Rapprochement between Vietnam and the United States: A Response

By Tuan, Hoang Anh | Contemporary Southeast Asia, December 2010 | Go to article overview

Rapprochement between Vietnam and the United States: A Response


Tuan, Hoang Anh, Contemporary Southeast Asia


Vietnam is perhaps the only country in the world to have engaged in so many intensive and marathon negotiations with the US over the past few decades. These include the Paris peace talks of 1968-73, negotiations on the normalization of bilateral diplomatic ties (1992-95), the Bilateral Trade Agreement (BTA) (1996-2000) and on Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) (2003-06) which paved the way for Vietnam's entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) on 1 January 2007. These negotiations underscored the complexity of the relationship, yet were also instrumental in helping Vietnam and the US to better understand each other. It is difficult to appreciate how far and how quickly the Vietnamese-US relationship has evolved without having a good grasp of the difficulties bilateral ties have experienced over the years.

In his article, Professor Brown presents a detailed and comprehensive account of the decades-long rapprochement process in which the national interests--including strategic interests--of both the US and Vietnam influenced the nature and intensity of negotiations.

In assessing the history of this rapprochement, it is important to understand Vietnam's perspectives.

Geopolitics and the Rapprochement from a Vietnamese Perspective

The Vietnamese-US rapprochement should be viewed and analysed from a historical perspective rather than simply looking at developments in bilateral relations since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975.

Vietnam and the US have had a long history of engagement that can be traced back to the late nineteenth century when Bui Vien, an emissary of the Nguyen Dynasty, was sent to Washington D.C. in 1873, but failed to secure a meeting with President Ulysses S. Grant to request diplomatic recognition. During the Second World War, the Viet Minh, the predecessor of the Vietnamese Communist Party, and the Office of Foreign Service (OSS), the predecessor of the CIA, joined forces to fight the Japanese. Such cooperation lasted until the end of the war, and though short-lived, the positive experience of cooperation encouraged President Ho Chi Mirth to write a letter to President Harry S. Truman asking for US help to secure Vietnam's independence from France. The letter was intercepted by Allen Dulles, then Director of OSS, and never reached President Truman. Not long after taking power, the Truman administration had decided to support France's reacquisition of its colonies in Southeast Asia in exchange for Paris' support for American policies in postwar Europe.

There is still much debate over the question of whether Vietnam and the US would have been able to avoid conflict had President Truman received the letter from President Ho Chi Minh. However, for Vietnam, the lesson was clear: Washington was willing to sacrifice its ideals and push aside the interests of small-sized countries, including Vietnam, in pursuit of its national interests. These initial interactions slowly planted the seeds of suspicion in the minds of Vietnamese leaders regarding US intentions towards Vietnam.

Direct intervention by the US in South Vietnam following France's defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 was aimed at halting Beijing-inspired communist expansion in Southeast Asia and preventing the fall of the pro-American regime in Saigon. Ultimately this proved to be a grave mistake by US policy-makers as they fundamentally misunderstood Vietnamese nationalism and the strained history of Sino-Vietnamese relations.

As mentioned in Professor Brown's article, there was a missed opportunity for normalizing bilateral ties during 1977-78. On the Vietnamese side of the equation, two factors played an important role: first, Vietnam's lack of understanding of US politics, which led Vietnamese leaders to assume that the Congress would bow to requests made by President Richard M. Nixon on reconstruction aid for Vietnam; and second, their assumption that Southeast Asia was still a leading priority in US foreign policy even after the Vietnam War had ended. …

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