In this special episode we present an unabridged version of last week’s conversation with former ambassador Ted Osius about the improbable reconciliation of America and Vietnam.
In our last episode, we spoke with former U.S. ambassador Ted Osius about his latest book, Nothing Is Impossible: America’s Reconciliation with Vietnam, which chronicles the 25-year journey of Vietnam and the United States from implacable foes to friends and partners.
In this extended version of that conversation, Ambassador Osius expands further on his views of U.S.-Vietnam friendship, the founding of an American-style university in Hanoi, and his regret at the demise of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and he reflects on his experience—in conservative Vietnam and an equally conservative State Department—as the father of two in a same-sex, interracial marriage.
John Rieger (00:00):
Hello, I'm John Rieger for InAsia. In last week's podcast, we spoke with Ambassador Ted Osius about his long career in Asia and his fascinating book, Nothing is Impossible: America's Reconciliation with Vietnam. Your response to that episode has been so positive that we've decided to bring you this special edition, featuring the entire unedited conversation. Our thanks to all of you. Now, please enjoy.
Tracie Yang (00:24):
Ambassador Osius, welcome to InAsia.
Amb. Ted Osius (00:27):
Thank you Tracie. Thank you, John. I'm really happy to be here with you today.
John Rieger (00:31):
Ambassador, as someone who is old enough to have faced the draft and lived through the awful turmoil and loss of the war years, 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?
Amb. Ted Osius (00:50):
A lot of the energy for reconciliation came from Vietnam, from the Vietnamese. Vietnamese are quite practical and [Nguyen Co Thach 00:01:02] who later became foreign minister saw an opportunity to have an opening with the United States. He had an old friend who he'd 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 the United States.
And a lot of the effort in those early years was made by the Vietnamese. Then there were some Americans who also took risks; political risks, personal risks, in order to see if it wasn't possible to turn that relationship into something new. I like to think of the 25 years as a period when we went from being enemies to becoming close friends and partners, but in the early days, it was really hard. There was so much against so many forces that were against reconciliation. Politically, it was a difficult process. I would say a difficult process on both sides.
John Rieger (02:20):
If I can follow up on that, there must have been some significant geopolitical considerations on the part of the Vietnamese after the United States spent so many years just raining down destruction on them.
Amb. Ted Osius (02:32):
Well, that's right. I think the idea that there was the domino theory that Vietnam would fall and then Thailand and so on. That, I think, has been debunked. I don't think that theory makes any sense, but the Vietnamese wanted economic development. They were poor. 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. And they needed an opening to the rest of the world. They found that having just collectivized agriculture wasn't cutting it. And so they wanted an economic opening and the United States was the key. There had been a terrible long war between Vietnam and Cambodia. And then there was a 12 year war between Vietnam and China. Something like Vietnam's 22nd war with China was a border war along the 1200 mile border of the Northern part of Vietnam and the Southern part of China. And that lasted from '79; 1979 to 1992. It was devastating.
John Rieger (03:56):
That's very long. I remember that conflict, but I'd forgotten that it was so drawn out.
Amb. Ted Osius (04:01):
Well, the United States was focused elsewhere. We wanted to have nothing to do with Indo-China, and the Reagan administration in particular wanted nothing to do with normalizing relations. And so there was actually not much contact during that period between the two countries. The contact came later. There'd been a little bit of initial contact right after the fall of Saigon during the Carter administration, and then almost nothing during the Reagan administration. And then it began again during the one term of President George H. W. Bush, and then ultimately we established diplomatic relations during the presidency of Bill Clinton.
John Rieger (04:55):
There was also a lot of residual bitterness among the American electorate as manifested by the MIA/POW movement.
Amb. Ted Osius (05:05):
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 the focus was on, what are they doing? Are they holding our people hostage? They're holding our people in prison. What's happening in the reeducation camps? There was a great deal of hostility in the United States towards Vietnam. So it really was an enormous political risk on both sides to reach out to the other side. It was a political risk on the Vietnamese side because those who wanted a relationship with the United States were departing from orthodoxy, and Nguyen Co Thach actually was put under house arrest for five years for his role in speeding up reconciliation.
And people like Senator John McCain and John Carey were vilified for their efforts to try to bring the two countries together. John McCain who'd suffered terribly was called Manchurian Candidate, 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's quite the opposite. He was a hero.
Tracie Yang (06:36):
Do you remember in your experience feeling that turning point of this adversarial relationship?
