Vietnam Since the War (1976-Present)
Vietnam Since the War (1976-Present)
The war in Vietnam finally ended in 1975, when North Vietnamese troops captured the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon. The following year, the Communist leaders of North Vietnam reunited the two halves of the country to form the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV). They also introduced a series of changes designed to transform Vietnam into a socialist society. For example, the government took control of all farmland and business activities and placed restrictions on the lives of the Vietnamese people.
These changes created terrible hardships for the Vietnamese. "Rebuilding Vietnam would have been a stupendous task under the best of circumstances. The war shattered its economy, disrupted its social texture, and exhausted its population in both the north and the south," comments Stanley Karnow in Vietnam: A History. "The war left Vietnam in shambles, and the Communists aggravated the devastation after their victory." Before long, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese people decided that they could not live under the new government. Many tried to escape the poverty and repression (denial of their basic rights and freedoms) by fleeing the country by water in small boats. These Vietnamese refugees became known around the world as the "boat people."
In the meantime, old rivalries and disagreements heated up between Vietnam and its neighbors, Cambodia and China. In 1979, Vietnam successfully invaded Cambodia and overthrew its brutal government. But China and other nations reacted angrily to Vietnam's actions. In fact, Chinese troops invaded the northern part of Vietnam. The United States and other countries established an economic embargo (a legal order preventing trade) to punish Vietnam.
The situation in Cambodia only complicated the problems within Vietnam. By the mid-1980s, the situation had become so desperate that the Communist leaders reversed their earlier policies and introduced a series of economic reforms. Since then, Vietnam's economy has recovered significantly. In addition, the Vietnamese government has improved its relationship with a number of foreign powers, including China and the United States.
Although Vietnam continues to struggle with poverty and other problems, many people feel that the country is well on its way to recovering from the devastation of the Vietnam War.
The Socialist Republic of Vietnam
In April 1975—two years after American troops left Vietnam—North Vietnamese forces captured the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon to win the Vietnam War. North Vietnamese political leaders immediately began making plans to reunite the two halves of the country. In July 1976, they announced the formation of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. The capital city of the new nation would be Hanoi (pronounced huh-NOY), which had served as the capital of North Vietnam during the war. Many figures in the new government were former officials of the North Vietnamese government and leaders of the Communist Party. But a few politicians from South Vietnam were assigned positions in the government as well.
Although Vietnam was reunified fairly quickly after the war ended, the country still faced a number of serious problems. For example, its land and cities had suffered heavy damage during the war. In the South, 25 million acres of farmland and 9,000 villages had been destroyed. In the North, all six major industrial cities had been severely damaged. In addition, many areas of the country continued to experience negative effects of the war. Each day, farmers were injured by land mines and unexploded bombs that littered the countryside. Many Vietnamese children were born with birth defects because their mothers had been exposed to defoliants and herbicides (poisonous chemicals used to kill trees and other vegetation) during the war.
In addition to the physical damage to the people and the land, Vietnam also faced tough economic problems after the war. In the South, about four million people were unemployed. Many of these people, including former government officials and soldiers in the South Vietnamese Army, had depended on aid from the United States in order to survive. But when the Americans left and North Vietnam took control, there was very little money to support them.
South Vietnamese are "re-educated"
As North Vietnamese leaders took steps to reunite the two halves of their battered country, they expressed a willingness to work with the people of the South. They emphasized that their victory in the Vietnam War was a victory for all Vietnamese people over foreign invaders. Many people in the South were happy to have peace at last. Some had secretly supported the Communists during the war by hiding guerilla fighters (guerrillas are small groups of fighters who launch surprise attacks) or providing them with supplies. As a result, many people in the South seemed hopeful about the reunification of their country under Communist rule. They believed that their lives might get better with a new political system.
Before long, however, North Vietnamese leaders began punishing people who had fought against them during the war. "When the Communists drove into Saigon in 1975, they were prudently [wisely] greeted by a dazed population yearning for peace and prepared to cooperate," Karnow notes. "But instead of proceeding gently, they embarked on a program of wholesale repression."
