Vietnam-US: The little known “fate” and the irony of history

VietNamNet would like to introduce the next article in our series about 20 years of Vietnam-US relations since normalization. The article concerns the history of relations before the August Revolution, 1945.

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Vietnam-US: The little known “fate” and the irony of history

US and Vietnam had very early relationships.

Before the August Revolution 1945, the Vietnam Armed Propaganda Brigades and the US Office of Strategic Services (OSS) together stood against Japanese fascists in Indochina. However, the irony of the history pushed Vietnam and the US into one of the most brutal wars in the history of mankind only two decades later.

Now the wounds of the past are being healed and new chapters are being opened.

"The missing fate”

The earliest connection in the history of US-Vietnam relations was recorded in 1787.

At that time Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, was the US diplomatic representative in Paris. He asked Vietnamese Prince Canh who was in Paris to give him good rice varieties to take back to the US for a trial plant.

It was a coincidence that when Thomas Jefferson was elected as the third President of the United States (1801-1809), the merchant vessel Frame became the first American ship docked at the Da Nang Port in May 1803, paving the way for other American merchant ships to Vietnam to find markets for US agricultural products and goods.

The first diplomatic attempt between the two countries was conducted in 1832 when envoy Edmund Roberts, authorized by President Andrew Jackson (1829-1837), went to Vietnam on the warship Peacock in an effort to sign a trade agreement to open the door to the Vietnamese market. This may be regarded as the first time Vietnam faced the pressure of "gunboat diplomacy" of the West.

However, the negotiations between Roberts and the Nguyen Dynasty were unsuccessful because of the so-called "unequal terms", which were "inconsistent" with the law of the ruling dynasty. Actually, the Nguyen Dynasty wanted to maintain a closed-door policy.

This is also the first time that an opportunity to sign a trade agreement with the West occurred, an opportunity to modernize and develop the country to fight against the invasion of the West later. But it was missed by the Nguyen Dynasty.

Only when the French colonists opened fire and set foot in Danang in 1858, beginning the invasion of Vietnam, the Nguyen Dynasty awakened and understood that it must rely on outside powers to maintain independence. And the US was one of the first choices.

However, the trip of scholar Bui Vien to Washington DC in 1873 was unsuccessful because he could not meet President Ulysses Grant to propose to the US to recognize and establish diplomatic relations with the Nguyen Dynasty.

Ho Chi Minh, who laid the foundation for contemporary Vietnam-US relations

More than 70 years after the trip of Bui Vien, geopolitical moves and the coincidence of national interests of Vietnam and the US before World War II once again took the two nations closer.

At that time Viet Minh and the newly established VN Armed Propaganda Brigades (the forerunner of the Vietnam People's Army) needed weapons and training to fight the Japanese.

On the US side, after officially declaring war with Japan on December 8, 1941, the US’s supreme goal was to defeat the Japanese on the Asia - Pacific battlefield, including Indochina.

Therefore, the US needed to find allies and partners against Japan through the provision of weapons, training, information gathering and rescue of US pilots in distress. The coincidence of interests turned Viet Minh and the OSS into allies and potential partners.

A US aircraft was shot down by the Japanese in Cao Bang in March 1945 and pilot William Shaw was rescued by Viet Minh. Ho Chi Minh was very busy directing the revolutionary movement in the country, but with sharp political sensitivity and vision, he decided to directly hand over the American pilot to US General Claire Chennault, the leader of the "Flying Tigers" in Kunming, China.

Why did he make that decision?

First of all, Ho Chi Minh clearly understood the "value" of William Shaw in making the connection between Viet Minh and the OSS, and with the US. By directly taking William Shaw to Kunming, Ho Chi Minh performed three missions.

The first combined a humanitarian mission with a diplomatic mission and through the meeting with the highest leader of the US military in the region – General Chennault – to strengthen the reputation of Viet Minh, domestically and internationally.

The second was asking the US to help Viet Minh in terms of weapons, communications, and training, in "exchange" for Vietnam’s cooperation with the US to fight Japan, which was consistent with US interests.

The third was laying the foundation for the US’s recognition and establishment of full diplomatic relations with Vietnam in the future.

