It was no coincidence that President Ho Chi Minh, at the beginning of Vietnam’s Declaration of Independence, which he gave on September 2nd 1945, had taken a quote from the American Declaration of Independence from 1776: “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It was also on that first day of independence that Minister of Home Affairs Vo Nguyen Giap, in his speech, made it crystal clear that Vietnam’s foreign policy was to be “friendly to all nations”, and that Vietnam’s relationship with China and the US were “special.”

We can see, through only the instances above, how the leadership of the then green Vietnamese government’s respect for the great ideas of colonial America’s revolution, and their wish for an important relationship with the US and other great nations (and they desired also for said nations’ reciprocation and commitment to their proclamations). These sentiments toward the US had been oft expressed in President Ho Chi Minh’s letters to the American presidents and secretaries of state in the years 1945/46, accompanied by invitations for mutual diplomatic recognition and cooperation, particularly in cultural and education exchange.

Following said policy, on Oct 17th 1945, not long after Vietnam’s Independence Day, the new Government of Vietnam had allowed for the establishment of “Vietnam-America Friendship Association”, Vietnam’s first friendship organization with a foreign entity, and the publication of V.A.F.A REVIEW in two languages, Vietnamese and English, on the decision signed on 10/31/1945 by the Department of Home Affairs. 

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President Ho Chi Minh (standing, third from left) and General Vo Nguyen Giap (in a white suit) are shown with an OSS team in 1945 

Regrettably, the history of Vietnam-US relations had not happened to Vietnam’s great expectations. Obsessed with the Cold War mentality, not only did the US Government not recognize the independent state of Vietnam, but it also gave the French aid to return and occupy Vietnam, and had since 1945, directly interfered with Vietnamese affairs, leading up to the single most violent war of the 20th century.

In spite of everything, the flame of relationship between the people of the two nations was smoldering and burning higher and higher even during the dire years of the war. Experiences of citizen diplomacy from our time of struggle against the French and the first few years of the new government had been most enthusiastically brought into play. Vietnam’s modern citizen diplomacy was pioneered by Leader Ho Chi Minh. During all the years throughout Vietnam’s resistance/liberation period, he had bodied miscellaneous activities via communication channels with different peoples and NGO’s, diversified the forms and means of activities in accordance with the expansion of military power and the international conditions, and state of affairs in the “mother countries.”

In the age of war against the US, along with the operations of Vietnam’s Peace Protection Commission, Asia-Africa United Citizens Committee, and Peace Protection Esperanto Association, the founding of Vietnam United with American Citizens Commission (Viet-US Commission in short) as an envoy organization suitable for wartimes, had played an important role in promoting “the war within America”. Vietnam-US Commission was the connection between Vietnam and all of America’s anti-war organizations, communities, and individuals. It had made great efforts to expand its reach to all of American social classes, welcoming hundreds of parties and individuals to Vietnam to raise American’s awareness of the truth about the war, signalizing the justice and humanism of Vietnam’s resistance cause, and reinforcing our unity with American progressive forces and any and all possible American ally. Vietnam-US Commission’s domestic and international coordination of meetings, conferences, communicative exchanges for the people’s unity and amity, and for peace and anti-war struggles, had made an impact on the anti-war movement in the US as well as the entire world. Those operations had had a key role in the realization of “the battlefield within America” and the world’s unity with Vietnam against the war. It was a diplomatic “feat” for Vietnam as no other people’s resistance against foreign power had received such widespread and profound support from the people of the world.

After 1975, Vietnam-US relations still had a long and complicated 20-year-long way to go before the normalization in 1995, when the two nations established formal diplomatic ties. In the years of the US’s sanctions against Vietnam, citizen diplomacy continued its essential contributions to the process of contact and reconciliation, and ultimately the normalization and development of Vietnam-US relations. “Heart to heart” activities between the citizens of the two nations through cultural, education, and science exchanges, and philanthropic activism by veterans and NGO’s, etc. had gradually conveyed the people’s strong desire for healing, reconciliation, and unity. Following this, the change from Vietnam-US Commission to Vietnam-US Society in 1992 had helped to promote even further the positive changes in Vietnam-US exchange.