Within a short time, about 400,000 South Vietnamese people who were viewed as threats to Communist rule were sent away to be "re-educated," or forced to go along with the government. These people included not only former South Vietnamese government officials and army officers, but also doctors, lawyers, teachers, journalists, engineers, and other intellectuals. They were held in prisons that had been used during the war or sent away to work farms. Many were forced to perform hard labor and received very little food.
North Vietnamese leaders initially planned to re-edu cate people they viewed as political enemies for five years. But many South Vietnamese citizens ended up being held for much longer periods. Communist Party officials worried that these people would try to overthrow the new government if they were released. As it turned out, keeping these skilled and educated people in jail also hurt the government, because their talents could have contributed to the country's recovery.
Socialist reforms of agriculture and industry
After forming the new Socialist Republic of Vietnam, Communist leaders in Hanoi launched a wide-ranging program to transform Vietnamese society. Mainly, they wanted the southern half of the country to operate on the same sort of political system as the northern half. Under this system, known as socialism, the government controls all resources and means of producing wealth. By eliminating private property, it is designed to create an equal society with no social classes.
In 1978, the SRV government nationalized all industry and commerce. This meant that the government would own all factories and businesses. It would also set prices for goods and control other aspects of trade. Vietnam's economy would be centrally planned by a group of Communist Party officials, and individual citizens would be required to go along with their decisions. Many people resented the government controls, particularly in the South. Some people found ways to work around them. Corruption and bribery became common in Vietnamese business.
The Vietnamese government also placed socialist controls over the nation's agriculture. They took land away from individual farmers and combined many small plots into large, collective farms. They believed this would make the land more productive and ensure that farmers grew a variety of crops that would benefit all the people. After all, collective farming had worked well in the North during the Vietnam War to supply food to the North Vietnamese Army.
But farmers in the South resisted joining collective farms because they had always farmed their own land. They did not understand why the government required them to grow crops that were not well suited to their land. They resented having to sell their crops to the government at official prices, because these prices were not high enough to allow them to purchase tools, fertilizer, and seeds. Agricultural production declined very rapidly in Vietnam following the socialist reforms. Hunger became a widespread problem. In fact, food rations in 1978 were twenty-five percent lower than they had been during the hardest years of the war.
The crisis of the "boat people"
The socialist reforms put in place by the new Vietnamese government had disastrous results. People in the South who had once run their own shops or businesses felt that the government regulations made it impossible for them to make a living. Rural farmers and villagers also resented the government controls and increasingly suffered from hunger and disease. Before long, many groups of Vietnamese citizens had become very unhappy with the Communist programs and the hardships they had created.
Shortly after the socialist reforms went into effect, large numbers of Vietnam's citizens decided that they could not live under the new government. The widespread poverty and the repression of basic individual rights and freedoms created what Karnow calls a "massive exodus [departure] from Vietnam—one of the largest migrations of modern times." Over the next few years, more than 1.5 million people risked their lives to escape from the country.
One of the first waves of people to leave Vietnam were ethnic Chinese. Many of these people were successful traders and merchants who operated businesses in southern cities. There was a great deal of political tension between the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and its neighbor to the north, China. The new Vietnamese government placed especially harsh restrictions on ethnic Chinese merchants because they worried that China would use them to influence politics in Vietnam. As a result, hundreds of thousands of ethnic Chinese fled across the northern border into China in 1978. Some of them paid bribes to Communist officials in order to buy their way out of the country. Others tried to reach China by sea in poorly equipped boats.
Huge numbers of ethnic Vietnamese also tried to leave the country. Since Vietnam's closest neighbors—Cambodia and Laos—were also having severe economic and political problems during this time, most of the refugees left Vietnam by water. They usually had to give up all of their personal belongings to afford the trip, and many were forced to leave family members behind. At times, more than 50,000 people per month set sail from the Vietnamese coast on small boats and rafts. As the international media picked up on the story, the refugees became known around the world as "boat people."
