The end of the ‘American War’, or the ‘Vietnam War’ as it
is better known by the US and its allies, was a defining
moment in the history of both protagonists. For Vietnam,
it was a vision of peace and prosperity, while the people
of the United States were plunged into bitter recriminations
A harsh awakening
However, the victory elation was short-lived for the Vietnamese.
The legacy of the American war was a wasteland over much
of the country, the almost total destruction of the country’s
infrastructures, and a deep and bitter divide between the
North and the South. The country was diplomatically isolated,
and both Cambodia and China were considering exploiting
its perceived weakness.
Even before the South fell, supporters of the Saigon regime
began to flee the country, fearing retribution. After the
victory, the outflow became a torrent as hundreds of thousands
of Vietnamese scrambled to escape across land, or as the
‘boat people’. Most of them were intellectuals, entrepreneurs
and ethnic Chinese, thereby further depleting the pool of
talent available to rebuild the shattered South.
nation ‘non gratia’
Instead of promised reparations, the US imposed a tight
economic embargo, and pressured other countries to do the
same, making Vietnam a international pariah. Even Vietnam’s
invasion of Cambodia in response to incursions and massacres
of Vietnamese people by the genocidal K’hmer Rouge was treated
as a hostile invasion of a sovereign nation. For ridding
the world of one of the most obnoxious regimes ever, Vietnam
received only vilification and condemnation from the international
Deprived of loans and foreign aid, and reeling
from an ill-advised attempt to apply Soviet-style collectivisation
of agriculture, Vietnam turned to the USSR. Anxious to establish
a military presence in S.E. Asia to counter the American
threat, the Soviet Union provided aid in exchange for naval
However, the plight of the Vietnamese worsened,
and, by the mid-eighties, inflation was running at 700%
and starvation was claiming yet more victims.
With the continuing survival of Vietnam in the balance,
drastic action was necessary. In 1986, the Party Congress
swept away the panoply of Soviet-style communism. Collectivisation
and central planning were abandoned, agriculture and retail
activities were ‘privatised’, foreign investment was encouraged
and Vietnam embraced the market economy.
The new approach was called ‘doi moi’. The
term has no real equivalent in English – a combination of
reform, renovation and new thinking gives a flavour of the
concept. Regardless of the complexities of its meaning,
doi moi was far more than a new policy. It was a complete
reversal of what had gone before, and unique among the world’s
An admission of failure?
The Sixth Vietnam Communist Party Congress of 1986 wound
together the main threads of Vietnamese history to create
the doi moi programme. Elsewhere, such a radical transformation
could occur only by revolution. Little wonder that then,
and still today, Vietnam’s abrupt change of direction was
looked upon from abroad as economic opportunism, a tacit
admission of the failure of socialism and an acceptance
of Western-style economic and social reforms.
Taking the long view
Although doi moi was a public recognition of the shortcomings
of the Soviet version of Marxist-Leninism (later vindicated
by the collapse of the USSR in 1991), it was neither opportunism,
nor a desire to emulate the Western model.
Ever since the experience of Chinese domination,
the Vietnamese have always taken the long view, placing
expediency above ideology with the protection of the Vietnamese
nation as an over-riding consideration. Recognising that
economic strength and stability were prerequisites of free
universal education, health care and welfare provision,
doi moi effectively put the socialist vision ‘on hold’ to
allow the country to rebuild.