Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Revisionist History

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, May 24, 2016 --  

America's foreign policy blunders can't be undone. Recognizing the mistakes can help the world move on.

President Obama's lifting of the ams embargo on America's one-time enemy in Hanoi,1 corrects an accident of history that has been let stand too long. Today, America and Vietnam are de-facto allies in the struggle against Chinese expansion, especially in the South China Sea. Selling American arms to Vietnam would further cement this alliance.

This alliance is based on shared interests. Both countries want to counter Chinese bullying of its neighbors, want free shipping in the South China Sea, and want to promote economic growth in Southeast Asia. Both countries have energetic populations famous for their commercial acumen, and eager to make money by working together.

These shared interests go back decades, but they were tragically ignored during the Vietnam War, when the countries tragically ended up on opposite sides. Both countries are at fault. Independence leader Ho Chi Minh's foolish Marxist ideas were in vogue at the time, but drove a wedge between him and the country that should have been his biggest ally. Meanwhile, America supported the French colonial overlords far longer than they should have, perhaps out of a sense of World War II camaraderie. This drove the Vietnamese independence movement into the hands of the Soviet Union, a horrible mistake that is taking decades to reverse.

Part of this reversal is the rumored reopening of the former Cam Ranh Bay naval base to U.S. warships2 in response to the lifting of the arms embargo. The base served as hone to the U.S. Navy when it was ruled by the Republic of South Vietnam, but was turned over to the Soviet Union after the fall of Saigon.

A return of American naval ships to Vietnam would serve to offset China's expansion to the neighboring South China Sea. Vietnam and China fought a short war over islands in the area in 1988, when China killed and ejected Vietnamese forces from islands in the area. More recently, the Chinese government has been applying landfill to expand small islands in the area, build runways and make a permanent military presence. This makes Vietnam understandably nervous. An American naval presence on both sides of the South China Sea (the U.S. Navy has already begun periodic stops at the former U.S. Subic Bay Naval Base int the Philippines.)3 will help ease those nerves.

Obama's visit to Vietnam is a symbolic act typical of American president's actions during their final year in office. His planned visit to a second historical hotspot, the site of the first atomic bombing in Hiroshima, will address another historical misdeed. Aides are quick to clarify that his Hiroshima visit is not about apologizing -- something that would be offensive to older Americans who lived through the Second World War.

But the White House knows that a Hiroshima visit will serve to reopen the debate of whether the bombing was justified. To younger Americans, this mass slaughter of civilians at Hiroshima was unjustifiable. (Although to be fair, it is no less outrageous than the conventional fire bombings of Tokyo and Dresden which killed even more civilians. Nor was it less outrageous than the mass killing of civilians by the Japanese in places like Nanking.)

To a president in his final year with limited opportunity to change policy, foreign visits that address painful moments of American history can be useful tools. Obama may not be able to rewrite what happened in Vietnam and Hiroshima, but easing a new generation's perception of past wrongs can similarly lead to a better future.

Related Web Columns:

Blood and Sand, May 20, 2014


1. Foreign Policy, Washington's Honeymoon in Cam Ranh Bay, May 23, 2016

2. Ibid.

3. Christian Science Monitor, US Navy Edges Back to Subic Bay in Philippines -- Under New Rules, November 12, 2015