Jay Palevsky and I hunted down Jordan Plitteris on Facebook four decades after our last encounter. We were students at George Gershwin Junior High School 166 in the East New York section of Brooklyn. Jordan and I did our best to disrupt our classes in the most charming or clever manner possible. We finally connected in 2010 and then had lunch on a sunny Sunday afternoon at Gladstone’s on the beach in Los Angeles. When Jordan learned that I was to be in Vietnam, he connected me with Steven Herman.
This, from Steve’s bio: “A veteran journalist in Asia, Steven L Herman is the Voice of America bureau chief and correspondent based in Bangkok. His articles, columns, opinion pieces and reviews have been published in numerous newspapers and magazines including the Far Eastern Economic Review, Japan Times, South China Morning Post and the Wall Street Journal. Steve was elected for five consecutive years (1998-2002) to serve as Chairman of The Foreign Press in Japan (FPIJ).” His full bio can be found here.
We talked about Vietnam over dinner at the Essence Hotel Hotel in Hanoi.
Brian: The impression that I get is, of course, part of it is generational. A lot of those people died and so if you’re 18 years old, you’re more interested in how Kobe Bryant is doing with the Lakers, the latest American movies, and whether you got the newest smartphone. And perhaps there’s a cultural attitude of forgiveness, and an economic reality that you just have to move on, there’s a lot of American money coming into the country. But to me, after the horror of what was experienced, it is fascinating to me there is that attitude of forgetting.
Steve: Think when the Vietnam War ended, okay? Forty years ago. So unless you’re in your late fifties, you don’t have any direct experience of the Cong. And the only people that would remember who are younger would be that neighborhood got bombed, or Daddy didn’t come home. But that was the norm at the time, right? That was the experience that everybody around you was having, too. But the big picture is this: the Americans (and you can argue before that the French) were a mere blip on the radar screen of Vietnamese history. The Americans were adversaries for fifteen years. The animosity here is toward the Chinese. (Laughter.)
I know, I’ve heard that.
Because the Chinese are the giant neighbor to the north that’s been trying to eat Vietnam for 1,000 years. So whether or not people remember the war, they’re aware of the long-term of Vietnamese history. And they realize that China has posed, does pose, and will pose a perceived existential threat.
In Afghanistan you have the Pashtun looking down on Uzbeks, who are looking down on Hazaras. Is there any cultural feeling that Chinese consider Vietnamese inferior. Is there any kind of ethnic sensitivity like that?
Number one, I don’t think probably that the average Chinese gives Vietnam much thought. But if you’re a Chinese historian, an academic, a military strategist, or whatever, you look at the traditional orders of China, what the Chinese empire was, what happened to the Chinese empire, and how the tribute states of China need to be allied with China for China’s long-term stability. That’s the way the Chinese would look at it. There are books that have been written about this. I’ll tell you a story that was told to me by a young woman in her 30s whose father was shot in the leg by an American in the secret war in Cambodia in the 1970s. He was recruited into the NVA, the North Vietnamese Army, didn’t have much of a choice, and when he was able to access, for the first time, American technology (and I’m talking about stuff like wristwatches, okay?) and realized that the domestic and the Russian technology was utter garbage compared to the technology of his adversary, he then no longer believed in all the propaganda that he had been fed by the Communist Party. And to this day, he is a huge admirer of America and what it stands for. And is critical of the party that he fought for. Although he is a very proud Vietnamese. And I’m sure that is the attitude of very many people of that generation because it’s one thing to support the cause of a revolution, but after the revolution ends, then you have certain expectations of your leaders in peacetime. And I guess a lot of people here might ask whether the revolution, the victors of the war have been able to deliver on the promises they made to the people. And it’s been 40 years. Even in democracies, we have disillusionment with our leadership after a short period of time when the euphoria ends. So you can imagine looking around the world at one-party systems after many decades, and the same leadership still in place, what are the attitudes. In some of these places, they change rather quickly, in other places they change less quickly.
The irony is at the time, from McCarthy through the late 1960s and Nixon, we were warned of the the red menace, you know, “The Communist Chinese are in league with the Vietnamese and therefore we have to stop the march of communist aggression.” And in fact the Vietnamese hated the Chinese.
Right. Well, then there’s North Korea, where I’ve also spent some time.
Really? That would be fascinating.
Yeah. I was there for ten days in 2013 as a guest of the KPA, the Korean People’s Army, an elite unit.
Now there’s a place to settle down with a nice girl (we had been talking over dinner about the experience of dating in Asia for longtime western expats). (Laughter.)
