A festive atmosphere is quickly looming in Vietnam as the April 30 "end of the war celebration" is gathering momentum. It's the 25th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, the crown jewel for the North's victory over the South Vietnam/U.S. alliance. Street marches, fireworks and national music are anticipated in Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi and the rest of the country.
Earlier this year William Cohen, Assistant U.S. Secretary of State paid a visit to Vietnam, accompanied by high-ranking officials. Cohen's visit was indeed a historic one. While the United States' quest to strengthen ties with Asia is top priority to the American administration, the case of Vietnam has been an exception, evidently as a result of the war.
Despite the United States' ambiguous and intelligently put-together phrases of how "it's time to put the past behind and look into the future," the American haste to normalize relations with Vietnam is in the least puzzling.
Is the United States' government truly looking for closure as it appears from many officials' proclamations?
Coming to terms with the past requires much more than words. Regardless of who is seeking the redemption of past wounds, individuals, governments, or nations, a fundamental change of outlook on life, policy making and ideology reformation is required. Instead, William Cohen told reporters travelling with him in the four-nation Asia tour just one day before arriving in Hanoi, "I don't intent to go into any apologies, certainly, for the war itself."
The most offered by the US thus far in regards to its past policies and atrocities in Vietnam has been acceptance of the fact that the war has left scars on the memories of both nations. Unfortunately, here is yet another false statement. No one can dare deny the families of 58,000 American troops killed in the Vietnam War the right to grieve over the loss of their loved ones. But even such a loss can hardly justify the barbarous war against a nation crushed by colonialism and devastated by poverty. Moreover, the death of 3 million Vietnamese, mainly civilians is far more scarring than the death of a small number of soldiers.
Despite the fact that 25 years have passed since the end of the war, the Vietnamese victimization is hardly over. For Americans, the war is a thing of the past. For Vietnamese, the price of the war will be paid for many years to come. When US forces departed, the shattered, yet victorious country, it left behind millions of gallons of a chemical defoliant called Agent Orange.
So far, an estimated 1 million Vietnamese have been victimized by the lethal chemicals. For Vietnam, the war is nothing of the past, it is a bleeding wound for many years to come.
But is it true that Cohen's visit was in part a search for missing remains of soldiers? Isn't such a mission usually handled by unknown experts, through embassies over long periods of time? Although it is typical in American foreign policy that when sudden and unexpected efforts are exerted to enhance relations with estranged countries, the motives are likely to be economic interest, profits, a search for new markets, or securing natural resources. Cohen's visit however is unlikely an outcome of such an effort.
By no means is the above statement attempting to establish that the US is abandoning its foreign policy strategy. Such missions, however, are often conducted by the Secretary of Commerce, Energy, or even the President himself, but hardly by the Secretary of Defense.
The recent Chinese threats to re-occupy Taiwan have certainly caused substantial worry among US administration, who is fearing that China, while maintaining a substantial economic growth and a powerful military presence in the region is undermining its own interests in South East Asia. Vietnam is a prefect candidate to reinforce the United States' power and influence in that part of the world.
Many were betting that Vietnam's economic growth will soon match Singapore, Malaysia and others in the region. Little growth has evidently happened, as seasons of unstable weather and the crash of the Asian market kept Vietnam with the same old status, a cheap labor market. Slowly but surely, Vietnam is realizing the need for US backing on its quest to enter the competitive Asian market. But what has qualified Vietnam the most to play the role hoped for by the US is the fact that Vietnam and China are still engaging in a mini cold war, caused by border disputes and fresh history of Chinese military attacks of 4 Vietnamese border provinces.
The United States has little interest in healing the wounds of the past and looking for a bright and cheerful future. How could such claims be genuine if it is still using similar war tactics in Iraq, including the use of chemical agents (in particular depleted uranium)?
Some are dragged into courts for war crimes committed against civilians. Although If these crimes were compared to those committed against Vietnamese civilians, they would be considered marginal. Meanwhile many war criminals are still at large, decorated as heroes. If the US finds the millions of Vietnamese war victims worthy as human beings, viewed on the same scale as its own people, apologies might be in place. But it doesn't. Yes, the US Secretary of Defense's visit to Vietnam is historical, technically. But atrocities directed at the most innocent humans, unarmed civilians, proves that nothing about US foreign policy has changed at all.