Since their vessels were too small to handle storms in the South China Sea, thousands of Vietnamese boat people drowned. Others died of hunger, thirst, or exposure to the elements. But many refugees landed safely on small Southeast Asian islands. Unfortunately, some neighboring countries refused to accept the boat people. For example, Malaysia sometimes turned the Vietnamese boats around and sent them back out to sea. Countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, and the Philippines felt that they should not be forced to take responsibility for unwanted people because they had not contributed to the crisis. In addition, these countries did not have resources to care for the refugees.
When the boat people did reach land, they often had trouble finding a permanent new home. Many of them spent months or years in crowded refugee camps. Wealthy countries like the United States, Canada, France, and Australia increased their immigration quotas in order to accept some Vietnamese refugees. But these countries did not want to appear too generous, because they did not want to encourage more people to attempt the dangerous journey.
Nevertheless, the flow of refugees from Vietnam continued into the early 1980s. The crisis finally ended when conditions within Vietnam began to improve. In addition, the Vietnamese government began allowing people to leave the country legally. About one million refugees from Vietnam and Cambodia eventually resettled in the United States. Some of these people became successful members of American society, but many others continued to struggle with poverty and prejudice in their new country.
War returns to Indochina
As the Socialist Republic of Vietnam struggled with internal problems, it also continued to clash with neighboring countries. Vietnamese leaders felt that Cambodia and Laos— the countries along Vietnam's western border—owed them a debt. After all, the Vietnamese had done most of the fighting against the French and the Americans in Indochina. Now that these foreign powers had left the region, Vietnam expected Cambodia and Laos to support it politically. The Vietnamese government wanted the three countries to form an alliance, with Vietnam recognized as its leader.
Cambodia refused to go along with this plan. Shortly after the North Vietnamese had captured Saigon in 1975, a group of radical Communist rebels known as the Khmer Rouge had taken control of Cambodia's government. The Khmer Rouge, led by a mysterious man named Pol Pot, immediately launched a violent and destructive transformation of Cambodian society. They drove people out of the cities and into labor camps, and they murdered thousands of intellectuals who opposed their rule. Within a short time, more than one million Cambodians had been executed or had died of hunger or disease under the Khmer Rouge.
Cambodia had a long history of disputes with Vietnam. Once the Khmer Rouge claimed power, Pol Pot demanded the return of Cambodian territory that Vietnam had seized generations earlier. In December 1978, the Vietnamese government sent troops into Cambodia to overthrow the Khmer Rouge and protect its borders. By January 1979, Vietnam's invasion forces had captured the Cambodian capital city, Phnom Penh (pronounced puh-NAHM PEN). They immediately put an end to the brutal policies of the Khmer Rouge. They also established a new, pro-Vietnamese government under Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Even though the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia had removed the violent Khmer Rouge from power, many countries around the world criticized Vietnam's actions. For example, the United States and other countries formed an economic embargo to punish Vietnam. The U.S. government also provided support to Cambodian rebels fighting against the Hun Sen government, including the Khmer Rouge. But the country that was most upset about Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia was China.
China—Vietnam's neighbor to the north—had supported the North Vietnamese Communists during the Vietnam War. In return, the Chinese expected the new Vietnamese government to form an alliance with them against their bitter rivals, the Soviet Union. But Vietnam had a long history of disputes with China. In fact, China had controlled Vietnam by force for hundreds of years. As a result, the new Vietnamese government felt suspicious toward China and was determined to maintain its independence.
When Vietnam invaded Cambodia, China became concerned that it was losing power over Indochina. In February 1979, the Chinese responded by invading northern Vietnam in order to "teach Vietnam a lesson." The Vietnamese army fought off the attack, but both sides suffered tens of thousands of casualties (killed and wounded soldiers). In addition, an area of northern Vietnam that had escaped damage during the Vietnam War was destroyed.
