Technical Aid to Indochina

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Technical Aid to Indochina

by Minna Goldfarb & Ted Goldfarb

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 5, No. 5, September 1973, p. 24 — 29


The following report on the London Conference on Science, Technology, and the Indochina War provides a starting point for thought and discussion of the crucial question of aid, especially high technology aid, to Indochina. The Minneapolis collective of Science for Vietnam/SftP has responded to this report with the commentary which follows the article. Along with showing solidarity with the peoples of Indochina, a continuing discussion will hopefully result in an overall organizational position that will help clarify 1) the nature of government aid programs likely to be proposed in the near future, 2) the results of aid programs that rely on technology, capital and experts of the advanced capitalist countries, and which allow U.S. or big power control over the results, and 3) our organizational priorities in terms of our specific actions and cooperation with other groups committed to raising funds or material for aid to Indochina. We hope that this discussion will continue and welcome further comment.

What is the role of technological aid to Third World liberation movements? What form of aid should progressive or radical groups advocate and support?

These political questions were nearly pushed· under the rug recently in London at the International Conference on Science, Technology and the Indochina War held in mid-May. The conference, which attracted scientists opposed to the Indochina War from many countries, was sponsored by the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science (BSSRS), a broad-based organization including a spectrum of liberal and radical people, and the Indochina Solidarity Conference (ISC), a group recently organized to provide political and material support for the continuing liberation struggles in Southeast Asia. Representatives from various Science for Vietnam national groups were there, as was a special delegation from the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV).

Our report is of the structural and political aspects of the conference, even though its main focus was the specification of the technical needs of the Vietnamese. We feel critical discussion is necessary because the very choice of this focus constitutes a political position that was very much in contestation among the radicals. [ A summary of the DRV requests for technical aid are presented in the box on the following page.]

The Conference

The conference began on Friday evening, May 18, with welcoming speeches by representatives of the British Medical Aid for Vietnam group, the BSSRS, the ISC, and the DRV delegation. Several political addresses were the main business of this opening session. The chairman explained that these had been scheduled first so that the conference could then proceed with the serious business of reconstruction of Vietnam, thus implying that the latter was not a political issue. Steven Rose of the radical wing of BSSRS, Pat Langton, a social anthropologist, Joe Neilands, discussing chemical and biological warfare, and Pierre Noyes of SESPA/SftP were the speakers.

On Saturday morning, the representatives of the various national groups reported on their group’s activities. These reports were then followed by the presentation of the DRV delegation, which discussed in general terms the technical problems now faced by the Vietnamese. In the afternoon the conference broke into workshops, followed Saturday evening by a concluding session in which an appeal for technical aid for Vietnam was endorsed amidst some controversy.


The highlight of the Saturday morning session was a presentation by the DRV delegation:

Prof. Nguyen van Hieu (physicist)          Director of Physics, Institute of DRV

Dr. Tran Tri (economist)           Director, State Committee for Science and Technology of the DRV

Dr. Le Thoc Can (hydrologist)           Minister of Higher Education of the DRV

Dr. Tri emphasized the massive problems caused by the bombings and herbicides and the need for rapid expansion of production in all fields. He stressed the need for exploration and rapid exploitation of the largely unknown natural resources of the country. Metallurgy, hydrology, forestry and geology are technologies in need of development. Another immediate goal is increased agricultural production and improvement in the protein content of the Vietnamese diet. Also urgent is the development of energy sources and construction materials for the rebuilding of roads, bridges, schools and houses. To facilitate these tasks, the Vietnamese must learn the most advanced technology of the West so that they can “leapfrog” over earlier stages of development and adapt modern techniques to the particular circumstances of their land and people.

Tri stressed the need for continued medical aid and the continuing development of facilities and techniques to combat malaria and other diseases. The building of medical colleges is a high priority task for training doctors and development of the medical sciences neglected during the war.

In discussing the need to develop and rebuild the DRV’s educational and research institutions, Tri placed a heavy emphasis on the help that the West could provide, not only by sending books and equipment, but also through exchange of students and professors to aid them in developing their curricula and academic organization.

The presentation by Nguyen van Hieu was less formal and more specific. He explained the connection between educational and research institutes in the DRV. Due to a lack of trained people, and a limited amount of advanced equipment, research by scientists and teachers from the thirty-six colleges and universities is generally done in centralized research institutes in Hanoi.