Amb. Ted Osius (06:42):
Well, that's what I hoped for. I was one of the first diplomats to go to Vietnam. And the idea was I could go to a place where we had had a terrible war and we had a terrible relationship, and see if it wasn't possible to create something new. So I didn't know how it would turn out. I signed up to be one of the first American diplomats in 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, it took 25 years to do so, but in the early years, it was very exciting because every time we would go and meet somebody, it was the first time they'd met an American official in a couple of decades. And I thought it was one of the most interesting things I ever had an opportunity to do.
Tracie Yang (07:50):
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?
Amb. Ted Osius (08:05):
Well, maybe I'll answer the second question first. The two people who taught me the most were Leon Firth, who was National Security Advisor to Vice President Al Gore, and Cameron Hume, who was a four-time Chief of Mission diplomat for 42 years and my boss three times. They both are men of great integrity. It really starts with integrity and credibility, and your word is your bond. Once you say something, it has to matter. And I've known these men for many decades now. They tell the truth. They always tell the truth.
And Cameron in particular focused me on the significance of relationships. He said, diplomacy is all about relationships, and never forget that. 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.
Tracie Yang (09:26):
I think especially nowadays, there's a lot of cynicism around diplomacy and its importance. What do you say to that when you encounter that kind of negativity?
Amb. Ted Osius (09:38):
Well, I look back on 30 years as a diplomat and we were able to get things done. It's possible as a diplomat to make things happen. And I happen to have chosen a part of the world where I think it was particularly... the possibilities were particularly rich. I chose at the beginning of my diplomatic career to go to Asia because I thought, well, the story hasn't been written yet in Asia; the tectonic plates are still moving. We, individual diplomats, have a chance to make a difference. And it turns out that was right, that we did have a chance to make a difference in Vietnam and in other places where I had the privilege of serving. And we learned over the last couple of decades, that kind of the old models didn't really work. If you just rely on a web of alliances, that probably wasn't enough.
We also needed partnerships; powerful partnerships with countries where we might have big differences, but where a partnership could benefit both the United States and those countries. And I was lucky to work in India, when we were developing a comprehensive partnership and getting over a difficult past. And then in Indonesia, where we were developing a comprehensive partnership and dealing with a difficult past, and then in Vietnam, where we were developing and deepening a comprehensive partnership and getting over a very, very difficult past. So in each of those instances, the work of diplomats was crucial in creating opportunities for America to have a better future in Asia.
John Rieger (11:35):
Ambassador, in your case, effective diplomacy seems to have involved a lot of bicycling. Tell us a bit about your bicycle diplomacy.
Amb. Ted Osius (11:43):
Well, I really like to bike. So it really started from that. Just I enjoy biking. And on my first tour in Vietnam, I took a group of friends from Hanoi to Saigon. Nine of us got on bikes and biked to Saigon. It's about 1200 miles and it was so interesting and so much fun, and we learned so much about the country. It was a hard trip. I remember we had headwinds almost all the time and sometimes it was really hot, but it was beautiful and fascinating, and people were incredibly warm and welcoming to us. And so when I went back as ambassador many years later, I had by then the example of a good friend, Kathy Stevens, who's ambassador to Korea. And she and I liked biking together. And she said, Ted, you can still bike as an ambassador. 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 really interacting much with the population. Or if you're flying over a country rather than biking through it, 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. I took a group of people and we biked from Hanoi to Hue, which is about 600 miles. And another time we took a group and biked in the Northern most province of Hazan, and that's surrounded by China on three sides.
But the Mekong Delta, Ho Chi Minh City, the Central Highlands, the coast, we biked all over the place and it was effective. I was seen. Here I represented the United States of America, but I was seen as accessible and friendly. And I think it really helped as a diplomat to be able to show accessibility and friendliness and openness to learning about Vietnam. And it enabled me to show respect for the country, for its history, for the things that Vietnamese were concerned about; development, health, the environment. We used these bicycle trips to get out messages that I think made a difference.
Tracie Yang (14:28):
You're clearly fond of the Vietnamese people. And you say that they're fond of Americans. What is the source of [inaudible 00:14:36]?
Amb. Ted Osius (14:38):
You talked about diplomacy being mysterious. That's kind of a mysterious thing. My understanding, the best 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 so I think that's part of the motivation for this spirit of reconciliation, this openness to being friends with the former enemy. And just a short story, on that first bicycle trip I took from Hanoi to Saigon, I stopped on a bridge in the DMZ, the former DMZ; Quảng Trị province. And it's a bridge that spans what used to be the 17th parallel that used to divide North and South Vietnam.
