Vietnam and the United States: A Transformed Relationship

Image of Chinese flag.

Image by T.H. Chia.

Strategic Rethinking

Nearly 50 years after the Vietnam War, and more than 25 years since the US and Vietnam established diplomatic relations, the two countries have entered into a “comprehensive strategic partnership.” That extraordinary transformation is due mainly to one factor: China.

As the President said on arriving in Hanoi, the US “has strengthened our ties with another critical Indo-Pacific partner. The United States is a Pacific nation, and we’re not going anywhere.” But he was quick to add: “I don’t want to contain China.”

Ever since its border war with China in 1978, Vietnam has been looking for a balancer to Chinese pressure. Their competing claims in the South China Sea (SCS) have added urgency to that search.

Now, with tensions rising over the SCS and in US-China relations, Vietnam has the full attention of Washington. Though their partnership is not strategic in the sense of a US defense commitment, such as that between the US and Philippines, it comes close.

Reports indicate that US military aid and increasing naval visits lie ahead. A remaining question is how far Biden will go to help Vietnam defend its claims in the SCS, such as by holding joint military exercises and providing maritime surveillance technology.

In any event, with the Biden visit, Vietnam sends a signal to Beijing that it is not dependent on China’s good graces. That prompts me to recall a line about Vietnam’s history with China that Ho Chi Minh is said to have uttered in 1946: “I prefer to sniff French shit for five years than to eat Chinese shit for the rest of my life.”

But Ho and those around him were realists, just as Vietnam’s communist party leaders are now. They are happy to have the Americans close by, but they are not jettisoning positive relations with China—or with Russia for that matter. (Vietnam is secretly pursuing a weapons arrangement with Russia, the Times is reporting.)

Leaning exclusively to the US side is simply not wise or possible. Nor is passive neutrality. Like the other ASEAN members, the Vietnamese want positive relations with all the major powers, and hedges against them as well—taking advantage of what in ASEAN circles is called strategic competition.

A Look Back

We have to take a step back to appreciate the enormity of this transformation. While China came to the assistance of Vietnam in two separate eras—in support of Ho’s revolution to free Vietnam of French colonialism, and then to defeat the US intervention—the US did all it could to “bomb Vietnam into the Stone Age,” as the saying went.

And it came close to accomplishing that horrific mission: relentless bombing of North Vietnam on a par with Hiroshima, use of Agent Orange to defoliate the landscape in the south, razing and napalming of one village after another. Yet, amazingly, despite all that destruction, and despite terrible losses of life on all sides, the LA Times reported that many US soldiers have returned to the scene:

“More than 58,000 U.S. service members died in the war, and since it ended in 1975, innumerable American veterans have returned to Vietnam, seeking understandingforgiveness or reconciliation. Now some are coming for more mundane reasons: inexpensive housing, cheap healthcare and a rising standard of living.”

Not only soldiers returned to Vietnam in search of understanding; former US officials did too. Officials like Robert McNamara, the former defense secretary, who in later years wrote a number of books that confessed to mistaken views about the war among the so-called “best and the brightest.”

Equally amazing is the Vietnamese capacity for forgiveness. In a moving article in the Washington PostDavid Ignatiuswrites about a dinner meeting between several young Vietnamese diplomats and, among other Americans, his father, once a senior defense department official who served during the war years.

The father acknowledged, just as McNamara did, that the Americans failed to view the war through Vietnamese eyes. We simply did not understand Vietnam’s history, culture, or politics.

The Vietnamese at the dinner were too young to remember much about the war, but they carried with them the suffering of their families. Yet, like the overwhelming proportion of the Vietnamese population, they admire Americans and want to move on from the war. Pres. Biden has offered US help in finding the remains of Vietnamese killed in action, an important gesture in the road to reconciliation.

The Healing

Of course, there is another side to this feel-good story: repression in Vietnam. Biden’s visit, unlike President Obama’s in 2016, did not involve meetings with members of Vietnam’s civil society. Nor did Biden say anything that might promote respect for human rights in Vietnam.

As the Washington Post notes: “According to the 88 Project [which tracks the fate of Vietnamese activists], Vietnam has imprisoned nearly 200 people on political grounds, including several of the country’s most prominent climate activists.” Biden did not follow Obama’s script.

David Ignatius says at the end of his article:

“Some wounds never heal. But when Biden touches down in Hanoi, we should take a moment to remember how far the United States and Vietnam have come since their terrible conflict. If that pain can be overcome, almost anything is possible.”

We must hope that this time around, we Americans will be better informed and more respectful of the Vietnamese than we were in the 1960s and 1970s.

As an author of the Pentagon Papers, I often recite from a top-secret paper that one of Robert McNamara’s chief deputies wrote in 1963, in which he indicated with percentage points why the US was in Vietnam. Only 10 percent of the reason, said John McNaughton, was “to permit the people of South Vietnam to enjoy a better, freer way of life.”

Today, let’s hope that now, that aim is at least 90 percent, for all of Vietnam.

Mel Gurtov is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective, an international affairs quarterly and blogs at In the Human Interest.