Oh yeah. But I have no doubt that there are many in the government who desire normalized relations with the United States. And the reason is from the formation of the DPRK, until the collapse of the Soviet Union, they were able to play their two benefactors off one another, Beijing and Moscow. Like the Vietnamese, the North Koreans do not want to be a tributary state of China. And the sort of historical animosity and suspicion that exists here in Vietnam toward the Chinese has been… My observation is that it also exists in not only North Korea, but also South Korea. So it’s a Korean nationalistic perspective. And so, having normalized relations with the west would allow them not to be so dependant on China for so many things. So we have to realize that whatever people may think, of what designs China has on its neighbors over the long term, because of its insecurities, China never wants to be in the position that it was in during the 19th and early 20th centuries when it was colonized and divided up and was weakened, and there was a fear that 4,000 years of Chinese history was coming to an end. So I think it’s very easy to understand that Chinese mindset.
So we agree that if you are not in your late fifties, it’s irrelevant, it’s just family stories. Relevant, but, you know… And particularly if you have only been born in the last 25 years, a whole different thing. So generational things. For those who were of fighting age or older during the war, what’s their attitude?
I think mostly these people are at retirement age, practically. If you were in your 20s or 30s, in the 1960s and 70s, you’re probably now interested in what life is going to be like for your grandchildren, right? People marry young here. And I don’t think that there’s necessarily a lot of looking to the past. Obviously you’ll find this in any military around the world if you were a veteran, especially if you were on the winning side, that you’re quite proud of your service. And we see the same thing in the United States. People are very proud of their service regardlass of the outcome of the conflict. They may not necessarily agree on everything with the contemporary government, but they still remain very proud of their service. So I think, from what I can tell, most of these veterans are… The fact that you lived.
Actually, that’s an interesting point. Unlike many people the United States has fought against, they won. They can almost be magnanimous about it.
Yeah. There’s a tremendous resiliency here. And it’s been, like I said, dealing with the Chinese over 1,000 years and briefly having to grapple with the French and the Americans. I find Vietnam to be very vibrant, dynamic, quite bullish on this country in the long term. Because of the character of what I see in the people here. And I can’t necessarily say that about every country I visit. I won’t name names, but, yeah, there is something here that is special.
This is a naive touristy thing to say, the only evidence I’ve seen of communism is two or three shops selling propaganda posters.
No, there’s a lot more.
Tell me about communism in Vietnam.
I am not an expert. This is only my second visit here. There are giant propaganda billboards all over the country when I’ve been out in the countryside. There are offices of the communist party in every neighborhood. It’s a one-party state. What percentage of the economy is still in the hands of the party? I’d have to doublecheck my facts, but I think 40% of the businesses are party-owned. You’re talking about infrastructure, and then from what I can tell, looking at signs by the factories I was passing by in these industrial areas, they were joint ventures with the party itself. So yeah there’s no doubt that the party has quite a dominant presence throughout the country.
And how do they handle elections here?
This is a traditional communist state and–
You’re voting for your party candidate or your local council party member?
I don’t even know if…even China has experimented with some local elections. I’m not sure that there’s anything like that here. Certainly there’s no contested elections.
So, for example, our waitress, very pleasant young woman and she’s got a good job, seems well presented. At what point does she get in trouble with the communist government of Vietnam for saying what?
If she wrote a blog criticizing the government, she’d go to jail.
That’s heavy stuff.
Yeah. You can look it up, I dont know what the number of bloggers that are presently in jail for blogging…
So can Americans look back through some political filter and say, “See, we told you, we were trying to save these people from this kind of totalitarianism, authoritarianism, and yeah they’ve grown the economy a bit but they’ve had to suffer through this for forty years and goddamn, we gave it our best effort to try to save them from it.”
I think, I don’t think it’s possible to take a one end of the filter look at Vietnam right now in terms of US geopolitical interests. It’s very interesting, fascinating to me, that there have been overtures by the government of Vietnam to the United States looking for closer ties, including possibly the use of Cam Rahn Bay, and there’s no doubt, as I mentioned before, that the Vietnamese see China as much more of a threat than the United States. And from the US perspective, I guess there’s an open question about how we should engage with Vietnam. We have a new ambassador here, who I believe is the first openly gay ambassador.
Really? What’s his name?
I follow him on Twitter. Ted Osius III. So the question is, some people might say, “What right does the United States, after meddling in Vietnam to the point of a long and tragic war, which did not cause the communists to collapse, what right do we have to intervene in any way into this country?” And others would say, “Well, we have American principles that need to be upheld and we need to apply these principles fairly to all countries we deal with, including the issues of freedom of expression and human rights.” And there’s no doubt that there are serious problems in that area here. And the United States government does criticize, okay? But to what degree should it affect this relationship with Vietnam? And then the other thing to look at is maybe we should be more pragmatic and if we’re looking at American geopolitical interests and for those who believe that interest is trying to keep a rising China as a maritime power in check, and to reassure allies and friends and others in the region, including neutral states, such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, that we don’t have treaties with, as we do with countries such as Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines, Australia, that if push comes to shove, that we’re going to be there to stand up for our treaty partners and for others who would be the victims of aggression from a Chinese navy in the future. So, yeah, it’s a complicated, multi-faceted puzzle. And Vietnam is at the absolute core of that in this part of the world.
