US-Vietnamese Relations, a Primer for Things to Come with Cuba? By Ryan Alexander Payne
Breakfast in Vietnam started the way you might expect for just having flown to the other side of the world: jetlagged and ravenous. Somewhere through my first bowl of in-country pho, I noticed the large plasma TV in the hotel restaurant showing off its fancy meeting rooms, roof-top pool, and hilariously cheap massages (while in reality they were as cheap as advertised, there were also “less formal.”) One slide caught my eye. The building I was staying in, ironically called The Victory Hotel, was in fact constructed as CIA family housing for the Saigon station. Remember this iconic photo:
Apparently, this happened just down the block from The Victory Hotel. How little time had passed from the pictured time to the time when any fool can stay in the old CIA station housing.
Here are two more telling photos:
In the first, John Kerry, a veteran of the US-Vietnam conflict who also happens to be the US Secretary of State is celebrating 20 years of renewed diplomatic relations with Vietnam; the second shows the same veteran opening the US Embassy in Havana, Cuba signaling the normalization of diplomatic relations with Cuba.
I couldn’t help but wonder if the US-Vietnam history and relational restoration would provide a roadmap for the future of US-Cuban relations. Well wouldn’t you know, we had a trip planned to the US Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, the first in Vietnam to be re-opened!
We met with two educated, polished, well-spoken, and savvy young diplomats who helped me to further understand both the history and the trajectory of US-Vietnamese relations. Most notable, in the inspiring-faith-in-humanity sort of way, is that not only the rapid reconstruction and repair to pre-war status but also the ties and relationship which have grown beyond that are attributable to “legacy war issues.” The very issues which drove us apart and marked some of the greatest atrocities in the human race were the very impetus which would bring us together. The very fact that the United States and Vietnam had to confront together the issues of prisoners of war, effects of agent orange on both US and Vietnamese citizens, war crimes, etc. created a dialogue and a critical minimum of trust on which to base future relations.
A second, albeit less romantic, impetus for the rapid growth in US-Vietnamese relations exists in a common “frenemy”, namely China. Vietnam, as a smallish ASEAN country, has a vested interest in remaining on positive terms with a world power such as the US who views China with similar wariness. Alternatively, the United States finds solace in a militarily strong ally on China’s doorstep. These different but mutual interests have effectively sped up the repair and growth of US-Vietnamese relations.
To my great elation, even without prompt, one of the diplomats suggested with interest and eagerness she will watch the unfolding of US-Cuba relations. The United States and Cuba have “legacy war issues” such as property takings and reparations, the US military presence in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and the serious issues of both immigration as well as exile. What remains to be seen is whether the presence of a strong, divisive player, such as China, a naturally Communist ally of Cuba, will overcome the proximity of the US and potential profitability of normalized US-Cuba trade relations.