UC Berkeley News


Bombing of Vietnam had no long-term impact on its economic growth
Human cost of the war is impossible to quantify - but researchers credit unified nation's economy for its postwar 'resilience'

| 04 May 2005

With Vietnam the key target of intense serial bombing by the United States in the 1960s and '70s, two Berkeley economists figured the country's economy must still be suffering today. But after launching a study two years ago of how the Southeast Asian country is faring, they found the opposite.

The amount of U.S. ordnance directed at targets in Indochina between 1964 and 1975 more than doubled the combined tonnage exploded in World War II and Korea.
Edward Miguel, an assistant professor of economics, and Gerard Roland, a professor of economics, say Vietnam is thriving, and that there's no difference between the economic health of districts hardest hit by bombs, missiles, and other American 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 America's defeat and the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975. But Miguel says that their examination of poverty rates, consumption levels, infrastructure, literacy, and population density shows a remarkable recovery in the wake of devastation.

"The general message that comes out is that Vietnam is doing well now. It's recovering well," Roland says. "Thirty years ago they were more heavily bombed than any nation in history, 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," says Miguel. "The Vietnamese deserve credit for incredible resilience, for bouncing back."

Miguel says 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 the human cost of the Vietnam war - millions of displaced people and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians - were horrendous and cannot be measured in economic terms.

Today's unified Vietnam has undergone "a massive boom based on small and medium entrepreneurship," Roland says, with an economic-growth rate that since the early '90s has hovered around a healthy 6 percent per capita. That boom isn't based on the success of any particular industry, such as high technology or the garment trade, he says. 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 and you look at some of the maps, it was bombed flat," Roland says. Records housed in the National Archives - which reflect the amount of general-purpose bombs, cluster bombs, chemicals, rockets, missiles, projectiles, flares, and other bomb types dropped on Indochina during the U.S. war there (as well as where they were dropped) - show 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 total far outstrips the 2.1 million tons of munitions used by the U.S. during World War II, and the 454,000 tons exploded in the Korean War.

After World War II, West German cities re-bounded fairly quickly, while East Germany's did not, according to the researchers.

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

Miguel and Roland found that 70 percent of the U.S. bombing in Vietnam was concentrated in 10 percent of the country's 600 districts, in some 61 provinces. The heaviest bombing occurred in Quang Tri province near the 17th parallel, the former border between North Vietnam and South Vietnam. Only 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 along the Ho Chi Minh Trail running from North Vietnam through Laos and Cambodia.

At the outset of their research, Roland and Miguel had several reasons to suspect that U.S. bombing would have had long-range impacts on Vietnam. Destruction of local infrastructures could inhibit commerce and alter later investment patterns by pushing investment to not-so-heavily bombed regions. Further, by displacing populations on a large scale, bombings could easily have disrupted local economic activity.

Their surprising finding of economic resilience may be attributed to a number of factors:

. Most U.S. bombing targeted South Vietnam with the aim of impeding the progress of enemy troops. Because it 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;

. After the war, the Vietnamese government mobilized labor and resources 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 postwar 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 say, 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," says Miguel, who will travel later this year to Sierra Leone - which recently called a truce in its long-term civil war - to study postwar development there. "After the war, you have to live with the people who you were fighting, with 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, say Miguel and Roland, military warfare has changed since Vietnam to focus more on shorter-term assaults using technologically precise, targeted rocketry and bombing, rather than the carpet-bombing approach employed in Southeast Asia.