Obama visit shows Vietnam is now a country, not a war

May 25, 2016 | 01:27 am PT
Unlike the previous two visits of U.S. presidents to Vietnam, Obama’s arrival in Hanoi seems no longer prominently haunted by the Vietnam-American War and its lingering legacy. The relationship is “better than anytime in the last century,” as said by Vietnam war veteran and long-time Hanoi resident Chuck Searcy. My question is “what’s next” for Vietnam-U.S. relations.

Strong emotional link

When I asked Henry Kissinger for an interview in New York City ten years ago, he said he would never answer questions from a North Vietnamese journalist. But he was emotional when I asked if he was still bitter about Vietnam. “Vietnam is a closed chapter in my life. I wish you well and I wish Vietnam well,” he said. To my amazement, he kept telling the guests around him that he wished Vietnam well, as if, I feel, it was a surprising thing for him to say. When I attended a Vietnam War conference in 2006 at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston with people who had a major influence on the Vietnam War, such as U.S. President Jimmy Carter and United States Army General Alexander Haig, I submitted a question about Agent Orange. It was another surprise when NBC anchor Brian Williams, instead of reading my question, announced: “There is a North Vietnamese here,” as if it was an important event in itself to have a North Vietnamese in the room. When I visited Orange County in California, people advised me not to speak because my North Vietnamese accent could cause tension among the South Vietnamese residents living there.

Vietnamese–American relations, fortunately, have moved a long way from the awkwardness usually found between former enemies and strangers, to something I can call an intense bitter-sweet emotional link that is moving towards a much warmer, brighter future.

A lot of that has been initiated by Vietnamese War veterans. When I took Mike H., a Vietnam War veteran from California, to meet Bao Ninh, a North Vietnamese soldier and acclaimed author of the Sorrow of the War, I was quite anxious given the possible intensity of the meeting. Instead, it was the most memorable moment when Bao Ninh told Mike: “I feel closer to you than to my son,” and Mike said he felt the same “because we were warriors.”

When the first official American visit took place in 1981, at the invitation of former Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach, all of its four members were Vietnam War veterans. When Bill Clinton announced he was lifting the trade embargo on Vietnam in 1994, he had Vietnam War veterans next to him. Chuck Searcy, president of Veterans for Peace and international advisor to Project Renew, said American veterans have “strong emotional links” with the Vietnamese people. “For most of us [American veterans], the wartime experience in Vietnam is the most profound thing in our lives. But there were good moments when we got to know Vietnamese people and friends,” he said. “Every veteran, who can agree or disagree with the U.S. policy during the war, has this urge to create a bridge of friendship with the Vietnamese. We don’t see Vietnamese people as our enemy and Vietnamese people don’t see Americans as their enemy.” 

It took a long time for Americans and Vietnamese to finally "getting along as human beings," as Obama quoted a North Vietnamese soldier two days ago in Hanoi.

When I called, Chuck Searcy was on his way to the funeral of project RENEW’s Ngo Thien Khiet, who was killed by a wartime mine that exploded just a few days before President Obama’s arrival. His death last week was certainly a strong reminder to us and to Obama that the legacy of the war is still very real. As Searcy said, it’s important to find real closure to the pain of the past by dealing effectively with the remaining consequence of the war, like Agent Orange and mines. “We cannot turn our backs on those problems.”

By repaying the visit of Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong to the White House, and becoming the first U.S. President to visit Ho Chi Minh’s stilt house, Obama showed that diplomatic relations between the two countries have indeed reached a new point of relationship

Vietnam’s visibility in U.S. politics

In the next few years, the generation of veterans with a special interest in Vietnam will fade out of U.S. politics. Politicians like State Secretary John Kerry and Senator John McCain will retire. Thao Griffiths, country director of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, said: “The war veterans have been playing the key role in the relationship between the U.S. and Vietnam. However, they will start to play more of a supporting role as time passes. The question is what will ensure Vietnam’s visibility in the U.S. political sphere?”

Obama has announced the U.S. has fully lifted its arms ban on Vietnam. He said part of the cooperation with Vietnam is to improve maritime security and “the decision to lift the ban really was more reflective of the changing nature of the relationship."

While it is good news that relations between the two countries have been completely normalized, I believe we should not ignore the dangerous level of arms sales around the world. “The U.S. arms dealers like to open new markets. Vietnam should not be caught in the trap of spending too much budget for arms. It should be spent more on education and social care,” said Searcy.

