Ruins of Bach Mai Hospital in Hanoi after Christmas bombing by USA in 1974 
Part of the massive, prolonged damage inflicted on Vietnam's under-
developed infrastructure-- the wreckage of a hospital in Hanoi
after the infamous U.S. "Christmas bombing" in 1974.
Economic & Social Issues
THE ORIGINAL PLAN for the conference called for a separate report on relevant economic and social issues. In the end, however, no such report was produced.
It was evident from the outset that the prospects for such a report were quite limited, at least within the constraints of the available resources. Regarding the economic consequences associated with the environmental impact of the Vietnam War, there is very little research to draw upon, and only slightly more with regard to social consequences.
Although there are some primary sources, most of them are in the Vietnamese language and have not been translated or otherwise processed. To make such information available to the international research community would require a very large investment that has yet to be made. In fact, it does not appear that any such costly effort has ever been seriously contemplated.
"Politically charged"
One plausible explanation for the neglect of such an important area of study is that it involves the risk of offending powerful interests. This was underlined by a European economist who declined an invitation to participate in the work of the conference: ”I must admit that I do not have knowledge of any study on the economic impact of environmental damages caused by the Vietnam War. Even more, I have always shied away from the topic. It is too politically charged. It is good to hear that you plan to give it a try.”
The ”political charge” is due, among other things, to the vast sums of money involved, as noted in the conference report on ethical, legal and policy issues: ”There is little doubt that, if the issue were ever to be properly adjudicated, damages would be awarded and the amount would be astronomical. By way of comparison, it may be noted that the estimated damages from the terror attack in New York on 11 September 2001 amounted to US $65 billion. That was for one building complex destroyed by the explosive power of less than one B-52 bombload, in an attack lasting about twenty minutes. Extrapolating to the level of destruction outlined [previously in this report] over a thirty-year period, the resulting figure would most likely exceed the financial resources even of the United States. Another point of comparison is that it took just two months to estimate the cost of the destruction in New York.”
For these and other reasons, the issues involved are certainly relevant and are likely to remain so for the foreseeable future, not only for the countries of Indochina, but for the entire community of nations.
Suggested guidelines
Therefore, despite the obstacles noted above, it was deemed appropriate to assemble a subcommittee on economic and social issues, whose main task would be to define the nature of the problem and suggest a strategy for future research. Toward that end, the conference co-ordinator suggested the following guidelines for the subcommittee’s consideration:
”…No one is expecting you to produce a standard reference work or a treatise suitable for publication in a professional journal. It has been my impression from the outset that this particular area has been relatively unexplored-- an impression that has since been confirmed. If you do nothing more than define the problem and offer some suggestions as to how it could be studied, that would be a valuable contribution.…
”It seems to me that many of the issues identified by the subcommittees on ecosystems and public health also have clear economic relevance.…
”My own simple mind conceives the fundamental questions to be as follows:
  • What have been/will be the costs of the long-term consequences of the war on ecosystems and public health?
  • What is the current state of knowledge concerning those costs?
  • What strategies and measures are needed in order to increase that knowledge?
  • Are there any provisional conclusions that can be made on the basis of current knowledge and/or the literature on related problems?

”There are two indirectly related issues that should also be addressed: the effects of the embargo, and the matter of reparations. The embargo cannot be construed as an environmental impact, but its economic consequences have certainly affected the reconstruction and development of Vietnam, including its ability to cope with war-related problems of ecosystem damage and public health. Another problem is that it seriously impeded the development of science by restricting access to professional literature, contacts with scientists from other countries, etc.
”Accordingly, we ought to describe exactly what the embargo consisted of and write something plausible about its economic consequences, particularly the implications for ecosystems and public health.
”Calculating the total amount of appropriate reparations, both accumulated and projected, is crucially important to the discussion of ethical, legal and policy issues. This should be done in terms of the dollar’s current value, of course. But it might also be instructive to engage in some thought experiments, for example: What would have been the likely effect on the development of the U.S. if it had been subjected to similar destruction at a similar stage of development (i.e. when the industrial sector accounted for less than ten percent of total production, probably sometime around 1830)?
”Another interesting approach might be to extrapolate the economic consequences for Vietnam to the United States, taking into account the difference in population size and/or per capita income. I have already done something along these lines with respect to wartime and post-war casualties, etc.*…”
Unfortunately, neither these nor any other suggestions resulted in a report of any kind. Consequently, in this vital area of study, everything remains to be done.

*See pp. 42-43 of the report on ethical, legal and policy issues.  

-- Al Burke, Co-ordinator