2023 High School Essay Contest Winning Essay

Mending Bridges: US–Vietnam Reconciliation from 1995 to Today


Justin Ahn: 2023 Essay Contest Winner

When the Vietnam War ended in 1975, US–Vietnam relations were understandably tense. During the war, 58,220 American soldiers were killed; on the Vietnamese side, a staggering two million civilians and one million soldiers were killed (Albert). The US severed diplomatic ties with Vietnam and imposed a full trade embargo (Albert). But today, less than fifty years later, the two countries are close economic and strategic partners thanks to the Foreign Service’s successful reconciliation efforts.

Between 1975 and 1995, shifting international dynamics created an opportunity to build ties with Vietnam. Initially, US–Vietnam relations deteriorated as Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1978 and aligned itself with the Soviet Union (Manyin 2). However, after Vietnam withdrew its troops from Cambodia in 1989, the Bush administration decided in 1990 to seek contact with Vietnam to facilitate a peace agreement (Manyin 2). In 1991, a multilateral peace accord concluded the Cambodian–Vietnamese War, and the US lifted travel restrictions against Vietnam (Albert). After increasing diplomatic exchanges in the following years, in July 1995, the two countries normalized relations, agreeing to exchange ambassadors (Albert).

To enable more extensive cooperation, the Foreign Service had to rebuild Americans’ trust in their recent enemy by addressing the legacies of war. Because some Americans believed that American soldiers were still being held captive in Vietnam, a full accounting of prisoners of war (POW) and missing in action soldiers (MIA) was necessary to prove that Vietnam was no longer an enemy (United States, Congress, Senate 1–4). Moreover, advocacy groups demanded that the US offer closure to veterans’ families and recover soldiers’ bodies so that their deaths would not be forgotten (Osius 7–8). As early as 1992, the Department of Defense established an office of the Joint Task Force–Full Accounting (JTF-FA) in Hanoi (Osius 12). In fact, Vietnamese cooperation in accounting for MIAs was a major reason for the decision to normalize relations (McCain). Once an embassy was established, under the direction of charge d’affaires Desaix Anderson, Political Officers Ted Osius and Bryan Dalton supported the efforts of JTF-FA (Osius 22). Their close coordination with Nguyễn Xuân Phong, director of the Americas office at the Foreign Ministry and Vietnam’s Office for Seeking Missing Persons, allowed JTF-FA to make steady progress in confirming that no POWs remained in Vietnam and finding the remains of American MIAs (Osius 22). To date, over 1,000 American MIAs have been identified and repatriated (Vu and Wells-Dang).

To regain the trust of the Vietnamese people, the Foreign Service had to repair the damages the US military had caused. During the Vietnam War, the US sprayed 45.6 million liters of the herbicide Agent Orange, which contained the toxic chemical dioxin, over Vietnamese forests (Phan 25). More than four million Vietnamese may have been exposed to the substance, which causes serious health effects such as cancer and heart disease (Phan 25–26). From 2013 to 2018, to address the issue of Agent Orange and promote reconciliation, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and Vietnam’s Ministry of National Defense collaborated to remediate roughly 90,000 square meters of dioxin-contaminated soil at Da Nang Airport, a former US air base (US Embassy and Consulate in Vietnam). Thanks to the clean-up, commercial activity in Da Nang airport now takes place without fear of health damage due to dioxin exposure (Phan 27–28). In 2019, the two partners inaugurated a similar project to clean up Bien Hoa Air Base, the largest remaining dioxin hotspot (Phan 27). Moreover, the US is currently supporting Vietnam’s effort to locate and identify fallen Vietnamese soldiers, just as Vietnam has extensively cooperated with MIA efforts for American soldiers. The Department of Defense’s Vietnam Wartime Accounting Initiative aims to transfer DNA analysis technology and train Vietnamese forensic workers (Vu and Dang). The United States of Peace accompanies this initiative with policy dialogues, public communications, and workshops to stimulate people-to-people connections between the US and Vietnam (Vu and Dang).

Based on a foundation of trust and reconciliation, the Foreign Service built avenues of economic cooperation with Vietnam, allowing US businesses to capitalize on the growing Vietnamese economy. In the 1990s, even after President Clinton lifted the trade embargo in 1994, US firms in Vietnam fell behind competitors from other countries because US tariffs on goods produced in Vietnam were 40 percent higher than on most other countries, discouraging investing in Vietnamese manufacturing (Schulzinger 59). To support American companies, US negotiators worked with their Vietnamese counterparts on a bilateral trade agreement. In the agreement, signed in 2000, both countries granted each other “most favored nation” status and drastically reduced tariffs (Agreement 2–9). Importantly, Vietnam agreed to some reforms to liberalize its economy, including abiding by more stringent intellectual property rights standards and relaxing restrictions on investment by US firms (Agreement 10–33, 44–51).

