vietnam, once it regained its sovereignty, was going to evolve in a Vietnamese way.
But there is one thing I can say with certainty. Fifty thousand members of my generation of Americans would not have given their lives in Vietnam if the United States had chosen not to fight here. (I, by the way, did not fight here. I got a high number in the draft lottery of 1969 and was spared.) It's possible to speculate that if the United States hadn't fought so long and hard in Vietnam, the communist world would have evolved differently, that the Soviet Union would still be around, that Maoism would still dominate China, etc. But that seems very unlikely, and any such speculation has to be balanced against the certainty of what we lost.
The argument could be made that if America had won the war, and South Vietnam had survived, the southerners at least would now be freer and more prosperous than they presently are. I'm not so sure that's true. I guess the best country to compare to Vietnam in a discussion of what might have been is neighboring Thailand. I have visited both countries on this trip. My impressions are admittedly superficial. I've just been a tourist, and a golfing tourist at that. I don't speak the local languages. I have not done the work I would have done if I were still a journalist.
There are obvious ways in which Thailand seems wealthier than Vietnam. The World Bank estimates Thailand's per capita GDP at around $14,000 per year, putting the country in the lower middle class of nations. Vietnam's per capita GDP is a little over $5,000, putting it among the working poor. Bangkok definitely has more steel and glass, more banks, more obvious wealth than I've seen in either Danang or Hanoi, which are two of Vietnam's three largest cities. Thais ride around Bangkok in a mix of cars and motorcycles, with perhaps as many cars as bikes. In Vietnam, cars are relatively rare, and you see a lot of people pedaling in Danang and Hoi An, an old riverport about ten miles south of Danang.
On the other hand, Bangkok has terrible traffic jams at all hours of the day and night. Its air made my eyes burn a little. A constant smoggy haze hovered over the city. The Chao Phraya River and the canals that flow into it are full of trash. When I saw some boys swimming in a Bangkok canal I worried for their health. In Vietnam, the air is cleaner. The entire environment is tidier. Streets are swept. Farmer's fields are planted in neat, rectangular rows. The mountains outside Danang are covered with healthy-looking woodlands.
Vietnam definitely has poor people, like the elderly, barefoot woman in the picture above right, who makes her living ferrying people across the Tho Buk River in Hoi An. But I saw lots of plump kids in Vietnam's cities, along with busy shopkeepers and restaurateurs. It's officially the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, but it has a mixed economy that seems to permit a fair amount of private enterprise. People seem to have enough money to gather in cafes for a beer, some tea, or a coffee, to carry cell phones, and to dress decently.
I harbor no illusions that Vietnam is a democracy, but then, neither are many of the other countries in the region. Thailand is governed at the moment by a military junta that seized power in a coup d'etat. Singapore has a famously authoritarian government. Cambodia suffers under a system dominated by one party and a corrupt kleptocracy. Vietnam has a one-party system, but I didn't see any glaring evidence that the people of Vietnam feel oppressed. No one seemed nervous about speaking to me. The police presence was no heavier than one would expect in a Western city.
So I would say that the retrospective case for the American war in Vietnam is shaky at best. Put more bluntly, it was a disastrous mistake, a war that should not have been fought.
I raise the point because there has always been a class of leaders and opinion-makers in the United States who fancy themselves tough-minded realists. They were the ones who peddled the Domino Theory. Their intellectual heirs were the ones who told us that invading Iraq would be a cakewalk. They're people who mistake prudence for cowardice, who conflate belligerence and patriotism. They're constantly looking for threats on the horizon, but they rarely look back and learn from the mistakes they've made in the past.
These armchair warriors wield a lot of influence in the United States for several reasons. One is that they got the draft abolished after the Vietnam War. The volunteer army doubtless has its advantages, but one consequence is that most Americans have no immediate personal stake in any decision to go to war. They and their sons and daughters will not be involved. Another reason is that our pusillanimous system allows presidents to finance their wars with borrowed money. There's no immediate cost to the taxpayers for a war. Our people like the easy way out. They don't like sacrifices. Consequently, a lot of politicians sense that belligerence will be popular, at least in the short term, which is as far as many of them are capable of seeing.
Right now in Washington, the war drums are beating loudly. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel is coming to town in a week or so to try to talk Congress into backing Israel's view of what should be done about Iran. Netanyahu plainly wants the United States to start a war with Iran to destroy its nuclear capabilities. He's got a lot of cheerleaders, particularly among Republicans. Then there are the people who warn that we've got to intervene more forcefully in Ukraine. Or we've got to do something about Syria. President Obama plainly would prefer to be on the side of prudence when it comes to decisions on war. But he is pilloried for that preference. Why won't he label terrorists Islamic terrorists? Why won't he stand up to Putin? He doesn't love America.
The Republicans evidently believe that they can play the belligerence card to their advantage in the 2016 campaign. Their leading presidential contenders are being advised by the same geniuses who brought us the war in Iraq. So it would be unwise to think that the Republicans are just playing electoral politics when they talk about "the need for action." If they get into power, they're going to be very likely to start a war or two. The Democrats are not much better. Like Obama, Hillary Clinton may prefer prudence. But if she gets the nomination, she's going to want to prove that she can be just as tough as any male the Republicans put up against her. That's the sort of political dynamic that caused John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson to send troops to Vietnam fifty years ago.
If we forget that history, I fear, we'll be doomed to repeat it.