February 13, 2013

Colby professor details modern, post-war life in Vietnam

Fulbright fellow Calvin Mackenzie says locals not angry at U.S., but still live with after-effects of war

By Matt Hongoltz-Hetling mhhetling@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

WATERVILLE -- The echoes of the Vietnam War still can be heard in the Southeast Asian country, but not as loudly as one might expect, according to a local expert Wednesday.

Calvin Mackenzie, a Colby College professor who recently spent six months in the country on a Fulbright fellowship, spoke on the war's after-effects, current relations between the U.S. and Vietnam, and the massive challenges the country faces.

Mackenzie, who spent 14 months in Vietnam as a U.S. soldier during the war, said the region made an impression on him that went beyond the conflict.

"While I had left Vietnam, Vietnam never really left me," he said. "It gets under your skin. The people were delightful, warm and vivid in many ways."

A new generation of Vietnamese doesn't have the personal connection to the war that the country's elders have, Mackenzie told the crowd of about 35 people at the Colby global forum lunch.

"Nobody's angry at the U.S.," he said. "They don't teach much about it at the schools. It sort of stuns you at first."

Still, Mackenzie said, the country continues to suffer from the military conflict that was fought on its soil.

Experts estimate that hundreds of thousands of tons of unexploded landmines and cluster bombs are scattered throughout the country, where they have killed 100,000 Vietnamese since the conclusion of the war, Mackenzie said.

He said about 50,000 birth defects and an elevated number of miscarriages spanning three generations are attributed to Agent Orange, a chemical weapon that was used to defoliate large tracts of Vietnamese jungle.

A joint effort between the U.S. and Vietnam continues to search for those categorized as missing in action during the conflict. About 1,300 Americans and 300,000 Vietnamese are still missing, Mackenzie said.

Mackenzie, a professor of government who has written several books on American politics, also described the challenges that Vietnam is facing now, about 20 years after the ruling communist party first converted to capitalist economic policies.

As in China, the introduction of capitalism into Vietnam spurred a period of double-digit economic growth; but unlike China, the country's ruling government failed to invest in resources that would have made continued progress easier.

As a result, he said, the country has terrible infrastructure, a terrible higher education system and little technology.

The brief boom has resulted in enormous economic inequalities, he said, with 20 percent of workers earning less than $2 per day, even as luxury cars crowd the city streets.

Mackenzie said a culture of extortion and bribery permeates society, with families paying bribes to teachers and hospitals for education and medical care, motorcyclists paying bribes to police to keep their licenses, and high-level university administrative positions being bought and sold.

"The people hate it, but they have to play that game, because they want their children to succeed at school and they don't want to have their licenses taken away," Mackenzie said. "Turning that culture around is going to be a very big challenge."

Partnerships between the U.S. and Vietnam have been improving steadily since the 1990s, when President Bill Clinton first normalized relations between the two countries, he said.

Today the U.S. spends about $140 million in foreign aid and engages in about $22 billion in trade with Vietnam, he said, a number that is growing by 10 percent a year.

One of the biggest Vietnamese imports in the U.S. is shrimp.

"If you see shrimp in Hannaford or Shaw's, there's a very good chance it came from Vietnam," he said.

Mackenzie said the Vietnamese people are extremely happy with the recent appointment of Vietnam veteran John Kerry as U.S. secretary of state because Kerry, along with Arizona Sen. John McCain, has been a prominent and sympathetic visitor to the country.

"It's about as good a thing as could have happened to them," he said.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling -- 861-9287
mhhetling@centralmaine.com

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