Dieu Linh Dinh is the editor-in-charge of this review. Hao Tran is the second reviewer.
“All wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time the memory,” says Pulitzer-winning Vietnamese American author Viet Thanh Nguyen.
The battle scars of the American War in Vietnam have been passed from generation to generation. From the stories of seeking asylum or living in fear; to remembering a loved one forced into battle to never come back; to over 2,000,000 people who have suffered from the effects of Agent Orange even if they were born decades after the last American troops have left this country… The remnants of wartime still prevail in Vietnamese society today in every aspect of life.
To some, the scars have begun to heal; to others, the battle wounds are still open.
Pushing through pain and trauma, with an acknowledgement of the shared struggles we have gone through -- though to drastically different extents -- the two nations have emerged from the tragedy with a commitment to an unlikely partnership. Grounded in the principles of trust, respect, and dedication, what originated as a bitter memory has evolved into a prosperous relationship that encourages cultural immersion and exchange, economic prosperity, and continued assistance.
But this alliance was not built in a day. Guiding readers through the process of healing and reconciliation, Nothing Is Impossible is a merge of an organised historical account since the late 1900s of how enemies can turn into partners, as well as a touching memoir that serves as an ode to former Ambassador Ted Osius’ 3 years in Vietnam.
Dubbed as “the People’s Ambassador” for his friendliness and transparency, many readers of this book will expect more stories of his time here. But the majority of this book is not really about that. Instead, the former Ambassador focuses on providing detailed first-person historical information revolving around themes such as struggles to push for progress while wartime wounds remain unhealed. The behind the scenes glimpse we receive into the decision-making process from his colleagues in a continuous effort to strengthen diplomatic ties is captivating.
Having said that, throughout the dense historical and fact-filled sections, many start to crave the candour and introspection from the ambassador that made a name for himself due to his accessibility.
And yet, Osius’ reels the reader back in with personal anecdotes, lessons he gained from traditional Vietnamese folktales, and narratives of his own experiences. Whether you are a researcher, historian, student, scholar, or just a curious reader, the book is a valuable resource to dig deeper into US-Vietnam relations. Osius finds the perfect balance of a vivid account of the past and lessons of the present within over 300 pages. The nuanced vocabulary and formality of a diplomat tend to be absent, and we get a glimpse of -- in his own words -- “diplomacy from a bicycle seat.” This same approachability and friendliness is authentic to Ambassador Osius, and was what gained him the adoration of the Vietnamese community during his time here, where he was known for riding his bicycle downtown and conversing with locals in Hanoi.
Not to mention, the book serves as a reminder of how the ambassador earned the respect of a nation once at war with his homeland. In “pursuing diplomacy with Vietnam for twenty-three years—under four presidents and seven secretaries of state,” writes Osius, it is clear that he harnessed an unconditional love and dedication to the Vietnamese people, language, and culture. All whilst expecting nothing in return.
However, love alone is not enough to sever the ties between the two countries nor is it enough to push this relationship forwards. To this point, Osius’ commitment to this mission of healing and progress is the red thread throughout his year in diplomacy. Be it is pushing past the struggles with the tonality and regional dialects of the Vietnamese language to fully communicate with Vietnamese politicians and the public, to listening to the sacred wishes of the Vietnamese people scarred by the war, Osius adds new meaning to the title of U.S. Ambassador.
Nonetheless, his humility is evident. Rather than focusing on the achievements of his time here, Osius speaks about the lessons he learnt from these experiences; most of which were from conversing with the Vietnamese public and politicians, and sometimes involved agreeing to disagree. During his tenure, Osius most notably implemented strategies to advance the partnerships through expanding educational and cultural exchanges programs, ensured the human rights of factory workers, secured commercial and financial deals, and negotiated agreements on law and environmental protection.
Osius also credits this work to the U.S. Ambassadors to Vietnam and diplomats that came before him and makes it clear that he seeks to leave the connection of the two nations even better than he found it. A goal that the undeniably accomplished.
The book’s best section, Ditches and Tree Roots, is saved for the end of the book. The chapter evokes the true meaning of the word ‘reconciliation’ by encapsulating the hardest, most emotional -- and arguably most crucial -- aspects of the process: remembering, and honouring, the dead. This importance of honour is actually a thesis that sits in the background throughout all the themes in this memoir.
Osius starts this chapter with remarks from historian Drew Gilpin Faust: “Both our societies live with ghosts, with memories, and with legacies. With the aftermath.” Contrary to the actions of politicians in history who have avoided this statement in its entirety, or sought to bury the truth, Osius’ body of work -- along with this book -- does the contrary.
Holding onto truth, and navigating through differences and policies to fulfil his duty to bring justice and healing to the Vietnamese communities, he shows that in order to move forward, we must always look backwards. And that no matter how difficult healing and reconciliation may be, Nothing Is Impossible.