And I looked out over the landscape and there were these ponds all over the place. And a woman slightly older started talking with me. And so I asked her in Vietnamese, why are there these funny shaped ponds? And she said, "Well, that's where the Americans dropped bombs." And she went on to explain that Americans had dropped bombs on her village, and killed members of our family. And I kind of felt, 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 work for the embassy. And she took a long look, and she said, [foreign language 00:17:01]. Today, you and I are brother and sister.
John Rieger (17:08):
What a story.
Amb. Ted Osius (17:09):
Yes. Well, in Vietnamese, these are very intimate terms. Instead of me being your excellency or something you'd say to a diplomat, I was little brother. And that, to me, exemplified that spirit of reconciliation. I was her little brother. So I told that story to the senators who confirmed me, because I wanted them to understand there was something about that spirit that I found everywhere in Vietnam. That willingness to go beyond the past and look toward a future.
John Rieger (17:47):
You've met, worked with and advised some great figures in both the US and Vietnam in your 30 year career.
Amb. Ted Osius (17:55):
John Rieger (17:56):
Tell us a bit about some of the people you've most admired.
Amb. Ted Osius (18:00):
Well, I really admire John McCain. As I mentioned earlier, he took enormous risks to bring peace to two countries that had had a terrible conflict. And he'd suffered. He'd been in the Hanoi Hilton or Hỏa Lò Prison, which translates as the fiery furnace.
John Rieger (18:25):
Really his outreach is as amazing as what came from the other side.
Amb. Ted Osius (18:28):
Yes, it is. It was. He had been tortured. He had suffered terribly for more than six years. He'd been in solitary confinement for two and a half years. He took, instead of just being bitter, he decided to be the champion of bringing our two countries together. And at great political and personal cost, I have no doubt that he knew it was the right thing to do for his country. So he was motivated by duty, by honor. These are old fashioned terms, but he believed in the United States, and he believed that we would be better off if we can reconcile with an old enemy and create a new partnership with an important country in Southeast Asia with a long border with China. And he provided political cover to a democratic president who was famously known as a draft dodger. I'm sure that took a lot of... I'm sure it was hard in some ways for him to provide that cover to Bill Clinton, but he did it. He did it.
He made it possible for Bill Clinton to bring about normal diplomatic relations between our two countries. And he had all the Republicans yelling at him and telling him not to help Bill Clinton on this, but he did it anyway because he thought it was the right thing to do. And there's one other person I would like to mention in this context, another former prisoner of war, and that is Pete Peterson. He was the first US ambassador to Vietnam. He also spent nearly seven years in the Hanoi Hilton, nearly seven years in prison. Was also tortured, and lived for six months eating just pumpkin and had a terrible existence there. But as he said, when he left that prison, he left his hate at the gate and he returned to Vietnam as the first ambassador to Vietnam, and he made peace.
And he was a wonderful boss, he's a wonderful man. He had endured a lot of difficulties in his life. He'd been shot down at a young age, spent all this time in prison. Lost a child, lost his wife and then he came to Vietnam, and he was so positive and so optimistic and so hopeful, he just transformed a relationship. And I really admire him so much, and so much of what I was able to do as ambassador I only could do because of Pete and what he had done and the foundation he had laid for a new relationship.
John Rieger (21:34):
In your book, you also speak admiringly of several figures in Vietnam. I wonder if you'd care to mention one or two of those?
Amb. Ted Osius (21:43):
Well, earlier I mentioned Nguyen Co Thach, who became foreign minister at a crucial point in the relationship. He took on enormous risks to bring our two countries together, and it was all based on friendship. He had this friendship with Bill Sullivan, he invited ambassador Sullivan to come to Vietnam. He opened up a dialogue that led to diplomatic relations. His son became foreign minister many, many years later, and is now deputy prime minister.
Nguyen Co Thach was a great diplomat and a man of great patriotism and integrity. So I admire him very, very much. I also described the work of a number of diplomats including Nguyen Vu Tung, who was ambassador to Korea and the Philippines. And I described some non officials, people like Thao Nguyen Griffiths who was a super connector who came to the United States on a Fulbright and then really has devoted her entire career to bringing our two countries together. And continues to do that even today. And someone who introduced me to so many interesting Vietnamese and showed me the best biking trails around Hanoi. She's a great, very avid bicyclist and was able to show me the way.
