Nothing is Impossible: America's Reconciliation with Vietnam

August 17, 2022 The Asia Foundation
Nothing is Impossible: America's Reconciliation with Vietnam
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Nothing is Impossible: America's Reconciliation with Vietnam
Aug 17, 2022
The Asia Foundation

This week, former ambassador Ted Osius discusses the remarkable journey of America and Vietnam from bitter adversaries to friends and partners. 

Show Notes Transcript

This week, former ambassador Ted Osius discusses the remarkable journey of America and Vietnam from bitter adversaries to friends and partners. 

Ted Osius (00:03):

Vietnamese fought 22 wars against China. They fought the French, they fought the Cambodians, they fought us. There's been so much turmoil and strife in Vietnam's history. And as a result, a lot of Vietnamese don't really want to look backwards. They want to look forward.

Tracie Yang (00:25):

The remarkable journey of America and Vietnam from bitter adversaries, to friends and partners. Today on InAsia, from The Asia Foundation. I'm Tracie Yang.

John Rieger (00:35):

And I'm John Rieger. Our guest today is Ted Osius, a diplomat for 30 years and now a trustee of The Asia Foundation. He served from 2014 to 2017 as a US ambassador to Vietnam, where he was the first US ambassador to receive that country's order of friendship.

Tracie Yang (00:50):

In his latest book, Nothing is Impossible: America's reconciliation with Vietnam. He Chronicles the two nation's unlikely Odyssey from foes to friends. He joins us today to talk about the book and some of the highlights of his long diplomatic career. Ambassador Osius, welcome to InAsia.

Ted Osius (01:06):

Thank you, Tracie. Thank you, John. I'm really happy to be here with you today.

John Rieger (01:10):

Ambassador, as someone who is old enough to have faced the draft and lived through the awful turmoil and loss of the warriors, I found your new book quite bittersweet. How were the United States and Vietnam able to put that conflict behind them? And where did the spirit of reconciliation come from?

Ted Osius (01:29):

A lot of the energy for reconciliation came from Vietnam, from the Vietnamese. Vietnamese are quite practical and after the war, there was a terrible famine. People who lived through that period talk about how awful it was year after year, not to have enough food. There had been a terrible long war between Vietnam and Cambodia and then there was a 12 year war between Vietnam and China. And [inaudible 00:02:04] who later became foreign minister, saw an opportunity to have an opening with the United States. He had an old friend who he gotten to know during the Paris peace talks, Bill Sullivan, later an ambassador. And he reached out and he said, "We're under economic embargo. We want to have a relationship with United States."

John Rieger (02:29):

There was also a lot of residual bitterness among the American electorate, as manifested by the MIA/POW Movement.

Ted Osius (02:39):

Well, that's the era of the Rambo films. And there was this myth, this idea that there were Americans being held in tiger cages in Southeast Asia. And you think of the POW/MIA flag and that period of time after we didn't win the war, where there was a great deal of hostility in the United States towards Vietnam. So it really was an enormous political risk on both sides. [inaudible 00:03:10] actually was put in under house arrest for five years for his role in speeding up reconciliation. And people like Senator John McCain and John Kerry were vilified for their efforts to try to bring the two countries together. John McCain who'd suffered terribly was called a Manchurian Candidate and people and veterans threw things at him. And they thought he was a traitor for trying to establish a relationship with Vietnam. And I argue in my book, that quite the opposite, he was a hero.

Tracie Yang (03:43):

Do you remember in your experience feeling kind of that turning point of this adversarial relationship?

Ted Osius (03:49):

Well, that's what I hoped for. I was one of the first diplomats to go to Vietnam and I signed up because I thought, "Wow, what if we could build the foundation for a new relationship? What if that's possible? Wouldn't that be great to be part of?" And then I was lucky, that's the way it turned out. We built a completely different relationship.

Tracie Yang (04:16):

You know, despite going to the Elliott School, I still find the diplomatic temperament quite mysterious. What makes a great ambassador and who taught you the most important lessons about your profession?

Ted Osius (04:31):

Well, maybe I answer to the second question first. The two people who taught me the most were Leon Fuerth, who was national security advisor to Vice President Al Gore and Cameron Hume, who was a four time chief admission diplomat for 42 years and my boss three times. Cameron in particular focused me on the significance of relationships. He said diplomacy is all about relationships. You get involved in matters of high policy but you're not going to be able to move things forward if you haven't built trust. And trust is based on relationships and on doing things together. And he taught me that in words but he showed me more importantly. He showed me during the many years that we worked together.

