The United States government has adopted an extraordinarily mean-spirited policy toward acute food shortages in Vietnam, a policy that puts power politics ahead of sound strategy and humanitarian concern. This policy features the calculated denial of human needs in Indochina as exemplified by the refusal in early May to allow the Mennonite Central Committee to ship 250 tons of wheat flour to Vietnam. That decision has been reversed owing to strong criticism from religious and political leaders, but the underlying policy of deprivation remains in effect.
I traveled through Vietnam and Cambodia in September 1979 as a member of the first American delegation to visit Phnom Penh since 1975. Our Quaker group was shocked by the devastation, trauma, and mounting famine that we saw in Cambodia. As successive visitors reported on these desperate conditions, a massive relief effort was undertaken to fend off the starvation of the Khmer people. That effort has been largely successful. Americans responded generously through church and voluntary agencies and with major governmental aid contributions to an international consortium. Joel Charny of Oxfam America reported recently that a fragile rebirth has been achieved in the Cambodian countryside symbolized in the renewed sound of cowbells. What a welcome change from the desolate silence of 1979.
There are a number of basic points on which field workers and agencies engaged in Cambodian famine relief would agree. Whatever military and security concerns led the Vietnamese to invade Cambodia, they have supplied large amounts of food and other relief aid to the Khmers despite existing shortages in Vietnam. Many Khmers were kept alive by this assistance until the international relief effort took hold.
Cambodians were and are nearly unanimous in welcoming the overthrow of the murderous Pol Pot regime. They fear its return to power far more than they resent continued Vietnamese military presence in their country. As a result, American efforts to punish Vietnam for the invasion and occupation defy the evident wishes of the Cambodian people so long as the Pol Pot group retains any semblance of legitimacy.
Yet our administration has already indicated that it will vote for a third time at the United Nations next fall to seat Pol Pot's clique as the sole authorized government of Cambodia. The moral and strategic merit of this position can be compared to the appropriateness of supporting the return to power of the Nazis in 1946, 1947 and 1948 as a way of driving the Russians out of East Germany.
Our government's anounced policy is to squeeze and deprive Vietnam in every way we can until they pull out of Cambodia. To escalate the hurting, Vietnam is to be denied disaster relief and humanitarian aid including food (with rare exceptions).
We ignore the wished of the Khmers and the hunger of the Vietnamese in order to play superpower hardball against Vietnam's patron, the Soviet Union. Any shortages in Vietnam help to drain the USSR. Perversely, due to domestic political considerations, the administration cancelled the grain embargo against the very same designated archvillain of the Reagan-Haig world view. Thus the Soviet Union can again buy American grain (some of which may be shipped to Vietnam) while American church agencies are initially told that they cannot send relief supplies of wheat to Vietnam.
Vietnam's food shortages arise from several causes. The main factor is the overall damage and dislocation of the long war. Vietnam has also been hampered by serious mismanagement and by the withdrawal of aid projects. Most immediately destructive have been a series of disastrous droughts and floods. The Food and Agriculture Organization reports that Vietnam's request for extensive food aid is "fully justified and urgently needed" and "will be used effectively and will reach the intended beneficiaries."
Americans have a strong tradition of charitable and relief aid to people in distress, especially to children victimized by natural or manmade calamities. Empty bellies should be filled without resort to confrontation politics. Many would also argue that we have a special responsibility to help a people whose land we so massively devastated in war.
Even if the Reagan Administration chooses not to extend government assistance to Vietnam, licence denials to block food shipments by private and religious agencies are unconscionable and must not be repeated. When Americans of deep conviction and goodwill seek to feed the hungry in any land, the government should put no obstacles in their way. Denying licenses to send food to Vietnam infringes the religious liberty of church groups who are committed to help all who suffer without regard to political considerations. More broadly, the food denial policy violates the basic decency and compassion of the American people.