Economic and political problems grow
The fighting with Cambodia and China only made the situation worse within the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. The expense of fighting and maintaining troops in Cambodia reduced the money available to solve problems at home. In addition, the economic embargo made it impossible for Vietnam to trade with or borrow money from many other countries. Before long, the Vietnamese economy was suffering from terrible inflation (a situation where the cost of goods rises more quickly than people's incomes). By 1986, prices were rising by 600 percent per year. At that rate, one chicken would cost an average Vietnamese worker an entire month's salary.
The Vietnamese government also had trouble uniting the economies and cultures of the northern and southern sections of the country. People in the South tended to resist the socialist controls that the northern government tried to place upon them. "Historic differences between north and south were exacerbated [made worse] during three decades of war, and even the most heavy-handed methods could not force the freewheeling and resilient south into a made-in-Hanoi mold," George C. Herring explains in America's Longest War.
By the mid-1980s, even people who had supported North Vietnam during the war began to feel that the Communist leaders were doing a poor job of running the country. After all, the government had promised to reunite Vietnam and return it to peace and prosperity. But instead, conditions for many citizens were worse than they had ever been before. "By the time Vietnam's rulers staged huge public ceremonies to celebrate the tenth anniversary of their victory, it was no longer possible to conceal—even from themselves—how poorly their leadership had repaid the enormous sacrifices that had given their revolution its victory," Arnold R. Isaacs comments in Vietnam Shadows: The War, Its Ghosts, and Its Legacy.
The doi moi economic reforms
In 1986, the Vietnamese Communist Party responded to the growing problems by electing new leaders. Nguyen Van Linh (pronounced en-gie-EN VAHN LIN; 1915–) became the new chief of the ruling party. Within a short time, the government announced a series of major economic reforms known as doi moi, or "renovation." "The Communist Party bosses recognized that they had squandered [foolishly wasted] the peace and tarnished the reputation they had gained from winning the war," Karnow notes. "Desperate, they introduced an array of pragmatic [sensible] economic reforms."
Under the doi moi program, private citizens regained some control over business. The Vietnamese government also made some moves toward improving relations with the United States, China, and other countries. For example, it expressed an interest in withdrawing its troops from Cambodia. In 1988, SRV leaders took another step toward opening their economy and society. Under an initiative called Directive 10, the Vietnamese government took apart the collective farms and returned the land to individual farmers. They also ended all price controls on farm products.
The reforms quickly created positive effects in the Vietnamese economy. As a result of the changes, agricultural production increased by twenty-two percent and industrial output by fifty percent between 1989 and 1993. In fact, Vietnam became the third-largest rice exporter in the world during this period. "This movement toward a more open society and economy, known as doi moi in Vietnam, has made the second decade of Communist rule much more agreeable— though by no means perfect—for a great number of Vietnamese," Murray Hiebert writes in Chasing the Tigers: A Portrait of the New Vietnam.
Vietnam resumes diplomatic relations with the United States
As the Vietnamese economy became more free and open under doi moi, government leaders recognized that the next step involved improving relations with the rest of the world. For their economic reforms to succeed, they needed money, technology, and management skills to flow into the country from overseas. But their traditional source of such support, the Soviet Union, was having economic and political troubles of its own. This situation forced Vietnamese leaders to look toward capitalist countries like the United States and Japan, as well as successful Southeast Asian neighbors like Singapore, Taiwan, and Indonesia.
For Vietnam, the first step in improving relations with the rest of the world was to withdraw its troops from Cambodia. After all, the invasion of Cambodia had angered many other countries and led to an economic embargo against Vietnam. Vietnamese leaders began the process of removing occupation forces from Cambodia in 1987 and completed it by 1989. In 1991, Vietnam signed a formal peace agreement that led to free elections and a new government for Cambodia in 1993. Unfortunately, the Cambodian government has changed several times since then and remains unstable. With the death of Pol Pot in 1998, the Khmer Rouge is no longer a factor in Cambodian politics. But Cambodia is still one of the poorest countries in the world.