He pinpointed as the top priority technological need the development of an advanced physical-chemical analytical laboratory. This would be used to study soils contaminated by herbicides and to characterize the many traditional medicinal herbs which scientists learned about while they were in the jungle dodging bombs. Many of these traditional medicines may prove helpful in replacing or augmenting expensive drugs from the West. Also badly needed is an ultrasonics laboratory, to develop means of detecting underground and internal holes and defects in dykes and bridge foundations caused by nearby bomb explosions, and to locate buried unexploded bombs. Hieu also mentioned the need for a small computer for educational and training purposes and the necessity for developing and equipping scientific and engineering libraries.

Other interesting practical points were made about the needs of the Vietnamese. They are hungry for journals and texts of all types.1 They are not set up to produce these themselves and the use of a Xerox is impractical because of the lack of supplies, spare parts and trained technicians to keep it operating. (A simpler Czechoslovakian duplicating system may be able to partly solve this problem.) They are set up to use microfilm but high humidity (average is 95%) renders standard microfilm useless after a year or two. The development of a moisture-resistant film would be of great help. All equipment sent to Vietnam must be suitable for use in the tropics and sensitive instruments should be accompanied by simple dehumidifiers.

Political Struggle

Within the conference planning committee, and within the conference itself, there appeared to be a serious political division. On the one side were those who thought the key purpose of the meeting was to analyze the role of science in promoting and/or opposing imperialist adventures and to discuss the practical and ideological questions involved. On the other side were those who were only interested in using the occasion for the important task of coordinating efforts to provide scientific and technical aid for reconstruction in Vietnam.

The split became evident at a pre conference get together held after it was learned that the DRV would be participating in the conference. Members of the British Communist Party, who were members of the BSSRS and the World Federation of Scientific Workers (WFS), attempted to forestall any serious political discussion at the conference. Eric Burhop, physicist from the University of London, President of WFS, and a member of the conference’s organizing committee, was central in these efforts. He used the sensitive position of the DRV delegation—that is, their reliance on continued support by establishment scientists, like himself—to railroad through a meeting agenda that reserved two-thirds of the conference for information-giving, that is, formal lectures by recognized experts and establishment scientists. This is the kind of structure that SESPA/SftP has consistently exposed as the antithesis of the cooperative arrangements needed for a people’s science conference.

Thus the pompous and formal arrangements inhibited participation by those attending the conference. On Friday evening, for example, the significant political points made by the speakers could not rouse the audience from its passive role. It remained uncommunicative and apparently bored. As a result Noyes ended his remarks by suggesting a change in the Saturday format to permit more time for discussion. There was virtually no opposition to this suggestion, and two speakers voluntarily gave up their speaking time. The net effect of this program change was that Saturday’s workshops began promptly after lunch, still allowing only three and a half hours for what promised to be the most valuable part of the conference.

But the peculiar structure of the conference became even more apparent from the way these workshops were handled. The original plan (which we were told was formulated to prevent “disruption” of the technical sessions) called for two separate organizing sessions-one on technical aid and the other on political problems. This was objected to from the floor and it was agreed to have the setting up of the workshops discussed in plenary session. When the session began, however, a list of suggested workshops was offered by the organizing committee and we were merely asked to suggest additions. Rather than kill the entire three and a half hours hassling, it was agreed to accept the list which did, in fact, include two “political workshops” (Implications of the War for Western Science and The War and the Social Sciences) and four “practical workshops” (Material Aid, Reconstruction, Exchange Visits, and Biomedical Aid). This artificial separation was compounded bv scheduling the “political workshops” in another building. As a result, they were small and isolated.

The discussions in the political workshops were lively nonetheless. It was agreed that the workings of the Jason Committee2 and the “innocent” participation of military research grant holders provide good object lessons about the bankruptcy of the notion that science is neutral. Yet most scientists still believe in value-free science, and need re-education. The political significance of scientific work and practice, however, took on subtle forms: in the discussions, for example, there emerged a split between the old left liberals and the new left radicals, among those scientific workers who have opposed the war. The former offer the Vietnamese aid in a way that is consistent with the individualistic and paternalistic ideas which dominate establishment science. The latter, however, see themselves as active allies in the liberation struggle. This means working for the political transformation which will change elite Western science itself into a people’s science. For them, the cult of expertise and the emphasis on establishment scientists is counterproductive.

