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UC Berkeley Press Release

UC Berkeley researchers report little impact on Vietnam's economic resilience of massive bombing

– With Vietnam the key target of intense serial bombing by the United States in the 1960s and '70s, two University of California, Berkeley, economists figured the country's economy must still be suffering today.

But after launching a study two years ago of how the country is faring, they found the opposite.

Edward Miguel, a UC Berkeley assistant professor of economics, and Gerard Roland, a UC Berkeley professor of economics, say the country is thriving, and that there's no difference between the economic health of districts hardest hit by bombs, missiles and other ordnance, and those least affected.

Roland and Miguel acknowledge there is no way to forecast how Vietnam would have done economically without the war that ended with American defeat and the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975. But Miguel said that their examination of poverty rates, consumption levels, infrastructure, literacy and population density shows a remarkable recovery in wake of devastation.

"The general message that comes out is that Vietnam is doing well now. It's recovering well," Roland said. "This is a country that is the most bombed in world war history. This happened 30 years ago, and look how they're doing now. We can't even find a difference between the heavily bombed areas and the less heavily bombed areas."

"This is a unique case. The Vietnamese deserve credit for incredible resilience, despite the possibility of being trapped in poverty and devastation, they get credit for bouncing back," said Miguel, whose interest in conflict and economic development has led him to study causes of violence in Africa. He will travel later this year to Sierra Leone, which recently called a truce to its long-term civil war, to study post-war development there.

Miguel said the areas of Vietnam that were heavily bombed were targeted with hundreds of pounds of missiles and rockets per capita during the war, yet today those places have better electricity systems in place than before the attacks.

At the same time, he and Roland noted that other costs of the Vietnam War, such as millions of displaced people and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians, were horrendous and cannot be measured in economic terms.

Today's Vietnam, a country that has long since reunited its wartime North Vietnam/South Vietnam divisions, has undergone a "boom based on small and medium entrepreneurship that's massive," Roland said. The economic growth rate since the early '90s has hovered around a healthy 6 percent per capita, he added.

That boom isn't based on the success of any particular industry, such as high technology or the garment trade, he said. Instead, it includes coffee plantations, agricultural productivity, fish farmers, small business owners, small artisans, tourism and more.

"We were really surprised, because when you think of the gravity of the bombing (an average of 30 bombs, missiles and rockets per square kilometer of Vietnam, about the size of the UC Berkeley campus) and you look at some of the maps, it was bombed flat," Roland said.

"It's an amazing history," said Miguel.

He and Roland found that the more heavily bombed districts had slightly less poverty in the 1990s than other districts.

The researchers began their study by accessing a U.S. database, assembled by the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, which is housed at the U.S. National Archives and was declassified in 1975. The database reflects the amount of general purpose bombs, cluster bombs, chemicals, rockets, missiles, projectiles, flares and other bomb types as well as where they were dropped.

The database, Miguel and Roland said, did not reflect Agent Orange or comprehensive landmine usage.

However, records did show, they said, that the U.S. Air Force dropped 6.1 million tons of bombs and other ordnance in Indochina from 1964 to 1975, while the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps contributed another 1.5 million bombs.

That compares to 2.1 million tons of munitions during World War II, and 454,000 in the Korean War, they said.

After World War II, West German cities rebounded fairly quickly, while East Germany's did not, according to their research.

"There's no general answer. In some countries," Roland said, "despite the devastation, the recovery can be fast - 20 or 30 years. In other countries, it may be completely destroyed for centuries. It depends on the kind of institutions the country has."

Miguel and Roland found that the U.S. bombing in Vietnam was concentrated - with about 70 percent happening in 10 percent of the country's 600 districts, in some 61 provinces, and the heaviest bombing occurring in Quang Tri province near the 17th parallel, the former border between North Vietnam and South Vietnam. Just 11 of 3,500 Quang Tri villages were not bombed, and most of the province's infrastructure and capital were leveled, leaving some of its villages still struggling economically today.

In the former North Vietnam, coastal regions and some districts of Hanoi were heavily bombed, along with the "Iron Triangle" adjacent to Cambodia near Saigon in the south. The triangle was the site of frequent incursions by North Vietnamese troops and Vietcong guerillas through the Ho Chi Minh Trail running from North Vietnam through Laos and Cambodia.

When Roland and Miguel launched their research, they listed several reasons why they suspected the bombing would have long-range impacts on Vietnam:

- Destruction of local infrastructure could inhibit commerce and alter later investment patterns by pushing investment to not-so-heavily bombed regions.

- Bombings displaced populations on a large scale, which could easily disrupt local economic activity.

- Population displacement and destruction of physical infrastructure, such as schools, could hinder future economic prospects.

But the economists attribute their surprising findings to a number of factors, including:

- Most U.S. bombing targeted South Vietnam with the aim of impeding the progress of enemy troops and occurred in rural areas with little fixed infrastructure to repair or replace. Forest and farmland destruction has largely repaired itself over time.

- The North Vietnamese sought to minimize bombing damage by dispersing industrial operations among multiple sites, and by sending up to half a million people to work full-time on rebuilding damaged infrastructure.

- The Vietnamese government mobilized labor and resources after the war to de-mine the countryside and rebuild damaged infrastructure.

- Population displacement caused by bombing was largely temporary, because the Vietnamese developed elaborate ways to avoid injury, such as hiding in underground tunnels where they stored supplies and even held classes.

- Large-scale school expansion and literacy campaigns for children and adults were carried out in the '60s and '70s by the North Vietnamese, helping to build an able, educated post-war workforce.

In addition, Roland and Miguel wrote in their report, "the war undoubtedly fostered a strong sense of Vietnamese nationalism and accelerated the development of capable North Vietnamese institutions, and both of these effects may have contributed to faster post-war economic recovery."

While Vietnam offers important lessons, they said, most wars today are civil conflicts based on internal aggression that often worsens the political and social divisions within countries and weakens existing national institutions.

"If you have a civil war in Rwanda, or Congo or Sierra Leone, the results can be the exact opposite," Miguel said. "After the war, you have to live exactly with the people who you were fighting, someone who killed your brother or your sister, you have to work together in parliament and live together in the same streets. The sort of social divisions that war creates can't be just papered over."

Also, the economists said military warfare since Vietnam has changed to focus more on shorter-term assaults with technologically-precise, targeted rocketry and bombing, rather than the carpet bombing approach employed in Southeast Asia.

Their research is in its early phases. They plan to continue researching impacts of the Vietnam War, next investigating long-term health impacts of the war through childhood malnutrition and related shorter-than-normal height.