United States Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s June 2012 appearance at Vietnam’s magnificent deepwater port, Cam Ranh Bay, was rich in symbolism. In one of his many (unanswered) letters to President Harry S. Truman appealing for American help in gaining his country’s independence from France, Vietnamese revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh proposed a US naval base at Cam Ranh Bay. During America’s war against Ho’s Democratic Republic of Vietnam, the bay became a major US naval and air base: the point of entry for thousands of soldiers and huge volumes of supplies. After America left Vietnam in 1975, its Cold War enemy the Soviet Union took over its former base. Panetta’s visit to Cam Ranh Bay marked an important milestone in the ongoing process of US-Vietnam postwar normalisation. Indeed, recent increased military cooperation between the two nations raises the prospect of a genuine rapprochement between once-bitter enemies.
The road to rapprochement has been long and strewn with obstacles. The end of the Second Indochina War in April 1975 did not bring peace between the United States and Vietnam. Humiliated by a small nation, the world’s greatest power was in no mood for conciliation; the United States treated the victorious Vietnam as a defeated foe. It extended to all of Vietnam the wartime embargo imposed on North Vietnam, refused to pay the “reparations” vaguely— and conditionally—offered by the Nixon administration in the peace settlement, demanded a full accounting of US missing in action, and vetoed Hanoi’s application for admission to the United Nations. Secretary of state Henry Kissinger, the architect of America’s first normalisation strategy, insisted that Vietnam’s worsening relations with China and growing dependence on the Soviet Union would in time force it to comply with US demands.
For the long term, Kissinger was right, but the immediate result, predictably, was stalemate. Hanoi was understandably disinclined to surrender to the nation it had bested in war. It demanded payment of reparations as a precondition for talks regarding normalisation. A serious effort at accommodation during the Jimmy Carter administration also ran afoul of the reparations roadblock. As part of an ambitious strategy to wind down the Cold War, Carter hoped to reconcile with Vietnam. His administration ceased opposing Vietnamese entry into the UN, reduced travel restrictions on Vietnamese, and permitted nongovernmental organisations to send aid to Vietnam. It asked only for the most complete possible accounting of US missing in action. Badly misreading apparent US generosity, the Vietnamese stuck to their position on reparations. Aware that he could never get Congressional approval, Carter publicly stated that the United States owed the Vietnamese nothing. The Vietnamese reacted angrily and in the naïve belief that anti-war forces in the United States would compel Washington’s acquiescence.
Normalisation was also the victim of a resurgent Cold War. As the United States moved back toward confrontation with the USSR and rapprochement with China in the late 1970s, Vietnam turned in the opposite direction, signing a treaty with the Soviet Union, and, in 1978, invading Cambodia. The Cold War escalated after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, ending any prospect of normalisation.
American attitudes hardened in the 1980s. After a time of national amnesia, the war roared back into American life with a vengeance. A revisionist school of thought challenged the dovish orthodoxy. President Ronald Reagan pronounced Vietnam “a noble war”. Former military and civilian leaders insisted that the United States could—and should— have won by using its vast power decisively. The continued arrival of refugees from Vietnam and Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia put a moral stigma on Hanoi. Fuelled by reported sightings of live Americans behind the Bamboo Curtain, the POW/MIA issue took on a life of its own. Sensationalist films such as Rambo perpetrated the myth of Americans held captive by Indochinese communists and rescued by American superheroes. A potent lobby pressured the US government and demonised Hanoi. The United States reverted to its demand for a full accounting of its prisoners of war and missing in action and linked normalisation to a Vietnamese withdrawal from Cambodia, despite the threat of a return to power by the Khmer Rouge. This hard line satisfied domestic political needs and punished the victors. Some US officials may even have hoped it could force the overthrow of the communist regime in Hanoi. Reagan’s successor, George H.W. Bush, laid out an elaborate “road map” the Vietnamese would have to take to initiate talks on normalisation. Rarely in the history of warfare had a losing nation imposed such harsh demands on the ostensible winner. “One day Vietnam may overcome the consequences of having won its war against Americans,” The Economist observed in 1991. “The Americans are putting off this day as long as possible.”
BY the early 1990s, the war after the war had become burdensome for both sides. In unifying the country after 1975, Hanoi had imposed a rigid Stalinist economic model with disastrous results. In the late 1980s, a more pragmatic leadership launched economic reforms called doi moi (renovation), based on designs applied in China and Mikhail Gorbachev’s Soviet Union. Doi moi freed up the economy in important ways, provided some capitalist incentives, and actively sought foreign investment. The new government even loosened some political controls. In this changed climate, trade with the United States assumed great importance. Vietnam also found itself increasingly isolated diplomatically and bogged down in its own quagmire in Cambodia. The collapse of the Soviet Union left it without its major ally and economic benefactor. Hanoi thus accepted a UN plan for its withdrawal from Cambodia. Despite an estimated 300,000 Vietnamese missing in action, it began to assist in locating the remains of US servicemen. Growing cooperation in this area produced fruitful discussions of other issues.
