This article was originally published in the Winter 1997 issue of the Harvard International Review.

For almost two decades, US policy toward Vietnam has been guided by the past. Today, in the wake of a massive and largely unforeseen upheaval in the world order, it is time to assess the nature and importance of future relations between our two countries. 

From the US perspective, the point of departure is humanitarian. We must ask the Vietnamese for continued, full cooperation in resolving the remaining unanswered questions concerning Americans lost or taken prisoner during the war in Southeast Asia. Second, Vietnam, along with Cambodia, has historically been a turbulent part of Southeast Asia, a region in which we have an interest in long-term political stability. We do not want this region to be dominated by China alone or by an alliance of necessity between China and Vietnam. Third, we have an interest in furthering adherence to democratic principles around the world and reason to hope that Vietnam’s resistance to those principles is weakening. Fourth, we have an economic interest in Vietnam as a potentially significant market for US goods and services. Finally, we have a tangible, albeit unquantifiable, interest in healing the internal divisions and emotional scars that still persist within our own society from the Vietnam War.

Since 1975, the US-Vietnamese relationship has remained essentially frozen, like a still photograph from that dramatic, traumatic day when the last Americans left Saigon by helicopter from the Embassy roof. In contrast to the years after World War II, the post-Vietnam War period has been marked not only by reconciliation and reconstruction but also by continued hostility and mistrust.

The legacy of war—both hot and cold—has created two decades of frustration for POW/MIA families, contributed to the tragedy and chaos in Cambodia and hindered Vietnam’s effort to rebound from its own economic mistakes. The question for US policymakers today is how best to influence Vietnam to cooperate on POW/ MIA matters and risk an internal transition to more open and democratic rule

This twin challenge requires us to grapple with a very familiar political-diplomatic problem: in trying to influence the policies of a totalitarian government, which works better, the carrot or the stick? Will the indefinite continuation of tough economic sanctions create the kind of pressure needed to make Vietnam change its ways, or is the government more vulnerable to the liberalizing influences of political, diplomatic, commercial and social contacts with the West? More specifically, is there a combination of incentives and constraints that will set our nations on the path toward genuine reconciliation? I believe the answer to that question is yes.

This twin challenge requires us to grapple with a very familiar political-diplomatic problem: in trying to influence the policies of a totalitarian government, which works better, the carrot or the stick?

Between Operation Homecoming and the fall of Saigon, the United States and North Vietnam accused each other of failing to live up to commitments made in the Paris Peace Accords. At issue were the North’s continued military reinforcement of its forces in the South; the nature and scope of US military aid to the Thieu regime; the failure of North Vietnam to cooperate in accounting for missing Americans; and the unwillingness of the United States to fulfill President Nixon’s commitment of economic aid to Indochina, including North Vietnam. As Communist forces advanced, serious efforts to implement the peace agreement collapsed. After Saigon fell, the United States imposed a full-scale economic embargo and abandoned diplomatic contacts with Vietnam. 

In 1977, the Carter Administration offered to reestablish diplomatic relations without conditions. The Vietnamese responded by repatriating significant numbers of fallen Americans, but insisted unrealistically that normalization be accompanied by billions of dollars in US aid. This brief era of somewhat better relations ended when Vietnam signed a friendship pact with the Soviet Union and, on Christmas Day 1978, invaded Cambodia. 

The invasion was prompted by Vietnam’s desire to terminate and avenge cross-border attacks and the slaughter of Vietnamese by the Khmer Rouge. As part of the US strategy to play China against the Soviet Union, the United States condemned the invasion and refused to recognize the legitimacy of the regime Vietnam installed in Phnom Penh. This left the United States providing diplomatic and later more tangible assistance to a coalition of forces arrayed against Vietnam’s presence in Cambodia, including most prominently (and outrageously) the genocidal forces of the Khmer Rouge. It has also left the United States struggling to this day to cope with the Khmer Rouge who had been driven out of Cambodia by the Vietnamese. 

