Moving On in Vietnam, but Remembering Its Lessons

May 24, 2016

The Opinion Pages | Op-Ed Contributors

Moving On in Vietnam, but Remembering Its Lessons

AS President Obama visits Vietnam, we are struck by the fact that most citizens of both countries have no living memory of a conflict that claimed the lives of more than 58,000 Americans and upward of a million Vietnamese.

As Americans who fought in that war, we are frequently asked about its lessons. There are few easy answers, in part because every conflict is unique and because we have learned that attempts to apply past lessons to new crises sometimes do more harm than good. But a few things are clear.

Vietnam POW John Mccain with President Richard M. Nixon

John Kerry commanded a swift boat as a young officer and received three Purple Hearts, the Bronze Star and the Silver Star for his acts of courage

The first is not personal to us, but a principle that applies to all who wear the uniform: We must never again confuse a war with the warriors. American veterans deserve our deepest respect, gratitude and support whenever and wherever they serve.

The second lesson is that our leaders need to be honest with Congress and the American people about our plans, goals and strategy when the lives of our fighting men and women are put at risk. (The mission of the first American combat troops deployed to Vietnam was described as “flood relief.”)

The third is to exercise humility in assuming knowledge about foreign cultures. During the war in Southeast Asia, neither America’s allies nor our adversaries acted in accordance with our expectations.

A fourth and final lesson of the Vietnam conflict is playing out before our eyes: that with sufficient effort and will, seemingly unbridgeable differences can be reconciled. The fact that Mr. Obama is the third consecutive American president to visit Vietnam is proof that old enemies can become new partners.

As veterans who were fortunate to serve in public office, we are proud of the contributions we made to the resumption of normal diplomatic relations between the United States and Vietnam. The process of restoring relations was arduous and required full cooperation by Hanoi in developing information about Americans missing or unaccounted for from the conflict — an effort that continues today.

But we have reached the point, more than 20 years after normalization, when our agenda with Vietnam is forward-looking and wide-ranging. Mr. Obama’s discussions with the Vietnamese will cover issues from security cooperation to trade and investment to education, and from the environment to freedom of religion and human rights.

This wider agenda reflects changes to the relationship that are well underway. Twenty years ago, there were fewer than 60,000 American visitors annually to Vietnam. Today, there are nearly half a million. Twenty years ago, there were fewer than 60,000 American visitors annually to Vietnam. Today, there are nearly half a million. Twenty years ago, our bilateral trade in goods with Vietnam was only $450 million. Today, it is 100 times that. Twenty years ago, there were fewer than 1,000 Vietnamese students in the United States. Today, there are nearly 19,000.

More remarkably, the Vietnamese Politburo includes two people who earned graduate degrees in the United States while on Fulbright scholarships. It’s appropriate, therefore, that this week, a new institution of higher learning will open in Ho Chi Minh City: Fulbright University Vietnam. One of us, Senator Kerrey, is proud to serve as chairman of the university’s board.

Nearly half a century ago, when we were serving in Vietnam, we would never have imagined that our country would one day work with the government in Hanoi to help save the Mekong River Delta by helping create an initiative to manage its ecosystem and cope with the effects of climate change. We could never have imagined that our two countries would be partners in a landmark trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which is intended to raise labor and environmental standards while expanding prosperity in our country and all along the Pacific Rim.

It would have been even harder to imagine that the United States and Vietnam would be cooperating on security issues. And yet the United States has helped establish a new training center for People’s Army of Vietnam on the outskirts of Hanoi, where young Vietnamese soldiers will prepare for service in United Nations-sponsored peacekeeping missions.

The United States and Vietnamese militaries are in frequent contact, and our diplomats consult regularly about the controversy surrounding competing maritime claims in the South China Sea. Our government does not take sides on the legal merits of these claims, but we believe strongly that they should be settled peacefully and in accordance with international law and not unilaterally by any country seeking to assert hegemony over its neighbors.

Of course, the United States and Vietnam have different political systems and different approaches to some issues. But human rights are universal, and we have made clear to the leaders in Hanoi our strong belief that Vietnam will reach its full potential only if and when its people have the right to express themselves freely in the arenas of politics, labor, the media and religion. In our visits to Vietnam, we have been impressed by the eagerness of its citizens to take advantage of technology and to compete in the global labor market. We are convinced that the government in Vietnam has nothing to lose, and much to gain, by trusting its citizens.

Looking to the future, we know that mutual interests, above all else, will drive our partnership with Vietnam. But it is strengthened, as well, by the natural affinities between our societies. These include family ties, a tendency toward optimism, a fierce desire for freedom and independence and a hard-earned appreciation that peace is far, far preferable to war.

7 thoughts on “Moving On in Vietnam, but Remembering Its Lessons

  1. It was an unpopular war,but John Kerry, John Mccain and Bob Kerrey did their duty and served their country with honour. No more Vietnams that is the title of the book Richard Nixon wrote. Lessons must be remembered so that this tragedy is not repeated in Southeast Asia.–Din Merican

  2. US Vietnam War veterans return to Vietnam for psychological healing :

    The USA should just let Third World countries choose their own governments democratically, and respect the results.
    Refrain from subverting regimes it does not like (e.g. Mossadegh’s Iran, Jacobo Arbenz’s Guatemala, Allende’s Chile, Patrice Lumumba’s Congo, the Sandinistas’ Nicaragua, Kwame Nkrumah’s Ghana, Sukarno’s Indonesia, Omar Torrijos’ Panama, Michael Manley’s Jamaica, Goulart’s Brazil, Jagan’s Guyana, Sihanouk’s Cambodia, …… the list goes on and on and on).

