The Normalization Process with Viet Nam
(With Implicit Implications for Cuba)
John McAuliff, Executive Director
Fund for Reconciliation and Development
National Summit on Cuba, Coral Gables, Florida, October 4, 2003
“Even at the point the U.S. ended its embargo, Vietnam was still largely a command economy,
dominated by state enterprises and centralized bureaucratic controls.”
Immediately before coming to this Summit, I participated in a two-day conference in
Washington on the “Future of Relations Between Vietnam and the United States.” It was
opened by Vietnam’s Foreign Minister Nguyen Dy Nien and closed by Assistant Secretary of
State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs James Kelly.
Vietnamese participants included the vice chair of the External Relations Committee of the
National Assembly; and representatives of the Ministries of Trade, Foreign Affairs, Public
Security, and Defense, as well as of the ruling Communist Party. On the American side were
present the U.S. Ambassador to Hanoi, Congressional staff, and representatives of the Defense
Department, the business community, non-governmental organizations, foundations, and
Today, the U.S. is the largest purchaser of Vietnamese exports, totaling $4 billion this year;
and the largest source of tourists except for China, an immediate neighbor. The goal of the
conference, in the words of Vietnam’s Foreign Minister, was to “put in place a practical and
strategic foundation for our partnership in many years to come.”
Twenty-eight years ago a war ended that took the lives of 56,000 Americans and more than
2,000,000 Vietnamese. It left the U.S. deeply divided after the most profound fracture of our
body politic since the Civil War.
Until nine years ago the U.S. enforced a rigid economic embargo against Vietnam,
implemented zealously by some of the same people who lead OFAC (The Department of
Treasury’s Office of Foreign Asset Control) today. The U.S. and Vietnam did not have
diplomatic relations until eight years ago. We did not exchange ambassadors until six years
ago when Floridian, former Congressman, and former prisoner of war Pete Peterson was posted in Hanoi.
What happened? Has Vietnam stopped being Communist? Has it become a multiparty
democracy? Does it allow public opposition to its political system, in person, in the press or on
the internet? No, none of the above. What happened was that during the administration of the first President Bush the two governments began to see the futility and mutual disadvantage of noncommunication and non-cooperation. President Bush was blocked from making much concrete
progress by Republicans, still embittered by the loss of the war (such as Henry Kissinger), but
he did end travel restrictions in 1991 and laid the bipartisan foundation on which President
Clinton built the structures of normalization.
The process required compromise on both sides, and a lowering of the rhetorical temperature,
but it did not require a change in the political or economic system of either country or do
damage to their self-perceived national interests. Vietnam had to cooperate with the
emotionally charged task of the resolution of some 2,600 cases of American military missing in
action (MIA) even while it had little ability to accommodate domestic demands for the
accounting of at least ten times that number of Vietnamese MIAs. (While Americans care
strongly about securing our war dead, the treatment of remains within Vietnamese culture has
even greater significance because of religious reverence for ancestors.)
MIA identification and retrieval was accomplished through the permanent stationing of U.S.
military teams in Hanoi and exhaustive joint searches of crash sights for remains and secret
military archives for information. The Vietnamese received more than adequate compensation
for the use of their helicopters and labor force. More importantly, they obtained official U.S.
acknowledgement that Vietnam too had humanitarian needs created by the war and
subsequently some financial assistance for children and other victims.
Vietnam was also required by the “road map” to normalization to withdraw its remaining
military forces from Cambodia. However, that posed no problem because Vietnam had
accomplished its goal of eliminating the threat posed by the Khmer Rouge and was in the
process of reaching an accommodation with the Khmer Rouge’s primary ally China.
What did the U.S. give up? Fundamentally American leaders lost the emotional and political
satisfaction of punishing Vietnam for winning the war through a largely unilateral economic
embargo (does that sound familiar?) and partial political isolation. U.S. officials also had to be
willing, based on Vietnamese cooperation on the real issue of MIA remains, to walk away from
the fervent belief among some veterans and conservatives that Hanoi still held living prisoners
of war (POWs).
This process of mutual accommodation was assisted by a change in the international political
situation. The transformation of the Soviet Union into the weakened Russian Federation meant
that the U.S. no longer received strategic advantage from using Cambodia and Vietnam to
inflame the conflict between the Soviets and Chinese. Moreover, the withdrawal of
Vietnamese forces from Cambodia in 1998 and the subsequent Paris Agreement were already
opening the door to trade, investment and stronger political ties of Vietnam with Europe,
Japan, and its neighbors in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Vietnam had also made a fundamental internal decision at the Sixth Party Congress in 1986, a
year before the end of the Soviet Union, to move away from a command economy and to enter
the capitalist world market. It carefully introduced small-scale private enterprise at the family
level, in both urban and rural settings. The most dramatic result was that in a year or two
Vietnam went from a country with food shortages and pockets of starvation to the third largest
rice exporter in the world.
It should be noted that at no point did the Communist Party contemplate giving up its
monopoly on political power and leadership, although it did strive with some success through
the economic reforms and a process of “doi moi,” or renovation, to restore its credentials and
popularity with the people and party members. It is also important to recognize that in the
initial years of reform strenuous and sometimes paradoxical efforts were made to fit changes
into the official ideological rhetoric of Marxism-Leninism and Ho Chi Minh thought.
