Return to Vietnam

Jan. 1, 2012

The long, bitter war the US fought in Vietnam from 1954 to 1973 was never mentioned as a group of American troops spent 20 days on a humanitarian deployment. More than 40 service members worked alongside host-nation soldiers and civilian contractors last August, renovating three medical clinics and building a library in an orphanage.

What made this unusual is that the Americans were working in Vietnam.

Airmen and Navy Seabees make progress on renovating a medical clinic in Ha Tinh province, Vietnam. The US service members worked alongside Vietnamese soldiers and civilians during the humanitarian mission. (USAF photo by MSgt. John Herrick)

Four airmen participating in the US Pacific Command deployment—SMSgt. John Buendia, SSgt. Gil Miguel, SrA. Brynn Stephany, and SrA. Darren Clemen—all agreed they did not see any anti-American antagonism during the mission. The trip itself would have been impossible even two decades ago, when diplomatic relations did not exist between the nations.

In conversations at JB Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, the airmen said the Vietnamese were friendly, worked hard, and managed to overcome the language barrier.

“We used lots of hand motions,” Stephany said. She added that the Vietnamese were a bit surprised to see an American woman working as a laborer.

The airmen were posted in Ha Tinh province, some 200 miles south of Hanoi along the coastal neck of what was once North Vietnam. A poor province today, during the war it was a supply location, along an infiltration route for troops slipping into South Vietnam. The US bombed it, but Ha Tinh was not the site of fierce ground battles.

Clemen, whose father was a helicopter crewman in the war and whose mother is Vietnamese, said the Vietnamese were puzzled because he could speak their language—though in his mother’s southern dialect rather than the northern dialect of Ha Tinh. When he explained, he chuckled, “they didn’t believe me.”

The work was rewarding. “We were touching people and touching lives,” Miguel said of the clinic he worked at.

Despite the good vibe overall, there were still some distinct difficulties. Buendia said his troops were “frustrated” by what they saw as a lack of quality control. What took Americans a half-day to complete was left unfinished by the Vietnamese at day’s end. Clemen had one “eerie” experience, when the proprietor of a souvenir shop tried to sell him a necklace made up of American dog tags.

“I don’t think he knew what they were, but I didn’t want it,” he recounted.

Remarkable Turnaround

The sight of American airmen and Navy Seabees working side by side with Vietnamese soldiers and workers some 40 years after the war in Vietnam can only be termed as remarkable.

Over nearly 20 years, hostilities between the US and North Vietnam took the lives of 58,000 Americans, an estimated 224,000 South Vietnamese soldiers, and about 1.1 million Viet Cong and North Vietnamese fighters. This doesn’t count several million civilian Vietnamese and the toll on forces of allies on both sides. The wartime generations in both the US and Vietnam have retired from military service, however, lessening the personal reminders of the war.

Then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (c) participates in a ceremony with Vietnamese Minister of Defense Gen. Phung Quang Thanh. Gates said, “Wars end,” and nations would be wise to put bitterness aside to build an international partnership. (DOD photo by MSgt. Jerry Morrison)

The airmen’s humanitarian mission was far from the only military engagement the US has had with Vietnam. Exchanges, visits, and cooperative efforts have quietly but steadily ramped up over the past decade. Just this year, the carrier USS George Washington received Vietnamese senior civilian officials and military members.

The cargo-ammunition ship USNS Richard E. Byrd docked at Cam Ranh Bay, the port and base built by the US during the war. The ship was the first of the US to respond to a Vietnamese decision to repair ships of all nations at Cam Rahn Bay, and Byrd remained there for a week while Vietnamese crews cleaned the hull underwater, polished the ship’s propeller, fixed shipboard piping, and overhauled the salt water cooling system.

From both the US and Vietnamese points of view, the prime motive for their reconciliation can be summed up in one word: China.

The Vietnamese have long memories and make little effort to hide mixed feelings about their northern neighbor.

China occupied much of Vietnam for a thousand years until 1010 A.D. For the next 850 years, the Vietnamese fought off repeated Chinese incursions until Vietnam, and the rest of Indochina, fell under French colonial rule. French rule of Vietnam ended when Ho Chi Minh’s army prevailed at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.

Vietnam’s most recent battle with China was in 1979, when Chinese forces sought to teach Vietnam a lesson for getting involved in Cambodia by launching a short-lived punitive invasion. Instead, the Chinese were bloodied by the Vietnamese—who by then fielded what was perhaps the most experienced army in the world.

