The Money Game
I learned something fascinating in a conversation with a British storekeeper. The U. S. was engaged in massive construction projects in Viet Nam at this time — airfields, port facilities, bridges and other things. These projects required a huge amount of cement and “rebar” (steel rods for reinforcing concrete structures). Shipping these heavy materials across the Pacific from the United States would be slow and expensive. So, the U. S. was buying cement and rebar in Hong Kong. But there were no cement factories or steel mills in Hong Kong. The stuff was coming down the river from Red China. This at the height of the cold war, when China and America were enemies, especially in Viet Nam. I wondered how the Red Guards would have felt if they had known their beloved Chairman Mao was selling vast amounts of cement and rebar to the American imperialists. And if they had known, as Mao certainly knew, the materials were being used to build military facilities in South Viet Nam to support the war against China’s ally, North Viet Nam.
When I was in Viet Nam, U. S. service people were forbidden to exchange dollars for piasters anywhere but official exchange sites, where we would get 72 piasters to the dollar. The international exchange rate in Asia and the U. S. was about 150 piasters to the dollar, varying a little from day to day. So, U. S. military men and women were expected to subsidize the Viet Nam government out of their own pockets. We were told that if we exchanged money at the bookstores, tailor shops or other black market locations, where we could get 120 to 130 piasters to the dollar, we’d be aiding and abetting Red China by giving her the hard currency she needed for her evil schemes to conquer Asia and then attack the U. S.
The money exchange rule was so ridiculous that virtually no American in Viet Nam abided by it, including most senior military and civilian officials, who sent their drivers out to buy piasters for them on the black market. But when a low-ranking American got caught, as in one of the periodic sweeps by Vietnamese police of the bookstores, tailor shops, etc., he or she would be dealt with severely. This at the same time the U. S. government was handing over tens of millions in American currency to the Red Chinese every few months.
I think I was more surprised by the Chinese communists giving in to the lure of capitalist cash than by American duplicity.