In 1946, facing the imminent return of French colonial troops in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh sent a letter to Harry Truman urging the US to “interfere urgently in support of our independence.”
Ho Chi Minh never heard back.
His words were recalled on a chilly day in Hanoi on Monday, as Vietnamese and American diplomats gathered at a conference to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the normalization of relations.
“Unfortunately, history did not go in that direction,” said Deputy Foreign Minister Ha Kim Ngoc during the conference jointly hosted by the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam, the US embassy in Vietnam, and the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
“We had to travel a very long and hard journey to reach this moment. It took almost 70 years for Ho Chi Minh’s aspiration to materialize into the ‘comprehensive partnership’ cooperation framework.”
July 12, 2015 will mark the day America's two-decade embargo relaxed its stranglehold on Vietnam. Under banners and programs pledging “20 more successful years,” politicians and observers from both countries failed to mention how much sooner the relief might have come.
In his seminal book, Brother Enemy, author Nayan Chanda says American banks and oil companies were invited to Hanoi as early as 1976 to explore possibilities of trade and financial relations.
"They [the Vietnamese government] wanted to seek everyone's help. It was this embargo that prevented western countries from helping Vietnam,” he told Thanh Nien News in a 2010 interview.
As they grow increasingly united in their efforts to counter an increasingly assertive China, Vietnam and the US appear willing to look beyond the war that killed around 3,000,000 Vietnamese people and more than 58,000 US servicemen.
“Today, we look back at how close our countries have grown in that short time,” said US ambassador to Vietnam Ted Osius during the conference. “We will examine how the ties between our people have strengthened.”
“We will discuss how we can advance the comprehensive partnership. We will celebrate how quickly Vietnam has developed economically. And -- perhaps most importantly -- we will develop a vision for the next twenty years and beyond,” he said.
Friend or foe?
First and foremost, the two countries are scrambling to significantly boost their already growing trade. The US has repeatedly proclaimed its intention to become the number one investor in Vietnam.
“The commitment by both Vietnam and the [US] to conclude negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership this year manifests a strong desire for a more mature and stable relationship,” Ngoc said.
Washington has long maintained that the TPP will offer its signatories a shot at a level playing field.
The 12 possible signatory states account for almost 40 percent of global GDP and the partnership would set high standards for labor and the environment, and would open new markets to American and Vietnamese goods.
“Seizing this moment, this year, is an opportunity we should not miss,” Assistant Secretary of State Puneet Talwar said during his visit to Vietnam last week.
Many in the pro-TPP camp see the pact as a key to ensuring the US will continue to write the rules for trade in the Asia-Pacific region and stay central to the global economy at a time when many are organizing their manufacturing, agriculture, and service sectors around China.
But opponents of the deal said it would pave the way for greater international price controls for pharmaceutical companies, threatening patient access to affordable treatment, particularly in developing countries like Vietnam, where the average person earns less than $15 a day.
Though Vietnam has objected, for example, to US demands on medicine price controls, the country’s leaders have expressed high hopes that the TPP will soon offer some much-needed economic leverage against China's outsized influence.
Some worry that Vietnam's enthusiasm is so pronounced, the country will ultimately sign off on whatever TPP deal it is offered.
“The TPP is being sold as a counter to China's domination and although the extent to which it will hurt China is unknown, the recent events have created an environment in which anything that hurts China is interpreted as being good,” Dennis McCornac, a professor of economics at Loyola University in Baltimore (Maryland), told Thanh Nien News.
In recent years, China has taken increasingly aggressive actions to assert sovereignty over large swaths of the East Sea,
the Vietnamese term for the South China Sea.
The resulting tensions have prompted the intelligentsia and retired officials to urge the Vietnamese government to rethink its relations with the giant northern neighbor.
Since 2011, when President Barack Obama announced the strategic "pivot" towards the Asia-Pacific, the US has always tried to reassure Asia that it is a vocal critic of China’s claims to the East Sea.
Over 1,000 years of occupation and three deadly wars in the 1970s and 1980s with China have imbued Vietnam with a fear and loathing of Beijing. Many believe this sentiment alone has made Vietnam increasingly receptive to American rhetoric about its “greater role” in Asia.
On the sidelines of the Monday conference, Osius said the two countries would bolster ties between their coast guards.
“I am confident, as I know all of you are as well, that the first twenty years was merely a prologue to a much longer and richer story,” he said.
Given that this is a major anniversary year, such bright diplomatic rhetoric seems hardly unusual.
But not everyone is buying it.
“Vietnam should never ever play one country off against another,” Lieutenant-General Le Thanh Tam, vice president of the Vietnam War Veterans Association, told Thanh Nien News.
“Nor should it [Vietnam] trade the interests of its people for economic largesse,” said Tam, who is both a combat veteran and the president of the association's Ho Chi Minh City chapter.
“I don’t think the American agenda has changed over the years,” he said. “They always want to make us depend more on them.”