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Vietnam: Legacy of the War

Program 9907
February 16, 1999


Le Van Bang, Vietnam’s Ambassador to the United States
Robert McNamara, former Defense Secretary and Author, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam

This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.

JEFF MARTIN: This is Common Ground.

JOHN MCAULIFFE: Americans have a lot of deep contradictions about Vietnam. They, it’s hard to imagine anyone who is today in their, between their mid-forties to early sixties, who was not deeply affected by the war.

MARTIN: The war between the United States and Vietnam ended almost a quarter-century ago. But that war left a lasting impression on American culture. That’s not the case in Vietnam, if you believe that country’s ambassador to the United States. He says his country sees the US-Vietnam War as just one of many.

LE VAN BANG: In the history of Vietnam we got many wars. You know, war with Japan, with France, and with China, the recent one. Or Cambodia. So, the war with the United States is one of them.

MARTIN: The status of political relations between the United States and Vietnam, in this edition of Common Ground.

MARTIN: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It is produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Jeff Martin.

It is now approaching four years since the United States and Vietnam re-established formal diplomatic relations. The exchange of ambassadors and normalizing of political relations came after two decades of icy relations in the wake of the war that ended in 1975. According to Le Van Bang, Vietnam’s Ambassador to the United States, political relations between his Communist-led government and the United States have moved forward at a steady pace.

LE VAN BANG: I think that in the last few years that our relations develop quite a bit in a step-by-step. We exchanged ambassadors then we established our consulate general in Ho Chi Minh City and in San Francisco, the Office of Defense Attaché of Vietnam was established in Washington, and your office in Hanoi. So the relation in that way, I think that it is positive. But, on the other steps like economic relations, trade relations, investment, things in that area, people in our two countries want to go faster. And in that area we are still moving a little bit slow.

MARTIN: In fact, economic issues are at the forefront of the US-Vietnamese relationship right now. A bilateral trade agreement is being negotiated and Vietnam is pressing to gain Most Favored Nation trade status. But if on the political level relations have become more normal, it doesn’t mean that the American people have put the war behind them. John McAuliffe, Executive Director of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development, a group that works to improve US-Vietnamese relations, finds it interesting how the public reacted to the publishing of a book in 1995. That books is Vietnam-era Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam.

MCAULIFFE: I think the reaction to the McNamara book suggests that we’re far from whole on this question. In some funny ways the American military may have come to terms with it more than civilians have. Because they’re, the concept of having a war and a war being over and then going on to regular life and tomorrow’s, today’s enemies are tomorrow’s friends, may operate within clear parameters within the military. Americans have a lot of deep contradictions about Vietnam. They, it’s hard to imagine anyone who is today in their, between their mid-forties to early sixties, who was not deeply affected by the war. Whether they were the 3 million or so that were in the American military or the 7-10 million people who were involved in anti-war demonstrations. We had one delegation, one trip of professors to Vietnam in which one woman virtually had a nervous breakdown because the realized she hadn’t been either for or against the war and how could she have been through that whole period and not been engaged in it. So there’s, I think people know the classic problems of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, the veterans who were caught in the dilemma of their own morality vs. what they had to do to stay alive and how that affected them.

But they, there’s never been any real coming to terms with the choices that people made who didn’t go into the military. And so you found people reacting against McNamara who had been against the war, who should have thought, well, that’s wonderful, he’s acknowledging things that no one else was prepared to acknowledge. He’s putting it in paper. It’s not perfect but it’s a step that no one else has been prepared to take at his level. But instead he was trashed by anti-war people as heavily was he was by the Kissingers and the people who are still basically trying to justify the war.

MARTIN: But if Americans are still struggling with their feelings about the war, Le Van Bang tells us that the Vietnamese have put it behind them.

LE VAN BANG: Yes, I must say that in the history of Vietnam we got many wars. You know, war with Japan, with France, and with China, the recent one. Or Cambodia. So, the war with the United States is one of them. So, we don’t particularly, you know, remember like you have one here. But on the other hand it’s that Vietnam now very much wants to normalize relations with the United States. We want to do business with you. We know that we can learn from you in technology, in management. Or we can access to the market here, to improve our economic relations. In that way we can improve the living standard of our people. So in that way the Vietnamese people tend to put the war in the past and going into the future. Impress the American people to Vietnam, to welcome them to our country, to work. So I can agree with you that we, past, we put the war behind us easier than the United States.