Tracie Yang (23:23):
So you are the father of two in a same sex, interracial marriage.
Amb. Ted Osius (23:28):
Tracie Yang (23:28):
How was your family received in Vietnam and how was it received in the US State Department, which has not always been tolerant of homosexuality?
Amb. Ted Osius (23:38):
Well, that's putting it mildly. When I first joined the tate department, we were being drummed out, systematically hunted down and driven out of the state department. There was a time when the diplomatic security was going to people's homes and their parents' homes and confronting parents and tracking down homosexuals and taking away their security clearances. And if you lose your security clearance, you can't work. And so a group of us, this is back during the administration of George H. W. Bush, we created an organization called GLIFAA or Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies. We just wanted to keep our jobs. And eventually Bill Clinton and Warren Christopher declared that there would not be discrimination based on sexual orientation. And so we were able to keep our jobs and then we started to advocate for our families, treat our families like other families.
And I met my husband, who later became my husband, at a GLIFAA business meeting, and this was 18 years ago. And at that time you just couldn't even imagine an out gay person becoming an ambassador, but yeah, I was able to become an ambassador and bring my husband and our two children to Vietnam. And I didn't initially know how we would be received. 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, dad's 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 a political action. We could show young Vietnamese that marriage equality had just become the law of the land. This was just after the Obergefell decision by the Supreme Court. And so we could show people, you can have marriage, love and a career, and be yourself, and it did that. And for the rest of our time, we're 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 (27:08):
Amb. Ted Osius (27:09):
But it was also a very intensely personal moment because here was Ruth Bader Ginsburg talking about what marriage means. And we had two little children. We had a one year old and a two year old. So, in the 10 years we were married, initially it was just about us, but by the time we renewed our wedding vows, it was about them. When you have children, marriage is as much as anything, about providing a space for those children to flourish. And so it meant more to us by the time we had a chance to meet Justice Ginsburg.
John Rieger (27:59):
You have been on the front lines of some great moments in history. In addition to these other aspects of your career, you were the first vice president of Fulbright University in Vietnam. It's a unique institution in that country and something of a diplomatic achievement in itself. Tell us... pardon me, my stomach is grumbling. Whoa, baby. Tell us the story of Fulbright University.
Amb. Ted Osius (28:32):
Well, it was founded by people who really understood that if you want long-term change, you need to educate people. And long term commitment to education is the best thing we could possibly do for Vietnam's future. So people like John Carey and Tommy Valley, a good friend of secretary Carey, who served with him in Vietnam and is still an educator at Harvard, now is chairman of the board of Fulbright University of Vietnam. Well, as ambassador, I worked really closely with them to create Fulbright University and against all odds, we managed to persuade the general secretary of the communist party to permit a US style university to be established in Vietnam, and he committed to academic freedom for that university. And this was a process. It took a number of years for this to happen, but I had helped bring the general secretary to the United States and he had had such a successful visit that he wanted to have a stronger relationship with the United States and he agreed to the establishment of this unique university.
And so when I left office, when I left the ambassadorship, I still wanted to contribute to the relationship. So I went to Fulbright University and helped get it going as its first vice president, because I so believed in this mission of giving young Vietnamese a place to experiment, to learn, to think freely, to fail sometimes, all the things that you can do at an American university where you're encouraged to engage in critical thinking and explore your interests. And that's what's happening in Fulbright. It's wonderful that young Vietnamese are able to pursue their passions and got to get liberal arts style education right there in Vietnam, where not all the courses are vetted by the communist party. They're learning what they want to learn and in a unique atmosphere for Vietnam. Now, it is not an American university. It's a Vietnamese university. So you can just imagine this may spread, this may take hold in Vietnam, and it may have an impact on other universities. I certainly hope so.
Tracie Yang (31:13):
After your departure from government, you joined Google Asia Pacific as vice president for government affairs and public policy, covering 19 Asian nations from Google, Singapore headquarters. Was it very different working with a private sector powerhouse like Google?
Amb. Ted Osius (31:31):
Well, I tell you, I thought it would be, I thought, well, it's a company, so they're going to be focused on quarterly profits and things that have never interested me in my time as a public servant. And it turns out it wasn't all that different. The mission of Google is to bring the world's information to everyone. And when we had high level discussions about what to do and what not to do in Asia, it was never really about money. It was always about what's the right thing to do. What would be helpful to democracy in this situation? What is helpful to the people who use Google's products, who get their information via Google products, it was constantly a discussion about what's the right thing to do.