John Rieger (05:24):

Ambassador, in your case, effective diplomacy seems to have involved a lot of bicycling. Tell us a bit about your bicycle diplomacy.

Ted Osius (05:32):

Well, I really like to bike. So it really started from that. I enjoy biking. And on my first tour in Vietnam, I took a group of friends from Hanoi to Saigon. It's about 1200 miles.

Tracie Yang (05:48):


Ted Osius (05:48):

And it was so interesting and so much fun and we learned so much about the country. In fact, it's better to be on a bicycle in some ways than in a limousine. When you're in an air conditioned limousine and you've got dark tinted windows, you're not having much interaction. But when you're on a bicycle, there's nothing between you and people. And I speak Vietnamese, I love Vietnam, I loved interacting with Vietnamese. So I found bicycling and talking to people super effective for figuring out what was going on and getting a feel for what was happening in the country. And so as ambassador, I biked all over the place.

Tracie Yang (06:31):

You're clearly fond of the Vietnamese people and you say that they're fond of Americans. What is the source of that affinity?

Ted Osius (06:40):

You know, you talked about diplomacy being mysterious. That's kind of a mysterious thing. My understanding, the best to I can understand this, is that the Vietnamese fought 22 wars against China. They fought the French, they fought the Cambodians, they fought us. There's been so much turmoil and strife in Vietnam's history.

            And as a result, a lot of Vietnamese don't really want to look backwards. They want to look forward and they want to think about what might be possible for their children and grandchildren that wasn't possible for them.

            And just a short story on that first bicycle trip I took from Hanoi de Saigon, I stopped on a bridge in the DMZ, the former DMZ country province. And I looked out over the landscape and there were these ponds all over the place. And then a woman slightly older started talking with me.

            And so I asked her in Vietnamese, why are there these kind of funny shaped ponds? And she said, "Well, that's where the Americans drops bombs." And she went on to explain that Americans had dropped bombs on her village and killed members of her family.

            And as she was explaining this, I felt worse and worse but I thought, "Well, I have to fess up." And so I told her, I represent the United States. I worked for the embassy. And she took a long look and she said, " [foreign language 00:08:46]. Today, you and I are brother and sister."

John Rieger (08:50):

What a story.

Ted Osius (08:51):

So I told that story to the senators who confirmed me because I wanted them to understand something about that spirit, that I found everywhere in Vietnam. That willingness to go beyond the past and look toward a future.

Tracie Yang (09:09):

So you are the father of two, in the same sex, interracial marriage.

Ted Osius (09:14):


Tracie Yang (09:14):

How was your family received in Vietnam?

Ted Osius (09:17):

It's a conservative country, so I gave some real thought to it. And the first appearance we made, we arrived at the airport, I was the new ambassador and my 85 year old mother was traveling with us. And we appeared as a three generational family, grandmother, dads and children.

            And that was something Vietnamese could relate to. And over time, we discovered that we were welcome everywhere. That it didn't really matter that our family looked different from other families. We were so welcome in that country. And then something very interesting happened. During our first year, a wonderful woman, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, decided to visit Vietnam. And Justice Ginsburg came to our home, stayed with us and at my request performed a ceremony to renew our wedding vows.

            And I think when we originally thought of this, we thought of it as kind of a political action. This was just after the [inaudible 00:10:34] decision by the Supreme court. And so we could show people, "You know, you can have a marriage, love and a career and be yourself." And it did that. And for the rest of our time, we would be approached by when we were traveling or at a restaurant. We were approached by young people all the time who would say, "Oh, I came out to my parents after I learned about you."

John Rieger (11:02):


Tracie Yang (11:03):

Asia Foundation Trustee and former US Ambassador to Vietnam, Ted Osius. Thank you so much for joining us.

Ted Osius (11:10):

Thank you very much. Thank you, Tracie and thank you, John.

Tracie Yang (11:13):

And that's our show for this week. The book once again is Nothing is Impossible: America's Reconciliation with Vietnam.

John Rieger (11:19):

Coming up next time after beating a path to post-war prosperity, that's been the envy of Asia and the world. South Korea suddenly finds itself in a profound Malays, with plummeting birth rates and a generation of disaffected youth who call their country [inaudible 00:11:34]. The paradox on the [inaudible 00:11:36] on the next here InAsia. Until then, I'm John Rieger.

Tracie Yang (11:39):

And I'm Tracie Yang.

John Rieger (11:41):

Thanks for listening.