MARTIN: And yet despite Bang’s statement, John McAuliffe is not so sure that the Vietnamese have in fact let go of the war. In this history of Vietnam we got many wars. You know, war with Japan, with France, and with China, the recent one. Or Cambodia. So, the war with the United States is one of them.

MCAULIFFE: I think it is and it isn’t true. I think that if you’re talking about the Vietnamese who deal at a public level with Americans, yes. If you’re talking about people in Vietnamese universities or people who have a certain level of larger sophistication and knowledge, yes. But if you’re talking about peasants in the countryside who still have memories, no. They, I mean they put it behind them in the sense that it’s not part of their life and they can’t do anything about it, but the issues re-emerge. The discussion of Agent Orange, of the problems of birth defects in Vietnam, as in, with American veterans’ kids. You’ll see something emerging in the anger that people feel on an issue like that. Or My Lai, the anniversary of My Lai or anyone that visits My Lai, there’s a certain ritualistic character to it as there is around Holocaust memorials. But there’s also a reality beyond that that is in the population that has not fully been resolved because they still see coming from the US negative policies. Not nearly as much as in the past, but they’re still, we see over the debate on the trade agreement the sense that the US is holding them to a standard that’s very hard for them to carry out and so they become suspicious that there’s still some hostility behind it.

MARTIN: Indeed, McAuliffe cited one of the issues that even Le Van Bang acknowledges as a thorny one, the fact that a large number of Vietnamese children are being born with birth defects, which the Vietnamese government—and many others—suspect were caused by the defoliant Agent Orange.

LE VAN BANG: Now this issue is very sensitive. And I think that it’s a little bit complicated in the relations between our two countries. So, it is a real issue in Vietnam because we got a lot of children of the veterans who came back from the jungle where the Agent Orange was sprayed during the war. And many children maimed or could not speak or could not work. So that is a matter of fact in Vietnam now. And since the numbers are many, so there are social problems with them. We have to take care of them and we have an organization to get humanitarian to them. And we hope that we can get some international humanitarian aid to this group of children, who have families.

But that is one thing. And the other thing is that we would like to look into the scientific research of this issue and we hope that the United States can work with us. And I think that your government agreed to work on this one, to do the research on the effect of the Agent Orange. So that we might find something to learn about it.

MARTIN: So there’s more agreement on doing research on the affects of Agent Orange; less agreement between the two countries on whether the US would provide aid for the children who have birth defects. Is that right?

LE VAN BANG: No, no. We just say that we want humanitarian aid to them by Vietnamese people, by international community, but specifically anyone.

MARTIN: I was interested to hear some of the discussion about some of the military-to-military contacts that have gone on. And what is happening on that front and how important is that in sort of the set of issues that involve our two nations?

LE VAN BANG: Yeah. The military-to-military relations between our two countries, when we talk about that we have to look back into the history of our country. Because we had the war between us. So the military establishments of the two countries coming together a little bit slower and cautious. Of course we work very well on the MIA issue, which is the legacy of the war. And we based on that to begin our relations. But on the other fields I think that we move a little bit slow. But step-by-step and slowly. In the last year or so we have our Defense Attaché here in Washington and we began to work with the Pentagon and many other military establishments here. And relations between our two countries come to a stage that last October our Vice-minister of Defense of Vietnam coming to visit the United States. And that is the first high ranking Vietnamese military coming to visit this country. And I think that is a very positive step. There are many other exchanges in this area. In the academic or in the university, and I think that that is a very positive development. But of course, if compare the relations in military between Vietnam, United States, and China—with the United States—it might be different. You have advantage, relation in military with China.

MARTIN: In discussing military-to-military relations Le Van Bang noted that the genesis of those was the process of working together on the MIA/POW issue, an effort he sees as quite successful. For a great many Americans MIA/POW issues were and still are the primary ones between the two countries. And I asked John McAuliffe where he thinks those issues stand now.