Throughout the 1980s, US policy toward Vietnam remained the hostage of events in Phnom Penh. Like its predecessors, the Bush Administration identified Vietnam as the primary culprit among the political forces at work in Cambodia. This did not change even with the 1991 signing of a Cambodian peace agreement. But in April 1991, the State Department informed Vietnam that it would be willing to take steps toward lifting the economic embargo and normalizing relations on two conditions: cooperation on POW/MIA issues and successful implementation of the Cambodian peace agreement. This so-called “road map” toward normalization set the course for administration policy for the remainder of the Bush presidency and was embraced, in general terms, at the outset of President Clinton’s term. 

The major flaw in the road map was that progress toward normalization with Vietnam was conditioned on full and successful implementation of the agreement in Cambodia, something that was and is beyond Vietnam’s power to achieve. At the time, the State Department expected Vietnam to resist withdrawing troops from Cambodia and to continue interfering in Cambodia’s political affairs. Instead, even the Bush Administration, before leaving office, acknowledged that Vietnam had fully met the standards for cooperation on Cambodia outlined by the road map.

POW/MIAs: The Overriding Issue

As a Vietnam combat veteran and chairman of the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs during 1991-92, I can attest to the immense emotional power of the POW/MIA issue. Since the war’s end, our nation has been haunted by the possibility that a small number of the more than two thousand Americans still officially unaccounted for may have survived and remain in captivity. 

During and after the war, the Vietnamese knowingly withheld information regarding the fate of missing Americans. The North Vietnamese military maintained detailed records of US servicemen within their prison system, including many lost in controlled areas of South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. It is not credible that Americans known to have been taken captive could disappear without the government or someone in authority knowing precisely what had happened to them. It is true that there were not many Americans in this category, but there were enough to lend power to the arguments of POW/ MIA activists that a process of stonewalling was going on. During the 1980s, US intelligence agencies became convinced that the Vietnamese had recovered and stored the remains of an unknown number of American servicemen for release at politically strategic points in time. 

Our nation has been haunted by the possibility that a small number of the more than two thousand Americans still officially unaccounted for may have survived and remain in captivity.

In its January 1993 final report, the Select POW/MIA Affairs Committee found no proof, but evidence that “a small number” of US POWs who did not return after Operation Homecoming may have survived in captivity after that date. While the Committee also found “some evidence suggesting the possibility a POW may have survived to the present” it concluded that “there is, at this time, no compelling evidence that proves that any American remains alive in captivity in Southeast Asia.” The report notes:

In addition to the lack of compelling evidence proving that Americans are alive, the majority of Committee Members believes there is also the question of motive. These Members assert that it is one thing to believe that the Pathet Lao or North Vietnamese might have some reason to hold back American prisoners in 1973 or for a short period of time thereafter; it is quite another to discern a motive for holding prisoners alive in captivity for another 19 years. The Vietnamese and Lao have been given a multitude of opportunities to demand money in exchange for prisoners some allege they hold but our investigation has uncovered no credible evidence that they have ever done so. 

During the course of the Committee’s work, I visited Vietnam four times, meeting with a wide range of Vietnamese officials. These visits, coupled with ongoing efforts from the executive branch, yielded dramatic improvements in US access to political and military archives containing POW/MIA-related information. 

The impetus for this improvement has come from several directions. General John Vessey, the presidential envoy to Hanoi on POW/MIA matters, has been a respected and influential source of contact for the Vietnamese since his appointment by President Reagan in 1987. The Bush Administration deserves credit for establishing a policy, continued by President Clinton, of clear linkage between Vietnamese cooperation and US response. The disintegration of the Soviet empire has deprived Vietnam of many external sources of support. The rapid economic growth of other Southeast Asian nations has given younger Vietnamese leaders a strong incentive to establish their own contacts with the West. And the work of the Senate Select Committee on POW/ MIA Affairs demonstrated anew the high priority attached to the POW/MIA issue by the American people and government.


Above, a US prisoner of war speaks with a North Vietnamese army officer in February 1973, prior to his release. Photo by Herman Kokojan, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Despite the progress that has taken place, I have continued to feel that more can be done. On March 16, l wrote to Vietnamese Premier Vo Van Kiet asking for follow-through on a promise made to the Committee for access to Hanoi’s General Political Directorate Files, including files on former POWs that contain information because the POWs may well have had information about other Americans lost in the incidents that led to their own capture. 

