As the first political-military officer in the US Embassy in Hanoi from 1996-97, I learned that confidence could be built through reciprocal visits and better understanding. The first defense attache, Colonel Ed O’Dowd, taught me that we needed to take a step-by-step approach so that two militaries, once adversaries that had very different traditions, could learn to understand one another. Reciprocal visits by military leaders were essential to build the trust and understanding needed for the armed services of different nations to work together toward common security goals.
In autumn 1996, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Kurt Campbell visited Hanoi and designed a step-by-step approach that would lead to military-to-military contacts between the US military and the Vietnamese military that went beyond the POW/MIA accounting effort.
Vietnam’s military leaders wanted Campbell to explain what steps could be taken to build a bilateral security partnership and to engage in multilateral arrangements such as those of the ASEAN Regional Forum. Campbell attempted to assure officials in Vietnam’s Communist Party, the foreign ministry, the defense ministry, and other central government offices that the United States wanted to have a better—and broader—relationship with Vietnam. He’s in another important position today, and his views influence those of President Biden.
In 1997, Colonel O’Dowd and I helped organize a reciprocal visit by Vietnamese senior colonels to Washington, DC, and Honolulu. Vietnam established a counterpart defense attaché’s office in Washington in March 1997, and this led to Vice Minister of Defense Lieutenant General Trần Hanh’s visits to Washington and Honolulu. Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Admiral Joseph Prueher visited Vietnam the same year, followed by a series of US visits from US officials, a practice that continues today. These meetings provide the US military with a better understanding of Vietnam’s military, and vice versa.
The United States viewed the accounting of POWs and MIAs as the first, essential step for building confidence in the countries’ relationship. For the Vietnamese, the first step was the United States showing a sincere interest in Vietnamese concerns, such as the tons of landmines and unexploded ordnance still littering Vietnam’s soil and the remnants of Agent Orange still poisoning its citizens. Step-by-step, addressing the painful past helped the Ministry of Defense deflect criticisms from the old guards within the Communist Party who rejected a closer relationship with the United States.
In 2015, I had the honor to host Defense Secretary Ash Carter in Hanoi and Hai Phong. Secretary Carter’s visit paved the way for a visit by Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong to the United States, which dramatically accelerated our relationship not only in the military realm, but in other areas as well.
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