China seeks to limit the US military presence in East Asia and may seek eventually to push American forces back across the Pacific. China has begun openly flexing its strategic power in Asia and sees the US as the main obstacle to establishing a modern version of the ancient Middle Kingdom.

In response, the US has been cultivating allies and friends, including Vietnam, to counter the Chinese drive.

“US relations with Vietnam are growing,” said Gen. Gary L. North, commander of Pacific Air Forces, who visited the nation last year. Relations are obviously not as robust as they are with some other nations, “but they are promising,” he said.

A focal point of common interest is the South China Sea. China has claimed most of the sea as sovereign territory, while the US, Vietnam, and Southeast Asian nations along the sea’s shores have asserted it is an international waterway—a position that American officials say is supported by international law. Keeping the South China Sea open to shipping traffic is vital to the economies of Asia, including that of China, because more traffic passes through those waters each year than through the Suez and Panama Canals combined.

Butt Out

USAF 2nd Lt. Rachel Crawford (l) and Navy Utilitiesman 3rd Class Daphne Bender put the finishing touches on a construction piece for a medical clinic in Ha Tinh province. (USAF photo by MSgt. John Herrick)

For the US Navy, the sea-lane is a crucial passage through which warships transit between the Pacific and Indian Oceans—precluding the time-consuming and costly need to sail far south around Australia.

The focus on both the South China Sea and Vietnam seems likely to sharpen as the Air Force and Navy push ahead with the AirSea Battle concept. Among the doctrine’s salient features is the need to acquire access to as many bases as possible over a wide expanse. This strategy will complicate the offensive operational plans of the Chinese (and other adversaries, senior military officials almost always add) by forcing them to target multiple bases to pursue an anti-access, area-denial strategy.

The Chinese government in Beijing is aware of the new US-Vietnam military relations and has expressed its displeasure.

“For countries outside the region, we hope they will respect and support countries in the region to solve this dispute through bilateral channels,” a spokeswoman for Beijing’s foreign ministry said. The statement reveals China feels other nations should butt out of the South China Sea and let China and other Southeast Asian nations resolve differences themselves. In this specific case, the spokeswoman referred to a dispute over India’s plans to drill for oil under the South China Sea—but similar words were earlier directed at the US. “It is wise for those trying to feel out China’s bottom line to wake up to the reality that China will never yield an inch in its sovereignty and territorial integrity to any power or pressure,” she added.

For months, Beijing has claimed “indisputable sovereignty” over large reaches of the South China Sea. Chinese officials have asserted that US and Vietnamese training, even in noncombat air-sea rescue exercises, is “inappropriate.” The Chinese have asserted that US warships have no right to sail into China’s exclusive economic zone while the US and most other nations contend warships can sail in all waters outside of a nation’s 12-mile limit on territorial waters.

After the US opened diplomatic relations with Hanoi in 1995, political and economic relations moved ahead steadily. By 2010, US exports to Vietnam came to $3.7 billion, up 10-fold from 2000. Imports from Vietnam were valued at $14.3 billion, a nearly 20-fold increase compared with the $821 million in imports 11 years earlier.

Testing Waters

Alongside that trade, US investments in Vietnam totaled $13.2 billion by the end of last year, making the US the seventh largest foreign investor in Vietnam, according to Vietnamese government figures.

TSgt. Eric Moss (l) and TSgt. Tamica Rippke (r) work with a local vendor during a mission making improvements to medical clinics in Ha Tinh province. (USAF photo by MSgt. John Herrick)

Former Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen was the first SECDEF to visit Vietnam after the war, going to Hanoi in 2000. Vietnamese Defense Minister Pham Van Tra visited Washington in 2003.

Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld flew to Hanoi in 2006 and his successor Robert M. Gates seemed to set a new tone in a speech at the Vietnam National University in October 2010.

“Wars end,” Gates said. “Nations wise enough to put past bitterness and heartbreak behind them can find in each other future friends and partners. There is no doubt that the war left an indelible imprint on both our peoples. But by addressing its legacies together, our two nations have been able to demonstrate how you can build upon the past without being bound to repeat it.”

Adm. Robert F. Willard, commander of Pacific Command, was more specific when he spoke with reporters in Singapore, saying the Vietnamese set the pace of reconciliation.

“The military-to-military relationship with the Vietnamese [has] lagged the rest of [the government’s] engagement with Vietnam, but was always positive,” he said in a Defense News interview. “Incrementally, they were testing waters and improving and asking for new forms of engagement between us, and in recent years, [that has] begun to turn upward.” He added that PACOM is looking for Vietnam to assume a bit more of a “leadership role” in the region, provided the right opportunities, in efforts such as peacekeeping or maritime security.