On April 16, I wrote once more to Premier Vo Van Kiet, this time concerning the discovery in Russian archives of a document that appeared to indicate that 1205 “Americans” were being detained in Vietnamese prison camps during the latter part of 1972. This number far exceeds other accounts and far exceeds the number of American prisoners of war returned after the signing of the Paris Peace Agreement. 

As this article is going to print (April 21, 1993), General Vessey has just returned to Washington following talks with Vietnamese leaders. General Vessey’s initial reports to the president and Senate cast considerable doubt on the accuracy of the document found in Russian files. Whether subsequent reports and analyses confirm or rebut the document will determine its degree of relevance to the future course of US-Vietnam relations. 

Regional Stability

in improved relations with Vietnam concerns the long-term stability of Southeast Asia. A Vietnam that has become economically interdependent with its neighbors and with the West is highly unlikely to risk political or military adventurism within the region. In Cambodia, the only political card the Khmer Rouge has to play is its vow to drive the ethnic Vietnamese out of the country. Unfortunately, given the currently unsettled conditions in Cambodia, xenophobia has considerable appeal. If economic progress in Vietnam brings a portion of Cambodia’s ethnic Vietnamese back across the border, it would ease Cambodia’s social problems while adding to Vietnam’s pool of relatively well-trained and independent minded labor.

Another advantage of increased ties between Vietnam and the West is the reduced possibility that Vietnam may be driven into the arms of the only major country in that region with whom we have fundamental differences of interest and values: the Republic of China. China and Vietnam have long been uneasy neighbors, and the Chinese even invaded Vietnam briefly following Vietnam’s own invasion of Cambodia in 1978-79. Recent events, however, have conspired to bring the two nations into a wary embrace. 

Today’s surviving communist leaders need not have read Benjamin Franklin to understand that they must either hang together or they will surely hang separately. As a result, Vietnamese and Chinese diplomats have been scurrying back and forth between Hanoi and Beijing proclaiming a new era of friendship and warmth between their two countries. The China-Vietnam border, long closed, has opened and become the scene of vigorous retail trade in both legal and smuggled goods. For the West, there is nothing particularly unsettling about the current, tentative and by no means conflict-free rapprochement, but a full scale military and political alliance would serve neither our interests nor those of our friends in Southeast Asia. Strong commercial ties between the United States and Vietnam would surely reduce the chance that such an alliance will come to pass. 

Closer ties would also contribute to improve regional stability by easing some of the pressures that still prompt Vietnamese to flee their country and end up in refugee camps in Hong Kong, Thailand and elsewhere in the region. The governments that have been forced to cope with these refugees for the past 15 years exhausted their patience and their resources for doing so long ago. Unconscionable but understandable calls for massive, forced repatriation have the potential to exacerbate what is already a great human tragedy. The refugees themselves have been consigned to a Kafkaesque world in which the hope for a permanent home is constant, but the reality never comes. The entire region will benefit if and when Vietnam becomes livable—both economically and politically—for the Vietnamese.

Democracy and Human Rights 

The most contentious issue in future US-Vietnamese relations—assuming continued cooperation on POW/MIAs—is likely to be Vietnam’s attitude toward democracy and human rights. Vietnam remains an unrepentant single-party state; the question is whether a US strategy based on continued diplomatic and economic isolation is more likely to encourage change than a strategy of engagement. 

In Vietnam today, prison conditions are terrible and severe restrictions on freedom of speech and other basic political and legal rights remain. Although Vietnamese dissidents have little fear of being murdered or kidnapped by security forces, they may well be arrested, detained, physically abused and sentenced to long prison terms merely for suggesting the wisdom of a multi-party political system. Moreover, the Vietnamese government has labored hard to contain the influence of religious leaders in what has traditionally been a deeply religious culture. Prominent Catholic and Buddhist leaders have been jailed, subjected to house arrest, prevented from conducting services, and otherwise harassed. 