From the results of the trip to Kunming, the US established the Deer Team, consisting of a number of OSS officers who parachuted to Cao Bang in summer 1945 to conduct a number of military assistance runs to Viet Minh at the request of Ho Chi Minh. The assistance ended shortly after Japan surrendered to the Allies on August 15, 1945.

Vietnam-US: The little known “fate” and the irony of history

File Photo: President Ho Chi Minh, General Vo Nguyen Giap and members of the Deer Team in Tan Trao, 1945.

Although military cooperation only lasted for a short time, Ho Chi Minh built good relations with some OSS officers, hoping they would become messengers to promote relations between Vietnam and the US later.

An OSS officer gave President Ho Chi Minh the US Declaration of Independence and President Ho put an excerpt of this document into the Declaration of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam: “All men are created equal; they are endowed by their Creator with inherent and inalienable rights; among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness".

Quoting the declaration of independence of another country in Vietnam’s declaration of independence was an unprecedented act, through which President Ho Chi Minh showed the world a new Vietnam that shared common values of humanity in the process of integration into the community of civilized nations.

Then, he sent the second letter dated February 28, 1946 to US President Harry Truman, asking the US to establish diplomatic relations with Vietnam and protesting the French’s return to reoccupy Indochina.

However, the letter did not reach President Truman. And at that time the chessboard of the relationships between major countries started to shift to the new status of the Cold War era. The highest priority of the US was to keep its "status" in Europe, and to enlist the support of key allies, including France, to "restrain" the Soviet Union.

In exchange, the US lowered the "slogan" of decolonization and tactically turned the green light for former powers to return to their former colonies, such as France in Indochina, Holland in Indonesia, Britain in Malaysia ...

President Ho Chi Minh and the people of Vietnam were determined to defend independence, considering it as the ultimate goal that could not be compromised. This, by chance, created a new context that pushed Vietnam and America into the life-and-death war later.

VN-US economic ties a turnaround

It took less than 20 years for Viet Nam, which had been saddled with an embargo by the US, to turn that country into a leading economic partner.

In the period since diplomatic ties were normalised in 1995, trade between them has risen consistently and rapidly, especially after a Bilateral Trade Agreement was signed in 2001.

Just two years after the BTA, the US became Viet Nam's top export market and the status continues, according to Minister of Planning and Investment Bui Quang Vinh.

Viet Nam has also become the biggest ASEAN member in terms of exports to the US, overtaking powerhouses Thailand and Malaysia.

In 1995 bilateral trade was worth US$450 million. It reached $36 billion last year, with Viet Nam's exports being worth $25 billion.

The US is ranked seventh out of 101 countries and territories investing to Viet Nam. It has invested $11 billion in 735 projects, though the actual figure may be higher since many US companies like Intel, Coca Cola, Procter & Gamble, and Chevron invest in Viet Nam through their subsidiaries in third countries.

US FDI has contributed to Viet Nam's social and economic development, enhancing the effectiveness of domestic resources, Vinh said.

Peter Ryder, general director of Indochina Capital, was quoted by Vietnam Economics Times as saying that FDI flows from the US to Viet Nam are set to soar, especially after the country becomes part of the Trans Pacific Partnership.

Since 1995 Viet Nam enjoyed dramatic economic growth, and the impact of trade with and investment by the US was a catalyst, he said.

The US's development aid to Viet Nam has increased every year since 1995, reaching $120 million recently. The assistance focuses on the economy, education, health, including $89 million for HIV/AIDS prevention programmes, combating climate change, and tackling the consequences of the war.

The US has also launched a $72 million programme to clean Da Nang Airport of Agent Orange.

The TPP involving 10 other countries apart from Viet Nam and the US is a great opportunity for further cementing economic ties between the two countries.

Of the 10 ASEAN economies, Viet Nam is thought to be fourth or fifth most important for US companies, but the success of the TPP negotiations could change that, creating a new structure for trade and investment between them.

Exports are likely to rise in both directions while US companies will be easily able to invest in new areas in Viet Nam.

There are a number of new industries that will grow much faster in Viet Nam if the TPP is signed. For instance, the government is trying to encourage the manufacture of medical devices, and the trade deal would help attract investment in this area. The TPP will also promote investment in agricultural processing. VNS

To be continued…

Hoang Anh Tuan

Director of the Institute for Strategic Studies, Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Vietnam-US: The little known “fate” and the irony of history