If I Were US Ambassador to Vietnam…


Photo by Loi Nguyen Duc | CC BY 2.0

Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.

— Martin Luther King, Jr.

This is something I’ve joked about with friends.  In reality, the closest I’ve ever come to working for the US government (USG) was as a part-time data entry clerk for the National Archives during my graduate student days in metropolitan Washington, D.C. and, more recently, for a quasi-US governmental international education nonprofit in Vietnam.

Working for a government, directly or indirectly, requires one to be a good soldier, if you want to keep your job.  There are certain trade-offs one is obliged to make, including occasionally averting your gaze while standing in front of a mirror.  I am a free agent and a free spirit, which pretty much disqualifies me for any position with any government, some more than others.  And besides, I’m not a veteran US diplomat nor did I make a six-figure donation to the current president’s campaign, the usual paths to becoming a US ambassador:  merit or money.

Nevertheless, here’s what I would do, if I were to become the next US Ambassador to Vietnam.  Indulge me while I sketch out this personal, professional, and sociopolitical fantasy.  These 15 actions are listed in no particular order, although the first two obviously have greater significance in this expanding bilateral relationship, one symbolic, the other practical with far-reaching benefits for both countries.

I would…

Long Overdue Apology … issue a heartfelt and long overdue apology on Vietnamese television and US Mission websites and social media channels on behalf of the US government and the US American people for the death and destruction wrought by the American War in Vietnam, including war legacies such as Agent Orange (AO) and Unexploded Ordnance (UXO), and admit that it was a monstrous blunder.

Furthermore, I would tell the truth about what would have happened in 1956, had the US allowed a national election in a temporarily divided Vietnam to take place, as stipulated by the Geneva Accords of 1954, namely, that Ho Chi Minh would have received an overwhelming majority of the vote and become president of a unified Vietnam.  (President Dwight D. Eisenhower and I are in agreement on this point.)  This would have prevented the 2nd Indochina War, thereby saving the lives of at least 3.8 million Vietnamese and 58,300 US Americans.  In addition, there would have been no devastating war legacies that continue to maim and kill 43 years after the liberation of Saigon and the US beat a hasty retreat.

The Nixon Plan … submit a formal request via the Secretary of State to Congress asking that it make good on President Richard Nixon’s promise to Prime Minister Pham Van Dong on February 1, 1973 to fund the reconstruction of the former Democratic Republic of Vietnam (would apply now to all of Vietnam) to the tune of $3.25 billion, which is now nearly $19 billion, adjusted for inflation, as stipulated in Article 21 of the Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam, signed in Paris on January 27, 1973.  In addition to belatedly following through on this government-to-government promise and providing Vietnam with much-needed assistance in key areas that would improve the quality of life for all Vietnamese, this initiative would burnish that part of Richard Nixon’s bloodstained record.  In fact, let’s call it the Nixon Plan, a Vietnam-related nod to the Marshall Plan of the post-World War II era.

The first two principles are as follows:

1) The Government of the United States of America will contribute to postwar reconstruction in North Vietnam without any political conditions. (my italics)

2) Preliminary United States studies indicate that the appropriate programs for the United States contribution to postwar reconstruction will fall in the range of $3.25 billion of grant aid over five years. Other forms of aid will be agreed upon between the two parties. This estimate is subject to revision and to detailed discussion between the Government of the United States and the Government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (since 1976, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam).

Some of these funds would be used to address two war legacies in particular in order to lessen the suffering of AO victims and provide additional support for the work of organizations that are working to reduce the number of deaths and injuries caused by cluster bombs and other munitions remaining in Quang Tri Province in central Vietnam and elsewhere.

MIA Issue … request that the search for US MIAs in Vietnam, who now number in the hundreds (PDF download) while Vietnamese MIAs number in the hundreds of thousands, come to a merciful end, and that the millions of dollars of annual funding be used for humanitarian purposes, i.e., for the living not the dead.  Related to the MIA issue, I would send a cable to Washington, D.C. with the request that the US Congress order all POW/MIA flags in the US, which US cultural historian, H. Bruce Franklin, once referred to as a “mark of national insanity,” be taken down.

New Scholarship Program …introduce a scholarship program for economically disadvantaged and academically talented high school students from around the country to enable them to study a subject at a “best fit” college or university in the US that is somehow related to the current and projected needs of Vietnam.  Similar to other USG scholarship programs, this one could issue a J, which requires students to return to Vietnam for at least two years after graduation like the Fulbright program.  One source of funding could be from US companies operating in Vietnam.  Think of the latter as an example of doing good and doing well.

