pride, humility bolster u.s.-vietnam relations

June 13, 2006

By Tom Fox
Special to The Star


Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had a successful visit with Vietnam’s Defense Minister Pham Van Tra earlier this week.

Her anger took me by surprise.

I was returning to my hotel in Hanoi midway through a seven-week visit to Vietnam recently. She was selling vegetables on the side of a small street. I had offered a friendly greeting in Vietnamese, as I speak the language.

“Where are you from?” she asked.

“America,” I responded.

“Americans are a cruel people,” she shot back. “Very cruel.”

Temporarily off guard and walking with a friend, I only said, “Americans are good people; like Vietnamese.”

But the memory of that incident has lingered because of its uncharacteristic nature. It ran counter to hundreds of other encounters I had with Vietnamese during my travels there.

Americans might find it ironic that Vietnam today is arguably the most pro-American nation in Asia. The Vietnamese seem to have a natural affinity toward Americans.

Is this possible?

Ironically, one of the major reasons, it seems, the Vietnamese are as friendly as they are toward visiting Americans is that they won the war — and we did not.

The conflict, which tragically took 58,000 American and an estimated 2.5 million Vietnamese lives, ended with Vietnamese pride intact. Our defeat sowed the seeds for a new relationship between our peoples, one based on mutual respect and equality.

For sure, the U.S. defeat in April 1975 opened the way for the communist-controlled Hanoi government to take over the entire country. And, yes, that meant 10 years of a heavy-handed communism that ended in failure and increased poverty.

But those years opened the way, in the late 1980s, for reform-minded communists to introduce new economic policies calling for the introduction of foreign capital and the decentralization of the economy into private hands, trends that have gained momentum ever since. Today, Vietnam is a one-party, nominally communist, capitalist-seeking nation. Private ownership is the wave of the future.

On Monday, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld showed up in the Vietnamese capital and reached an agreement to increase military contacts between the two nations. Vietnamese leaders also are planning a state visit for President Bush at the end of this year when Vietnam hopes to join the Word Trade Organization, with U.S. support.

Today the United States is the largest consumer of Vietnamese goods. Americans are now the largest investors in Vietnam. The nation is enjoying a remarkable 8.4 percent economic growth rate, all energized by a flood of new foreign capital. The people live in peace. They are more optimistic, wealthier, and free than any time in recent history.

And, they are very pro-American.

Vietnam’s traditional enemy is China, not the United States. Today, Vietnam’s leaders want stronger Western ties to balance off China’s large regional influence. Why couldn’t we have understood Vietnamese history some 40 years back?

What is called for is not a U.S. withdrawal from international affairs, but rather some enlightened humility. A healthy understanding of what triggers pride — and humiliation — in the lives of other nations would help us enormously.

Tom Fox is the former editor and publisher of the Kansas City-based National Catholic Reporter. He runs a company, Fox Friendship Enterprises, building cross-cultural understanding between American and Vietnamese peoples.


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