I had the pleasure of attending a luncheon yesterday for the Vietnamese ambassador to the United States. As I was sitting there and later listening to the ambassador’s remarks, I recalled a different era of U.S.-Vietnam relations. Sad memories of an unwinnable war crossed my mind – the 58,000 U.S. soldiers dead, the massacre of hundreds of innocents at My Lai, the disturbing photo of the naked young Vietnamese girl running away after being burned with naplam, and the desperate residents of Saigon trying to get on the last helicopter out of the city before the Vietcong took control.
Fast forward to the luncheon and the ambassador and I found out that not only does time heal most ( but certainly not all) wounds, but that given time an old enemy can become a new friend. Vietnam resumed diplomatic relations with the United States in 1995 and since that time trade has jumped from over $ 100 million a year to $ 15 billion. The United States is now Vietnam’s largest trading partner and both the Bush and now Obama administrations are pushing for an expansion of ties, especially education ties. And to show how relations have really changed, in the coming weeks the Vietnamese defense minister will arrive in Washington to work out a new military arrangement with the United States.
But as with any war, remants of the conflict remain. There are still over 1000 soldiers who are missing in action in Vietnam; thousands of locals continue to suffer the effects of Agent Orange- the defoliant that we used to clear the jungle hiding places of the Vietcong; and there are many Vietnamese-Americans who continue to pressure our government to end this new push for economic and cultural openings, as they remind our government that Vietnam remains communist and authoritarian.
Listening to the ambassador with all these images running through my head, I could not help but think of Afghanistan – to many the 21st century version of Vietnam. Just like Vietnam, we seem to be heading to the conclusion that more is better as thousands of U.S. soldiers will add to our manpower commitment. Just like Vietnam, the government talks about winning the hearts and minds of the people, even though a tiny minority of the people have given their hearts and minds to the U.S. backed government. And just like Vietnam, we as a people are told that leaving the country or scaling back our commitment will lead to dire consequences, this time in the war on terrorism. Back in the 70’s it was called the domino theory – lose Vietnam and the whole of southeast Asia would turn communist.
If there are any lessons to be learned from the Vietnam War, they are that military assumptions, diplomatic slogans and strategic doctrines can be way off the mark and that fear of failure or defeat is such a powerful motivation that alternative tactics and critical analyses sadly fall by the wayside. The result is the real possibility of a military and political quagmire.
It is important to remember that after we left Vietnam, southeast Asia did not fall prey to falling dominos of communism. The United States remained active in the region, communism collapsed, China became a market-based powerhouse and a model for economic development, and after twenty years of seeing those helicopters leaving Saigon, Vietnam opened itself to business with America.
So before we go headstrong into Afghanistan and commit thousands of troops to help secure the country and win the hearts and minds of the people, the Obama administration would do well to think about Vietnam, once an enemy and now a new found friend.