The United States also found incentives for normalisation. For some Americans, reconciliation with Vietnam offered the only way to “end” a war that had lasted far too long. Public opinion polls revealed growing support for normalisation and waning opposition. By the mid 1990s, Vietnam had met most of the conditions in the Bush road map. The main effect of the continuing embargo was to deny US merchants access to the Vietnamese market. American businesses thus increasingly lobbied for its termination. Years of investigation, most notably by a Senate Select Committee headed by Vietnam veterans John McCain and John Kerry, produced no evidence that Americans were being held captive.
Having publicly protested the war as a student, Democratic President Bill Clinton had to move cautiously toward normalisation. In July 1993, his administration stopped blocking international loans to Vietnam and placed diplomats in Hanoi to help Americans seeking information about missing servicemen. In early 1994, it removed the embargo. Later in the year, Vietnam returned to the United States the once proud, now crumbling, bastion that had been its embassy in Ho Chi Minh City, the symbol of its powerful presence and its humiliating departure. In July 1995, Clinton announced the restoration of full diplomatic relations. In an inspired choice, he named as the first US ambassador Douglas “Pete” Peterson, a former Air Force pilot and POW whose initial stay in Vietnam had been at the notorious “Hanoi Hilton” prison. Peterson proved a highly effective agent of reconciliation.
Normalisation produced significant, if limited, results. US corporations like PepsiCo, Nike, and United Airlines moved quickly into Vietnam. Nike became its largest foreign employer. But by the end of the decade, the United States was only eighth among foreign investors in Vietnam. The two nations did not conclude a trade agreement until 1999. Vietnam’s lack of most-favoured-nation status with the United States limited the amount it could sell, thus, along with its low per capita income, restricting what it could buy.
A Clinton visit to Vietnam in November 2000 was a major step forward. The president drew huge and enthusiastic crowds. He did not apologise for the war, as some Americans urged, but he did highlight the theme that Vietnam was a country not a war, something many Americans never quite grasped. He visited a MIA excavation site, but expressed concern for the Vietnamese still missing. His stay in Vietnam also exposed the sizeable differences that remained. Hanoi insisted that the United States assume greater responsibility for the massive problems caused by its widespread use of Agent Orange and by unexploded bombs and mines. When Clinton gently chided the government regarding its human rights record and urged greater personal freedoms and opening up to globalisation, Vietnamese leaders charged that a still-imperialist America was still trying to impose its will on a sovereign nation.
DURING the first decade of the 21st century, normalisation proceeded apace. In 2001, the United States granted Vietnam conditional normal trade relations (NTR), lowering tariffs on most Vietnamese imports, and the two nations concluded a bilateral trade agreement. Vietnam agreed to further liberalise its economy. In 2007, with US support, it joined the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and Congress agreed to full NTR status. The United States became Vietnam’s largest market, by 2009 taking in about 20 per cent of its exports. Two years later, trade totalled $176 billion, a ten-fold increase since 2001, with the balance heavily in favour of Vietnam. US and Vietnamese trade representatives met regularly to discuss areas of contention such as American charges that Vietnam was dumping catfish and clothing products on the US market at lower prices than domestic and foreign competitors and concerns about Vietnam’s failure to protect intellectual property rights.
Other economic ties also developed. The United States quickly became a major foreign investor in Vietnam. Since 2000 that country has become one of the largest recipients of US foreign assistance—$140 million in 2011. Much of the aid has gone to HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment. The US has also committed assistance in promoting economic reforms that would bring Vietnam up to WTO standards, deactivating unexploded mines, and education.
A series of summit meetings smoothed the emerging relationship. Prime Minister Phan Van Khai’s visit to the United States in June 2005 was the first by a top Vietnamese official since the end of the war. President George W. Bush travelled to Vietnam in November 2006. Khai’s successor, Nguyen Tan Dung, exchanged summits with Bush in 2008. While offering the usual paeans to improved relations, the leaders discussed trade issues, agreed to send Vietnamese military officers to the United States for English-language training, and to allow Americans to adopt Vietnamese children. In 2008, Bush and Dung announced the beginning of political and military talks. “The consultation and measured cooperation that now characterise Vietnam–US relations are unprecedented,” analyst Frederick Z. Brown wrote in 2010.