How do we pursue our mission in a way that benefits people, that contributes to human progress? And so remarkably, at least for me, having come out of the public sector, it was very mission oriented, and the people in it were idealistic and committed to doing the right thing, and I loved it. It was a culture that I really, really enjoyed. I learned so much at Google and it was a fascinating time. I was based in Singapore, it was a good place for our family, and we really flourished at Google.
John Rieger (33:02):
Ambassador Osius, it's clear from your book that the US withdrawal from the trans pacific partnership was a bitter disappointment for you, and you retired from the foreign service shortly thereafter. What was at stake in the trans pacific partnership and what can still be salvaged, particularly in our relations with Vietnam?
Amb. Ted Osius (33:21):
Well, the trans pacific partnership was more than just a trade agreement. It was really a strategic agreement to offer nations in Asia opportunities to engage with the United States and with each other, and not to have their economies dominated by any one economy. And I think for the Vietnamese, it was a leap of faith to join the trans pacific partnership. And so when we withdrew, I felt like we'd drawn them out on a limb and then cut off the limb. So it was very painful. I'd worked on the trans pacific partnership by then for more than two years. And I believed that what we were doing was the right thing for the United States and the right thing for the nations of Asia that had decided to join us in this endeavor.
So I thought, we're going to see a huge reversal of relations. Well, we didn't, at least with Vietnam. The Vietnamese, as I've said, are very pragmatic. And they said, okay, well, if we don't have this, we're going to find other ways to deepen our economic partnership with the United States. And the relationship kept moving forward, even in those years after we withdrew from the TPP. And amazingly at this point, Vietnam is America's 10th largest trading partner. And when I was first there, we had about $800,000 a year in trade between Vietnam and the United States. And last year it was 111 billion. 30 years later, I don't know what percentage increase that is, but it's quite phenomenal. So we went from basically zero to becoming our 10th largest trading partner. And that's even before the Biden administration set up the Indo Pacific economic framework, I believe that that framework holds the potential to strengthen economic ties between the United States and the 13 nations that have joined the US in the framework, including Vietnam.
So Vietnamese have just plowed ahead and continued to work with us, continued to strengthen those economic ties. There are Vietnamese investments in the United States, as well as big American investments in Vietnam. There's enormous amount of trade and economic activity. I run a business council, the US Ossian business council now, and our members are intensely interested in Vietnam and the opportunities that Vietnam provides. And some of that is because they don't want to be overexposed in China, but a whole lot of it is because Vietnam itself has transformed itself into a very attractive country in which to invest and with which to trade. And I really give credit to the Vietnamese for all of that.
Tracie Yang (36:30):
Do you feel like the lessons of reconciliation that you learned in Vietnam can be applied anywhere else in US relations?
Amb. Ted Osius (36:39):
Well, I do. I think if you look at what we learned, well we learned that a well armed and motivated local force can defeat an adversary that may be much larger and more powerful if they can portray that adversary as a foreign invader, as a foreign influence. Well, that seems like a pretty relevant lesson if you look at Afghanistan, and even if you look at Russia and the Ukraine, but let's look at Afghanistan for a moment. The other lesson, I think that's very important is to recognize that we can't always change a nation, even with the best intent. We can't change a nation to our form of government and our approach to organizing oneself politically and socially, unless we're seen as the local authority. When you're seen as the foreigner, it becomes very hard.
And so whether you're Ho Chi Mihn is seizing the mantle of nationalism and saying, they're foreigners and Vietnam is for the Vietnamese, or whether you’re the Taliban saying that, it turns out to be more compelling than I think we wish it were. And I think if you're Vladimir Putin and you haven't studied the lessons of Vietnam, you might not know how strongly the Ukrainians are going to resist domination by a foreign power. So I think those are important lessons. And then the other lesson, I would say applies to many kinds of reconciliation, it's really important to know the history and the culture and the traditions of those with whom you are communicating. Look at our own, we have a lot of need for reconciliation in the United States.
If you're not willing to try to understand the other side, well, you're not going to have a lot of success in bringing those who are divided together. So I found it really important in Vietnam to do my best to understand the language and the people and the history and the culture of that country, so that I could make contributions and bring our countries closer together and bring about reconciliation.
Tracie Yang (39:22):
Asia Foundation trustee, and former US ambassador to Vietnam. Ted Osius. Thank you for joining us.
Amb. Ted Osius (39:29):
Thank you very much. Thank you, Tracie. And thank you, John.