The transformation of relations between the United States and Vietnam must seem almost unimaginable to those Americans who lived through the war, a tumultuous period in American history. But as the Times' Susan Taylor Martin reported recently from Ho Chi Minh City, 40 years is a long time — enough, at least, for the two former enemies to begin building a relationship through tourism and business ties and an ongoing diplomatic dialogue. The lesson should not be lost in the current tensions with Iraq, Iran, North Korea and Cuba.
Martin chronicled the fascinating changes taking place in Vietnam since the end of a war that killed 58,000 Americans and 3-million to 5-million Vietnamese. She wrote: "Young Vietnamese watch Wheel of Fortune and vote on their cell phones for their favorite singers on Vietnam Idol. The country's beaches are flush with stunning new resorts," including one at a former U.S. base that will host the next Miss Universe pageant. And in the former Saigon, "legions of tourists browse boutiques with Gucci purses and Fendi footwear."
A war that divided both countries and shaped this nation's political thinking has given way to a bilateral relationship that has every prospect of growing. While the communist government banned private enterprise in the south after reunification, the same government introduced free-market reforms in the 1980s that led to President Bill Clinton lifting the trade embargo and to the normalization of relations between the two nations in 1995. Trade deals followed, along with investment by firms seeking cheap labor. Vietnam's 86-million people are not only literate but are a growing consumer market in a nation relatively free of crime, ethnic division and external security threats.
Some fundamental differences remain. Vietnam is an authoritarian state. Its people lack free elections, a free press and freedom to assemble. The economy and political system are rife with corruption. The government wields a heavy hand against dissidents and "offensive" speech, and as U.S. Ambassador Michael Michalak told Martin: "We have significant issues on human rights."
However, the ambassador was right to point out: "At least we have been able to engage with them." It helps that 60 percent of the Vietnamese were born after the war. But it's not only Vietnam making a fresh start. Hundreds of U.S. companies operate there, and growing numbers of visitors — 30,000 in May — are Americans. U.S. officials and diplomats, Martin reports, say the Vietnamese are genuinely warm toward Americans, which shows the value of people meeting one-on-one.
The changing attitudes in and about Vietnam underscore the wrong-headedness of the U.S. isolation of Cuba. Trade, tourism and normal diplomatic ties cannot paper over major political differences. But they are tools, in Vietnam and elsewhere, that can increase America's standing and influence in pressing for democratic change. If that can happen in Asia, we should at least try it 90 miles off the coast.