Twenty-two years after the late Sen. John McCain returned home from Vietnam — by his account, a better man than when he had arrived — he sat in the Oval Office urging an American president who had avoided service in the war to establish diplomatic and economic relations with our former enemy.
“It doesn’t matter to me anymore,” McCain (R-Ariz.) told Bill Clinton, “who was for the war and who was against it. I’m tired of looking back in anger, and I’m tired of America looking back in anger. It’s time to put the past behind us, Mr. President, and do what’s right for both countries.”
McCain had worked toward that end with former Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and other Vietnam War veterans in Congress, and with the late Gen. John Vessey, the president’s special emissary to Vietnam, for the better part of five years. In the process, they helped persuade the Vietnamese government to cooperate fully in efforts to account for Americans still missing from the war, and convinced the American people that our interests and values would be better served by the pursuit of friendship with our former foe, rather than with continued enmity.
“Let us test the proposition that greater exposure to Americans will render Vietnam more susceptible to the influence of our values,” McCain argued on the Senate floor and in the opinion pages of the Washington Post.
McCain’s path to that proposal had begun 10 years earlier when he visited Vietnam for the first time after the war, with legendary broadcast journalist Walter Cronkite. Upon his return from that trip, McCain and his friend and fellow veteran, former Pennsylvania governor and Homeland Security secretary Tom Ridge, proposed opening interest sections in each country’s capital.
He persisted through setbacks and misunderstandings in Hanoi and Washington, despite opposition from some colleagues and supporters, and attacks on his reputation by con artists and conspiracy mongers, and over the reluctance of American and Vietnamese officials who were reluctant to risk political capital for the sake of a better future. But in time, the cause drew presidents, party secretaries, other members of Congress and war veterans to its side.
McCain’s leadership was visionary but clear-eyed, steadfast, and based upon a conception of a future that would benefit both peoples, rather than a plan to settle old grievances. He and like-minded advocates in the U.S. and Vietnam started a new chapter in the history of relations between our two countries that would encourage subsequent generations to rewrite the book on our relations — from their hopeful, if wary, beginnings to a growing partnership.
What McCain wrote in 1995 has come true: “It is … absolutely in our national security interests to have an economically viable Vietnam strong enough to resist, in concert with its neighbors, the heavy-handed tactics of its great power neighbor. That reason, more than any other, urges the normalization of our relations and makes Vietnam’s membership in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations [ASEAN], and the increasingly responsible role Hanoi is playing in regional affairs, a very welcome development.”
The five-day visit of the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier to Da Nang in 2018, during a period of heightened tension in the Indo-Pacific region, speaks for itself in this regard. So does Vietnam’s productive term as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council through 2021, and as ASEAN chair throughout 2020.
We’ve seen more than security cooperation come out of normalization: bilateral agreements for POW-MIA accountability, and trade between our countries that has grown from $451 million in 1995 to $62.6 billion in 2018. We’ve provided disaster relief to Vietnam, cooperated in energy development, and produced remarkable results from research and higher education exchanges.
This progress, in turn, has led to real breakthroughs on the human rights front, specifically in the area of labor rights. To be clear, that progress is nowhere near John McCain’s hopeful vision for the Vietnamese people to live in freedom and equal justice. But it is progress. Official dialogues on labor and human rights continue annually. Were he still with us, McCain would demand that we do more — and do it faster. But he would not have lost faith in the proposition that our friendship with Vietnam will advance the ideals we advocate more surely than continued hostility would have.
Respecting human dignity, forging against long odds a better future for former adversaries, overcoming old enmities and discredited policies, having the character to move past the debilitating wounds of war — that is John McCain’s legacy. Today, as we celebrate 25 years of improved relations and growing friendship with Vietnam, we should recognize it’s our legacy as well, and one where our interests and our most cherished values will remain central and determinative.