I believe that the internal policies of a government should be factored into our relationship with that government. Respect for human dignity is a universal, not an internal, matter. On the other hand, our policies should not be predicated on the extent to which they make us feel morally pure, but rather on the extent to which they achieve results. Total diplomatic and economic isolation may be the best way to achieve results with respect to some governments—although evidence of this is scarce—but it is not the most sensible approach to Vietnam.

The most contentious issue in future US-Vietnamese relations ... is likely to be Vietnam’s attitude toward democracy and human rights.

Doan Van Toai, a former political prisoner, and currently the exiled president of the Institute for Democracy in Vietnam argues that: 

Some people feel that the West should respond to Vietnam’s internal policies by demanding political reform in exchange for removing sanctions, ending embargoes and allowing investment. I see it differently. As poor as it is, the Vietnamese regime is too proud to make political concessions in exchange for aid and trade. They will let the people starve first. Demanding political concessions from the outside strengthens the hands of the hard-liners, who use the demands to prove that the West is still imperialistic. Let the activists inside raise that demand. Just as important, the half-open economic door is itself an opportunity for democratic development. We should push it open and move aggressively into Vietnam. Contacts with the West, the prosperity that trade will bring, and experience with western business methods and culture can help the reformers inside Vietnam.

It is argued by some, including many Vietnamese-Americans, that lifting the embargo would end our leverage over Vietnam. Even to the extent that we still have economic leverage, this assertion is incorrect. For example, lifting the embargo would not necessarily lead to US support for World Bank or other multilateral loans to Vietnam. In fact, federal law prohibits US support for non-humanitarian loans to any government engaged in “a consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights.” Even more important, lifting the trade embargo would not automatically lead to most-favored nation (MFN) trading status, without which Vietnamese exports to the United States would be subject to virtually prohibitive tariffs. 

It is inconceivable that the administration or the Senate would grant MFN status to Vietnam in the absence of political reform and significant progress in the area of human rights. In fact, a debate over MFN conditions might significantly strengthen the hand of reformers in Vietnam, both inside and outside of government. That debate will not even take place, however, until the embargo is lifted and relations are normalized.

Clearly, Vietnam’s record on political and civil rights presents an obstacle to fully supportive economic and political relations with the United States. However, it provides little basis for the continued refusal on our part to legalize trade and normalize diplomatic relations. We trade and exchange ambassadors with many nations whose internal policies we abhor, in part because we want to influence those nations for the better. Few of us, even at the height of apartheid, argued for breaking diplomatic relations with the white regime in South Africa. The possibility of banning trade with China—as opposed lo lifting MFN status—was not breached even in the days immediately after Tiananmen Square. The Reagan Administration was ready to wage a brutal and illegal war against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, but it never advocated closing our Embassy in Managua. Most ironic of all, we have economic and trade relations with the communist government of Laos despite its poor human rights record and an attitude on POW/MIA issues that has been considerably less cooperative than that of Vietnam. 

Ultimately, I am convinced that the communist experiment in Vietnam will fail just as it has failed elsewhere in the world. Certainly, the hard-liners will resist change as long as they can. They will argue that Vietnam does not need American investment, that it has already done enough to address POW/MIA issues and that it would betray the blood sacrifice of millions of Vietnamese soldiers and civilians if it were to capitulate now to the Western values and interests they fought against for more than 30 years. The continuing relevance of the hard-liners means that, although dramatic change in Vietnam is inevitable, the process of change could prove rapid or gradual, peaceful or bloody and a magnet for Vietnamese abroad to return or the cause of renewed refugee flight.

The United States can no more dictate the outcome in Vietnam today than it could 25 years ago, but it should by now have recognized that a policy of isolation only strengthens the hard-liners while frustrating the new generation of Vietnamese— both inside and outside government—who are poised to lead their nation in new and more Welcome directions. 

Doing Business with Vietnam

US economic interests in Vietnam are less important than our national interest in obtaining the fullest possible accounting for missing Americans. On the other hand, there is no question that the once substantial economic leverage that the United States has had as a result of the embargo has diminished in recent years. Unilateral economic sanctions are notoriously ineffectual and America’s crusade against Vietnam has become a rather lonely one.

