HOW THE US BECAME VIETNAM’S BEST FRIEND

President Obama: Ted Osius and his family is a walking Benetton add.

Former US Ambassador Ted Osius has an extraordinary story to tell in his new book ‘Nothing Is Impossible´.

After dealing with Vietnam for the better part of four decades, I tend to think that I have seen it all, read it all too. When students ask my advice what to read to understand the complex relations between Vietnam and America, I suggest Stanley Karnow’s ‘Vietnam’, Neil Sheehan’s ‘A bright shining lie’, Richard Butler’s ‘The fall of Saigon’, Robert McNamara’s ‘In Retrospect’, and of course Larry Berman’s entire works on Vietnam. 

From now on I will certainly add former US Ambassador Ted Osius’ new book ‘Nothing is impossible’ to that eminent list. If a student complains to have too little time for all these favorites of mine, I might say: “Start with Ted Osius then, and you will be motivated to read on.

Osius has some important, objective advantages to other foreign writers on Vietnam:

  •  For the past 25 years (on and off) he has been actively involved as a professional career diplomat in the uphill struggles to turn two bitter enemies into friends.
  • He is fluent in Vietnamese and has a deep understanding of Vietnamese culture, history, and the very complicated politics. 
  • He has more mileage in Vietnam on his bicycle than in his ambassador’s armored limo. He has shaken hands with anyone who matters in Dang Cong San’s Politburo, but he has spoken with even more farmers, fishermen, workers, Buddhist monks, Catholic priests, and students. 
Ted Osius is seen on the right during Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright’s visit to Vietnam in 1997. At center is the first US Ambassador to Vietnam, Pete Peterson, former pilot and prisoner of war in Hanoi.

Behind closed doors

Karnow, Sheehan, Berman, and many others have written great accounts on the US-Vietnam showdowns from their positions outside the closed doors, always depending on whatever their sources might be willing to share. On the contrary, Ted Osius is reporting from the inside (and as eloquent as any professional writer).

The take-away is a book of fascinating authenticity. As a reader you are there with Obama’s team, when it dawns on Osius that the Vietnamese government is not going to deliver on their commitment not to interfere, when Obama is to informally meet with ‘civil society members’, i.e. critics of the regime, during his official state visit in 2016.

With some difficulty Osius had negotiated a quiet deal in advance that Obama would be free to speak with regime critics, provided they had not broken Vietnamese law. As the visit unfolds the critical voices start to disappear before Obama has a chance to meet them. Some of them calls the US Embassy in panic, because they are threatened by police.  

Secretary of State John Kerry gives Osius the quiet advice not to burn any bridges and try to reason with the Vietnamese leaders that a US president cannot consider the visit successful without access to whomever he would like to have a dialogue with. 

After Osius makes some tense phone calls with top Vietnamese leaders, four of the critics manage to make the meeting with Obama, among them Vietnam’s ‘Lady Gaga’, singer Mai Khoi, originally a darling with the Ministry of Culture but now a fierce critic of the Vietnamese government.

Obama takes the incident nicely with the remark that things should always be seen as a process, but Osius is not happy with himself: “Still, I thought the president had been too generous to me. I had been naïve in believing that my deal with the senior leader would hold. I followed Kerry’s advice and let the Vietnamese know I would not forget the betrayal. I did not slap the Vietnamese on the back after the president’s visit, nor did I burn bridges. Too much was at stake in the area of human rights in Vietnam, including reconciliation.”

Encounter with Trump

Similar candor of the surprising kind is found in one of the last chapters, when Osius shares his astonishing encounter with President Trump in the oval office before a meeting with Vietnam’s Prime Minister.

“So who are we meeting,” the president asked.

“The Prime Minister of Vietnam,” McMaster (chief of staff, tbp) replied.

 “Whats his name?”

“Ngyuen Xuan Phuc…rhymes with book.”

“You mean like Fook You,” President Trump asked. “I knew a guy named Fook You. I rented him a restaurant. When he picked up the phone, he answered ‘Fook You’. His business went badly. People didn’t like that. He lost the restaurant.”

Moments later Osius goes on to brief Trump and his staff on important issues, among them the US plans to build a new embassy in Hanoi. The president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner apparently thinks that this would be some kind of gift to the Vietnamese and says: “If they are going to get that embassy, we need something in return. Tell them we’ll built it, if they bring our trade deficit to zero.”

The exchange demonstrates the utter ignorance of Kushner. Co-incidentally, some 15 years go, I asked one of Osius’ predecessors, ambassador Michael Marine during a dinner what his biggest headache was in dealing with the Vietnamese.

“The same as my predecessor. Getting permission to expand the embassy. They keep telling me that there are enough American diplomats in Hanoi. They seem to think that we just want to bring in more CIA.”

Until this day, the US embassy is still stuck on the narrow and overcrowded Lang Ha Street, too small and very much exposed, should any terrorist group target it. Luckily, the ambassador and his staff can continue to count on the fact that the very efficient Vietnamese security agencies would never let any foes near the US embassy.