MCAULIFFE: I mean, there’s two different issues. The initials are grouped together but the issues are very different. Missing In Action, which are not 2,500 but when you start talking about discrepancy cases, the few cases where we know someone died in captivity or could have been in captivity and we never got there remains or never heard anything about them, I mean those are a small handful now. So that issue, which is the one issue that’s closest to the POW question, is virtually resolved. The remains issue can go on for years because people, especially who were killed in combat situations far away from cities and whose units had to abandon them, or people who were in planes that were shot down—I mean the finding of, sometimes those bodies will be found and other times they won’t. And that, like the problem of de-mining or unexploded ordinance, can continue on forever at some level. It’s certainly not worth spending $100 million a year on. But it’s a concern to families and should be addressed.

The POW question, which is to say the issue of living Americans still held prisoner, has largely been discredited. That is, discredited by the people who work on the issue in the government, in the military. I don’t think there’s anyone who believes that there are American prisoners held alive who has been involved in any official capacity on this issue. But there’s a big community outside of the government, the X-Files community in a sense—not that—it’s in a sense that psychologically people don’t trust the government and don’t trust the Communists in Vietnam, and so you have a, in a way a small industry that creates and recirculates rumors and stories and evidentiary trails. And in a way it’s not so different than the Kennedy conspiracy, assassination conspiracy community. It’s no so different than the UFO community. I mean, people within a set of beliefs reinforce each other without regard to objective data. Or with partial objective data. And I suspect that that community will be with us as long as the generation is alive that was involved or lost people. And to some extent now their kids are getting involved, but I think much fewer. And the more normal relations we have the more Americans that are traveling or studying in Vietnam, the more aid projects and non-governmental organizations we have working there, the harder and harder it is for anyone to seriously believe the presumption that somewhere there are Americans still held.

MARTIN: You are listening to Common Ground. In a moment we’ll continue our discussion on the state of political relations between the United States and Vietnam.

Printed transcripts of Common Ground and audio cassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details on ordering. Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that conducts varied programs and activities meant to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.

MARTIN: With the relaxation of tensions between the US and Vietnam the number of people traveling to Vietnam from the United States has increased dramatically. Le Van Bang says his embassy handles thousands of visa requests every month. And several different groups are interested.

LE VAN BANG: I think that there are, you know, people in the United States who are having a strong interest in Vietnam. Like Vietnam veterans. People like John McCain or John Kerry in the Senate. Or there are many other American veterans of Vietnam War around the country. They are in high positions how in the state or in companies and some of them want to do business in Vietnam, but others still thinking that they want to do something for Vietnam. So that is a high level. I enjoy that very much.

At the same time, you have 1.3 million Vietnamese-Americans living here in the United States. And many of them still look back to Vietnam, want to help their families and to visit the country. And even want the country to develop in a way that can catch up with Thailand and say, Malaysia, or Singapore. They still have this Vietnamese among them. So they are very interested in helping in that way. And then the last, but not least, in the US government you got a lot of people who were involved in Vietnam before. And they still want to work with Vietnam in that way.

But overall, I think that there are a lot of other important issues now in the United States. You have many other big issues, so the issue of Vietnam might be less and less important in the agenda. Or even in the press.

MARTIN: You mentioned the Vietnamese-Americans, and of course your country was very divided during the war….

LE VAN BANG: Yeah, sure, sure.

MARTIN: And part of it was a civil war. Are most of the people who left the country, I mean are they welcome back?

LE VAN BANG: Yes. We now, you know, every year come about 120,000 Vietnamese-Americans from the United States, come back to visit Vietnam. So every month in our embassy we issue about 5,000 or 6,000 visas for them to come back. So they are welcome to come back to Vietnam. Of course there are one or two of them, you know, a small number, who are still having very strong feelings about the war and working against the government. And that way we cannot accept.

MARTIN: From his side, John McAuliffe, who has worked for many years on trying to improve relations between Americans and Vietnamese, is amazed at the number of people interested in Vietnam, and the depth of their interest.

MCAULIFFE: Three big categories. One are Vietnamese-Americans. That’s numerically by far the largest. And they’re going to see their family. They’re going to see their grandparents or their nephews or nieces, or they’re taking their kids back so they don’t lose their Vietnamese character. They’re going looking for husbands and wives. There are many things like that. They are going for investment. They are going because they see a chance to use the, what they’ve learned in the US and the money they’ve made in the US, as a way of re-establishing their family in Vietnam. So that’s a big category right there.

