In his landmark 1989 essay “The End of History?” Francis Fukuyama posits that the conclusion of the Cold War may have meant more than a global power-shift. The American victory, he argues, represents the last stride forward: the final step in mankind’s social evolution. Having proven itself superior on ethical, cultural, and economic grounds, liberal democracy would spread throughout the globe.
A quick disclaimer: I don’t consider influential historical essays every time I have a drink. And I probably remember this one only because of the author’s last name. But it came to mind when Greg, my parents, and I ordered drinks at a Vietnamese restaurant in Shanghai.
“Saigon,” my dad said, reading the boldface brand name on the label of his drink. “That’s funny.” He spun the bottle, leaning in for a closer look at the fine print. “Made in Vietnam.” He paused. “Wow.”
If you erased your recollection of American history after your final exam junior year, a brief refresher will help. Saigon served as headquarters for the United States during the Vietnam War. When American forces left the country, the northern Vietnamese flooded in and quickly changed their capital’s name to “Ho Chi Minh City.”
The Vietnamese didn’t stop there. Ho Chi Minh’s name appears on currency notes, public buildings, and even temples. Textbooks devote entire chapters to singing his praises. The government censors media that makes mention of his faults, even banning articles that expose his non-celibacy.
The word “Saigon,” then, should have stuck out like a Communist flag draped over an American front door. But “Ho Chi Minh City Beer” doesn’t have much of a ring to it, and would be a pain to fit on a label. Also the name of a famous communist doesn’t fare well on the international market.
With a single word, my crisp beer seemed to slap Ho Chi Minh—and his cause—across the face. As we prepared to leave that evening, I took the last sip of my drink from a communist country, placed a few currency notes bearing Mao’s visage on the table, walked out into a plaza with Starbucks, McDonalds, and the Gap, and wondered if my Vietnamese beer bottle in Shanghai had answered Fukuyama’s question.