PACAF is engaged in forging military relations on the ground in Vietnam, North said in an interview. “The point of these exchanges, which are very much welcomed by Vietnam, is to build trust and confidence.” Vietnam, like other countries in the region, is “understandably concerned with figuring out the behavior of large neighbors, including China,” North said. Due to Vietnam’s long coastline on the South China Sea, the nation is acutely worried about maritime security.

Maj. Diep Le (l) performs dental work on a Vietnamese patient in Quang Tri province as part of the humanitarian assistance operation Pacific Angel. (USAF photo by TSgt. Kerry Jackson)

Even with strengthening ties, limits still exist. So far, no plans have been made for combined training in combat operations. “We’re not ready to do anything kinetic,” said a staff officer.

The Vietnamese are eager to learn how the US projects power, especially in logistic support for those operations, but the US has been reluctant to move too fast. Further, the laws governing the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) were eased in 2006 to permit the US to transfer “nonlethal defense articles” to Vietnam but not to export lethal items, crowd control equipment, or high-tech night vision devices.

Current efforts have centered on humanitarian and trust-building measures, so little consideration has been given to lifting the restrictions on combat-related equipment.

The US, with Vietnamese help, continues to search for the remains of Americans who died there.

“We have had C-17s on the ramp at Tan Son Nhut,” said North, referring to the wartime air base, “for a reparation ceremony in keeping with our standards of a dignified return of our fallen heroes.”

Even with reconciliation, the war has not been forgotten.

Two Decades of Warming Relations

For years after the fall of Saigon in 1975, relations between Hanoi and Washington were nonexistent. But in 1991, President George H. W. Bush presented Hanoi with a “roadmap” for a phased normalization of ties. In 1995, the Veterans of Foreign Wars announced it would agree to support US diplomatic relations with Vietnam, thus removing a domestic political barrier.

In 1995, Washington and Hanoi opened diplomatic relations. President Bill Clinton visited Vietnam in 2000 and a trade agreement followed the next year. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who had fought as an Army officer in Vietnam in 1969, attended an international forum in Hanoi in 2001.

The first US Navy ship to make a port call after the war, the guided missile frigate Vandegrift, docked in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) in 2003. Adm. Thomas B. Fargo, then PACOM commander, visited Hanoi and Da Nang in 2004.

The following year, Prime Minister Phan Van Khai made the first visit to the US by a Vietnamese leader since the war, and the destroyer Gary made a port call to mark the 10th anniversary of diplomatic relations.

In 2006, President George W. Bush took part in an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Hanoi.

The following year, President Nguyen Minh Triet made the first visit to Washington by a Vietnamese head of state since the war. The same year, the amphibious ship Peleliu, reconfigured into a hospital ship, docked at Da Nang on a medical mission.

In 2008, the hospital ship USS Mercy dropped anchor off Khanh Hoa province on a similar medical mission, and Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung met with George W. Bush in the White House. Later, Sen. James H. Webb (D-Va.), the chairman of the East Asian and Pacific Affairs subcommittee of the Foreign Relations Committee who had fought in Vietnam as a marine, visited the country.

2009 proved to be a busy year in the now rapidly warming relations. Gen. Carrol H. Chandler, then-PACAF boss, became the first USAF four-star to travel to Vietnam since diplomatic relations resumed. The aircraft carrier John C. Stennis received Vietnamese military and civilian officials flown out to the ship at sea.

The command ship USS Blue Ridge and the guided missile destroyer Lassen, commanded by Cmdr. Hung Ba Le, a Vietnamese-American, made port calls.

Sen. John S. McCain (R-Ariz.) met with Prime Minister Nguyen in Hanoi, where the senator as a naval aviator spent more than five years as a prisoner of war. A Vietnamese military delegation made the first visit to PACAF headquarters to discuss search and rescue missions. In Pacific Angel, 60 Air National Guard medics flew into Quang Tri province to treat about 5,000 patients.

In 2010, Prime Minister Nguyen participated in the nuclear summit convened by President Barack Obama.

In Pacific Angel 2010, PACAF medics treated 12,000 patients and renovated two medical clinics in Tan Thoi and Truong Thanh. The hospital ship Mercy returned to Vietnam during Pacific Partnership 2010 to treat 19,000 patients and perform 132 surgical procedures. Engineers renovated a clinic and school for disabled children.

Richard Halloran, formerly a New York Times foreign correspondent in Asia and military correspondent in Washington, D.C., is a freelance writer based in Honolulu. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “Japan at a Crossroads,” appeared in the April 2011 issue.