Moving on in Vietnam, but remembering its lessons

As United States President Barack Obama visits Vietnam, we are struck by the fact that most citizens of both countries have no living memory of a conflict that claimed the lives of more than 58,000 Americans and upwards of a million Vietnamese.

As Americans who fought in that war, we are frequently asked about its lessons. There are few easy answers, in part because every conflict is unique and because we have learnt that attempts to apply past lessons to new crises sometimes do more harm than good. But a few things are clear.

The first is not personal to us, but a principle that applies to all who wear the uniform: We must never again confuse a war with the warriors. American veterans deserve our deepest respect, gratitude and support whenever and wherever they serve.

The second lesson is that our leaders need to be honest with Congress and the American people about the plans, goals and strategy when the lives of our fighting men and women are put at risk. (The mission of the first American combat troops deployed to Vietnam was described as "flood relief".)

The third is to exercise humility in assuming knowledge about foreign cultures. During the war in South-east Asia, neither America's allies nor its adversaries acted in accordance with its expectations.

The fourth and final lesson of the Vietnam conflict is playing out before our eyes: It is that with sufficient effort and will, seemingly unbridgeable differences can be reconciled. The fact that Mr Obama is the third consecutive American president to visit Vietnam is proof that old enemies can become new partners.

Residents waiting for Mr Obama's motorcade to pass by on a street in Hanoi on Monday. PHOTO: EPA

As veterans who were fortunate to serve in public office, we are proud of the contributions we made to the resumption of normal diplomatic relations between the US and Vietnam. The process of restoring relations was arduous and required full cooperation by Hanoi in developing information about Americans missing or unaccounted for from the conflict - an effort that continues today.

But we have reached the point, more than 20 years after normalisation, where our agenda with Vietnam is forward-looking and wide-ranging. Mr Obama's discussions with the Vietnamese will cover issues ranging from security cooperation to trade and investment to education, as well as from the environment to freedom of religion to human rights.

This wider agenda reflects changes to the relationship that are well under way. Twenty years ago, there were fewer than 60,000 American visitors to Vietnam annually. Today, there are nearly half a million.

Twenty years ago, the US' bilateral trade in goods with Vietnam was only US$450 million. Today, it is 100 times that. Twenty years ago, there were fewer than 1,000 Vietnamese students in the US. Today, there are nearly 19,000.

More remarkably, the Vietnamese Politburo includes two people who earned graduate degrees in the US while on Fulbright scholarships. It is appropriate, therefore, that this week a new institution of higher learning will open in Ho Chi Minh City: Fulbright University Vietnam. One of us, Mr Bob Kerrey, is proud to serve as chairman of the university's board.

Nearly half a century ago, when we were serving in Vietnam, we would never have imagined that our country would one day work with the government in Hanoi to help save the Mekong Delta, by helping to create an initiative to manage its ecosystem and cope with the effects of climate change. We could never have imagined that the two countries would be partners in a landmark trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which is intended to raise labour and environmental standards while expanding prosperity in the US and all along the Pacific Rim.

It would have been even harder to imagine that the US and Vietnam would be cooperating on security issues. And yet the US has helped establish a new training centre for the People's Army of Vietnam on the outskirts of Hanoi, where young Vietnamese will prepare for service in United Nations-sponsored peacekeeping missions.

The US and Vietnamese militaries are in frequent contact and our diplomats consult regularly about the controversy surrounding competing maritime claims in the South China Sea. The US government does not take sides on the legal merits of these claims, but we believe strongly that they should be settled peacefully and in accordance with international law and not unilaterally by any country seeking to assert hegemony over its neighbours.

Of course, the US and Vietnam have different political systems and different approaches to some issues. But human rights are universal and we have made clear to the leaders in Hanoi our strong belief that Vietnam will reach its full potential only if and when its people have the right to express themselves freely in the arenas of politics, labour, the media and religion. In our visits to Vietnam, we have been impressed by the eagerness of its citizens to take advantage of technology and to compete in the global labour market. We are convinced that the government in Vietnam has nothing to lose, and much to gain, by trusting its citizens.

Looking to the future, we know that mutual interests, above all else, will drive the US partnership with Vietnam. But it is strengthened, as well, by the natural affinities between the two societies. These include family ties, a tendency towards optimism, a fierce desire for freedom and independence, and a hard-earned appreciation that peace is far, far preferable to war.


  • John Kerry is the United States Secretary of State. John McCain, a Republican senator from Arizona, is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Bob Kerrey, a former Democratic senator from Nebraska, is chairman of the board of Fulbright University Vietnam.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 25, 2016, with the headline 'Moving on in Vietnam, but remembering its lessons'. Print Edition | Subscribe