The plan to hold four separate workshops related to reconstruction aid never materialized, since the Vietnamese delegation chose to stay together in a large single session. Once again, discussion of the political significance of various kinds of technical aid was thwarted. For example, the Vietnamese emphasized the exchange of students and professors to help in developing their curricula and academic organization. This unqualified request caused considerable concern among some of us. We know how technology and curricula and institutional structures in the West are uniquely designed to suit imperialist needs of the nations they serve. We were reminded by our comrades that the Vietnamese had defeated the enemy by learning about his methods, not by adopting them. Their intent was to do the same during reconstruction. We were not satisfied by this response, but unfortunately, the structure of the conference prevented fuller discussion of this key issue. The point was made, however, that it would be more useful for carefully selected technical people to be invited to Vietnam, rather than for large numbers of Vietnamese to be educated in the elitist Western technical universities and institutes. Also, it was suggested that the selection of candidates to go abroad to Vietnam should be controlled by the Vietnamese themselves and not by Western “professionals”.

Final Session

The concluding session received reports from the workshops and approved a structure worked out earlier in the day for international coordination of scientific and technical aid.3 There followed a strong speech by Mike Cooley, a working engineer and official of a British technical workers’ union. He pointed out that the conference had included no discussion of the working people who actually produce the equipment we had been talking about sending to the DRV. He asserted that they must be included in our common struggle, that it is important to break down the barriers between professionals, academics, and workers. Much sympathy for this viewpoint was expressed in the discussion following Cooley’s talk. It was suggested that putting this into practice was more difficult in countries like the U.S. or the U.K. where the capitalists have successfully used elitism to prevent scientists and workers from uniting in their common interest.

A draft of an appeal for support from science workers throughout the world for technical aid to the liberated areas was then read [see box]. This appeal had been approved by the Conference organizing Committee, which despite the manipulations of the conference mentioned above had a numerical majority of people with progressive political analysis.


The war waged by U.S. imperialism in Indo-China has applied the resources of science and technology to their utmost in an attempt to destroy the Indochinese peoples’ struggle for national liberation and independence.

The Indochinese peoples have fought heroically and have won a convincing victory over the U.S.
Just as U.S. imperialism has used science and technology against the people, so science and technology used in the service of the people has contributed to the continuing victories of the Indochinese peoples. Scientists and technologists in the United States and Europe have followed with admiration the struggle of the Indochinese peoples and their attempts to make a science in the service of the people.

There already exist a number of national and international groups established for the purposes of coordinating scientific and medical aid to Indochina, and we have heard reports of their activities. We believe that the task of collecting funds and equipment in response to the requests of Indochinese scientists and technologists is best channeled through existing organizations, but that every effort should be made internationally to coordinate their efforts, to ensure a collective, international response to practical requests. In countries where national groups do not exist, we should encourage their establishment. Regular liason between existing and new groups is essential.

We call on scientists and technologists throughout the western countries to respond to our appeal.

We demand that the U.S. and the Saigon Administration scrupulously implement the Paris Accord. At the same time, scientists and technologists should help by collecting money, helping procure the instruments, books and equipment and by responding to the requests for information on particular problems. Contributions should be made directly to their national organizations, which will continue to meet regularly to coordinate activities.

MAY 19th, 1973

The question of adopting the appeal was put to the conference. Little discussion and no amendments followed. The appeal was adopted without any apparent dissent! It was only at this point—after adoption of the appeal—that some of the basic conflicts within the conference came out. Curiously, each person that rose to speak began by saying that he or she agreed with every word of the appeal but several concluded with objection in terms of the difficulty or impossibility of using such a strong statement to mobilize support for technical aid. Eric Burhop stated very strongly that it would drive away many of the people whom he had hoped to bring into an organization which would be political only in the sense that aid would go only to the DRV and liberated areas. (Burhop has since resigned from the organizing committee of the conference which continues as the nucleus of the British organization for implementing the decisions reached.) The U.S. coordinator, Bert Pfeiffer, explained that he felt compelled to abstain from voting on the appeal. He believes (probably with reason) that it would be impossible to obtain foundation support in the U.S. for a campaign organized around this appeal. Other discussants pointed out that the appeal was from the conference participants and that the local control implicit in the coordinating structure would enable each national group to use the statement as it saw fit.

Conclusions and Remarks

The London Conference succeeded only in the narrow sense of establishing a coordination and information exchange structure for soliciting technical aid for Vietnam and in learning about some of the needs of the Vietnamese. This important task could have been accomplished just as easily in a meeting of a few delegates from each of the groups involved and without the agony of listening to several hours of speeches.

Also, the meeting failed to produce any broad-ranging discussions of the many important issues that progressive Western scientific workers must face if complicity in future imperialist wars is to be avoided. We offer the appeal statement and the events of the meeting as topics for discussion, comment and criticism by SESPA/SftP chapters. The problem of providing the most effective means of obtaining the much-needed technical aid for our Vietnamese sisters and brothers without compromising our political position requires serious consideration and debate.


