Looking back on 25 years of Vietnam-US relations: The role of US Senators

July 11, 2020 - 09:48

What Việt Nam and the US have done is the result of a long process with persistent efforts by both sides to overcome major obstacles. It is important to mention the contributions of American lawmakers who have tried their best for the development and interests of the two nations.


Senator McCain (right) and his Vietnamese rescuer Mai Văn Ổn in Hà Nội in 1996. VNA/ VNS Photo Nguyễn Khang

Nguyen Tuong Van, Secretary-General of the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Assembly (AIPA)

A quarter of a century ago, on the night of July 11, 1995 (US time), the morning of July 12, 1995 (Việt Nam time), US President Bill Clinton officially announced the normalisation of US-Việt Nam relations. No one could have imagined that the two countries that were once mortal enemies were closing their traumatic past and moving on to a new chapter in their history. In order to take historic steps in Việt Nam-US relations, from a former enemy to a friend and a comprehensive partner since 2013, many changes have occurred in the way of thinking and ideology of the heads of parliament and governments on both sides. This event has a special meaning, surpassing the expectations of bystanders and insiders.

What Việt Nam and the US have done is the result of a long process with persistent efforts by both sides to overcome major obstacles. It is important to mention the contributions of American lawmakers who have tried their best for the development and interests of the two nations. Prominent among them were the late Senator John McCain and the former Senator, US Secretary of State John Kerry, who led the way in breaking the iceberg of suspicion among American politicians. Looking back at the whole process, there is a paradox in Việt Nam-US relations, that is, those who fought in the past became the pioneers in healing the relationship. Without the strong support of Senators McCain and Kerry, the normalisation process would have been delayed for many years since opposition in the US Congress was still very strong.

As a fighter pilot involved in the war, John McCain was arrested in 1967 after his plane was shot down in Hà Nội during a bombing mission. After being returned to the US, McCain began his political career, becoming a Senator and a presidential candidate in 2000 and 2008, who made tireless efforts to resolve the issue of hatred between the two countries. He was loved by many Vietnamese people as a close friend. In the final years of his life, Senator McCain continued to fight brain cancer, while continuing to fight for peace, stability and law and order in Asia-Pacific, especially the actions of China in the militarisation of the South China Sea (called East Sea in Việt Nam).

I was fortunate to meet Senator McCain in the early days of the normalising process between the two countries. During his more than 20 visits to Viet Nam, I accompanied Senator McCain for more than 10 trips, including his last visit in June 2017. During this trip, he was very grateful for the decision of the National Assembly and the Government of Việt Nam to have arranged for him to visit the destroyer USS John S. McCain, which was named after his father and grandfather. What I deeply feel about Senator Mccain is his outspokenness and great political determination in promoting relations with Việt Nam. For me, the senator is a symbol, a monument of Việt Nam-US relations, of the spirit of reconciliation, who had overcome the past to come to normalisation and continue to promote relations with a partner who was a former enemy. With his positive contributions, he had a very special position in the history of Việt Nam-US relations.

US Secretary of State John Kerry (standing, middle) witnesses the signing of a contract between GE Power and Water and Công Lý Construction-Trade-Tourism Ltd in 2013 to provide 52 wind turbines for phase two of the project. VNA/VNS Photo Thanh Vũ

Also a veteran of the US, joining the naval force in the war, Senator - former Secretary of State, John Kerry is often regarded as one of a pair of cards along with Senator McCain in the issue of healing wounds between the two nations although the two senators belonged to opposing parties.

Senator Kerry was the Chairman of the Special Committee on Prisoner of War and Missing in Actions Affairs (POW/MIA). At that time, the Viet Nam War was still a very sensitive issue, a painful wound for Americans. But, with dozens of trips to Việt Nam and Southeast Asia, and by studying thousands of documents and images, Kerry clarified the rumours of US soldiers imprisoned in “secret prisons" in Việt Nam. That helped him gain a high reputation in the US Congress.

Senator Patrick Leahy, Vice Chairman of the US Senate Appropriations Committee, has devoted 30 years to war recovery efforts between the two countries. Senator Leahy is considered the next generation of McCain and Kerry in cultivating Viet Nam-US relations. Senator Leahy, 79 years old, has a special affection for Việt Nam and has made great contributions to budget allocations for Việt Nam not only in dealing with the aftermath of the war but in many fields.

In the beginning, it was not easy to help Việt Nam, because not all Americans understood the severe consequences of the war in Việt Nam and the importance of reconciliation with Việt Nam.

As trust between the two countries improved, Senator Leahy started projects to help Việt Nam, in which the Leahy War Victims Fund provided prosthetics and wheelchairs to help thousands of Vietnamese people. Senator Leahy was also a campaigner for the repatriation of the remains of American soldiers missing in the war. He once said the work helped ease the pain of hundreds of American families, and he could only do so with the help of the Vietnamese Government, even when Việt Nam was facing poverty and hunger after the war and the US economic embargo.

For Senator Leahy, a milestone of co-operation between the two sides to overcome the pain left by the war is to complete the dioxin treatment project at Đà Nẵng airport and the starting of the project at Biên Hòa Airport, the largest hotspot of dioxin contamination in Việt Nam with a cost of US$183 million for the first five years sponsored directly from the US government.

I still remember accompanying him and the largest senator delegation in history, including nine American senators from both Democratic and Republican parties, to Đồng Nai Province. This elderly man was not afraid of the long travel, busy programme of activities and standing with his bare head under the sun to witness the groundbreaking ceremony of the Dioxin Treatment Project at Biên Hòa Airport.

The US corporation General Electric (GE) supplies wind turbines of 1.6MW each for Bạc Liêu offshore wind farm. This is the first wind power plant in Việt Nam's Mekong Delta. VNA/VNS Photo Cao Thăng

Twenty-five years is not a long time in the history of relations between the two countries, but what Việt Nam and the US have achieved, with the contributions of the US Congress, US Congressmen and the National Assembly of Việt Nam, was really impressive. It significantly contributed to paving the way for the outstanding co-operation of the two countries in all fields at present. Besides bilateral interests, the two countries are closer to each other because they share strategic interests in maintaining peace, security, stability, co-operation and order based on laws in Asia-Pacific, including issues in the East Sea, Mekong, Korean Peninsula and co-ordination in regional and international forums. Most importantly, the relationship between the two countries was established on the basis of the principles of respect for independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity and political institutions. The strategic trust between the people and the leaders of the two countries has been increasingly improved. I believe that, in the future, the two sides will continue to dismiss differences, respect history and look forward, for a shared future of trust, peace and prosperity. VNS

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