Opinion: The US-Vietnam Relationship – 20 Years Later

US President Barack Obama earlier this month met with Vietnam’s Communist Party general secretary, Nguyen Phu Trong, a rare occurrence for the president to meet with a mere party leader. But the encounter is emblematic of the slowly thawing relations between the two nations after 40 year of off-again, on-again contacts.

Like an unruly teen-ager not getting its way, Americans on the world stage have a bad habit of just slamming the door and walking away. Recognition withdrawn. Trade Embargo imposed. Bans on Individual Travel. Over the past century, witness China, Cuba, Iran and Vietnam. So there, take that! That’ll fix you.

But eventually and after lots more angst, things do change. Then to overly-written and analysed fanfare, yesterday’s enemy becomes the US’s friend, with high-ranking visits and document-signings to a backdrop of long-warring flags. All very self-congratulatory. China took 20 years. Vietnam too. And today’s Cuba took more than 50 years.

And so what was the point of all those years of mutual resentment and hatred? A US government standing on ‘principles’ of some kind? Or simply a loss of ‘pride’ – especially in the case of Vietnam, the first war America had ever lost? Hurt feelings. Sore Losers.

My hopes soared in 1976 at hints incoming President Jimmy Carter would normalize relations with Vietnam but were quickly shattered by his administration’s continued Kissingeresque tilt to China and the muscle-flexing of the MIA Lobby (Missing-in-Action), the only group who still cared about Vietnam but, to me, for all the wrong reasons. And with deserters and draft dodgers now amnestied, where were those once so-vocal anti-Vietnam War folks?

Hard-line positions on both sides became more entrenched. The Vietnamese demanded war reparations. The Americans insisted on an accounting of the MIAs. Now economically desperate, Vietnam turned to the Soviet Bloc for help and pushed away the Chinese. But just as they had once used the POWs in its peace negotiations with the US, Hanoi played hard-ball on the MIAs, now throwing in Agent Orange just for good measure. The US has most recently had a snit over the possibility that Russian Kilo-class submarines will use the Cam Ranh Bay deepwater port the Americans built during the war. But Russia has been using Cam Ranh Bay ever since the Americans were driven out.

America’s Big Sulk continued, turning mean. When a clearly-provoked Vietnam invaded neighboring Cambodia in late 1979 to overthrow the dreadful Khmer Rouge mass murderer Pol Pot, Hanoi received no thanks from the US. Instead, with a wink and a nod, Carter gave a White House okay to China’s retaliatory invasion and devastation of Vietnam’s five northern provinces. Then relishing the image of a Hanoi bogged down in Cambodia, just as they’d once been in Vietnam, Washington continued supporting the Khmer Rouge.

Finally, and thanks largely to Australia’s diplomatic initiatives, a suitable end was created for Vietnamese troops to depart Cambodia and an internal political solution hammered out. But the reality on the ground remained in Hanoi’s favor.

By now the early 1990s, the stage was set for the US normalising relations with Vietnam, first with a lifting of the trade embargo and then diplomatic recognition. But others, including Australia, had already done all the hard work, especially the challenges and nuances of doing business and running aid programs in the country.

Looking back now, would things have gone much different if the Americans – like at the end of hard-fought test cricket series – had just bowed their heads, shook hands and shared a beer with the winning Vietnamese back in 1975? Of course, they’d been real bastards violating the Paris Peace Agreement – well, just like the western side, too – and taking over Saigon, but what further agonies for all would have been saved with a hand-shake and moving along? Well, at a minimum lesson for today’s world, let’s hope America stops slamming doors behind them.

And so now comes the commemoration of 20 years of diplomatic relations between Vietnam and the United States. There’s no question of enormous goodwill, improving relations and growing trade between the two countries.

But also let us not forget there’s a much longer and even deeper relationship with those Vietnamese on the losing side and who felt so abandoned at war’s end. As part of negotiations towards normalising relations, America insisted on free travel for Vietnamese and migration for South Vietnamese inmates of the re-education camp, half-American orphans and family reunions.

At the same time, the US continues to push for a strict observance of human rights, even if its own war-time record wasn’t all that crash-hot, and greater religious freedom. These are on-going but not relationship-busting issues.

At the most practical level, America should be working harder to finally overcome the legacies of war, specifically Unexploded Ordnance (UXO) and Agent Orange, the latter certainly America’s biggest war-time mistake.

Is dealing with the ugly embarrassment of Agent Orange once and for all so damned intractable? How can US veterans actively receive compensation and treatment and those Vietnamese affected by Agent Orange receive absolutely nothing? It is past time when the US should do justice for those so badly maimed in a war in which they had no part.

Carl Robinson spent nearly a dozen years in what was then South Vietnam, first as a US government aid worker and then as a correspondent with The Associated Press in Saigon, escaping in the helicopter evacuation the day before the city’s fall 30 April 1975. He is now a citizen of Australia, married to a Vietnamese woman.