In the beginning of Nick Turse’s book, Kill Anything That Moves, he shares the story about Ho Chi Minh helping the American war effort during World War II, office of special services (OSS), and he gives a speech to a half million in Hanoi, opening with the words to our declaration of independence…
And we ignored it.
And we ignored it and we said, “Let’s help the French” and then the rest is history.
At that moment, because it’s very easy to fantasize, “This man was a great democratic patriot and if only we didn’t ignore…” at what point do you think that Ho Chi Minh really wanted to pursue American-style democracy such that if the United States said, we’re going to help these people, they helped us, the French should stay the hell out, the colonialism thing is over and we’re going to–
Which is the pressure we did put on the British at the end of World War II.
Yeah. You know, hindsight is 20/20 and looking at alternative history is pure speculation. With those caveats, I think what we can say is that I don’t think that there were a lot of things, from my study of history of the late 1940s, early 50s, about US policy toward Asia, it was just benign neglect. We were, I think, at the end of World War II when there was this big cutback in military forces, military preparedness, and…
That’s the way it used to be done right? You build a standing army when you’ve got a war and then when the war’s over, the standing army gets cut down.
Yeah. Right. Like we have nuclear bombs now. Okay. And then the threat was the Soviet Union from 1949, was that when the Soviets tested? So I think we were rebuilding Europe, we had hemispheric issues to deal with at that time, stuff that was happening in South America was much more important that what was happening in Asia. Now you look at that and it’s like, that would be considered a joke right now. We, like when the Korean war broke out, the United States was totally caught unprepared. Militarily and strategically. So when we’re looking around late 1940s, early 1950s, Vietnam, it was French Indo-China, right? How many specialists did we have in the US military or in the State Department about Indo-China at that time? And one thing you learn in dealing with the government bureaucracy, is that the problems that get the attention are the immediate crises and sort of things that may be bubbling in the long term don’t really move up the food chain very quickly or very easily. So I highly doubt that there was any… And again, you’d have consult with a specialist about this history, who has gone through all the archives, but I just don’t see that Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh, at that time, that we gave him much thought.
I think that’s true. And, well said. But the moment he made that speech, do you think there were democratic instincts which became…
I would be, I don’t know. The answer is, I don’t know. But I would be… I would have my doubts. Because the way that the party and Ho rose to power was not through any sort of (laughter)–
…democratic parlays, it was by being a ruthless power, Machiavellian in the extreme. And there’s a lot out there about Ho’s, all of these, the formation of these communist parties from their time in Europe and under the French. And I…
Ho got his ideas from hanging out in cafes in Paris, right? (Laughter.)
Well, right, right. So you know, socialism was quite in vogue–
–among many intellectuals in all parts of the world in the 20s, 30s, and 40s…
Sometimes someone phrases it in a certain way and it becomes clear. Lenin was actively agitating against colonial forces, which is an obvious thing for communists to do, but if you then were under colonial rule and you see this Dutch East India Company, and the French rubber companies, and you see all these French…
The democratic nations were not where you turn to for allies for, as a revolutionary fighting colonialism.
Democratic nations either in a beneficient way or in a brutal, vicious way, as with the Belgian Congo, etcetera, were saying, “We basically want your poor people to be our indentured servants.”
Yes. And with the Belgians they were basically slaves. Period. Full stop. They were slaves. Property owned by the king, if I recall.
That’s right. King Leopold. Your national sovereignty ain’t happening. No respect for your culture, onward Christian soldiers, you’re an inferior race. So suddenly you have this revoluationary socialist ideology coming along that says, regardless of whether you believe Das Kapital, that basically the bottom line is, what did you tell me? The bottom line is I’m going to throw off the Western colonial powers? Hmm…
Yeah. And the communist internationale was in the franchise business and was looking to expand into new markets. Yeah, there was definitely a meeting of the minds there. But yeah, if you look back on history you can see that there were all sorts of opportunities that were lost and I’m not a big fan of traditional political science because I don’t consider it to be science, and I tend more to believe in the chaos theory of politics, where, you know, there’s the proverbial butterfly flapping its wings over China that can change the weather eventually in North America. And I think it’s been the same thing in history where one small event, an accident or an archduke getting assassinated or a bullet missing a president of the United States or a dictator getting up on the wrong side of bed in the morning and deciding he’s going to invade a neighbor because he had a fight with mistress number seven the night before… A lot of things happen for not rational reasons that end up having a tremendous effect on world history. And so, you know, we can speculate all day about if this had happened or this didn’t happen, yes, the outcome of the world may have been very different and millions of people might not have died, but in another case maybe something else would have happened that could have been even more catastrophic.
This interview was transcribed and fact checked by Afterparty intern Kayley Ingalls. Thanks, Kayley!