Vietnam: Anatomy of a Peace

By Gabriel Kolko

Routledge; 190 pp.

Review by Asad Ismi


What should a communist party do when it leads a nation to victory over the most powerful empire the world has ever known at the cost of three million lives? Build an equitable society for the survivors, of course. The Communist Party of Vietnam has not done so as Gabriel Kolko shows in this excellent analysis of Vietnam’s post-war economic strategy. Kolko, a historian of United States foreign policy, is the author of Vietnam: Anatomy of a War, considered to be one of the best accounts of the U.S. invasion of Vietnam.

As the author points out, any path the Communists chose after 1975 would have been difficult given the enormous destruction the U.S. had wrought with 13 million tons of bombs and 20 million gallons of herbicide. Much of Vietnam was destroyed and parts of the north resembled a moonscape. Considerable critical thought was needed to make the transition from a wartime to a peacetime economy while preserving the socially supportive structure that had made the victory possible. This included equitable land distribution and a rural life (80 percent of Vietnam’s population lives in the countryside) centered around co-operatives which ensured that villagers (who sacrificed so much for the war effort) received food, housing, free education, and medical care. It was essential that the wounds of war be healed by the creation of a humane society which is what people had fought for.

Instead, the Party’s "market reforms," initiated in 1986, embraced the crudest frontier capitalism: landlords were brought back to the villages to re-concentrate property and industrial exploiters to the cities to take advantage of low-wage labor. Free education and medical care were ended and most Vietnamese were thrust into a brutal economic system in which they could not even meet their basic needs. Land, wealth, and social services became increasingly monopolized by an emerging economic elite mostly drawn from the Party. Ironically, this system promoted the same values that Washington had militarily tried to force on Vietnam. Now U.S. economic objectives were being carried out by its international agents, the World Bank and the IMF (the guiding lights of economic reform in Vietnam) who hoped to succeed where the Pentagon had failed. As Kolko puts it, "That an epic war should have been fought so that a class society may again be re-established is a moral betrayal that defies description."

For this betrayal, Kolko blames the Party’s elitism which insulates it from popular pressure. Where the masses have a role, their leaders’ freedom is limited. The Party’s impressive legitimacy is based on the fact that it has liberated Vietnam from foreign domination three times. This astounding military success was based on the strong political link the Party established with the peasant masses. The Party took care of the peasants’ basic needs and the latter died in record numbers to drive out foreign aggressors. The Party’s socio-political position rested on this crucial contract and its peacetime abandonment has left the institution divided and on the brink of dissolution. The link with the masses has been replaced by increasing corruption within the Party elite, some of whose members use their power to enrich themselves shamelessly. Led by cynical technocrats like Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet (recently replaced), who has been publicly accused of corruption and whose wife flaunts her wealth, corrupt party and state apparatus members have become socialism’s main internal enemies. According to Kolko, Eastern Bloc communism disappeared peacefully because Communist Party leaders remain in power and gained most from the new system while "the masses remain dispossessed."

Kolko calls for a democratic socialism which alone can reverse the capitalist trend. Only the Vietnamese people, especially the poor, have enough reason to continue with socialist economic principles and thereby prevent the Party’s disappearance in peacetime as they saved it from defeat in war.

What are the chances of the Party adopting the "mass line?" A section of the communist elite becoming corrupt is not the same as being defeated by a foreign power. A significant number of Party members oppose market reforms; they are led by the army whose chief, Le Kha Phieu, was recently elected head of the Politburo. Kolko, however, is skeptical that the army, though militarily brilliant, can build the political base needed to advance a socialist vision. The army is used to giving orders not winning public support. As the legendary General Giap put it when explaining how a poor peasant army defeated much larger and better-equipped French and U.S. forces: "One must not confuse war with military decisions; war is a synthesis of the political, military and diplomatic. Ultimately, war is a philosophy." Vietnam’s Communists have yet to find "a comparable philosophy of peace."                          

Asad Ismi is a research associate at the Centre for Social Justice in Toronto. He is co-author of <W0>Informed Dissent: Three Generals and the Vietnam War (1992).