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Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, the United States, and the Modern Historical Experience.

Anatomy of a War, published by Pantheon in 1985, has been reissued without apparent revision to the original text, presumably for the sole purpose of showcasing a provocative forty-four-page "Postcript." In it, the post-reunification Vietnamese leadership comes in for a rather depressing tonguelashing at the hands of their former confidant and sometime champion, the author and historian Gabriel Kolko.

The charge? That classic provender of the Far Left - a sellout. In his "reassessment" of their "entire experience," Kolko argues that the Vietnamese have been stampeded down the capitalist road when they should have - indeed, could have - continued along the path of revolutionary socialism.

Even under these somewhat cranky circumstances, a new edition of Anatomy of a War is a welcome event. This is, after all, a monumental work, synthesized from a vast quantity of raw data and ordered within a methodological framework that the historian Marvin Gettleman once described as "plain Marxist" - which might suggest to some a blend of zeal and orthodoxy worthy of John Calvin.

Kolko has molded a historical epic from the actions, and the motive forces behind them, of the four principal actors of the "American war" - the northern and southern communists, the Americans, and their Vietnamese allies. Anatomy of a War remains the definitive scholarly response to the question posed to the American public by Lyndon Johnson in 1965 - but never satisfactorily answered by any of the war's apologists, even at this late date: "Why Vietnam?"

Despite a tendency toward repetitiveness, extending to certain key points and a few stock metaphors (more "vacuums" are created and filled in Kolko's prose than in a high-school physics class), there is a relentless, penetrating intelligence guiding this work from start to finish. And naturally for those of us who, with Kolko, recognize the justice of Vietnam's victory, the reading is bound to produce a certain grim satisfaction as we relive the glory days of that grand check to imperial power and world capitalist expansion, whose every step Kolko documents and analyzes with precision.

But now, nearly twenty years after that dramatic setback to U.S. designs for hegemony over Vietnam, the capitalist fox - if I may turn Hubert Humphrey's anticommunist barnyard homily on its head - has found economics to be a more effective means for wheedling its way back into the Little Red Hen House. This, at least, is the tenor of Kolko's Postscript," where he charges, unequivocally, that the struggle in Vietnam for "a more rational and humane form of sociatism" is being sacrificed" in favor of what he repeatedly characterizes as a scheme to restore capitalism inspired by the Intemational Monetary Fund and the World Bank. A "market system under state management," the Vietnamese call it.

For Kolko, this turnabout represents a grotesque irony because such a system, in his view, might have been "attained, albeit under different rulers, had the Americans been allowed to run South Vietnam as they did other Asian `tigers' [Taiwan and South Korea, for example] ... models that Hanoi's leaders openly aspire to emulate."

This is a low blow, but its sardonic intent underscores Kolko's deep dissatisfaction with a majority of the Politburo members who have governed Vietnam since 1975, leaders he portrays as "lackluster ... apparatchiks" and "mediocre" old men. Not only does he accuse these cadres of betraying the interests of their own "poor peasant" masses, but also of breaking faith with "far-flung antiwar activists," who, like Kolko, didn't just oppose the war but supported "the Revolution's social goals."

This "promise ... destroyed" is for Kolko very much a personal affair. A preface for the new edition might have smoothed the transition between the two narratives - that of the 1985 Kolko, full of critical admiration for the Revolution, the Party, and its leadership, and that of the 1994 Kolko. But the emotion of disillusionment so dominant in the "Postscript" gives the book a schizophrenic quality, though the substance of Kolko's criticisms cannot be ignored simply because they are packaged in the charged rhetoric of "a prophet betrayed."

The background giving rise to these criticisms can be summed up as follows: In 1975, the Vietnamese leadership, flush with victory and optimism, faced the daunting task of rebuilding a country that had been ideologically divided and subjected to thirty years of savage warfare. An extension of North Vietnam's socialist orientation to the South, more or less in tune with the Soviet model, was a foregone conclusion.

The many efforts over the next decade to speed Vietnam's newly unified economy toward a socialist transformation were slowed dramatically, however, following a Party Congress in December 1986, when doi moi, the "new thinking," ushered in a series of reforms to combat runaway inflation and widespread corruption among government officials.

The ultimate subordination of the Vietnamese economy to "market principles," however, did not really accelerate until after 1989, following the steady disintegration of the U.S.S.R. and the Eastern Bloc countries. Vietnam lost virtually all the foreign aid and protected markets of fraternal communist nations. But also its general failure to increase productivity and wealth through a system of state-owned industry and collectivized agriculture was interpreted to mean that the Party had moved too quickly in its desire to create a classless society.

"It is an illusion," the leadership would later conclude, "to wish to advance directly to socialism without going through the stage of capitalist development."

Thus, the Soviet-style command economy has been rapidly dismantled, bringing an end to state subsidies in many forms, including significant amounts spent on education and health care. Large tracts of land have been returned to the private sector, where it can now be legally concentrated into fewer and fewer hands, leading - in the short run, at least - to population transfers from the countryside to the cities and a swelling of unemployment and homelessness.

The goal of achieving socialism has been shelved until more propitious times, but not abandoned, its pulse - however weak - being kept alive by the very existence of the Leninist Party. Such, at least, is the new line of the Politburo. The basic idea is: Party + Capitalism = Socialism, a formula Kolko vehemently rejects as an intrinsic impossibility.

Vietnam's economy has indeed been struggling since 1975. The cause of its weakness, however, was not, Kolko insists, the Party's premature drive toward socialism, but rather the protracted hostilities involving its neighbors - hostilities which, in turn, depleted Vietnam's human and financial resources and subjected the nation to an intemational trade embargo.
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Author:Uhl, Michael
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Feb 1, 1995
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