Vietnam’s best friend

As fascinating as they are, the above anecdotes are insignificant, compared to the real important substance of this book. Osius has a very serious objective to explain why ‘nothing is impossible’ in terms of reconciliation between the US and Vietnam. 

Only a generation ago, American planes threw three times more bombs on Vietnam than they did on the Nazi Germany during WW II. Millions died in Vietnam. Nevertheless, recent surveys indicate that 92% of the Vietnamese today consider the US as Vietnam’s best friend. Obviously, China’s increasingly aggressive regional policies have added another important reason for the present day warm and friendly relations between the US and Vietnam. 

Osius has taken it upon himself to document how this amazing development has come about, including sharing his personal encounters with the men and women on both sides, who made it happen. There are many, many factors in this painstaking process. To mention a few:

  • Laborious confidence-building on both sides as a very difficult precondition, not least in the relations between Vietnam and the overseas refugee communities in the US and elsewhere.
  • Dealing with the legacies of war, including the lingering and devastating consequences of Agent Orange exposure and unexploded bombs and mines, making millions of hectares hazardous in Vietnam (and Laos and Cambodia) for generations to come. 
  • Development of the framework for international cooperation, including investment and trade.
  • Large scale cooperation within regional security, health, education, and culture. 

The US-Vietnam to-do list is much, much longer, and it is eloquently elaborated by Osius in his book. Admirably, he has managed to get it all down in less than 300 pages. 

Ted Osius at a ceremony to celebrate the completion of the clean-up project at the former Da Nang Airbase.

Dealing with Agent Orange 

On a personal level, I am happy to note that Osius gave top priority to the Agent Orange issue during his tenure as ambassador with ever increasing US financial support for the clean-up, possibly amounting to USD 500 million at the time of writing. Though still not sufficient, it is dramatically different from Osius’ first tenure as a junior diplomat in Vietnam.

In those days the US vehemently denied any responsibility for the devastating consequences on human beings and the environment in Vietnam and among the American soldiers who served in the contaminated areas. Osius notes that he and his fellow diplomats were told never to comment on Agent Orange. I may add my personal experience that American diplomats went further than just denials, remembering how the US Embassy in Copenhagen worked very actively to damage my credibility with my editors, when I reported in the early 1980’ies in Danish media about the Agent Orange tragedy in Vietnam.  

I do not believe, readers will find a single boring paragraph in this complex and fact-filled book. Osius has succeeded in making the many people involved come very much alive in his book. 

In this multitude of personalities, the first US Ambassador to Vietnam, Pete Peterson, stands out, a former prisoner of war in Vietnam, and Osius’ boss during his first tenure in Vietnam. In the words of Peterson himself, when receiving the Presidential Citizens Medal for his services: 

“I bombed Vietnam during the war. Then, I had the opportunity to come back and do good things. Few people have that opportunity.”

The walking Benetton add

During Osius later tenure as ambassador, he also stood out in a different way, paving the way for a much broader public acceptance of the LGBT community in Vietnam, traditionally frowned upon in Vietnamese culture.

As one of USA’s first openly gay ambassadors, Osius and his husband Clayton Bond, used every opportunity to promote the core issues of the LGBT movement claiming their rightful place in modern society, making the ambassador and his family all the more admired among the Vietnamese. As noted by President Obama when he first met Osius, Bond and their two adopted children of Mexican origin: “You are a walking Benetton add.”

After more than 30 years serving his country, Ted Osius has resigned from the Foreign Service in frustration, maybe even in disgust. The reason was President Trump’s decision to forcibly repatriate Vietnamese (and other nationalities), even for the slightest criminal offenses committed at any time. Osius refused to carry out his instructions to take this matter to the Vietnamese authorities, explaining his reasons live on CNN.

Osius’ own legacy in Vietnam is lauded by former Secretary of State, John Kerry in his foreword: “Ted won over not only Vietnam’s leaders but also its citizens. He made full use of his moment in history when it was possible to create meaningful friendships for the United States.”

John Kerry has personal reasons to be grateful. Osius and his staff helped Kerry to locate, decades later, one of the surviving Viet Cong guerillas, who confirmed Kerry’s testimony from an incident during the war. Kerry had shot and killed a guerilla, who was aiming his rocket launcher at Kerry’s swift boat on patrol in the Mekong delta. Years later, some of Kerry’s political enemies at home had successfully circulated the story that Kerry had shot an unarmed teenager on the run, leading to the demand that Kerry should be stripped off his wartime medals. The story became very harmful to Kerry’s presidential campaign in 2004.  Even though Kerry did not become president, he got his name cleared eventually with the assistance of Osius.

After three years working as a vicepresident for Google in Singapore, Osius recently moved back to D.C. with his family. I wonder in what capacity we shall hear from him next.

Ted Osius: Nothing Is Impossible. Rutgers University Press. 2021.

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