Making peace with Cambodia had several positive effects for Vietnam, however. For example, Vietnam and China resumed normal diplomatic relations and began trading in 1991. In addition, Vietnam developed a strong trading relationship with other Southeast Asian countries. In 1995, Vietnam formally joined the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a cooperative organization of countries that includes Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, the Philippines, and Thailand.
Withdrawing from Cambodia also helped Vietnam to improve its relations with the United States. Due to continuing hard feelings about the war, the U.S. government established several conditions for formally recognizing Vietnam and resuming diplomatic relations. One of these conditions was that Vietnam had to help account for all the U.S. soldiers who were listed as "missing in action" during the Vietnam War.
As Vietnam worked to satisfy American demands, the U.S. government gradually eliminated the political barriers between the two countries. U.S. President Bill Clinton (1946–; president 1993–2000) ended the economic embargo in early 1994, and he resumed normal diplomatic relations on July 11, 1995. Twenty years after the Vietnam War, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and the United States opened a new chapter in their relationship.
In some areas, Vietnam shows signs of a strong economic recovery. For example, many of its major cities are booming. The streets of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon) are crowded with people riding motorbikes to work. There are fancy office buildings and hotels, shops selling hightech electronic equipment, glittering dance clubs and karaoke bars, and huge billboards advertising Coca-Cola and other Western products. The capital city of Hanoi is less busy but still highly developed, with business offices of many large foreign companies.
In the 1990s, the Vietnamese government began trying to attract Western tourists to the country, including former U.S. soldiers and their families. They even offered tours of the extensive systems of tunnels that were used by Viet Cong guerilla fighters. Observers have noted that the Vietnamese do not seem to resent Americans, although many continue to express sorrow about the war's enormous cost to both nations. For the most part, however, the Vietnamese people seem to have moved past the war. Part of the reason may be that more than half of the Vietnamese population of seventy-six million was born after the Vietnam War ended. Many people in this younger generation appear to be more interested in learning English and establishing good careers than in worrying about the past.
One project, launched in April 2000, is an attempt to turn the most well-known landmark of the Vietnam War into an opportunity for economic growth. It involves transforming parts of the Ho Chi Minh Trail—the network of jungle trails that moved troops and supplies between North and South Vietnam—into a 1,000-mile-long national highway. Vietnam officials predict that the highway will open up trade and industry to the untapped mountainous western provinces. The estimated three-year-long project is already off to a bumpy start, however, since land mines and unexploded bombs are peppered throughout the trail. This undertaking is one of many initiatives to convert war "relics." Other examples have included turning military bases into factories.
Although Vietnam shows outward signs of prosperity in the cities, it is clear that the government still has work to do. Vietnam remains one of the world's poorest nations, with an average annual income of about $300 per person. Conditions have not improved in the countryside, where peasants work in rice fields as they have for generations. Medical care is limited for the poorer segments of Vietnamese society, and disease and hunger are common problems. While the population of Vietnam has grown rapidly, the nation's farmland and natural resources have disappeared. This means that Vietnam must move toward an economy based on technology in the future. But severe shortages of trained business managers and skilled labor will make this transition difficult.
The Communist Party no longer controls every detail of people's lives, but the government's economic reforms have not been matched by wide-ranging political reforms. Vietnamese leaders do allow students and other groups to criticize their policies in a limited way. But they actively prevent rival political movements from developing. Some people in Vietnam have access to foreign television stations on satellite dishes. But Communist officials often censor the information published in newspapers and magazines.
In 1996, the Vietnamese government took steps to control the people's access to the Internet. "Hanoi is concerned that the information superhighway will not only link one of the world's poorest nations to the economic data it needs, but also give Internet surfers access to human rights reports, pornography, and the many World Wide Web sites created by overseas Vietnamese groups hostile to the government," Hiebert explains.