Above, Ho Chi Minh City at night in 2013. Vietnam has grown tremendously since its opening up to US and global trade. Photo by Diego Delso, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Vietnam may be poor, but it is also populous. Its potential market of more than 70 million people is larger than that of Romania, Czechoslovakia and Hungary combined. Among the nations whose businessmen have rushed in where ours are prohibited to tread include Japan, Taiwan, Korea, China, Thailand, Australia, the United Kingdom, India, the Philippines, Russia, France, and Germany. During the first two months of this year alone, Vietnam approved 44 foreign investment projects worth more than half a billion dollars. 

The total foreign investment since passage of Vietnam’s 1987 economic reforms is more than US$5 billion. The International Monetary Fund and World Bank have made it clear that they intend to approve lending to Vietnam, with or without support from the United States. As a result, the US embargo has become little more than an inconvenience to Vietnam, arguably hurting American businesses far more than Vietnamese. 

Looking Ahead 

The end of the Cold War has removed the strategic rationale for isolating Vietnam. Cooperation in Cambodia has eliminated grounds for sanctions based on regional politics and the influx of investment from Europe and Asia has reduced the embargo’s effectiveness. A strategy of realistic engagement appears far more likely than continued diplomatic absenteeism to encourage Vietnam to make progress toward democracy and human rights. 

There is, in short, no cogent rationale whatsoever for continuing the trade embargo and the policy of non-recognition, except possibly POW/MIA, and progress on that issue—if continued—has reached the point where a decisive US response is warranted. Should that take place, we will have finally concluded a grim and agonizing chapter in US-Vietnam relations and in American history. For many Americans, Vietnam represents not merely a country—it is an era. And as the least uplifting moments of the 1992 presidential campaign demonstrated, the wounds of the era have still not fully healed.

The maps of the world have been drawn anew. A dangerous and costly era of global history has passed. A new era filled with fresh opportunities and new perils has dawned. For the majority of both Vietnamese and American citizens, the Vietnam War is less a living memory than a part of history, concluded while they were very young or before they were born. 

The time has come for the generation in each country that understands most clearly the shared tragedy of the past to “force the spring” of a new relationship—a new relationship based not on shared bitterness, but on shared hope and on a shared commitment to peace and renewal for the young in both our lands.

Note from the Editor

John Kerry’s article lays out a portrait of US-Vietnam relations in 1993, when the two nations were on the cusp of rebuilding ties. He hits upon the five key issues in reassessing the United States’ “essentially frozen” relationship with Vietnam: POW/MIA problems, regional stability, democracy and human rights, economic interests, and the United States’ own internal scars from the war. Indeed, Kerry’s work on these five issues would ultimately push the two nations towards a more cooperative future; in January 1994, less than a year after his article was published, the US Senate passed a resolution sponsored by Kerry to lift the economic embargo on Vietnam—this gave US President Bill Clinton the political backing to do so one week later. The next year, Clinton announced a formal normalization of US-Vietnamese diplomatic relations.

The key issues for policy towards Vietnam in 1993 remain relevant now. Today, over 1,000 US soldiers remain unaccounted for, which were a major roadblock for better relations. Bilateral trade between the two nations is now worth over US$20 billion and growing. Ongoing increasing tensions in the South China Seas have brought Vietnam and China away from the “weary embrace” that Kerry describes and concurrently strengthened US-Vietnamese relations. In October 2014, the United States partially lifted its arms embargo on Vietnam, in place since 1984, to assist Vietnam with its maritime surveillance and security. Human rights also remain an issue of contention between the United States and Vietnam. The US State Department’s 2013 annual report on human rights found that, among other abuses, Vietnam continued to impose “severe government restrictions on citizens’ political rights.”

The current US-Vietnam relationship is dramatically different than it was in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Today, Vietnam is one of the most pro-American nations in Asia: nearly half of overseas Vietnamese reside in the United States and one 2014 poll found that 76 percent of Vietnamese people view the United States favorably. Kerry ultimately visited Vietnam 19 times between 1991 and 2000 and once more in 2013. During his last visit, he commented on the changes in the US-Vietnamese relationship: “I can’t think of two countries that have worked harder, done more and done better to try to bring themselves together and change history, to change the future, to provide a future for people that is very, very different.”