Bill Clinton was the first president to be elected to office after the end of the Cold War. Because he served at such a crucial global inflection point, it was his administration’s responsibility to answer a fundamental question: in the absence of any other global superpower, should the United States step back and turn inward? Or, alternatively, was it incumbent on America to maintain the mantle of global leadership—to exist as the “indispensable nation” in Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s iconic phrase—committed to promoting the interests of both peace and prosperity around the world?
Few issues exemplified President Clinton’s choice more clearly than the way he approached the strained relationship his administration inherited with Vietnam. Two decades after American military operations ended in Southeast Asia, Washington and Hanoi were still estranged. Various attempts to thaw the chilly relationship had faltered because of lingering disagreements and persistent resentments on both sides over the legacies of the war. The tension remained intense.
Choosing engagement over retrenchment, President Clinton looked for a way to bridge the gap. It was his hope that improved relations would help to draw Vietnam into a stable, democratic, and free Asia. First, he continued ongoing work to settle concerns about the MIA/POW issue, property claims, extend humanitarian assistance, and, ultimately, to end the ongoing trade embargo. Those efforts eventually led to one of the great triumphs of recent diplomacy when on July 11, 1995 President Clinton announced that diplomatic relations would be reestablished with Vietnam. President Clinton’s decision to renew diplomatic relations with Vietnam was one of the finest examples of statesmanship by a U.S. president in decades.
Though I had spent six years as a POW in Vietnam, I am proud to have also served as the first post-war U.S. ambassador to Vietnam. It was not an easy task as there still existed much suspicion and distrust on both sides. We had to take extraordinary steps and seize every opportunity to overcome the numerous social and political obstacles in order to successfully build the relationship. President Clinton and Secretary Albright made it easier for us to take those steps by giving us a wide mandate and generally a free hand to move the relationship ahead. We reached out to the Vietnamese people from all walks of life and over time we found a common denominator – the future. People realized that it was not possible to move ahead if you are looking back.
President Clinton visited Vietnam for the first time in 2000, five years after the normalization of relations. Upon his arrival virtually millions of ordinary Vietnamese came out on the streets in the middle of the night just to catch a glimpse of him. A western reporter who was walking through the crowds stopped and asked an old Vietnamese veteran why he was out on the street at 1 AM to see his former enemy. He simply replied, “1,000 friends are not enough – 1 enemy is too many”. When I heard that remark I knew our relationship building efforts were finally on the right path and I am sure that view was shared by those on the American and Vietnamese sides equally. Our hard work and investment in building stronger U.S.-Vietnamese relations moved our partnership forward, slowly at first, but the relationship has continued to grow stronger over the years to the point where we are now nearing the establishment of a comprehensive partnership.
Over the past two decades, expanded economic ties formed the heart of the new relationship. From 1995 to 2013, Vietnam’s GDP averaged 6.7% growth annually. Since 2002, the United States and Vietnam have expanded political and security ties, including reciprocal summits and security dialogues. U.S. foreign assistance to Vietnam has grown dramatically, surpassing $100 million per year in 2008 and now totaling more than $1 billion. And Vietnam has emerged as one of the largest recipients of U.S. foreign aid in East Asia, especially for HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention and to encourage environmental sustainability.
Today, the United States and Vietnam are equally committed to a peaceful, prosperous, and stable Asia-Pacific region. The two allies now routinely work together towards the achievement of common goals - from climate change to food security, human trafficking to illegal wildlife smuggling, humanitarian assistance to disaster relief. American investment in Vietnam has helped contribute to the country’s impressive economic rise and expanded opportunities for an entirely new generation of young people. From business partnerships to educational exchanges, thousands of citizens from both nations explore each other’s country and culture.
Countries inevitably have their differences, and Hanoi and Washington don’t always see eye-to-eye. But even in moments of disagreement, the two nations have learned to work through their differences as partners and friends. In 1995, as he announced the restoration of diplomatic ties from the East Room, President Clinton evoked President Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address,
Let the future be our destination. We have so much work ahead of us. This moment offers us the opportunity to bind up our own wounds. They have resisted time for too long. We can now move on to common ground. Whatever divided us before let us consign to the past. Let this moment, in the words of the Scripture, be a time to heal and a time to build.
Twenty years later, we have done just that. The U.S.-Vietnam relationship has grown and prospered and offers a superb model for former adversaries to overcome the past and to work toward a better and peaceful future.