Despite such efforts to control opposition to their policies, the Communist Party still appears to be losing power in Vietnam. The collapse of the Soviet Union helped increase people's doubts about the wisdom of the Communist political system. In addition, many Vietnamese blame the government for causing the country's economic problems after the war. The government continues to face problems with corruption, as dishonest officials give the best land and jobs to their friends. The younger generation of Vietnamese has become interested in Western culture rather than traditional Communist ideas. As a result, membership in the Vietnamese Communist Party has decreased steadily over the years.
Some observers predict that the Vietnamese people will soon begin demanding greater freedom and individual rights. "As Vietnam's society modernizes, receives information, and joins the outside world, it seems likely that economic change will beget [produce] greater participation in the Vietnamese political process," Frederick Z. Brown predicts in Vietnam Joins the World.
Chandrasekaran, Rajiv. "Highway to the Future Built on Vietnam's Past." Washington Post, [Online] April 6, 2000.
DeBonis, Steven. Children of the Enemy: Oral Histories of Vietnamese Amerasians and Their Mothers. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1995.
Herring, George C. America's Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950–1975. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1979.
Hiebert, Murray. Chasing the Tigers: A Portrait of the New Vietnam. New York: Kodansha International, 1996.
Isaacs, Arnold R. Vietnam Shadows: The War, Its Ghosts, and Its Legacy. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.
Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam: A History. New York: Viking Press, 1983.
Morley, James W., and Masashi Nishihara, eds. Vietnam Joins the World. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1997.
Young, Marilyn B. The Vietnam Wars, 1945–1990. New York: Harper-Collins, 1991.
Words to Know
Cambodia Southeast Asian nation located on the western border of South Vietnam. During the Vietnam War, Cambodia experienced its own civil war between its pro-U.S. government and Communist rebels known as the Khmer Rouge.
Communism A political system in which the government controls all resources and means of producing wealth. By eliminating private property, this system is designed to create an equal society with no social classes. However, Communist governments in practice often limit personal freedom and individual rights.
Hanoi The capital city of Communist North Vietnam during the Vietnam War, and the capital of the reunified Socialist Republic of Vietnam afterward.
Indochina The name sometimes given to the peninsula between India and China in Southeast Asia. The term narrowly refers to Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, which were united under the name French Indochina during the colonial period, 1893–1954.
Khmer Rouge Communist-led rebel forces that fought for control of Cambodia during the Vietnam War years. The Khmer Rouge overthrew the U.S.backed government of Lon Nol in 1975, but were removed from power by Vietnamese forces in 1979.
North Vietnam The Geneva Accords of 1954, which ended the First Indochina War (1946–54), divided the nation of Vietnam into two sections. The northern section, which was led by a Communist government, was officially known as the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, but was usually called North Vietnam.
Saigon The capital city of U.S.-supported South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Also an unofficial shorthand way of referring to the South Vietnamese government.
Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV) The country created in 1976, when North Vietnam won the Vietnam War and was reunited with South Vietnam.
South Vietnam Created under the Geneva Accords of 1954, the southern section of Vietnam was known as the Republic of South Vietnam. It was led by a U.S.supported government.
People to Know
Nguyen Van Linh (1915–) Leader of the
Communist Party who was the man behind Vietnam's doi moi economic reform program.
Pol Pot (1928–1998) Head of the Communist-led Khmer Rouge forces that took control of Cambodia in 1976. As prime minister of Cambodia from 1976 to 1979, he oversaw a violent transformation of society that resulted in the deaths of up to two million citizens.
Many Vietnamese people found living conditions very difficult in their country after the Vietnam War ended. But the situation was even worse for the mixed-race children known as Amerasians. Amerasian children had American soldiers as fathers and Vietnamese women as mothers. The approximately 30,000 children born out of these wartime relationships were treated as outcasts in Vietnamese society.