The process of change in the U.S. owes much to the election of the first President who had
been part of the anti-war movement, although he had not been a leader or even a prominent
activist. Bill Clinton moved quickly through the stages of normalization of relations beginning
with the end of the embargo soon after taking office, and ending with the signing of a bilateral
trade agreement and official visit to Vietnam shortly before the end of his second term. In this
process, he received indispensable assistance from Vietnam War veterans in the Congress.
Some like Senator John Kerry had been part of the veterans’ movement against the war; others
like Senator McCain had not. But for a variety of reasons, they wanted the kind of closure on
their war time experience that could only come from ending the hostile atmosphere that still
existed between the U.S. and Vietnam.
Only a few veterans in Congress opposed normalization, although some supporters justified
their position on the familiar grounds that opening the door would inevitably lead to a free
market and political change within Vietnam and in that sense a kind of victory for the U.S.
While some leaders in Vietnam echoed China’s warning of an American plot to achieve
peaceful evolution, others saw normalization as an affirmation of their success in achieving Ho
Chi Minh’s dictum that, “Nothing is more precious than independence and freedom.”
The process of normalization received important support from U.S. based multinational
corporations that did not wish to be closed out of the thirteenth largest country in the world.
U.S. NGOs also played a noteworthy role with public opinion in both countries. Their style of
work allayed suspicion within Vietnam as they carried out a growing number of programs of
humanitarian and development assistance and helped to humanize the Vietnamese to skeptical
Vietnamese-Americans were divided about normalization. The official position of their
newspapers and political and social organizations was largely against reconciliation between
their adopted and native countries, but in practice many Vietnamese were already coming to
terms with separation from their homeland.
During the first two decades after the refugee arrival in the U.S., violence had been directed
against members of the community who advocated normalization. However, that largely
dissipated as more and more Vietnamese visited home and Vietnam’s government made
greater efforts to establish positive contact with them. Today Vietnamese Americans form the
largest segment of the stream of U.S. tourists. They are investing in small and large
Vietnamese Americans are moving home after retirement. Their children and grandchildren
are rediscovering their roots and finding jobs with foreign companies where bilingual bicultural
skills are very welcome.
The process of normalization between Vietnam and the U.S. has been multidimensional. In
addition to diplomatic ties that included an exchange of trade offices and military attachés, the
U.S. has had a very active Fulbright scholarship program that predated full establishment of
relations. Many American educational institutions have links with Vietnamese counterparts
and there are some 2,500 Vietnamese studying in the U.S. today.
Economic evolution in Vietnam was gradual and saw both advances and retreats. The political
and economic atmosphere outside the country played a role in the process, but more significant
was Vietnam’s commitment to remain in control of the process of change. Having paid such a
high price to achieve national independence and freedom, they were not about to see their
country dominated by foreign investors and corporations.
The late 80’s were a period of experimentation, learning by doing, and gradual broadening of
the realm of market economics. Even at the point the U.S. ended its embargo, Vietnam was
still largely a command economy, dominated by state enterprises and centralized bureaucratic
controls. While the foreign investment code was in theory quite liberal, practice lagged far
behind. Foreign companies could only enter the Vietnamese market in cumbersome joint
venture arrangements. Many individual entrepreneurs from the U.S. as well as large
companies jumped into Vietnam only to find their expectations frustrated by cultural and
institutional barriers. Some withdrew in the late 90’s. Others stayed and eventually prospered.
The Vietnamese learned from both failures and successes, responded to criticisms from
international business, and extended to indigenous companies the same legal rights afforded to
Vietnam only completed a law providing an adequate legal framework for local business in the
year 2000, but the National Assembly enacted it in close consultation with the emerging
private sector. Today Vietnam has over 30,000 private companies and they are acknowledged
by the government as the primary source of economic growth and job creation. Inefficient
state enterprises are being shut down or liquidated. Vietnam’s economy is growing at a steady
and impressive rate, and it is seen as the success story of Southeast Asia.
There are also substantial changes within Vietnam’s civil society and political institutions that
parallel and may be responsive to changes in political and economic relationships with other
countries. Domestic NGOs, the press, personal freedom, election reform, and the role of the
national assembly are all evolving positively in a Vietnamese way. This is not to say that
Vietnam is without problems domestically or in its bilateral relations with the U.S.. The two
countries have obvious disagreements about political systems and concepts of human rights.
The U.S. House of Representatives has adopted “human rights” legislation that Vietnam finds
an unacceptable interference in its internal affairs. While the practice of religion is completely
free in Vietnam, the social and political role of religious institutions and leadership is regulated
and supervised. This prompts harsh criticism from conservatives and evangelicals in the U.S.
Vietnam has more Catholic bishops today than at any time in its history, but is angry at the
Vatican for appointing a cardinal without prior consultation.
However both sides at the conference I attended in Washington expressed amazement at how
far and how fast the relationship between the U.S. and Vietnam had progressed. While
government to government partnership today is more aspiration than reality, it is not
impossible to envision. Needless to say the whole process offers intriguing hints of what could
develop between the U.S. and Cuba if the current irrationality, fear, distrust, and boneheadedness
on both sides were put to rest.