“In the near future, the special link between Vietnam and the U.S. based on shared experience and pain will be absent. Vietnam will face a possible problem of being forgotten and neglected by the U.S and once again be a small pawn in the international chess board and part of the U.S. global strategy,” said Searcy. “Vietnam should be careful not to disappear from the radar of the U.S. and become a tool that can be used against China.”

While I believe the war experience has probably given Vietnamese people an insight into the pattern that Chuck Searcy mentioned, this is certainly within our parameter when we ask the question "what's next"?

Can the U.S. trade commitment push for Vietnamese reform?

It was quite jaw-dropping news for many countries to see Vietnam becoming one of the 12 founding members of the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP). However, it’s not just an open market that Vietnam hopes to get from the controversial trade deal. The TPP is actually considered by Vietnamese leaders as a push for reform in Vietnam.

Deputy Minister of Industry and Trade Tran Quoc Khanh stated in his discussion with Virginia Foote, chairwoman of the American Chamber of Commerce in Vietnam, during Obama’s visit: “After joining the World Trade Organization (WTO), we realized that FTAs can play a part in changing our management policies. ” The TPP, he said, will make the country deal with the serious problem of corruption and improve institutional reform. 

"When this happens, local companies will no longer endure harassment from authorities. [...]“We want to deliver a message through the TPP [...]. that, while aiming for economic development, Vietnam will not forget about environmental issues and the protection of laborers' rights.”

However, in Hanoi, some people argue that it is Vietnam's inner momentum that will be the key to reform, rather than any outside pressure. Perhaps Nguyen Tam Chien, former Vietnamese Ambassador to the U.S., had a point when he said Vietnam needs to become a stronger nation by focusing on the development of its own economy and society. Vietnam hasn’t been able to take full advantage of its accession to the BTA or WTO, so don’t have any illusions about the TPP, he said.

As Jeffrey Sachs pointed out in his book on ending world poverty, the Vietnamese “Doi Moi” (reform) period in the mid-80s successfully ended mass hunger in Vietnam without any foreign aid. 

Looking back at the dark, painful period my father's generation endured in the war, and seeing how young people now are enjoying a better education and plentiful food, I realize we need to find a balance. Vietnam needs to find a way of maintaining peace, protecting its territories and controlling its arms budgets without making cuts to education, health care, social benefits and economic growth, and without being sandwiched between superpowers' interests. Even when Obama said Vietnam would be the biggest beneficiary of the TPP, the question remains whether Vietnam’s inner strength – its governance capacity in particular – will prevent it from falling into the trap of becoming just a cheap labor provider for superpowers when these free trade agreements come into effect.

Final thoughts

The first generation of Vietnamese born after the Vietnam War has reached middle age. It has taken that long to feel normal seeing John Kerry walking on the red bridge of Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi, to see thousands of Saigoneers and Hanoians turn up to greet Obama in the streets over the last few days.

While it is normal for a politician to show appreciation of a foreign country's culture on a diplomatic trip, Obama's pick of Hanoian signature food, and reading the names of Vietnamese most famous figures, from its best literature of Kieu, to national heroes of Ly Thuong Kiet and Hai Ba Trung, to today's young pop icons like Son Tung M-TP and SuBoi, clearly shows Vietnam is now a country to the U.S., not a war.

While Obama's visit marks a major milestone for reconciliation between Vietnamese and Americans, the war is still a divisive factor between Vietnamese and American Vietnamese. Like Thao Griffiths said: “The next step of reconciliation would be between Vietnamese and American Vietnamese. This is an important but extremely difficult step.”

Perhaps I'm a bit wishy washy here, but as a person growing up in the subsidized time when food was rationed, and to have rice with salt was lucky enough, it's very good to hear Obama say he is happy with Vietnamese food. To repeat Chuck Searcy's words, Vietnam War may no longer be prominent in the U.S.-Vietnam relations. But for us humans, food, good air, opportunities for business and young people are just as important. As Obama said, now it's time to focus on the future, the future where we can enjoy good food, breathe fresh air, work and create.

Vietnamese people welcome Obama perhaps because they hope good relations with the U.S. would bring them some peace and more prosperity. The question for Vietnam now is what the new stage of the relationship with the U.S. would deliver to the hope of its people.

Tran Le Thuy is a journalist and media researcher. She holds an M.Phil in Development Studies from University of Oxford.

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