[NOTE OF EXPLANATION: Duong Van Mai Elliott’s book, The Sacred Willow, is a well-researched account of her family’s long history in Vietnam. Particularly interesting for me are the historical narratives of political intrigue and corruption that rooted themselves in the Republic of South Vietnam. The following excerpt from Elliott’s book recounts the general situation during the last several years of President Nguyen Van Thieu’s regime (1967-1975). Bold is my emphasis.]
The city boomed, reaching a level of affluence that it had never known before… Life was so good for those who benefited from the money the United States was pouring in that, after the Americans went home, they would later refer to this period as the “golden age.” Imports financed by American aid continued to arrive. …Luxury goods became more widely available. …Unlike in the North, there were no acute wartime shortages and no rationing. Rice production was falling sharply as peasants fled their land, but the Americans replaced the lost supplies with imports. Besides the legal imports, we could get an incredible array of goods that were siphoned off from the bulging American warehouses and Post Exchanges (PXs) and sold on the street. …From this time onward, Saigon residents would become attached to American consumer products, clinging to their favorite brands like a marketer’s dream come true….
The newly affluent class included many who stole without qualm from the Americans. Some of the goods available on the black market had been pilfered from the U.S. military bases.… The American themselves were not immune to corruption, and some would accept bribes and turn the other way to let the Vietnamese carry out what they wanted. To the Vietnamese who got rich this way, taking from the Americans was not really wrong, first of all because they were foreigners and normal ethical principles need not be applied to them, and, second, because they had so much that they would not miss what they lost.
The upshot of billions of dollars circulating in a country the size of Texas was that people had more money to spend. Supply could not keep up with demand, and prices shot up. But although people grumbled about inflation, only those who were not benefiting financially from the war had a hard time making ends meet. The countryside and Saigon in particular became schizophrenic. At the bottom were the many peasants who were paying in lives and limbs lost, and in homes and fields destroyed by the war. At the top, life could not have been better for the corrupt officers and officials, for men and women working as clerks for the Americans, for building contractors, and for real estate owners. It was also good for those catering to the Americans’ needs, from prostitutes who could earn more than the head of a government ministry, to tailors, to cyclo and taxi drivers taking free-spending G.I.s around town on their furloughs, to the maids toiling for them. Some Vietnamese, watching greed displacing traditional values, complained that the American presence had turned society upside-down. In the old days, the social order was expressed in the saying “scholars first, peasants second, artisans third, and merchants fourth.” But now, according to these disillusioned traditionalists, this saying should be changed to “prostitutes first, cyclo drivers second, taxi drivers third, and maids fourth.” …This social upheaval finally turned some of these educated Vietnamese against the American intervention, although they knew it was keeping the communists at bay.