Twenty Years of U.S.-Vietnam Relations

Op-Ed
John Kerry
Secretary of State
Washington, DC
August 8, 2015


This is an historic moment as we mark the 20th anniversary of the establishment of normal diplomatic relations between the United States and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

When President Clinton announced America’s decision in 1995, he did so with a clear mission. Echoing the words of Scripture, he said: “Let this moment…be a time to heal and a time to build.”

As we all know, that healing took a while and didn’t come easy for either side.

It was a painstaking process that required a lot of hard work, a certain amount of courage, and some compromise. We all knew there could be no progress without addressing the great unanswered question of whether missing Americans had been left behind in Southeast Asia. And we also knew that those of us who set out to build a new relationship were tempting the emotional opposition of many people on both sides.

So many people on both sides gave years of their lives to this effort. The war that took place here half a century ago divided each of our countries and stemmed from a profound failure of diplomatic insight and political vision. Looking back, we honor the bravery of those who fought on both sides, and we will never cease to mourn all those who were injured or lost.

For many years, I’ve looked forward to the time when Americans would hear the word “Vietnam” and think more of a country, not a conflict. I believe I can say -- again without failing to honor past service and sacrifice -- that we have reached that point now.

As reflected by General Secretary Trong’s visit to Washington last month, our leaders are deeply engaged on a wide range of economic and security issues. Our citizens are getting to know each other better through student exchanges, business deals, tourism, and family ties. More and more Americans of Vietnamese descent are building new ties to the land they or their parents or their grandparents left -- another important part of our healing process.

So the time has come to look ahead, and to understand that the U.S.-Vietnam agenda is no longer shaped primarily by what was. We are not still in the process of reconciliation. The big news today is that the United States and Vietnam have reconciled.

Just look at how far we’ve come.

Today, we are strengthening our ties in a host of areas -- education, the environment, science, health, high-tech, the Internet, and military-to-military cooperation. We also have a priceless opportunity to achieve a breakthrough on trade.

To be sure, the true measure of our partnership isn’t just whether our economies grow. It is also how they grow.

Together with our partners, we are working to improve this country’s resilience to the effects of climate change and focusing U.S. assistance on clean energy and the development of sustainable infrastructure. We're also committed to progress in the field education -- a shared value -- with projects such as the founding of Fulbright University in Ho Chi Minh City.

Our countries are also cooperating on security issues -- Vietnam is now a partner in America’s Global Peace Operations Initiative.

Our two governments also share an interest in freedom of navigation and peaceful resolution of disputes in the South China Sea. We also signed an MOU as part of our Global Health Security Agenda to build capacity to prevent and respond to the spread of epidemic disease.

The barriers of mistrust and misunderstanding are continuing to fall, and I hope that we will continue to make progress on other issues that our governments have debated over the years. I am very happy, for example, that we have established such an honest, substantive, and increasingly productive dialogue on human rights and democratic freedoms.

The new Vietnamese constitution speaks of democracy and pledges to protect human rights. The government has committed to make Vietnam’s domestic laws conform to that new constitution and to international human rights standards. And we believe that progress in upholding these basic human rights will serve Vietnam’s interests in several ways and will provide the foundation for a deeper and more sustainable strategic partnership between the United States and Vietnam. The more we have in common, the easier it will be to convince our people to deepen our bonds and make sacrifices on each other’s behalf.

That we are standing here today celebrating 20 years of normalized relations is proof that we are not doomed merely to repeat the mistakes we have made in the past. We have the ability to overcome great bitterness and to substitute trust for suspicion and replace enmity with respect. That achievement matters and it is a profound and timely lesson for the world. The United States and Vietnam have again proventhat former adversaries really can become partners.

It took us 20 years to normalize ties. It took us 20 more years to move from healing to building. Think of what we can accomplish in the 20 years to come.

There are steep hills yet to climb, and hard choices still to make for our partnership to reach its full potential. But we know now that the sky is our limit; given what we have achieved, and our people’s common aspirations, anything -- and everything -- is possible.

That is a testament to the grit and determination of both Americans and Vietnamese -- and a powerful sign that, although ever mindful of the past -- we are dedicated to a future of prosperity, peace, and freedom for all.