There was something rather heroic about President Clinton's decision to go ahead with his state visit to Vietnam this week, despite an almost guaranteed lack of public interest. The thundering editorials and public agonizing that would normally have accompanied such a trip have, of course, been utterly silenced by the thundering editorials and public agonizing over who will be President Clinton's successor. Personally, I feel there is also something heroic about my decision to write about Vietnam, despite an almost guaranteed lack of public interest. But there are good reasons: As it happens, I am genuinely convinced that, contrary to accepted wisdom, Vietnam may turn out to be a rather important American ally, rather sooner than anyone thinks.
This is not because, as some of the newspaper coverage seemed to imply, Vietnam's Communist government is about to throw in the towel and concede that the capitalist running dogs were right. Nor does anyone seriously believe that Vietnam is about to adopt American-style democracy, complete with lawsuits, vote recounts, network TV coverage, and everything else that modern democracy now entails. Those who keep an eye on these things all say that the Vietnamese state is more repressive than the relatively free atmosphere of Ho Chi Minh City—the metropolis formerly known as Saigon—might make it appear. Freedom House, the democracy and human rights think tank, recently obtained a set of secret documents, for example, which describe the Vietnamese government's plan to stop the growth of religion in the country. Among them were a pamphlet titled "Propagandizing and Mobilizing Citizens Not To Follow Religion Illegally" and programs for "Normalizing Society and Building Political Infrastructure in Mountainous Regions Where Minority Peoples Are Christian Believers." In response, the Vietnamese foreign ministry, in a refreshing reversion to old-fashioned language, put out a helpful statement: "Any information saying that Vietnam represses religion is sheer slander and fabrication."
Up to a point, Vietnam even still resembles a classic Communist state. The fact that Hanoi and the North are still both more fiercely ideological and markedly poorer than ex-Saigon and the South beautifully illustrates an international rule of thumb: The more seriously Marxist doctrine is applied, the more economic devastation takes place. Ho Chi Minh still sits in his tomb, when his body is not conveniently off in Moscow for repairs, as it was last week (thereby sparing Clinton the obligatory visit). The press is predictably stodgy and the secret police omnipresent.
But the domino theorists of a previous generation were wrong about a few things too. No one could have predicted, for example, the enormous influence of Vietnamese emigration. By some estimates, every resident of ex-Saigon has a relative in the United States. That—far more than sentimental speeches about overcoming history—will link the two countries well into the future. Just as it is no coincidence that Poland, with its huge emigration in the United States, is the most pro-American country in Europe, so will Vietnam (slowly) evolve in the same direction: Émigrés facilitate trade and contacts in a way that no government program ever can.
Vietnam also confounded gloomier expectations in that it never did become part of a vast Chinese sphere of influence—because there isn't one. Despite the predictions, no China-led Asian Communist "bloc" has ever emerged along the lines of the Soviet-led East European Communist bloc. On the contrary, one Asian diplomat, in the course of explaining why China had never truly supported a North Korean invasion of the South, told me that, quite frankly, "China didn't want to create another Vietnam." And no wonder: Since the end of the war, Communist Vietnam has evolved into one of China's major headaches. There have been border skirmishes and battles for influence in Cambodia, and the two have settled into a state of not-very-neighborly mutual disgruntlement.
Which is where we begin to have a mutual interest: It is altogether possible that the need to "contain China" may arise again. According to a recent article in the Washington Post—whose thesis I've heard elsewhere—China's views of the United States have of late begun to change. Despite the huge volume of trade between the United States and China, and despite the American decision (in my view correct) to give China better trade terms, Chinese military doctrine now openly identifies the United States as a potential threat to its openly stated goals in Asia, among them "reunification" with Taiwan and control of the South China Sea shipping lanes, through which Japan and others get their oil. And rightly so: It is hard to imagine any American president, elected by any means, sitting by calmly during the invasion of Taipei.
If that happens, he won't want to be alone. The lesson of the Cold War was that despite all the trouble they caused (and cause), we needed allies to counter the Soviet Union in Europe. Now we may need allies to counter China in Asia. Weird though it sounds, Vietnam, with its inevitable attachment to the United States and its natural reluctance to see China emerge as the dominant regional power, is potentially one of the most important.
Is that why Clinton went to Vietnam? I doubt it: According to one cynical American diplomat, he went because he knew that, as a former opponent of the war, he would get a hero's welcome. But although that may be part of the explanation for the mobs who turned out to wave American flags at his motorcade, I suspect it doesn't account for all the crowds. They were partly there, as they would be anywhere, because the American president is just about the most famous person in the world, after Michael Jackson. And perhaps they were partly there because some are already beginning to see that the United States is not Vietnam's past but its future.