Yesterday, former U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Ted Osius joined McCain Institute Media Fellow and Gray TV White House Correspondent Jon Decker for a conversation about his newest book, Nothing is Impossible: America’s Reconciliation with Vietnam. The conversation included stories and discussions about John McCain’s legacy in Vietnam, the difficult process of normalizing relations in the decades following the war, the significance of President Obama’s 2016 presidential visit to Hanoi, and the role Vietnam plays as a current geopolitical and strategic partner in Southeast Asia.
On this page, you can read a summary of our 5 Key Takeaways, or watch the full recorded event.
5 Key Takeaways
Ambassador Osius Honors John McCain on the 54th Anniversary of his Capture in Vietnam
“The way I really got to know John McCain, I went and called on him when I was about to be—I hoped—confirmed to be the sixth U.S. ambassador to Vietnam. And I knew when I went in that John McCain supported me, then I would become ambassador, and if he opposed my nomination then I wouldn’t become ambassador. He took me by the arm and walked me over to the wall in his office and showed me a framed telegram from the Paris Peace Talks where there was a sentence highlighted. It said ‘The warden in Hoa Lo Prison—the Hanoi Hilton—offered Admiral McCain’s son the chance to leave, and he didn’t.’ At the time, I wondered why he was showing me this line from that telegram and only later, reflecting on it, [I realized] he was telling me who he was. He was telling me about this key moment in his life where he made a patriotic decision that was most likely going to result in his death. Fortunately for all of us, it didn’t. But that was a pivotal choice that he made in his life that really shaped it going forward.”
Reconciliation Within the U.S. Led to Reconciliation with Vietnam
“In 1991, John McCain, a young, newly-elected senator was sitting on a plane to observe the results of Operation Desert Storm in Kuwait. And sitting across the aisle from him was John Kerry. McCain’s a republican, Kerry’s a democrat, they had very different experiences during the [Vietnam War], but they were sitting almost knee-to-knee on this congressional delegation flight. As John Kerry tells the story, they started a conversation that lasted all night, and then lasted another three decades because they became friends that night, and they decided that even though they saw the war so differently and had such different political experiences—McCain even campaigned against Kerry when Kerry was running for the senate in Massachusetts—they decided to make common cause on the issue of Vietnam. They decided it was good for America if we could turn an enemy into a friend. And they set out to prove a negative really hard. They had to prove that there were no longer any live Americans held in the tiger cages or otherwise held in Southeast Asia, and then that the Vietnamese would be helpful in the fullest possible accounting of those we’d lost in the war. This was a key, key issue for the United States. They set up a select committee on POW/MIA Affairs, they worked like dogs to prove this negative, and they were successful. They went to Vietnam many times. And they were the ones who made possible this reconciliation that I describe in my book, for two countries who had been adversaries to become friends and partners.”
The Push for Normalization of U.S.-Vietnamese Relations Came from Many Who had Reason to Oppose Reconciliation
“John McCain was a patriot above all. His own feelings, I’m sure, were very strong given what he’d been through. Pete Peterson, the first U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam—a man who’d also been a prisoner at Hua Lo Prison, who’d also eaten nothing but pumpkin for six months out of the year, who had also been tortured—he came out from the prison and said ‘I left my hate at the gate.’ I don’t know that Senator McCain left his hate at the gate, but I do know that he made a decision that was deeply patriotic, and it wasn’t about his feelings, it was about what was right for America.”
President Obama’s 2016 Presidential Visit to Vietnam was a Success for U.S.-Vietnamese Relations
“When President Obama came [to Vietnam] in 2016, there were literally a million people out on the streets to see his motorcade and welcome him. He said in his then seven years as president, there had only been one other trip where he had received as warm a welcome. He really liked [Vietnam], and so he did all these things that you don’t really expect the U.S. president to do. He interviewed young entrepreneurs, he had a town hall meeting with young people. This is actually very hard for the Vietnamese leadership to embrace because they want set-piece meetings, each of the leaders, and they don’t really want anything else. But we negotiated, and we said ‘You’ll have the meetings with all of the leaders, but what our president wants is to really learn something about the country.’ And they were quite surprised that he had bun cha with Anthony Bourdain—this is a simple meal of noodles and beer, $6 for both of them, two beers each, at a simple shop in Hanoi. He did that rather than a big state dinner…and the Vietnamese people loved it. They loved that he enjoyed their cuisine and that he was doing something simple, something that other Vietnamese citizens would do, and it was one of the highlights of the trip…Even though he highlighted our differences [in his speeches], he showed respect to Vietnamese history and culture.”
Vietnam Remains A Crucial Strategic Partnership in Southeast Asia
“My take is that the Biden Administration sees [Vietnam] as incredibly important. When people started to travel again at senior levels, Lloyd Austin, Secretary of Defense, he went to Vietnam. Kamala Harris, Vice President, on her second overseas trip went to Vietnam. They kept moving forward in these critical areas like health collaboration and collaboration on the environment. The Administration has provided support to Vietnam for recovering from Covid, with six million vaccines or more. Today, the U.S. president participated in the U.S.-ASEAN Summit and emphasized health collaboration, and economic collaboration, and work together on the environment and the energy transition. So, my belief is that they’re moving forward, and that there’s a deep understanding of Vietnam within Southeast Asia as an important regional player, an important partner for the United States.”