A Tale of Real Hardship[Fool on the Hill] May 3, 2000

An Investment Opinion

A Tale of Real Hardship

By Bill Mann (TMF Otter)
May 3, 2000

A very big anniversary just came and went without too much fanfare over the past week. Part of this has to do with the fact that half of South Florida and all of Washington, D.C. have lost their collective minds over the proper place for a 6-year-old boy to live. Also, we still are awfully caught up in such things as how the stock market is going to react to a Microsoft (NYSE: MSFT) breakup, and other "big" issues. But the other part is that many Americans still don't know what to think about, or how to face, the particular chapter of American history I'm talking about.

Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese 25 years ago this past weekend, ending the Vietnam War in defeat for the U.S. and its South Vietnamese allies.

I was six when Saigon fell. But the closing days of the Vietnam War served as a backdrop for my first education in the ways of the world, including the stock market. I remember wondering which topic would come up first on the evening news, which I always would watch with my dad: Vietnam, Watergate, Angola, OPEC, or this thing called the Dow, which at the time was hovering between 700 and 800 points. To say that this experience gave me any deep insight into Vietnam would be completely ridiculous, but seeing the images of war at such a young age affected me very deeply.

Two years ago I had the opportunity to go to Vietnam on business. This place, this sore on America's collective psyche, is one of the most gentle, beautiful places on earth. It is also, People's Socialist Republic of Vietnam be damned, imbued deeply with the spirit of capitalism and American-style materialism. ATMs in Ho Chi Minh City dispense U.S. dollars. Coca-Cola (NYSE: KO), Hewlett Packard (NYSE: HWP), Lucent (NYSE: LU), 3M (NYSE: MMM), and even Baskin Robbins have a significant presence in Vietnam. Sit for a few minutes in the lobby of one of the huge Western-owned hotels in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), and you will hear the pitter-patter of commercial endeavors springing up everywhere. If there is a city on earth that fails to represents the ideology of Ho Chi Minh, it's the one that is named after him. If anything, Ho Chi Minh City today is an ironic reminder of the failure of communism to take root in this city, the prize of the Vietnam War.

It didn't seem possible that just eight years before that Vietnam had been closed to the outside world. It seemed even less likely that within my cognizant lifetime that thousands of Americans had died in vain trying to keep this land out of Communist hands. But Vietnam opened back up in 1989, and has since gone to great lengths to get Americans to come and invest there. My immediate impressions of Vietnam made me wonder what we had lost after all. Or what it was that we would have ever gained by the sacrifice of so many people -- American, Vietnamese, and others.

Think about how much has changed since the Vietnam War ended. North Vietnam's biggest benefactor, the USSR, has ceased to exist, replaced by a country which, but for its nuclear weapons and its huge material wealth, would be best described as "hardly relevant." China, the North's other pal, has not shaken off the Communist form of government, but also practices a very Machiavellian form of a market economy. In the U.S., we have gone from praying that our sons, brothers, sisters, or dads come home alive to worrying about whether our portfolio drops a percent or two each day. We at The Motley Fool see a great number of tales of financial woe from individuals out there. People have seen stocks they own go down, and that evil Alan Greenspan keeps taking away hard-begotten gains by raising interest rates.

Is this really all that we can get in a dander about? Is this as bad as life will ever get for most of us? There are hundreds of thousands of people alive today who walked through the Valley of Death for us a quarter century or more ago. They threw their lives on the line so that the worst thing we would have to think about is whether or not a bank fee was unfair or whether radon levels are too high in our basements. Every single person who went to Vietnam on our behalf came back indelibly marked, some came back disabled, some have not come back at all. In some ways, any tears shed over the Vietnam War are not just on behalf of the dead.

What medical breakthroughs were lost inside the mind of someone who was destroyed in Vietnam? What technological marvel are we now living without? In very real ways, every one of us lost something in Vietnam, even if it was just the belief that the United States was somehow invincible and benevolent at all times.

Today's Vietnam for its part is not the world's most benevolently run country. It would be tough to debate which has had more ill effect on the well-being of the Vietnamese -- the continued socialist economic backbone of government policy, the authoritarian bent of the Communist party, or the rampant corruption of the petty bureacrapitalists. In fact, Vietnam's style of government has perhaps been best described as a "kleptocracy." But the U.S. was not fighting to prevent this type of government. In fact, most accounts of the sticky-fingered South Vietnamese government during the 1960s sound eerily similar to that of the current government.

Still, the U.S. Servicemen who served in Vietnam were called upon to lay down their lives for the sake of all of us. Thousands of them did so, and many did not survive the honor. As we stress out over portfolio values or minivan safety, we would be well served to stop and give thanks for a moment to those who paved the way in their own blood for us to concern ourselves with things that are much smaller.

From this one Fool, to the veterans of the Vietnam War living and dead, thank you.