Furthermore, public diplomacy expanded US soft power among the Vietnamese people. For example, in 2014, then-Ambassador Dave Shear obtained a grant from the State Department’s Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation to restore the Triệu Tổ Temple in the city of Huế, which had been destroyed during the Vietnam War (Osius 123). The project successfully restored local officials’ and residents’ trust in the US (Osius 123). Moreover, Public Affairs Officer Alex Titolo arranged initiatives in Huế, including student exchanges between US educational institutions and Huế University, English-language teaching, and a small US cultural center (Osius 124).

Additionally, the Foreign Service collaborates with Vietnam on Mekong River issues. Upstream, China and Laos have constructed more than seventy dams for hydroelectric power generation, threatening to disrupt Vietnam’s water supply, harm biodiversity, and reduce agricultural output (Osius 81). This issue is important not only to Vietnam but also to the US because the collapse of the Mekong ecosystem would destabilize regional security, and China’s ability to threaten to restrict water flows gives it substantial leverage over Vietnam (Lichtefeld 21). So, in 2008, following a proposal by then-Ambassador Michael Michalak, a DRAGON Institute, conducting environmental research in cooperation with the US Geological Survey, was launched at Can Tho University (Lichtefeld 17). In 2009, the US launched the Lower Mekong Initiative, supporting technical and scientific collaboration initiatives such as Forecast Mekong, which utilized data analysis to support water management and address climate variability (Lichtefeld 15, 18).

In the near future, as the US seeks to pivot to Asia and counter Chinese influence in the region, engagement with Vietnam will be more important than ever. In 2013, at a summit between President Barack Obama and Vietnam’s President Truong Tan Sang, Vietnam and the US upgraded their relationship to a “comprehensive partnership” based on “mutual respect and common interests” (Obama White House). Under this framework, the US supports a “strong, prosperous, and independent Vietnam” (White House). As Senator John McCain wrote leading up to the normalization of relations in 1995, “It is, therefore, absolutely in our national security interests to have an economically viable Vietnam strong enough to resist, in concert with its neighbors, the heavy-handed tactics of its great power neighbor [China].”

Moving forward, the Foreign Service should facilitate defense cooperation with Vietnam regarding Chinese military activity in the South China Sea, a mutual concern. In recent years, China has aggressively asserted its “nine dash line” claim, which conflicts with Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone (Abbott 39). The US has an interest in regional stability and maintaining principles of maritime law, including sovereignty and freedom of navigation (Abbott 41). While joint military exercises would go against Vietnam’s traditional policy of non-alignment, the Foreign Service should provide technical support so that Vietnam can monitor its claim in the South China Sea, collecting and publicizing data about Chinese military vessels (Jung 55–56; Poling and Natalegawa).

In terms of economics, the Foreign Service must reinforce trade and investment ties to build soft power. Although President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership in 2017 undermined bilateral trade, the US and Vietnam can begin multilateral negotiations on a new digital trade agreement as a precursor to a broader free trade agreement (Osius 233–234; Poling and Natalegawa). Moreover, the US should increase its investment presence, emphasizing niche sectors such as education and information technology while providing feasibility studies and project assessments to support infrastructure projects led by other countries (Nguyen 51).

Of course, the Foreign Service has obstacles to overcome, such as Vietnam’s concerning human rights record. The Socialist Party of Vietnam suppresses freedom of expression, freedom of religion, ethnic minority rights, and labor rights, which leads some members of Congress to discourage closer diplomatic and security ties with Vietnam (Tran 6). However, the US must continue to expand and strengthen its partnership with Vietnam, given its significance in regional affairs. The progress that has been made since 1995 is remarkable; the Foreign Service has led a multifaceted reconciliation campaign to transform the US–Vietnam relationship from hostility to a comprehensive partnership. As in Vietnam, the Foreign Service can look to build peace and advance productive, mutually beneficial relationships around the world.

Works Cited

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* Agreement between the United States of America and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam on Trade Relations. 13 July 2000. United States Trade Representative, ustr.gov/sites/default/files/US-VietNam-BilateralTradeAgreement.pdf. Accessed 18 Mar. 2023.

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* United States, Congress, Senate. POW/MIA's Report of the Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs. 13 Jan. 1993, irp.fas.org/congress/1993_rpt/pow-exec.html. Accessed 18 Mar. 2023. 103rd Congress, 1st session, Senate Report 103-1.

* U.S. Embassy and Consulate in Vietnam. "United States and Vietnam Complete Environmental Remediation at Danang Airport." 7 Nov. 2018, vn.usembassy.gov/20181107-united-states-and-vietnam-complete-environmental-remediation-at-danang-airport/. Accessed 18 Mar. 2023.

Vu, Phong, and Andrew Wells-Dang. "Time Is Running Out to Account for Vietnamese War Dead." United States Institute of Peace, 16 Nov. 2022, www.usip.org/blog/2022/11/time-running-out-account-vietnamese-war-dead. Accessed 18 Mar. 2023.

* White House. "FACT SHEET: Strengthening the U.S.-Vietnam Comprehensive Partnership." 25 Aug. 2021, www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/08/25/fact-sheet-strengthening-the-u-s-vietnam-comprehensive-partnership. Accessed 18 Mar. 2023.

* denotes primary source