There are American veterans going back individually and in groups. And in some cases quite intentionally doing it to sort out their memories and the trauma that is still inside of them. They, and in some cases simply going back, and then discovering those things and sorting it out.

Another category are young people. People whose parents were in the war or in the anti-war movement. And this is not a large group but it’s an interesting group because they’re the people who are now a new generation of involvement. And interestingly, just as in their parents’ generation a number of the American men wind up bringing back Vietnamese wives. And just as you find in the State Department the generation of foreign service officers who were serving in Vietnam, including the US Ambassador in Cambodia and various people in the US Embassy in Vietnam today, met, they were of the age and they met Vietnamese women and they got married and that same thing is happening all over again with this new generation of Americans.

There are also, you get a category of people that are just purely touristic. They have been everywhere in the world and now they’re going to Vietnam. They’re useful economically in terms of bringing in hard currency but they probably don’t have any major effect on things. It’s just, this year it’s Vietnam and next year it’s Turkey.

MARTIN: It’s interesting that kids are going.


MARTIN: Cause I was wondering, if the next generation will give US-Vietnamese relations a much lower profile simply because they didn’t have the experience of the war.

MCAULIFFE: I think a lower profile, but not as low as is given to most countries in the world. Vietnam is the 16th or 17th largest country in the world, which already puts it, ought to put it up, in a higher category. But Indonesia is even bigger and Thailand is not much smaller. And there’s far more interest in Vietnam than there is any other country in Southeast Asia. And you see that in college courses. There are college courses for undergraduates about Vietnam, often focused on the war or the American experience of the war, but the better professors take that initial interest and build it into a larger understanding of culture and history and, that we were not the beginning and the end of the story of Vietnam. So that, so that you have a kind of influx of people that I think, relatively speaking, if you compared 20, 25 years after the Korean War, what kind of interest was there in Korea, there was almost none. Twenty, twenty-five years after the Vietnam War, what kind of interest is there in Vietnam? Still quite substantial. And a percentage of those kids will wind up going for a semester abroad in Vietnam or they’ll go after they graduate from school. But that’s not a great number. But again that sort of refreshes the pool of people, too.

MARTIN: Why the enduring interest in Vietnam and not Korea, do you think?

McAuliffe: Well, I mean it’s a subjective question for me. I mean, I don’t, I suppose because the illegitimacy of the war in a lot of ways. And the fact, the common refrain that this was the most divisive issue since the American Civil War makes—and the unresolvedness of still the interpretation of the experience of the war—all of those things keep it alive. I mean there was a tiny segment of the Left that disagreed with the Korean War. It was never a mass movement in opposition to it. There was never the kind of deep disillusionment within the military about it. It was, one of the things that stopped the war was the fact that the US Army was falling apart in Vietnam. And that was, that didn’t happen in Korea. People, as horrible as war is in general, if you can believe in it, it’s a different experience than if you can’t believe in it.

MARTIN: Beyond trying to normalize trade relations and economic relations with Vietnam, what initiatives do you think need to take place in order to develop the relationship more fully?

MCAULIFFE: The priority that I think is most important has to do with educational exchange. Vietnam has a very large population of people coming to university age; more than half of the population is under 25. Their universities have expanded greatly in the last decade but they cannot come close to meeting the need. Beyond that even the people who are teaching in the universities don’t have, most of them don’t even have anything beyond what we would call a bachelor’s degree. They don’t even have a master’s degree or a Ph.D. And so that the opportunity, the necessity, the urgency of finding ways of bringing hundreds if not thousands of Vietnamese here for graduate study—master’s degrees, in-service training, mix of academic and internship kinds of things, loosening the visa rules so that people can come to study as undergraduates even, so that their families here can pay for them to come or if money is saved in Vietnam that people can come with their money, their own money. I mean it’s both good for the Vietnamese development and economy and society, but it’s also good for us. It gives people a different Vietnam to have contact with. A different Vietnam to remember.

MARTIN: Our guests in this edition of Common Ground have been John McAuliffe, Executive Director of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development, and Le Van Bang, Vietnam’s Ambassador to the United States For Common Ground, I’m Jeff Martin.

Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.

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