Jim Blaut on Lenin and the National Question

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Mon Nov 20 17:01:57 MST 2000

>"This Nation and socialism are one and the same thing"
>Ho Chi Minh

NY Times, November 20, 2000


Vietnam's New Struggle: How Global to Become?


HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam, Nov. 19 — Bill Clinton took extra trouble 30
years ago to avoid showing up here for America's first conflict with Vietnam.

But in the final days of his presidency, with crowds cheering him on in
Hanoi, and today in the city Americans will always call Saigon, Mr. Clinton
threw himself into the middle of Vietnam's most immediate conflict: The
battle within a divided government over how fast and how far to open the
country to the capitalist, democratic forces that Vietnam's Communist
leaders thought they had defeated.

In a remarkable moment at the Communist Party headquarters in Hanoi late
Saturday afternoon, Mr. Clinton plunged into a spirited exchange with the
country's leading hard-liner, Le Kha Phieu, the Communist party chief and
the most influential member of the Vietnamese leadership.

Mr. Phieu had watched President Clinton's nationally broadcast speech to
students and seen the reception the President was getting on the streets,
and clearly he was fed up. "We have seen the collapse of the U.S.S.R.," Mr.
Phieu said of his country's former patron. And yet, he told the President,
according to two American participants in the meeting, "we are still on our
feet, we have reaffirmed Socialism." He went on to describe how Vietnam had
begun to produce enough rice to feed itself and how it was determined to
find its own way without surrendering its Socialist principals.

He argued that the economy could grow, even if it is divided into state
sectors, private sectors and foreign sectors, with politically sensitive
technologies still controlled by the government.

One of Mr. Clinton's top advisers, who witnessed the encounter, said his
sense was that the Communist party chief was saying in effect: "There is a
line. We kicked you guys out. And now we are going to be friendly but there
is only so far we will go."

The two leaders argued, politely, over whether the United States had
"imperialist" intentions here. Mr. Clinton told CNN today that "I stoutly
disputed that we were an imperialist country" during the war, insisting
that the conflict had been "over what self-determination for the Vietnamese
people really meant."

They were talking about days long past. But the subtext of the discussion
was very much about today, about Mr. Phieu's reluctance to let Vietnam
plunge into a world and a marketplace dominated by American power.

The debate Mr. Clinton tripped upon in Vietnam closely parallels the one
under way in China today. There, too, leaders are caught between the
necessity of attracting global capital and the reality that openness will
inevitably undercut their power. In both places, it's easier and easier to
find great restaurants, and harder and harder to find committed Communists.

But it is also true that hard-liners like Mr. Phieu appear on the rise in
Hanoi, at least for now. For all the talk about the power of globalization,
most of Vietnam's 78 million people cannot afford a telephone and have
never wandered into one of Saigon's chic Internet cafes. So at moments the
optimistic talk among Mr. Clinton's aides about the inevitability of
economic and political reform in Vietnam seemed like an eerie echo of the
days when Robert McNamara, Mr. Kennedy's defense secretary, declared that
"every quantitative measurement we have shows we are winning the war."

Maybe this time, the leaders in Hanoi have no real choice. They don't have
many dominoes to play, they don't have allies willing to prop them up, and
to the rest of the world it makes far less difference whether they succeed
or fail. But as the author Ward Just wrote in a new forward this year to
his 1967 book, "To What End," during the war, "No one knew the truth of
things, whether the tide was in or out or where on the shore we stood."

He could have been writing about Vietnam today.

Louis Proyect
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