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US Ambassador to Việt Nam Daniel Kritenbrink receives medical supplies from Associate Professor Nguyễn Thị Xuân Thu, Chairwoman of the Việt Nam Red Cross Society, at a ceremony held in Hà Nội

This year, the two nations commemorate 25 years of the establishment of our diplomatic relationship (1996-2020). It is impossible to ignore Vietnam’s continuous efforts toward America in the decades before our formal relationship. If when we were first independent, President Ho only wanted to send 50 Vietnamese students to the US to study technology and return to serve the development of our country Vietnam, the number is now 30,000 people; the number of American visitors to Vietnam in the years before the mediation being in the hundreds has now reached 7,000 to 8,000 people per year; instead of “increasing cooperation in various fields”, the relationship between Vietnam and the US is now a “complete partnership”.

Vietnam’s diplomacy in general and citizen diplomacy in particular draws its strength from Vietnamese culture, which had helped Vietnam to have foresight, to figure out the right code of conduct, and to conquer all trials on our upward trek. The country of Vietnam had reciprocated the most dire challenges with a glorious resistance in which “no one and nothing (that had passed) shall ever be forgotten”. However, looking back to our 75 years of citizen diplomacy with America, it is easy to see that never has the US-Vietnam relationship through civilian channels been as fortuitous for expansion, and ripe to provide benefits to the peace and prosperity of the citizens of Vietnam and America.

The root of all our international activism successes is the strength of the Vietnamese Civilization. Continuing the tradition of our ancestors: “conquering cruelty with humanity, defeating violence with virtue”, “Fair diplomacy” of the age of Ho Chi Minh has flourished to new heights, especially in our relationship with the US. 

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Ambassador Nguyen Tam Chien, Chairman of the Vietnam - USA Society (R) presents the For Peace and Friendship among Nations insignia to Paul Cox, a founder of VFP Chapter 69 and Hoa Binh (Vietnam) Chapter 160

In the last 75 years, that fair diplomacy has not failed to utilize every opportunity to be proactive in our international relationships. Since the days of Viet Minh Coalition, Ho President had given medical treatment to American pilots shot down by the Japanese in Viet Bac, and returned them in the name of altruism to initiate direct contact with the US and the anti-fascist Allies. In the years of US sanctions and siege, the Vietnamese had been compassionate, forgiving, and magnanimous in their cooperation efforts to find MIA American soldiers despite the hundreds of thousands Vietnamese children, soldiers, who had disappeared without a clue. The nation of Vietnam had countless adversities yet to overcome after the gruesome war, still we gave a hand to our neighbor Cambodia against their plague of genocide, although enemy forces did their unjustified best to isolate Vietnam for over ten years… The lessons we use to overcome this myriad of challenges and achieve success can all be found in the idea and style of Vietnam’s fair diplomacy, of Ho Chi Minh’s diplomacy.

Many Americans say the US did not understand the Vietnamese. Even from all those years of Vietnam’s toils against invasion, American did not fully comprehend the Vietnamese’ patriotism and will to win back our independence, our freedom. Mr. H. Kissinger, a diplomat all his life, having shared one too many memories with Vietnam, had made a comment in his private conference with President Trump in 2018: “The Vietnamese are a special people… (if the US) consider them the enemy, there would not be much to be gained… (the US) should respect their autonomy… (the US) should build a special relationship with them (Vietnam)...”. 

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We Vietnamese do not like to consider ourselves special and always want to build good and normalized relationships with all the peoples of the world, especially with the US and other powerful nations at the center of international relations. Citizen diplomacy’s place in Vietnam’s aforementioned diplomatic operations of the new age becomes more and more significant. Evidently, the civilian channel with the US specifically, the focus is to continue promoting more profound reconciliation, and pushing for mutually beneficial cooperation in all areas with different peoples of America in every locality, in order to together build a friendly, cooperative and enduring Vietnam-US relationship.

Ambassador Nguyen Tam Chien, President of Vietnam – USA Society