In Vietnamese culture, a person's identity comes from his or her father. But the fathers of the Amerasian children had either died in the war or returned to the United States in the early 1970s, when American troops were withdrawn from Vietnam. Most of these children had very little information about their fathers. In fact, some of them were abandoned by their mothers after the war ended. As Vietnam struggled to recover from the war, many Vietnamese people resented anything that reminded them of Americans. For this reason, they looked down upon Amerasians as "children of the enemy."
The children of African American fathers received especially poor treatment in Vietnam. "All my life people had been mean to me [in Vietnam] because of my color," an Amerasian named Huong told Steven DeBonis in Children of the Enemy. "My skin is black, and my hair is curly, not like the Vietnamese, and they didn't like that."
Because of the poor treatment they received, most Amerasians wanted to leave Vietnam for the United States. U.S. policy toward Amerasians evolved during the 1980s. The Amerasian Immigration Act of 1982 recognized Amerasians as American citizens, but the lack of diplomatic relations between the United States and Vietnam prevented many Amerasians from immigrating. The Amerasian Homecoming Act of 1987 put specific programs in place to help Amerasians and their families leave Vietnam and adjust to life in the United States.
By 1990, about 22,000 Amerasians had settled in the United States. Unfortunately, only about 2 percent were able to locate and establish relationships with their fathers. Without ties in either American society or the community of Vietnamese immigrants in the United States, many Amerasians had trouble adjusting to their new home.
Nguyen Van Linh: "Vietnam's Gorbachev"
The man behind Vietnam's doi moi economic reform program was Nguyen Van Linh (pronounced en-gie-EN VAHN LIN), who became head of the Communist Party in 1986. Born in Hanoi in 1915, Nguyen Van Linh was active in the Vietnamese resistance to French rule during the colonial period. As a result of his activities, he spent a dozen years in French prisons beginning when he was fifteen. During the Vietnam War, he became a member of the Communist Party in North Vietnam.
After North Vietnam won the war in 1975, hard-line Communists made a number of changes in order to create a socialist society. The government took control of all agriculture, business, and industry in the country. Decisions about prices and other aspects of trade were made by government planners. But over the next ten years, these changes resulted in lower production of food and goods, rapidly increasing prices, and widespread poverty and hunger. By the early 1980s, some of Vietnam's leaders realized that the socialist economic policies they had put in place after the war were not working.
Although he was a longtime Communist, Nguyen Van Linh held more liberal, flexible views than many other party leaders. He began working within the government to loosen some of the restrictions on private farms and businesses. But many of the old-school Communist leaders resisted his efforts. They were afraid that allowing reforms would reduce their power. In fact, they kicked Nguyen Van Linh out of the Vietnamese government in 1982.
Rather than giving up, Nguyen Van Linh quietly encouraged the Vietnamese people to push for change. For example, he wrote an anonymous column for the Communist Party newspaper in which he criticized government leaders and their failed economic policies. When he called for citizens to write letters of complaint to party leaders, the government received thousands of messages describing the people's poverty and suffering.
By 1985, it had become clear that the socialist economic policies were causing all kinds of problems and hardships for Vietnam. Nguyen Van Linh was allowed to return to his position in the government, and the following year he became the new head of the Vietnamese Communist Party. Under his leadership, the government took a number of steps toward opening up Vietnam's economy.
Nguyen Van Linh introduced an economic reform program known as doi moi, or "renovation." This program reduced the authority of central government planners, encouraged private businesses, and attracted foreign investment. "I think that we have to push away the darkness in just the way that we have to weed a rice field so that the rice grows strong," Nguyen Van Linh said about the reforms. "The good man and good works need room to grow—we must push away bad people and bad works to make way for them." Vietnam's battered economy began to recover soon after the doi moi program was put in place.
Because of his success in opening up the Vietnamese economy, Nguyen Van Linh has been compared to Mikhail Gorbachev (1931–). As president of the Soviet Union from 1988 to 1991, Gorbachev introduced reforms that made Soviet society more democratic. He also improved his country's relations with the United States and other nations, receiving the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize for his work.