The long road to normalcy

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The history of Vietnam-US relations is still crazy (after all these years)

Former US President Bill Clinton is greeted on the street in Hanoi, Vietnam on Wednesday, December 2006

In the days following the liberation of Saigon, Nayan Chanda, the young Saigon correspondent for the Far East Economic Review, thought he had a scoop.

He went to the man he hoped would be his source: the editor in chief of the Vietnamese Communist Party's Nhan Dan (The People) newspaper, Hoang Tung.

"I said I know that a lot of official US documents were left behind in Saigon, which your government now has in its possession. Would you help me get access to these documents?" Chanda told Thanh Nien Weekly via phone.

Tung's answer was no.

"I was surprised," said Chanda. "He [Tung] said: "˜Look, the war is over, there is no reason to throw salt in the American wounds."

According to Chanda's history of postwar Indochina Brother Enemy: The War after the War, 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 [US-imposed] embargo that prevented western countries from helping Vietnam," he said in the interview.

This July 11 marks 15 years since the US decided to open its doors and lift the embargo.

Warren Christopher, US Deputy Secretary of State 1977-1981 and Secretary of State 1993-1997 (during normalization) wrote to Thanh Nien Weekly via email:

"In 1995, with the war almost two decades behind us, I believed that the time had come to establish a working relationship with Vietnam, to recast the word in the American consciousness as a place rather than a war."

What took so long?

After the fall of Saigon, Vietnam was invaded by the Khmer Rouge several times. Vietnamese-led forces then crossed into Cambodia and ousted Pol Pot in 1978, ending a genocide that had killed two million Cambodians.

The US was not pleased. In 1981, US Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. said the US would not recognize Vietnam because of its actions against Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.

Edwin A Martini, author of Invisible Enemies: The American War on Vietnam, 1975-2000 and Associate Professor of History at Western Michigan University, told Thanh Nien Weekly what the US was up to in Cambodia at the time:

"The US was providing all these supplies and materials to what they called the "˜non-communist resistance' when everybody knew full well that most of those supplies and most of those materials were going to the Khmer Rouge."

This relationship made normalization seem virtually impossible for the Vietnamese.

"After the war, the US led a coalition of nations to establish a political blockade and economic embargo on Vietnam, preventing Vietnam's development of regional and international relations," recalled vice chair of the National Assembly's Foreign Affairs Committee Ngo Quang Xuan, who served as Vietnamese ambassador to the United Nations during the normalization process.

Martini added that even ostensibly non-political organization like the IMF and World Bank, whom Vietnam had invited into the country post-1975, were under the influence of the US and couldn't work here under the embargo.

But now, with Vietnam a World Trade Organization member and major trading partner with the US, Xuan considers the large economic gap between the two nations to be their greatest challenge.

However, even given the richness of the friendship, Xuan still felt relations were not yet "comprehensive."

"I believe that US-Vietnam relations will only be comprehensive once the Agent Orange matter has been resolved."

Flying high

In a press conference on June 29, US ambassador Michael Michalak announced the winner of the anniversary logo contest: a soaring kite, made up of the two nation's flags.

Michalak went on to describe the various millions of dollars the US government has invested in Vietnam since the end of the embargo: including $46 million that had been donated since 1989 to help the disabled.

"I feel very strongly that relations between the US and Vietnam have never been stronger," he said in his closing remarks.

"˜Propaganda' no more

Seated at her District 1 office in confident repose, Madame Ton Nu Thi Ninh, retired diplomat and former vice chair of the National Assembly's Foreign Affairs Committee, seems comfortable in the light of Vietnam's bright future. She plans to open a major new private university and is always happy to speak with the press.

Though she holds no grudges, Ninh remembers the harshness of the embargo with great clarity.

The stateswoman told Thanh Nien Weekly that a high-ranking UNICEF official had explained to her that even for a multilateral body, normal relations with the US were an important prerequisite for serious cooperation.

She considers Agent Orange the only problem between the two nations. "But AO will never capsize the boat," she said.

To illustrate how far the two nations had come, Ninh recalled that years ago, a former US ambassador had dismissed Vietnam's Agent Orange toll as "propaganda."

"No US ambassador will use that word anymore," she said.


Nguyen Duc is perhaps Agent Orange's most famous victim.

He was joined at the leg, from birth, to his brother Viet who remained bedridden following their 14-hour separation surgery.

Viet never fully recovered following the operation. He died in 2007.

Now, Duc walks with one leg.

He is married and living in a home made possible by international donations and the salary he earns as a computer technician.

He was just a child when relations normalized. "Over the past 15 years, I have seen remarkable progress in the relations between the two countries," he said over the phone. He was encouraged by the recent arrival of four US Senators willing to discuss dioxin cleanup and hopes that the Vietnamese government will continue to lean on the US for a resolution to the Agent Orange problem.

"If I had a chance to speak with the US leaders, I would tell them to stop all other wars waged elsewhere in the world," he said.

Freedom fighter

Nguyen Kim Phuong, 80, fought in the guerilla resistance movement against both the French and Americans. His father was killed by the French and his father-in-law was confined at Con Dao prison, notorious for its infamous "tiger cages."

Like most Vietnamese, Phuong is forgiving about the war and is happy to see US-Vietnam relations moving forward.

"Since normalization, the lives of our people and our economy have both improved. Our relations are mutually beneficial. The Vietnamese people are grateful to the generous support from the US," Phuong said.

"But... history cannot be forgotten."

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