A former U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam takes readers through core lessons from a 30-year arc of reconciliation between the two countries that were once bitter enemies but now are valued partners.
After a brutal war that killed as many as three million Vietnamese and 58,000 Americans—a clash of democracy versus communist rule—and after nearly a million refugees fled to the United States, the U.S.-Vietnam relationship is a complex one, soaked in a painful history. Yet in the past thirty years, a remarkable transformation has taken place. Today, the two nations enjoy a robust security partnership, annual two-way trade of over $110 billion, and deepening collaboration on education, the environment, public health, and international peacekeeping. Southeast Asia includes the fastest-growing internet economies, and none are growing faster than Vietnam's. An authoritarian state led by the Communist Party, Vietnam nevertheless works hard to attract foreign investment and celebrates free enterprise, innovation, and entrepreneurship.
The U.S.-Vietnam relationship--and trust-building--took place in an historic context, which made honesty about the past essential.
U.S. and Vietnamese strategic interests coincide when it comes to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, a significant trade route for the world’s largest economies. This became especially clear in June 2014, by moving an oil rig into its coastal waters, which elicited deep concern from the U.S. and a public statement from then-secretary of state John Kerry. As Vietnam is now America’s tenth largest trading partner, the United States also sees a shared interest in Vietnam’s economic success. In 2021, the Biden administration provided more than 5 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines to help Vietnam recover from the pandemic. Vice President Harris and numerous cabinet officials chose Vietnam for early visits, keeping up an intense pace of diplomatic and military exchange. Less than fifty years after the fall of Saigon, the two former enemies have become friends and close partners. Important lessons can be drawn from their astonishing arc of reconciliation, which was built on respect, trust, and honesty.
The United States casts a long shadow, and when Americans show respect, it has a big impact. Showing respect for Vietnam meant figuring out what was truly important to it--history, language, and culture-–and taking this seriously. Respect cost America very little and gained us almost everything. Demonstrating respect enabled the United States to build trust with Vietnam’s people and its leaders, and ultimately creating a powerful partnership where shared interests could converge. In so doing, we saw that diplomacy was not zero-sum. And, it was not only about money and power. As it turned out, relationships mattered, and they matter still.
The U.S.-Vietnam relationship--and trust-building--took place in a historic context, which made honesty about the past essential. Painful as it was, we had to chronicle the truths of the “American War” and act based on those truths. While this article touches on the lessons of respect and trust-building with Vietnam, its focus is on how honesty about the past facilitated reconciliation.
Honesty about the Past: Dioxin Cleanup
In Vietnam, it was essential to search for those who had perished during the war, remove landmines and unexploded ordnance, and clean up the dioxin—a by-product of Agent Orange production—that had destroyed so many lives. As U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, in 2015 I quietly visited a massive dioxin cleanup project at Đà Nẵng Airport. The project had taken a long time to reach the operational stage. Starting in 2007, three of my ambassadorial predecessors visited the site, the second largest dioxin hot spot in Vietnam, and they began working on a project for cleaning up the dioxin. In 2014, Senator Patrick Leahy, who had led the effort in Congress to back efforts to undo the damage caused by Agent Orange in Vietnam, visited the area to ceremonially light an “oven” the size of a football field.
Even forty years after the war ended, dioxin threatened additional harm to citizens in Vietnam. Scientists had determined the way to rid soil of dioxins left there was to “cook” the dioxin-contaminated soil at a temperature of 335 degrees Celsius—more than three times the boiling point of water—and to keep the dirt at that temperature for twenty-eight days. The soil was heated in a vast structure that was surrounded by thirty-foot-high concrete retaining walls and a roof.
By the time of my 2015 visit, one huge batch of dioxin-free soil had been removed and replaced with a second batch of dirt, and the process would be repeated. A year later, I returned to Đà Nẵng with Senior Lieutenant General Nguyễn Chí Vịnh, who had by this time accompanied three ambassadors in scoping out, launching, and at last completing the project. Vịnh played a key role in matters related to the U.S.-Vietnamese security relationship, which began with the fullest possible accounting of those lost during the war and had progressed to the removal of unexploded ordnance and a robust collaboration with Vietnam’s Coast Guard. Every time Vịnh and I met, I could count on him to raise the subject of the dioxin cleanup—first in Đà Nẵng and later in Biên Hòa.
The press snapped dozens of photos when Vịnh and I plunged our hands into the newly decontaminated soil, which we had made safe together. Later, the government displayed one of these photos in the War Remnants Museum in Hồ Chí Minh City, a reminder that it was possible to overcome the legacies of war.