    All those years of trying to help the French re-colonise Vietnam and to stop Vietnamese reunification, and subvert Castro’s Cuba — what did it achieve? A total and horrible waste of blood and treasure. USA and Cuba, and USA and Vietnam have now established diplomatic relations.

  3. What is written by John Kerry and et al above is mainly from Americans perspective and rightfully so since they are Americans.

    Spreading of communism in Asia was real and often was executed by force, not by democratic means as alluded by leftists. Force can only be stopped by force – there is no other way to do it. LKY in his books and speeches had fully acknowledged Singapore’s debt to Americans for stopping the advances of communism by Vietnamese, who boasted themselves as the the Prussians of Asia. Malaysia, likes Singapore, was a lucky beneficiary of Americans’ actions in halting the advances of communism. Colonialism is of course not good when it is compared to independent statehood; but colonialism didn’t cause damage as severe as communism. Vietnamese did not become boat people under French colonialism or American administration, but 800,000 South Vietnamese went to the sea to become boat people when communists arrived.

    It was true that not all forces, including Americans’ force, could stop communism’s advances. But wherever the communism’s advances were stopped, we avoided catastrophic human disasters such as 30-40 millions Chinese deaths due to famine in late 1950′, 10-20 millions deaths due to famine in Soviet Union in 1920, one-third population decimated in Cambodia, and other immerse suffering of people under communism of which a few of their descendants still want to tell me the sufferings when they had a chance to talk about.

    That, I think, is the perspective Malaysians should take.

  4. Well, Mr/Ms Shiou

    You have a simplistic “black and white” picture of the world and a tendency to lump everything together.

    1. There are Communists and then there are Communists i.e.
    Communists who participate in the democratic process (such as the PCF in France, the ones in Kerala and West Bengal – who have even ruled
    their respective provinces relatively well) and then the militant, violent and even blood thirsty ones (Sendero Luminoso in Peru, for example and the notorious Khmer Rouge). If some Communists genuinely give up armed struggle and wish to participate in electoral contests, why should they be suppressed?

    Ho Chi Minh was likely to win via democratic elections in southern Vietnam after the Geneva accords, that was why the USA did not allow the elections to take place, and supported a series of corrupt S, Vietnamese regimes instead. Vietnamese Communists would not have won the war in the South without significant support from the peasants (who had shaky knowledge of Marxist ideology but were primarily motivated by their serious landlord problem and by Vietnamese nationalism — read the excellent book “War Comes to Long An”).

    Many of our friends in Parti Sosialis Malaysia are Marxists (some may even be Marxist-Leninists or “Communists”) but except for (some) of their unrealistic prognoses of Malaysian society or unworkable economic policies (such as ignoring market forces), we Social Democrats find them to be people who believe in the democratic process and to be Malaysian patriots too.

    Your second to last paragraph on the millions of lives lost simply illustrate the dangers of concentration of power in the hands of the few i.e. the typical “Communist Party Politbureau” as a result of the baleful influence of the Leninist version of Marxism i.e. so-called “democratic centralism”. It is similarly the case with extreme right political parties that follow the Fuhrer Principle. This is why we need democracy and Constitutions, and Constitutional Courts – to prevent concentration of power in the hands of the few, and their abuse of it. We can see what is happening in 1Malaysia with the concentration of power in UMNO Baru today.

    “Communist” regimes, like right-wing regimes need to be examined case by case, rather than simplistically lumped together.

    2. You still subscribe to the discredited “Domino Theory” and
    “If we don’t fight them in Vietnam, we will have to fight them in San Francisco”?

    3. I consider it positive that Chin Peng and the MCP were defeated in the Emergency. They were violent and influenced by Maoism. They did do something positive though i.e. speeded up the granting of Independence to Malaya.

    4. Finally, you contradict yourself when you say that we should respect Constitutions but then say Communists should be fought using violence.
    What is your response to Communists who genuinely give up armed struggle
    and willingly take part in the democratic process such as the Nepali Communists? And what about racist/fascist regimes like the old South African apartheid regime with its racist laws and discriminatory Constitution?
    This is why Nelson Mandela, a social democrat, worked with the white Communist Joe Slovo and the SACP to get rid of the apartheid regime. Slovo also served as Minister of Housing in the first post-apartheid Mandela government.

    If I may re-iterate, it is unwise to have a black-and-white view of the world.
    P.S. I recently read an excellent biography of Ho Chi Minh by William Duiker.
    I think if Ho were alive today, he would approve of his Party’s economic policies but strongly condemn its corruption.

  5. One more thing :

    From the list of Third World populist governments subverted by the USA
    (which I mentioned above), how many are “Communist” ? Maybe only Nicaragua under the Sandinistas !

  6. “Finally, you contradict yourself when you say that we should respect Constitutions but then say Communists should be fought using violence.
    What is your response to Communists who genuinely give up armed struggle
    and willingly take part in the democratic process such as the Nepali Communists?” Dr. Phua.

    I previously said communism is often executed with force, but I had not said communism is always executed with force. Then I said force must be stopped by force. I didn’t mean to said all communists must be fought with force, but all violent communists must be fought with force.

    It may be a “polite” way to characterize my words as seeing the world as black-and-white, I actually want to express my conviction of my positions, which I am willing to defend.

    Had Malaysia located next to Vietnam, the “killing field” would have been in Malaysia. We were lucky there are Thailand and Cambodia between Malaysia and Vietnam. We were even luckier because there was Americans’ action of halting the Vietcong’s advances.

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