LIFTING the United States embargo against Vietnam would be good for American business. But the best reason for lifting the embargo is to promote multiparty democracy in Vietnam by undermining communist control. A more open political process would make it easier to obtain more information about Americans still missing in action (MIAs) from the Vietnam War.
The key to political reform in Vietnam is private enterprise. The Vietnamese Communists are vulnerable to democratic pressures because of their policy of free-market reform. Their official political rhetoric is still Marxist-Leninist, but their economic reality is increasingly Adam Smith and Milton Friedman.
I recently lectured on the virtues of private enterprise at the Ho Chi Minh University in Vietnam with no fear of government reaction. A lecture on the virtues of multiparty democracy would have been an entirely different matter. Vietnamese Communists are far less interested in maintaining their socialist purity than in maintaining their political power. In 1986 the Vietnamese government embraced private enterprise reforms in desperation after having inflicted more damage on its economy with socialism than France and America had inflicted with military might. These reforms are working.
Despite the US embargo, Vietnam's economy is now growing rapidly. It would grow even faster if the embargo were lifted; the US economy would also benefit.
For many Americans, particularly those with loved ones still missing in action from the Vietnam War, Vietnam's economic success (and ours) is secondary to the fact that its political regime remains closed, undemocratic, and insensitive to basic human rights.
Any economic cost we suffer from the embargo would be a small price to pay if it forced the Vietnamese government to become more democratic and forthcoming on humanitarian concerns.
Unfortunately, the embargo is counterproductive. The fastest path to an open and democratic government in Vietnam, and to information about our MIAs, is one that gives priority to the success of Vietnam's private-enterprise reform. This is the reason the US embargo should be lifted. Opening up Vietnam to American trade and investment would help the Vietnamese Communists achieve a vibrant private-enterprise economy that would soon erode their power from within. An open and democratic political process is a luxury good more likely to take root in a prosperous economy than an impoverished one.
The Communist leaders in Vietnam will resist external pressure for political reform with their well-known tenacity. But they will not be able to resist the internal pressure for multiparty democracy that always comes with the prosperity that only private enterprise can deliver.
Let's lift the embargo against Vietnam and help its Communist autocrats undermine their political power. Vietnamese communism has withstood the destructive assault of French and American military power, but it cannot long survive the productive opportunities unleashed by private enterprise. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.