As ambassador from 2014 to 2017, I continued the work of addressing war legacies - finding the remains of those lost, cleaning up UXO, and cleaning up dioxin. Addressing the legacies of war is critical for shoring up confidence. And it’s the right thing to do.
In 2017, the United States provided Vietnam with its largest ship, formerly the US Coast Guard cutter Morgenthau, renamed CSB 8020. This became a flagship, patrolling the South China Sea and serving as a proud symbol of the US-Vietnam maritime security cooperation.
The United States also provided the Vietnamese Coast Guard with fast coastal patrol boats. And the two nations engaged in multiple naval exchanges, including eight annual humanitarian visits to Vietnam as part of the “Pacific Partnership,” a masterful tool for engagement by the US Navy. These activities helped build trust between the two countries and their confidence in each other.
In March 2017, I proposed the idea of an aircraft carrier visit to President Trần Đại Quang.
When President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc met at the White House in May 2017, they discussed the idea, but Vietnam wasn’t quite ready to make a commitment. A month after Admiral Scott H. Swift and I visited the Bạch Đằng river, President Trump visited Hanoi, and that’s when President Tran Dai Quang agreed to a plan for the first visit by a United States aircraft carrier to a Vietnamese port since the war. I assess that Admiral Swift’s visit, and the respect it showed to Vietnamese military traditions, contributed to that breakthrough.
When the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson pulled up to the coastal city of Đà Nẵng in March 2018, this was the first port call by a US aircraft carrier since the Vietnam War ended. Many observers saw the strategic significance of the visit as a signal to China, but it was also a sign of faith in the growing relationship between our two countries.
When the Carl Vinson’s 5,500 sailors came ashore, they were the largest contingent of American soldiers on Vietnamese soil since 1975. During its four-day port call, the Carl Vinson’s personnel visited two centers for Vietnamese children with disabilities—many of whom were presumed to be suffering from the consequences of Agent Orange. With this acknowledgment of dioxin’s harmful effects, the aircraft carrier’s port visit included honesty about the past.
The Carl Vinson visit was also a manifestation of Vice Foreign Minister Hà Kim Ngọc’s recommendation that the two countries collaborate on matters of regional and global significance. The Carl Vinson had been deployed for a month in the South China Sea before visiting Đà Nẵng. The aircraft carrier visit highlighted US-Vietnam collaboration on a key regional challenge: peace and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. Two years later, the USS Theodore Roosevelt visited.
Going forward, we must continue building trust. We must continue listening to each other, and we need to respect history. We can reinforce trust with meaningful actions on a daily basis.
Interested in this story? Ted Osius’s book, "𝐍𝐨𝐭𝐡𝐢𝐧𝐠 𝐈𝐬 𝐈𝐦𝐩𝐨𝐬𝐬𝐢𝐛𝐥𝐞: 𝐀𝐦𝐞𝐫𝐢𝐜𝐚’𝐬 𝐑𝐞𝐜𝐨𝐧𝐜𝐢𝐥𝐢𝐚𝐭𝐢𝐨𝐧 𝐰𝐢𝐭𝐡 𝐕𝐢𝐞𝐭𝐧𝐚𝐦," with a Foreword by John Kerry, will be published October 2021 in English by Rutgers University Press, and in Vietnamese in 2022.
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