Nothing is Impossible: America’s Reconciliation with Vietnam, Ted Osius, Foreword John Kerry. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2021.
Summary: A memoir by former U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam, Ted Osius, describing how a former enemy became one of America’s strongest international partners, and the important role diplomacy played to bring that about.
The story begins with a conversation between two Vietnam veterans on a flight to Kuwait. John McCain, a prisoner of war in Vietnam for six years was sitting with John Kerry, a swift boat captain, highly decorated for his actions in an ambush and later reviled for his testimony questioning America’s war aims. Senators from two different parties began talking about getting accounting of POW/MIA servicemen and the restoration of relations with Vietnam that would facilitate that accounting. Their collaboration led to the passage of a measure re-establishing formal relations during the Clinton administration.
That was just the beginning of rebuilding the trust between these two countries shattered by war. This memoir by former U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam, Ted Osius, gives an account of the diplomatic work that has led to Vietnam now being a strong international partner of the United States, resulting in the recovery of remains of many of those missing in action, cleanup of dioxin sites, honoring of the dead who fought with the U.S. as well as establishing vital trade, defense, and environmental collaboration..
Ted Osius was working in the State Department when the mission was established in Vietnam that preceded full diplomatic relations, working with charge’ d’affaires Desaix Anderson as a junior political officer. His work involved establishing everything from military exchanges to assisting Americans in Vietnam when they needed help. He learned the language of Vietnam, and as a cycling enthusiast, toured the country on bicycle, a practice he continued as ambassador, for the access it gave him to ordinary people. His friendship with John Kerry began when they toured part of the country on bikes. When Pete Peterson, a former POW, became ambassador, he told the team: “You’ll get it right 98 percent of the time. As for the other 2 percent, I’ll eat it!” He urged them to take risks and build a new relationship with Vietnam.
A big part of his work, and a theme running through his efforts, was working with the Vietnamese to establish U.S. and global trade relationships. This involved delicate and ongoing negotiations about labor conditions (a major breakthrough came with reforms at a Nike factory) and human rights. They also began the effort to addressing POW/MIA accounting, and for the Vietnamese, the cleanup of dioxin sites, dioxin a chemical used to clear brush that caused numerous birth defects and other health problems. Another theme was developing a collaboration to counter China’s growing regional influence.
Later, in the Bush administration, he served as a science officer, helping with environmental issues on the Mekong River, with disease prevention (including SARS, which led to Vietnam’s strong public health response to COVID-19). His return to the U.S. brought him in contact with other U.S diplomats who were gay including his husband Clayton Bond. When the ambassador role to Vietnam came open in 2012, around the time of the Obama administration’s shift on marriage equality, it became a serious option to pursue the appointment to Vietnam, the country he had come to love. It took until 2014 but he was appointed.
The latter part of the book describes his bicycle diplomacy and the trust that was built through respecting Vietnamese cultural traditions including releasing carp on the Day of the Kitchen Gods. He worked with the country and U.S. experts in clearing unexploded ordinance from the war and on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. One of the major efforts was to negotiate with Vietnam’s leadership for TPP membership, which would open up the country to global trade. He helped arrange a visit of the party secretary to Washington, and an eventual visit of President Obama to Vietnam, as well as a visit of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. He participated in the establishment of a Fulbright University in Vietnam. And he was able to find a way to renovate the Bien Hoa Cemetery, where many South Vietnamese soldiers were bury in a neglected burial ground, an important desire of Vietnamese-American ex-pats, but politically sensitive.
He stayed into the early Trump administration, when his advice differed from administration priorities, resulting in a sudden replacement. Shortly afterwards, Osius retired from the State Department.
The memoir is an education in the work of an effective ambassador, both representing American policy with due diligence, supporting American business interests and caring for American citizens in country while building respect and trust in the host country. Osius’s willingness to learn the language, cycle the country, honor cultural practices and places, and listen carefully to high officials led to working on military, economic, environmental, and human rights issues. Vietnam became an important partner as both the U.S. and Vietnam faced a growing Chinese presence in the South China Sea. Osius learned and respected the David and Goliath history of Vietnam, that included its defeat of the U.S. in conflict. He learned that we get farther honoring David than reprising Goliath.
Vietnam still honors human rights in the breach but Osius could point to progress. The government is Communist, a single party dominating the government. But during the twenty-year period the book covers, one sees how two former adversaries could develop amicable relations while remaining different. They could work on common interests and try to persuade the other where they differ, while benefiting the people of both countries. That is diplomatic work at its best. Would that it were so everywhere!
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book via Edelweiss from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.