Legacy issues left from the war still divided the two nations. The Vietnamese pressed the US to accept responsibility for and help in cleaning up the deadly mess left from the estimated 21 million gallons of herbicides, half of it Agent Orange, sprayed across roughly 10 per cent of the South Vietnamese countryside and in treating the millions of Vietnamese victims of American dioxin. Without formally accepting responsibility, the US since 2007 has provided substantial funds for dioxin removal and health care for victims. The Hanoi government’s extraordinary assistance in seeking the remains of the US MIAs led Vietnamese parents to protest that their sons were missing and it was looking for Americans. Through technology and access to its records, the US began to assist in locating Vietnamese missing.
Human rights issues in Vietnam have loomed large. To the consternation of some Americans, the Vietnam Communist Party continues to dominate a one-party, authoritarian state. The roughly two million Vietnamese in the United States, some of them prosperous and most of them critical of the government, have lobbied Washington to press Hanoi for political reforms and religious freedom. Some Americans have sought to use trade to leverage political reforms in Vietnam. Congress and human rights groups regularly introduce legislation to punish Vietnam for political repression. At times, the US has placed it on a Countries of Particular Concern (CPR) list for religious repression.
Vietnam has changed dramatically in the years of doi moi. Individuals can engage in private enterprise. Vietnamese enjoy some freedom of worship and church membership has increased. The government even authorised the construction of a decidedly bourgeoisie string of golf courses running from north to south, called the Ho Chi Minh Golf Trail. Still, sharp limits remain. The party’s strategy has been to permit some freedom of personal and religious expression, but to crack down hard on any people or groups that threaten its power. From time to time, the government has specifically targeted minority groups in the Central Highlands and the northwest mountain regions and those people or organisations that criticise it on particular issues. Press freedoms have been restricted and journalists imprisoned. In the internet age, pro-democracy bloggers have been shut down. The government also closely watches religious groups for signs of political dissent and has restricted them in various ways.
VIETNAM and China often boast of being as close as lips to teeth. In fact, throughout its history, Vietnam has had a love-hate relationship with its larger northern neighbour. While enduring China’s occupation for a thousand years, the Vietnamese absorbed its culture, language, and institutions. They also fiercely resisted Chinese domination. In recent years, Vietnam patterned its economic reforms after those adopted by China. Currently, China is its largest trading partner. But the two countries also clash over numerous issues. Vietnam has protested China’s plans to build enormous hydroelectric dams on the upper Mekong River, a waterway vital to the Vietnamese economy and ecology. It fears rising Chinese influence in Laos and Cambodia, traditionally part of its area of influence. The most heated clashes have come over the South China Sea and its numerous islands, vital shipping lanes, and potentially vast natural resources. China’s claims to “indisputable sovereignty” over the entire region threatens interests Vietnam considers vital. The two nations, along with others, have asserted conflicting claims to the many islands. China has seized Vietnamese fishing boats. In July, over protests from Vietnam and the Philippines, it established Sansha City as a way to strengthen its claims to islands in the South China Sea. Although it is careful not to provoke China, Vietnam sees strategic value in a larger US presence in Southeast Asia and closer ties with its former enemy.
The United States too has substantial trade with China and China holds much of its soaring national debt. As a Pacific power, the US is also uneasy about China’s assertive claims and its bullying of smaller Southeast Asian nations. Some military strategists warn of the dangers of China’s growing military and especially naval power. Entangled in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since the start of the century, the US presence in areas it once dominated has diminished. In a major 2010 policy shift, the US government announced a “pivot” or “rebalancing” back toward a region likely to be the centre of world commerce in coming years. While claiming neutrality in the disputes that roil the South China Sea, the US has firmly defended freedom of navigation. Its position on settling the disputes over islands has been closer to the small nations than that of China.
Vietnam and the United States have come a long way since the recriminations of the immediate postwar years, but there are limits to their budding rapprochement. The US will continue to press Hanoi on human rights. In the absence of major concessions, which seem unlikely, it will hold back on things the Vietnamese want such as lifting the embargo on weapons sales, a presidential visit, and lower tariffs. Ironically, the same issue that has pulled the two nations together may pose the greatest obstacle to their further accommodation. The relationship of each nation with China is so important that neither is likely to do anything to jeopardise it. After taking a hard line against China in 2010, the US noticeably eased off. Vietnam is a master of asymmetrical diplomacy and will seek good relations with Russia and China as well as the US. Barring some unexpected development, US–Vietnam cooperation will continue to grow until it reaches a point beyond which it cannot advance. The United States will have access to Cam Ranh Bay; it will not have a base there.