President Bush's speech comparing the U.S. commitment to Iraq to America's historic withdrawal from the Vietnam war has, of course, special resonance here in Vietnam. I've lived in Vietnam since 2001 and I've yet to meet a resident of this country (even among the dozens of dissidents I've interviewed for TIME) who has expressed a wish that the war had continued. Of course, it's significant that nearly 60% of Vietnam's population was born after the war and grew up with state propaganda about what's called here the "American War." Still, most Vietnamese I've spoken with echo the sentiment of their neighbors in postwar Cambodia, where I lived in the late 1990s. Cambodians routinely told me their greatest fear was a renewed civil war, even more than political repression, which while wrong and reprehensible, can at least be avoided by keeping your head down.
Indeed, while Bush referred to the suffering of "boat people" and those who had to endure harsh "re-education," he did not cite the number that the Vietnamese will never forget. By 1973, when the U.S. withdrew its troops under the Paris Peace Accords that divided the country into communist north and capitalist south, a stunning 3 million Vietnamese soldiers and civilians on both sides had died (as did 58,000 American soldiers died as well). Vietnam's communist government responded to the Bush speech with a pointed statement that made no mention of Iraq: "Regarding the U.S. war in Vietnam, we all know we conducted a war to protect our nation."
One wonders what would be Bush's alternative vision of the Vietnam withdrawal? How many more people American and Vietnamese would have died in the fighting and bombings and spraying of toxic chemicals like Agent Orange if the U.S. had "stayed the course" in a prolonged Vietnam War? And if the U.S. military had actually stayed in South Vietnam past 1973, would Hanoi really have been in a position to invade Cambodia when the Khmer Rouge took over and began its murderous reign? The Khmer Rouge's genocidal regime was finally ended in 1979 with an invasion by the communist Vietnamese army.
We'll also never know what might have happened if U.S. troops had stayed in South Vietnam after the 1973 peace treaty and prevented or repelled the 1975 North Vietnamese invasion that unified the country under communist rule. It's possible that if that kind of armistice had been negotiated, the former Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) would now be an economic powerhouse on on par with Seoul, instead of a still-poor, low-income but fast-growing economic center. This never-was South Vietnam might even have developed into a multi-party democracy as South Korea eventually did.
It is of course tempting to imagine Iraq as Vietnam is today. While still a Communist-run regime that brutally persecutes political dissent, Vietnam is nonetheless stable, peaceful and one of the world's fastest-growing economies, second in Asia only to China for growth in the past decade. A 2006 Gallup poll, in fact, judged Vietnam's population of 84 million as the world's most optimistic for the fourth year in a row, with 94% of urban Vietnamese predicting life would improve in 2007 (vs. 73% in Chinese cities). For the past decade, Hanoi has also been an official U.S ally, and Vietnamese military ties with the U.S. have been increasing. There is even speculation that the U.S. company Westinghouse may provide a reactor for Vietnam's planned (peaceful, and U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency-approved) nuclear power program, scheduled to go on-line in 2020.
But for all of that to happen, the war had to end.