Vietnam's hard road to recovery

For 16 days last summer we were guests of the National Center for Scientific Research in Vietnam. We were visiting the country to examine the long-term effects of the herbicidal attacks during the Vietnam conflict and to gather information on the social impact of the war on children.

The trip was both inspiring and depressing. We found the scientists, educators, and social workers to be laboring with spirit and dedication on the enormous tasks of postwar reconstruction. Yet widespread deprivation imposed severe constraints on their efforts. They were hampered even by such mundane shortages as of chemical reagents, of laboratory supplies, of minor spare parts such as batteries and lamp bulbs, of electrical power, of gasoline, and even of paper. A pervasive fear of China, reinforced by millennia of troubles from the north, either directly or indirectly, underlies the diversion of much in the way of goods and services from the civil to the military sector of society. Vietnam's involvement with Cambodia -- which it sees as part of the greater China problem -- aggravates this situation.

The great majority of scientists in Vietnam are engaged in applied research directed toward agricultural and other development. This work is meant to lead toward postwar rehabilitation and a return to self-sufficiency in food and other staples. One of our main objectives was to observe the effects of the war on the ecology of both inland and coastal forest areas that had been herbicidally attacked during the war. Herbaceous grasses or shrubby bamboos now covered the previously herbicide-destroyed inland areas, except in some places in hilly terrain where erosion has laid bare the bedrock. Large standing dead tree trunks were still evident everywhere. These were being harvested for firewood or, where possible, for timber. Large areas of the destroyed inland forest were being converted to agriculture. Some of these areas newly converted to agriculture seemed to us to be better suited to forest. A modest reforestation program was underway on some sites.

At least some sort of vegetation is now also growing, with the exception of some relatively small areas, on the coastal forest lands we visited in the Mekong Delta that had been rendered barren by the war. However, most of the relacement species are not useful to the Vietnamese. VAluable mangrove trees and palms are being replanted on a small scale directly from seed gathered in the wild. Here again the former forest land is being converted to agricultural uses, but difficulties arise owing to the saline conditions. In a few places an attempt is being made to develop shrimp culture.

It is clear that the Vietnamese are anxious to restore or establish professional contacts with foreign colleagues. The scientists and educators we met expressed particular interests in epidemiology, cytogenetics, forest ecology , marine biology, and physical chemistry. We noted a great paucity of current texts and other professional literature and of equipment and supplies.

Where Vietnamese scientists are faced with hardship, teachers and social workers in the south are faced with a seemingly overwhelming burden of postwar problems. The massive foreign presence and enormous influx of refugees into Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh city) during the war years have left a legacy of prostitution, drug addiction, venereal diseases, black marketeering, and unemployment. The resultant essential restructuring of the society and population relocations with their attendant hardships have precipitated the departure of many of those affected, including especially former middle-class residents. The large population of orphans, many of whom are half American, the many homeless street urchins, and the increased number of children with physical problems are all attributable to the war or the resultant cultural deterioration and malaise. Social welfare agencies, schools, orphanages, and hospitals must function under considerable hardships that include shortages of trained staff and, once again, insufficient equipment, books, and supplies.

In spite of the enormity of the task before them, many dedicated Vietnamese seem to have limitless patience and ability to sacrifice and have made significant gains in their efforts to solve these special problems.

It is clear that the road to recovery for Vietnam will continue to be difficult, and that the future is in some ways bleak. We hope that the United States will be able to assume a future role in the postwar recovery efforts, if for no other reason than to counter Vietnam's growing dependence upon the Soviet Union. The scars of war are healing slowly, but the people of Vietnam place great value on the individual need for human dignity, respect, and love and are thus intent on over- coming their social, economic, and environmental problems.

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