HANOI, Vietnam—It has been 50 years since President John F. Kennedy ordered U.S. "advisers" to South Vietnam to help battle the Communist North and 37 years since the end of that divisive war and the country's unification under communism.
Today, Vietnam is fighting a war with itself.
A local TV program reminds a visitor of Chinese propaganda "operas" circa 1970. Performers, some wearing military garb with a backdrop of missiles and an American B-52 bomber going down in flames, commemorate the 1972 Christmas bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong ordered by President Richard Nixon. Banners and posters in the streets reinforce the government's history lesson.
Younger people, who substantially outnumber the old guard, seem mostly indifferent to these messages, because few lived through the war. An American official tells me just 4 percent of the population belongs to the Communist Party.
While there are large pockets of poverty between and even within major cities like Ho Chi Minh City, Da Nang, and Hanoi, prosperity is making inroads. The one-year-old Da Nang airport is more modern than some U.S. airports. Luxury hotels, clothing stores, and restaurants abound. While many cater to foreign travelers, many locals wear stylish Western clothes and transport themselves on motorbikes and in cars. Twenty years ago, the primary mode of transportation was the bicycle.
Vietnam eagerly wants to conclude a trade agreement with the United States known as TPP. Among other things, it would allow for more capital investment here and more Vietnamese goods to be sold in the United States. Deputy Foreign Minister Nguyen Phuong Nga tells me that since normalization of relations in 1995, the United States has become the "eighth-biggest foreign investor in Vietnam," totaling $10 billion.
U.S. officials say human rights issues, including more religious freedom, are holding up American approval of the new trade deal. I asked Madame Nga about this and the recent sentencing of three bloggers to between four and 12 years in prison for criticizing the government.
She deflects the question by noting press criticism of government corruption (true) and claims people have freedom of speech so long as they do not cause "harm," a word open to interpretation in a one-party state.
Vietnam recently opened two new areas to exploration for the bodies of American soldiers missing in action. Madame Nga says Vietnam has "actively worked with and supported the U.S. in finding the MIAs during the last 20 years," but notes that on the Vietnamese side "about 3 million MIAs remain to be found." She also says "there are more than 3 million Vietnamese known as victims of Agent Orange … while thousands of hectares of land are contaminated with dioxin." She adds her appreciation for money provided by Congress to help victims and clean land, but she says more is needed.
As in many other one-party states, the internet remains a powerful counterforce to managed information. The U.S. Embassy provides, and the government mostly allows, an information center where students and others can log onto iPads and search for information that is often counter to the government line.
The old guard remains suspicious about American objectives, seeing economic and political liberalization as a strategy to achieve among the Vietnamese people what America failed to in pursuing their "hearts and minds" in the war.
Professor Carlyle A. Thayer of the University of New South Wales, an expert on Vietnam, said recently, "Vietnam is motivated to keep the U.S. engaged in Southeast Asia, and the South China Sea in particular, as a balance to China," which claims some territorial rights in conflict with Vietnam and is a formidable economic and military power on its northern border.
Vietnam is in transition, and it is unrealistic to expect too much progress too quickly. Considering where it was when the United States left in 1975, the country appears to be inching in a positive direction. Those Americans who died here left behind the seeds of democracy, capitalism, and a desire for prosperity and freedom. Whatever one's view of that war, it can be said they did not die in vain.