Perhaps it is no wonder that, when Chinese bullying in the South China Sea reached a peak with the 2014 oil rig incident, Vietnamese leaders decided to improve their relationship with the United States, the only nation able to stand up to China.
When my immediate predecessor, Ambassador Dave Shear, handed the dioxin baton to me, he warned that an even bigger challenge than that in Đà Nẵng was the dioxin hot spot at Biên Hòa. There, the health of current residents was still at risk from residual dioxin. In 2016, I wrote to leaders in the State Department, Defense Department, and the White House about the importance of U.S. leadership on the cleanup of the Biên Hòa air base, the largest and most complicated dioxin hot spot, explaining that Vietnam’s leaders saw these issues as essential to building the trust needed for a more forward-looking defense relationship. Because it was such a costly undertaking, it wasn’t until 2019 that we began to clean up this last toxic waste site. But it was the right thing to address the past honestly, and it created conditions whereby a security relationship between the two former enemies became possible, so that U.S. aircraft carriers—a symbol of military might, carrying five thousand sailors each—visit Vietnam every second year. Today Vietnam collaborates more with the U.S. military than with any other in the world.
Lessons for Other Conflicts
When I tell the stories about America’s reconciliation with Vietnam—easily one of the most fraught U.S. diplomatic undertakings—I am often asked whether the lessons we learned are relevant in other situations that the United States faces. After the recent collapse of Kabul, with helicopters evacuating civilians as the Taliban poured into the capital, it was inevitable that comparisons would be drawn to the fall of Saigon. Let's look at the parallels.
Even in a fight with a massively powerful adversary such as the United States, the Taliban—as Hồ Chí Minh’s forces had done—seized the mantle of nationalism and rallied support behind the idea of ejecting a foreign occupier. The Vietnamese fought twenty-two wars against China, wars “of liberation” against France and the United States, and a war that took down the Khmer Rouge, motivated by the idea that “nothing is more precious than independence and freedom.”
Twice in the tenth century and once in the thirteenth, Vietnam's military leaders were forced to push back against encroachment from the north. At the Bạch Đằng River, Vietnam’s great military heroes defeated northern aggressors by sinking stakes into the mud, using the weight of their adversaries for self-impalement. Each time, they strategically allowed the enemy's own weight to defeat him.
A diorama in Vietnam’s Museum of National History shows the first battle of Bạch Đằng, illustrating how weak local forces defeated a Chinese armada supported by the full weight of an established empire. Visiting Hanoi in September 2016, my friend and mentor, Leon Fuerth, former national security adviser to Vice President Al Gore, was fascinated by the exhibit. He noted, “When the Chinese fleet moved in to attack, they did so at high tide. When the tide went down and the water receded, the stakes pierced their hulls, sinking every vessel. The strategy of allowing the strong to use its own power for self-impalement is not a single event, but a pattern.”
Vietnam’s strategy with France and the United States, at least metaphorically, replicated the strategy during the three battles of Bạch Đằng: use the weight of Vietnam’s adversaries for self-impalement. General Võ Nguyên Giáp knew this history. Yet for eleven centuries, China (not the West) has been the single most important determinant of Vietnam’s foreign policy. China has represented an existential threat to Vietnam from its birth as a nation to the present. Other countries, including France and the United States, would come and go, but China was always there. In three thousand years of David-versus-Goliath battles between Vietnam and China, the scrappy Vietnamese have racked up many victories.
Perhaps it is no wonder that, when Chinese bullying in the South China Sea reached a peak with the 2014 oil rig incident, Vietnamese leaders decided to improve their relationship with the United States, the only nation able to stand up to China. The United States and Vietnam did not—nor are we likely to—develop an alliance, but we created a security partnership where Vietnam holds more military engagements with the United States than with any other country. This security relationship only became possible as the two sides learned to understand each other and build trust.
The David and Goliath example seems very relevant in other parts of the world. Like Vietnam pushing back against the Chinese, Afghanistan—known as the “Graveyard of Empires”—ejected Alexander the Great, the Maurya Empire, Arab Muslims, the Mongols, the British, and the Soviet Union before driving away an American-led coalition. The U.S. experience in Afghanistan, as in Vietnam, shows how difficult it is to bring democracy to a nation when many of its people view that form of government as foreign. A scrappy democracy, Ukraine, also doesn’t want a foreign government dictating how its people are to be governed. The brave people of Ukraine are showing Russia how difficult it is for a well-armed invader to defeat citizens defending their homeland.
