The Legacy of War: Can Contemporary US-Vietnamese Relations Overcome Historical Animosities?

In October 2014, the United States partially lifted a long-standing arms embargo against Vietnam. Following a thirty-year ban on the sale of weapons to Hanoi, Washington will now allow for the transfer of defence equipment to its former adversary.[1] U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced intentions to ease restrictions against lethal arms sales when he met with Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh early that month, detailing that this decision will apply exclusively to maritime-related weapons, and operate on a case-by-case basis. The revision of U.S. policy towards Vietnam signals progress in bilateral relations, and may indicate a shift away from historical animosities and towards a future of cooperation.

Although the war in Vietnam ended over four decades ago, relations between Washington and Hanoi were not officially normalised until 1995, and ties have warmed only very slowly since then. Despite considerable incentives for cooperation—including economic benefits and mutual security threats—U.S.-Vietnamese relations have made relatively moderate gains. Delayed progress is due largely to persistent memories of the Vietnam War amongst the governments and peoples of both nations. Although each state has identified one another as potential strategic partners, different understandings of their shared history may continue to hinder advancement towards stable and mutually beneficial relations.

Image courtesy of US State Department, ©2013, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of US State Department, ©2013, some rights reserved.

The conflict, which took the lives of almost 60,000 American servicemen and more than one million Vietnamese, remains etched in the memory of each nation. Bitter resentment endures in both countries, especially amongst the generation that lived through the war. My mother and father grew up during the Vietnam War on opposite sides of the Pacific. While he witnessed anti-war sentiment and anti-Communist rhetoric, she instead remembers soldiers prowling her neighbourhood. Such drastically different experiences have resulted in divergent understandings of what this war was, which has in turn led to deep-rooted misconceptions of one another. Ultimately, the war not only pitted Vietnam against the United States on the battlefield, but also created enemies in the minds of their governments and peoples. These negative attitudes continue to the modern day.

In the U.S., the Vietnam War is still perceived as a devastating defeat of its military force and—perhaps more importantly—of American values and beliefs.  The fact that the Vietnamese government remains under the control of the Communist Party serves as a reminder of America’s failure to inject principles of freedom and democracy in Southeast Asia. Justification for intervention had been founded upon policies of containment, yet communism continues to persist. To many Americans, Vietnam shattered the idea that “nothing was beyond their reach,” and the outcome of the war effectively challenged America’s sense of self. In this “crisis of spirit,” the U.S. government and peoples profoundly questioned their role within the international system.[2]

While Americans remember a loss of national pride and virtue, many Vietnamese instead recall a hideous intrusion of national sovereignty and territorial integrity. Some continue to refer to the conflict, specifically the period of U.S. involvement, as the “Anti-American Imperialism War.”[3] Vietnam suffered wounds that are, perhaps, more difficult to forget. Not only was the war fought on Vietnamese soil, but the strategies employed by the United States inflicted significant damages upon the Vietnamese populace. In addition to the traditional hardships of war, the Vietnamese people endured certain unspeakable atrocities, the most infamous of which include the My Lai Massacre and Agent Orange.

The effects of such atrocities continue to pervade Vietnamese society to this day, and many within Vietnam attribute this immense suffering to U.S. wrongdoing. Indeed, Binh Minh has insisted that the United States address these injustices, and identifies the treatment of war consequences such as Agent Orange as one of the largest obstacles in current U.S.- Vietnamese relations.[4] For this reason, history certainly does continue to play a substantial role in contemporary relations, even despite official ‘normalisation.’

On the other hand, common security and economic interests may suggest that historical animosities can be overcome sometime in the near future. For example, both Washington and Hanoi have kept a wary eye on Beijing as a potential regional adversary; China’s recent military build-up has been a cause for concern to both Vietnam and the United States. Additionally, processes of globalisation have led to increased incentives for trade, and the two states have been operating under a bilateral trade agreement since 2001. The eased restrictions on weapons sales, along with other recent developments—such as the U.S.-Vietnam Comprehensive Partnership launched in July 2013 and negotiations through the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)—indicate that bilateral relations may soon be fully mended. Security and economic cooperation may seem to be positive outlets through which the countries may overcome their bitter past.

In my opinion, reconciliation would be ideal—not only because warmer relations may serve to dilute tensions between the two countries which I identify most closely with—but also due to the potential benefits to both in terms of security strategy and economic strength. However, there are still many caveats to U.S.-Vietnamese cooperation in the security and economic spheres. Although it seems that the two have many shared interests, divisive differences still remain. Incompatible political systems and, perhaps more ironically, human rights norms, strongly inhibit the possibility for true reconciliation. As these differences are largely rooted in memories of the war, it is important to remember that strategic diplomacy and economic interdependence cannot erase history. Until the United States and Vietnam directly confront their bitter past, and corresponding ideological differences, long-term cooperation cannot be guaranteed.

Positive relations may therefore only last so long as both countries see stark mutual benefits. Furthermore, Vietnam seems to be turning increasingly towards Russia as an alternative for security and economic support. In recent years, economic agreements have led to a substantial growth in bilateral trade, especially in the energy sector. Additionally, Vietnam recently spent $3 billion dollars on military equipment from Russia, including six Kilo-class submarines and twelve fighter jets.[5] Vietnam enjoys more positive relations with Russia than it does with the United States, perhaps because their shared history is not tainted by a gruesome war, and their de facto political systems more closely reflect one another. While the Obama administration has expressed a desire to re-balance its foreign policy focus towards the Asia-Pacific, stronger Russo-Vietnamese relations could potentially serve to sideline the United States in that region.

It remains to be seen if Washington will vie for Hanoi’s support, actively pursuing the strategic and economic benefits of an allegiance with Vietnam. In this case, we may see the reminiscence of a Cold War mindset, in which alliance building is key to the successful realisation of self-interested goals. Although U.S.-Vietnamese relations have yet not reached that point, there is a very similar dynamic to that which dominated the international system fifty years ago. Therefore, the United States should more closely re-examine how understandings of the past pervade both Vietnamese and American societies, and how historical animosities dominate their perceptions of one another. Without addressing these deep-rooted ideas, neither Washington nor Hanoi can hope to effectively transform their relationship to one of lasting partnership.







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