David Hutt is a political journalist focusing on Southeast Asian affairs. He is Southeast Asia Columnist at the Diplomat and a research fellow at the Central European Institute of Asian Studies.
Vietnam, as the cliché now goes, is a country of contradictions and opposites: a one-party communist state that is a proponent of free-market capitalism; a former enemy of the United States but now one of its most trusted friends in Asia. Perhaps in the spirit of Vietnam’s oppositional identity, Ted Osius, the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam between 2014 and 2017, frames the early chapters of his new memoir through the activities of two U.S. senators, John McCain and John Kerry, two Vietnam War veterans but ideological opponents over domestic politics and over whether that war should have been pursued, yet who found common ground on championing better relations between the United States and Vietnam. (Kerry wrote the book’s foreword.) Osius’s memoir, which dates back to his teeth-cutting years at the U.S. embassy in Vietnam in the 1990s, plays a lot on resolving these opposites: What were the tools and behavior needed to reconcile two former enemies, the United States and Vietnam?
Osius’ knowledge of Vietnamese history and culture is first-rate. He clearly has incredible fondness for the country—and the curt way he describes his replacement as ambassador in late 2017 suggests his emotions are still raw. And he is clearly liked in Vietnam. Ordinary people dubbed him the “people’s ambassador” during his tenure, when he was known for engaging with the common folk on the streets and on social media. “I was determined to project an image of accessibility and friendliness,” he writes. Swathes of this memoir are dedicated to his numerous cycling journeys across the length of the country, when he was joined by scores of locals. He was the first former U.S. ambassador to Vietnam to receive the Friendship Order, in July 2018, from the ruling Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP).
Osius compliments the reader by not thinking it necessary to begin with a detailed history of the Vietnam War. Instead, for the general reader his early chapters provide a useful explainer of more recent Vietnamese history after its Doi Moi reforms, when in 1986 the VCP committed itself to a free-market agenda. Osius, who played a role as an embassy staffer in Vietnam during the 1990s (he was a political officer between 1996-1998), also provides a detailed account of how the United States began to re-engage with Vietnam during that decade, mainly through small-scale cooperation on searching for alleged American servicemen still missing in action or cleaning up the ordinance American forces had left behind.
This is not a book about Vietnamese politics. Rather it is a memoir. Much of it documents Osius's journeys across Vietnam (usually by bicycle), his interactions with ordinary people and Communist Party leaders, and the lessons he learned from the diplomats and politicians who came before him. Some readers will also enjoy the inspirational nature of Osius’ story, being an openly gay diplomat who rose to become a U.S. ambassador. Osius doesn’t offer a grand interpretation of Vietnamese politics, nor of how the VCP machine thinks and reasons. When he does offer an opinion, it’s usually as an aside, a brief sentence that isn’t supported by a detailed explanation. Communism is mentioned very little. The VCP’s anti-corruption schisms (“the main fault line in Vietnamese elite politics,” according to an analyst in 2012) don’t get a look in. Vietnam’s claims to territory in the South China Sea are accepted as a matter of course. Neither does he weigh into interpretations of intraparty factionalism nor offer much reflection on the political importance of General-Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong’s victory at the Twelfth National Congress in 2016. On the other hand, it’s perhaps heartening to some Vietnam-watchers that the former U.S. ambassador admits he was frequently stumped about the decisions made within the VCP. Osius says he believed, like most did, erroneously as it turned out, that then-Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung would replace Trong as party chief in 2016.
Instead, Osius tends to see the VCP leadership and its actions through the prism of Vietnamese nationalism. Dung, he writes, was “first and foremost a nationalist,” a claim that can be contested. For the most part, as an ambassador should, Osius takes the Vietnamese political system as it is, offering no speculation on its durability nor legitimacy. Indeed, through the book one finds his belief that the United States and Vietnam must respect each other's political systems, a line regularly used by the Barack Obama administration.
The thrust of this book is about Vietnamese society itself, and primarily U.S.-Vietnam cooperation. On both fronts, Osius takes a bottom-up approach. And what shines through his belief that the United States' reconciliation with Vietnam was primarily driven home by individual cooperation and friendship. To somewhat simplify Osius' narrative, the changes in U.S.-Vietnam relations since the late 1980s can be typified by “increases in the openness of Vietnamese leaders and the willingness of Americans to show respect to Vietnam.” To have achieved this, Osius appears to suggest that what mattered most in diplomacy was diplomacy itself, and only afterwards carrots-and-sticks. “Trust” is a word used frequently.