Lessons from Civil Wars
The lessons of reconciliation are also relevant when considering America’s dysfunctional politics. U.S. domestic leaders appear to have lost the ability to show respect for and build trust with their adversaries. During my lifetime, it was possible to have respectful debates between Democrats and Republicans, and to work together on common problems for the good of the nation, building trust in the process. At home, we are reluctant to be fully honest about our past. Almost 160 years after America’s civil war, we still haven’t completed the process of reconciliation.
If the United States continues to show respect to Vietnam, build trust by collaborating on challenges that matter to both countries, and remain honest about the past, there are few limits on how far the relationship can go.
The aftermath of the war in Vietnam also holds lessons for us. It was, all at once, a war for independence, a war of ideologies, and a civil war. When she visited Vietnam in March 2017, Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust spoke at the Hồ Chí Minh City University of Social Sciences and Humanities. She said, “Both our societies live with ghosts, with memories, and with legacies. With the aftermath.” A historian of the American Civil War, and author of This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, Faust also discussed the difficulties of reconciling after that bitter divide.
My husband and I hosted a dinner for President Faust in Hanoi the night after her speech. Since I, too, was dealing with the aftermath of a civil war, and I told Faust about my experiences with members of the Vietnamese American community in Southern California, Texas, Virginia, and Washington State. “Many members of that community have asked me about Biên Hòa Cemetery near Hồ Chí Minh City,” I said.
“It’s an important place for many,” I said, “because soldiers who fought for South Vietnam are buried there. Properly burying the dead, in their homeland, matters to the Vietnamese, whatever part of the country they come from. After I visited the cemetery, I asked that a U.S.-based NGO be permitted to fund its cleaning and maintenance. My requests have been denied. What should I do?”
Faust explained that cemeteries “take on outsized meaning as symbols” and noted how long it took before Southern soldiers were buried at Gettysburg. She recommended that instead of talking about “the dead,” that I speak about “honoring people who died.”
Vietnam’s deputy foreign minister was also at the dinner, and Faust’s observations led me to suggest to him that because Biên Hòa Cemetery had become a potent symbol for those on the losing side of Vietnam’s civil war, a decision by the victors to rehabilitate the graves would be meaningful.
In October 2017, I met with the chairman of the People’s Committee of Bình Dương province. We spoke of U.S. investments in his fast-growing province, as well as of taxes, power shortages, and other issues that mattered to U.S. companies there. Then we turned to the matter that had truly brought me to his province. I repeated the request I had made to Vice Minister Trung at dinner with President Faust. “I request permission for American citizens to finance digging ditches and cutting tree roots in Biên Hòa Cemetery,” I said. “No flags, no symbols, no politics.”
The chairman thanked me for sharing my “personal concerns” and said that he would consider the practical suggestions about improving maintenance, so that more families could pay their respects at Biên Hòa Cemetery. “Of course, I will have to consult with Hanoi,” he added. He did not say no.
When I visited the cemetery with Nguyễn Đạc Thành, president of the Orange County, California–based Vietnamese American Foundation, we lit incense to honor the deceased South Vietnamese soldiers. I heard from the chairman of Bình Dương’s People’s Committee a few months later. The prime minister had asked the Foreign Ministry, working with the province, to facilitate the rehabilitation of Biên Hòa Cemetery by the Vietnamese American Foundation. The foundation was given permission to dig ditches and cut tree roots, and more than two hundred big trees had already been cut down. No one lost face. Honor was being shown not to “The Dead,” but to people who had died. Reconciliation could proceed a little further.
The United States is home to 2.1 million Americans of Vietnamese origin. Many of them, and their congressional representatives, pay close attention to Vietnam’s shortcomings with regard to freedom of speech and respect for human rights. Although Vietnam has a Constitution that guarantees free speech, religious freedom, and respect for human rights, its laws do not sync with constitutional aspirations, and the government continues to muzzle the press and toss into jail those who criticize Communist Party rule. Freedom to worship is respected far more than in the early years after the “American War,” but the state still harasses unlicensed religious institutions.
Vietnam’s leaders prefer not to move too quickly in developing a security relationship with America in order not to provoke their Chinese neighbors. Still, if the United States continues to show respect to Vietnam, build trust by collaborating on challenges that matter to both countries, and remain honest about the past, there are few limits on how far the relationship can go.
Ted Osius was Ambassador to Vietnam from 2014 to 2017. He is the author of Nothing Is Impossible: America’s Reconciliation with Vietnam, Rutgers University Press 2022.
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