News and impressions of the London meeting have filtered through to us from several sources; we have heard different versions of the same happenings and different political perspectives of the purpose of the meeting, the outcome, and what should be done in the future. Since none of us attended the meeting, we defer discussion of specifics, but we do want to enter into discussion of the bigger issues.

First, we feel that it is wrong to pit “undermining imperialism at home” against “supplying the Third World with technical aid” as contrasting political positions. If we consider, for example, the best possible role for “leftist” scientists living in capitalist countries, in terms of the world struggle for socialism, “undermining imperialism” and “technical aid” may prove to be complementary. The world struggle for socialism will, before it is over, demand a wide spectrum of activities and strategies, many of which may, at present, lie outside our awareness. At any point in time a given action may appear revisionist to one, ultraleft to another; these differences are readily apparent upon inspection of contrasting views of, say, party members and the independent left. All versions of the London meeting amplify this point.

Specifically, we refer to the various reactions to the Vietnamese requests for technical aid. Many of their requests have been with us for two years now, and the general rationalizations of need have been provided. Unless we have missed the point entirely, the central question of the London meeting concerned the politics of “aid”. In our view this question falls into two parts: 1) the politics of receiving aid, which, in this case, belongs primarily to the Vietnamese, and 2) the politics of giving aid, which belongs primarily to us. These two parts meld into one, in proportion to the unity between receiver and giver, and hopefully that is the end we all seek. But prior to unity we must grapple with the differences.

From our point of view—based upon lengthy talks with the Vietnamese, review of their modern history, their success in adapting Russian and Chinese hardware to their peculiar conditions of struggle, etc.—their experience in matters political is greater than ours. For us to question, out of hand, their request for material goods, either on the grounds that technology has been misused in capitalist countries, or that the Vietnamese will be co-opted through receipt of our technology, is both elitist and ultra leftist. With so little exchange between the Vietnamese and Western leftists, it is our judgement that at this moment of history we have little choice but to trust their use of our technology during the initial stages of their reconstruction; we urge deep consideration of this point of view. We also argue that this view is not “old liberal” or a manifestation of transpositional schizophrenia (i.e., we don’t feel as if we are Vietnamese), but more, the impression that in many ways the Vietnamese are way ahead of us.

We can’t in this short space document this impression. However, it is known to all who have visited the DRVN that the Vietnamese believe in and want to participate in the world struggle, but they understand that the initial stages of the “revolution” must result from adaptation of Marxism-Leninism to the local conditions of each country. They believe that we cannot solve this part of their problem and that they cannot solve this part of our problem. They are anxious for our success and to help us on our way they offer moral support and trust. We are anxious for their success, but we want to do it for them—a condition which is understandable upon examination of our upbringing, schooling and exposure to capitalist science, but which is not necessarily good politics. Indeed, we may learn something about putting science and technology to “people use” simply by observing how the Vietnamese use capitalist technology to reconstruct a communist country. In any case, we feel that they have much for us to learn; we also feel that as we begin to demonstrate some faith in them they will begin to share more with us.

Our more immediate problem concerns the politics of giving aid, which, if we give much, involves getting it from the managers and the rulers. The Mpls. Collective has been and will continue to discuss this part of the problem, and we intend to share our perspective in later issues of Science for the People. But for now we point only to our general contention that one big worry ought not to be whether the Vietnamese can handle capitalist technology, but whether we can hasten our own revolution by helping them get some of it. This contention is based primarily upon the conviction that as we know something more about the wheel than the Vietnamese, they know something more about socialism and revolution than we—and, if we are collectively smart, neither the wheel nor socialism will have to be re-invented.


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  1. Books and journals can be sent to Vietnam quickly (but expensively) by ordering them through L.E. Gill Valdes Latin Asia, 46 Wellington, St. William House, Room 802, Hong Kong.
  2. The Jason Committee is the group of elite scientists that advises the Pentagon on advanced war strategy. See Science Against the People, Berkeley SESPA, 1972.
  3. Much time had been consumed in an attempt to set up the technical aid program in a hierarchical international structure. This proposal was successfully resisted and the structure which emerged leaves strategy and tactics to the discretion of each national group (or subgroup). Six national coordinators were selected from Holland, Sweden, Italy, France, England and the U.S. (in the U.S. the coordinator is E. Pfeiffer, University of Montana, Missoula, Montana 59801. And it was decided that P. Noyes, 823 Lathrop Drive, Stanford, Ca. 94305 would act as an ‘intermediate coordinator for SESPA/SftP), and given the task of coordinating directly with each other and keeping the secretary of the French group (Henri van Regemortel 1st, Observatoire de Meudon, 92 Meudon, France) informed of what has been done.