A Fleeting Stone Age

A Fleeting Stone Age

More than 30 years after the end of the Vietnam War, the most heavily bombed regions seem to be slightly better off than similar villages throughout Vietnam that escaped the explosives.

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The source: “Bombing Vietnam: The Long-­Term ­Economic Consequences” by Edward Miguel and Gérard Roland, in The Milken Institute Review, Fourth Quarter, ­2006.

If the North Vietnamese don’t stop their aggression, warned Air Force chief of staff Curtis E. LeMay in 1965, “we’re going to bomb them back into the Stone Age.” And he tried. In all, the United States dropped 7.6 million tons of bombs on Indo­china, three times the tonnage in all of World War II. It amounted to 200 pounds per person, but roughly 70 percent of all ord­nance was dropped on only 10 percent of Indochinese provinces. Quang Tri Province took the brunt, write Edward Miguel and Gérard Roland, economists at the University of California, Berkeley. Only 11 of 3,500 villages in that South Vietnamese jurisdiction went ­unscathed.

Quang Tri, therefore, should be the test of the Stone Age meta­phor. ­Thirty-­two years after the last American helicopter lifted off the roof of the Saigon embassy, is that rural province in the central part of Vietnam poorer, less de­vel­oped, more depopulated, or more backward than the rest of the country? Surprisingly, it is the opposite, write the authors. The most heavily bombed regions are slightly better off than similar villages throughout Viet­nam that escaped the explo­sives. The Quang Tri area has exper­ienced moder-ate reductions in ­long-­term pov­erty, somewhat better access to electricity, and faster consump­tion growth than similar, un­bombed provinces. The results are comparable to those recently reported about heavily bombed cities in ­post–World War ­II Japan and ­Germany.

The authors say some “leap­frogging” may have occurred in Quang Tri as it bypassed intermediate steps in areas such as rural electrification and modernized after the war. Its ­popu­lation—­much of which fled or hid during the conflict—­has surpassed ­pre-­war levels. Miguel and Roland found no statistically significant impact of the bombing on con­temporary literacy rates, school enrollment, physical infra­structure, or the proportion of skilled workers. Heavily bombed areas do have higher disability rates, the authors say. They were unable to collect data on unex­ploded bombs, untriggered land mines, or the long-term effects of the use of the herbicide Agent ­Orange.

It is likely that the bombing retarded the economic growth of the entire country, the authors write, but the legacy of the war clearly did not prevent Vietnam from achieving growth in gross domestic product per capita that has been among the fastest in the world in recent years. The Stone Age was ­fleeting.

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