Win-Win Activities …order that the merits of any bilateral project or activity, including those related to education, be judged on the basis of mutual benefits.  Win-win activities would replace soft power as a tool or weapon.

Consular Review …order a review of student visa-related consular decisions with the goal of making fewer mistakes and issuing more student visas in an effort to stanch the flow of students to second-choice overseas study destinations.  I would also insist that students be told why they failed the interview so that they’ll know how to prepare for the next one, if there is a next one, i.e., if they do not end up going to Canada, Australia, or another third country.  More qualified students studying in the US benefits educational institutions and both countries in a long list of tangible and intrinsic ways.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly …request that all Embassy and Consulate activities about the USA, including those sponsored by the American Centers (AC), reflect the good, the bad, and the ugly of US society and culture.  (This includes both AC library collections.)  This would be in the spirit that every country is part role model and part cautionary tale, including the US.  A part of this initiative would be to distribute the Vietnamese translation of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States (Lịch sử dân tộc Mỹ) free of charge at US Mission events for young people.

Long-Term Employment …encourage the USG to make it easier for young Vietnamese who study in the US and who wish to work there for the long term, especially in certain priority fields of study.  This would be similar to Germany’s visionary and practical Make It In Germany   This reflects the letter and spirit of two tweets that candidate Donald Trump made in August 2015:  “When foreigners attend our great colleges and want to stay in the U.S., they should not be thrown out of our country” (first tweet) and “I want talented people to come into this country — to work hard and to become citizens. Silicon Valley needs engineers, etc.” (second tweet)

Freedom of Speech: Walking the Walk  …allow freedom of speech to be exercised on USG and quasi-USG social media sites, e.g., Fulbright University Vietnam Facebook fanpage.  No exceptions.  No more hypocrisy.  The truth can be painful, at times, but it is also liberating and preferable to propagating lies or living them.

Global Citizenship over Nationalism …only pursue US American “interests” to the extent that they complement those of Vietnam.  This would represent a seismic shift from nationalism to patriotism and global citizenship.

More Fulbright Grants …increase the number of student Fulbright grants from 15 (used to be 25) to 50 per year.  The overall cost of the program is a drop in the bucket by US government standards with inestimable long-term impact.  Keep in mind that a MQ-9A Reaper Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) costs about $12 million per unit, which means that the total cost of this year’s worldwide Fulbright program (PDF download, p. 166) is just over 12 Reaper drones.

Bob Kerrey, Self-Confessed War Criminal … ask that Bob Kerrey, former US senator, university president, and self-confessed war criminal, who was forced to resign as chairman of the Fulbright University Vietnam board of trustees, also resign from his position as a member of that board.   There is no place for a self-confessed war criminal who has his very own exhibit in the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) on the board of a US-style university in Vietnam, quite literally the scene of his (war) crimes.  Related to this action and item #1, I would travel to Thạnh Phong to personally apologize, on behalf of the US government and my fellow citizens, to the survivors of the massacre, including Mrs. Bùi Thị Lượm, whose grandmother, four aunts, and ten cousins were murdered by Kerrey’s Raiders, as his unit was known.

Official Vietnam War Commemoration as Historical Whitewash …denounce the official US Vietnam War Commemoration as a historical whitewash and endorse the Veterans for Peace Vietnam Full Disclosure project as an honest and comprehensive effort to counter the propaganda and lies of the official commemoration.

People Over Profit … Initiate a dialogue with certain US companies that have entered the “Vietnam market” selling products and services that have an adverse effect on people’s health and the environment.

Rare Agreement with President Trump …express my wholehearted agreement with President Donald Trump’s assessment of Vietnam as “one of the great miracles of the world” and an assertion he made in a speech at the APEC CEO Summit in Danang in November 2017 that Vietnamese students are among the best in the world.

And that would be just the beginning.  To paraphrase William Blum, the author of Rogue State:  A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower, who speculates about what would happen on his fourth day in The White House in his own sociopolitical fantasy, how long do you think I would last, dear reader?

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Mark A. Ashwill is an international educator who has lived and worked in Vietnam since 2005.  He blogs at An International Educator in Viet Nam

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