Osius never quotes it but the famous maxim written by Viet Thanh Nguyen, in his Pulitzer Prize–winning novel The Sympathizer, chimes throughout the book: “All wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory.” Osius cut his teeth in Vietnam in the 1990s when both sides were beginning to alter the memory of war. (He would later gain experience elsewhere in Asia, from South Korea to Thailand and Indonesia.) Referring to Tim Reiser, a senior foreign policy aide to Senator Patrick Leahy, who played a key role in securing funding to clear unexploded ordnance and treat Agent Orange victims, Osius writes: “Rieser never flagged in trying to do what was right to resolve the legacies of the past. He said that ‘changing the way we walked to each other’ was key to overcoming mistrust...Rieser continued: ‘We turned issues of anger and resentment into joint problem solving’.”
In his retelling of history, U.S.-Vietnam relations were largely on a constant and gradual upward trajectory from the late 1980s until 2017, when Donald Trump entered the White House. What strikes the eye is how momentous Trump’s decision was, just days into office, to pull the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Abandoning the trade agreement, Osius writes, “was a self-inflicted wound that undermined America’s strength in Asia.” For him, as is the case with many former officials of the Obama administration, the trade pact was the centerpiece of U.S. relations in Asia. As Osius notes, it wasn’t just to preclude China from dictating the economic rules of the region. Including Vietnam, the least developed of the twelve prospective signatories of the pact, was also supposed to send a signal for “other countries to see that even a developing country such as Vietnam could meet the high standards of the farthest-reaching trade agreement ever negotiated,” he writes. Too often, U.S. influence in Vietnam is primarily viewed vis-a-vis China. Here Osius notes that Washington also has an interest in projecting Vietnam’s progress as an example to other developing countries, especially those with authoritarian regimes.
Osius concludes that “the country’s leaders wanted to have free trade, innovation, and openness, but they also wanted to control what Vietnamese citizens could say and think. The tension between those two goals is likely to persist.” But, for U.S. interests, these are not contradictory. “If the United States again makes human rights a policy priority”—a reflection probably of the Trump administration's disregard for values—“then using the leverage that trade provides could make a difference in Vietnam,” he writes. Academic debates on the merits of the “change through trade” theory are ongoing. But given the volume of attention Osius pays to the TPP, it is somewhat unfortunate that he doesn’t get more into the details. Experts on this matter may contest some of the claims Osius makes about how the trade pact would lead to reforms of workers’ and labor rights in Vietnam. Commentators at the time expressed skepticism that Vietnamese authorities, in practice, would abide by their commitments made under the TPP terms. And, as was argued at the time, Vietnam was only agreeing to many of the same commitments to improving labor rights it had made when it signed the International Labor Organization’s Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work in 1998. Osius doesn’t assess what has happened to labor rights in Vietnam because of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), the successor to the TPP, minus the United States.
He only once acknowledges Joe Biden’s presidential victory, and unfortunately offers no opinion on how the Biden administration's policy to Vietnam could or should differ to Trump’s. In the most part, one could take away a few implicit recommendations of how U.S.-Vietnam relations should now proceed: refocus on person-to-person connections, restore trade options that can leverage reform from the VCP, and maintain the partnership to deter Chinese activity in the South China Sea.
First and foremost, however, Osius’ memoir is an invaluable contribution to understanding the history of U.S.-Vietnam relations, particularly how this process was conducted by officials in Washington and Hanoi. And the book’s intrigue lies in its anecdotes. It isn’t difficult to imagine future works on Vietnam quoting at length the conversations Osius had with Vietnamese or American officials, which are relayed in this book. His quoted conversations with Dung provide an illuminating portrayal of not just the former prime minister’s ego, but also his introspection of why U.S.-Vietnam rapprochement mattered. After one meeting with Dung and his cabinet on the TPP, Osius writes that Dung “liked to show he was a tough guy,” yet the then-prime minister was also keen for “his ministers to report to the Party leadership that he was a resolute, effective negotiator.”
The book will provide analysts and historians with primary material with which to judge important events. For instance, Osius provides extensive material on how and why he facilitated the Oval Office meeting between Obama and Trong, then only the General-Secretary of the VCP, in July 2015. He describes arranging this meeting as the “most consequential accomplishment of my tenure.” One would have liked to read more about Trong, of whom we have few published accounts of his personality and ways of communicating with foreign officials. Though, Osius appears to insinuate that Trong changed his mind on U.S. cooperation and economic liberalization after his meeting with Obama, providing some insight into a political figure who is often viewed as a stodgy bureaucrat and not susceptible to personal charm. In terms of his private conversations, Osius’ first encounter with Trump in the Oval Office, before Trump’s meeting with Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc in May 2017, tells us more about what we already know of the former U.S. president. Osius reveals an exchange:
“So, who are we meeting,” the president asked.
“The prime minister of Vietnam,” McMaster [Trump’s National Security Advisor] replied.
“What’s his name?”
“Nguyen Xuan Phuc,” a senior National Security Council official said. “Rhymes with ‘book’.”
“You mean like Fook You?” President Trump asked. “I knew a guy named Fook You. Really. I rented him a restaurant…”