Vietnam Should Have Been the End of US Foreign Intervention. It Wasn't, and the World Is Worse Off
In 1975, after nearly a decade of outright conflict, the United States government abandoned its doomed escapade in Vietnam. It left a devastated country and over a million corpses in its wake. The corrupt South Vietnamese regime, already teetering on utter collapse, completely dissolved without American support. And the Communist forces of North Vietnam eagerly descended on Saigon, impatient to implement their antimarket and antiproperty policies.
What followed was a French-style reign of terror ostensibly waged on behalf of Marxist egalitarianism. The authoritarian ideologues who had been imposing draconian economic and political programs on Hanoi wasted no time in confiscating property, punishing southern landholders, and transforming South Vietnam into a centrally planned hellscape. Former South Vietnam soldiers and government officials were subjected to torture, brainwashing, and hard labor in “reeducation” camps. Other so-called bad elements posing a threat to the newly unified Communist state were harassed, persecuted, jailed, and even killed.
Predictably, in its postwar years, Vietnam suffered from the same hardships faced by all of the twentieth century’s Marxist political experiments, including the Soviet Union and North Korea. The Vietnamese economy experienced a plague of production shortages, inefficiencies in resource distribution, skyrocketing inflation, and rampant government corruption. The entrepreneur class evaporated. People spent hours per day waiting for meager government handouts and rice rations.
These failures are no surprise. As Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises demonstrated in his landmark essay Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth, socialist economies are doomed to fail. Central planning inevitably leads to inefficient and blind allocation of resources, unguided by the critical signals generated by market prices. Unlike the mixed economies of Western Europe and the United States, which are propped up by private property and capitalist markets, the newly unified Vietnamese state wholly embraced socialist central planning. Thus, it was doomed from its inception to be one of the only countries in history to experience an economic downturn in a postwar period of peace.
What is remarkable about the Vietnamese postwar experience is how quickly the country abandoned communism in favor of private property, entrepreneurship, and markets. In the 1980s, Vietnam found itself at a crossroads. The failures of the socialist state were obvious even to the northern ideologues. In the south, fresh memories of the pre-Communist era prompted many to advocate for a return to some of South Vietnam’s more liberal economic policies.
In 1986, a mere eleven years after the ouster of American troops and widespread implementation of communist economic programs, Vietnam adopted a series of market reforms known as Doi Moi. The government put an end to state-run farm collectives, eliminated subsidies and price controls, reestablished private property, and opened Vietnam to foreign investment. The nigh-miraculous success of these political and economic renovations is obvious. The economy experienced meteoric growth from 1991 to 2000. Vietnam’s poverty rate plummeted from 70 percent in 1986 to 37 percent in 1998 to less than 5 percent today. After years of a perpetual rice shortage, Vietnam became the third-largest exporter of rice in the world.
Vietnamese entrepreneurs have wasted no time in taking advantage of their country’s liberalized markets. The reestablishment of private property and the legalization of profit opened new opportunities for business in the country. Innovations in the tourism, farming, and tech industries have led to a recent cropping up of thousands of small and medium-sized enterprises.
Beyond its practical effects, the Doi Moi reforms have also changed the attitudes of the Vietnamese people toward free market policies. According to a 2014 Pew poll, 95 percent of Vietnamese people believe that “most people are better off in a free-market economy even though some people are rich and some are poor”—a far cry from Marxist egalitarianism. In an embarrassing comparison, only 70 percent of Americans believed the same.
It’s this remarkable transformation that places the tragedy of the Vietnam War into sharp relief. The United States intervened in Vietnam on the basis of its “falling domino” theory of foreign policy, wherein the goal was ostensibly to limit the global spread of communism. But after spending billions of dollars and tens of thousands of American lives laying waste to much of Vietnam, the United States fled the country having accomplished none of the conflict’s purported goals.
What rescued Vietnam from the scourge of Marxism was not a centrally planned military invasion nor a foreign policy of propped-up regimes and nation building. Rather, Vietnamese communism imploded under the weight of its own inevitable failures—all without the “help” of American intervention. The ongoing triumph of liberal markets and the death of communism in Vietnam expose the horrific death toll and destruction of the Vietnam War as utterly pointless.
The Vietnamese experience should have cast both communism and interventionist foreign policy into the shallow grave they have unjustly avoided for so long. But subsequent intrusions in South America, Iraq, Afghanistan, and most recently Ukraine demonstrate that the United States continues marching into doomed, futile interventions on behalf America’s military-industrial complex and cronyist foreign policy. It’s time for us to put interventionist foreign policy to rest and let peace and markets do their work.