About the Author: Angela Wyse serves on the Vietnam Desk in the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs.
In July 1995, President Bill Clinton announced the normalization of U.S.-Vietnam diplomatic relations. Wednesday night, the former President joined Senator John Kerry, Senator John McCain, and Representative Eni Faleomavaega -- three Vietnam veterans and key players in the normalization process -- at a reception to celebrate fifteen years of deepening cooperation between the United States and Vietnam. The event, which was co-hosted by Vietnamese Ambassador Le Cong Phung and Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell, drew over three hundred people, including senior U.S. and Vietnamese officials, local businesspeople, and citizens of both countries.
As a Pickering Fellow working on the Vietnam Desk this summer, I helped organize this reception. Planning the event was both educational and satisfying. I learned about event planning and State Department protocol (for example, I can now tell you -- in precise terms -- how to book a military band, and exactly when and how it is acceptable to use the State Department seal), and I practiced cross-cultural communication while coordinating with my Vietnam Embassy counterparts. As the culmination of weeks of hard work, Wednesday's ceremony was a highlight of my summer experience.
As I settled down that night to enjoy the speeches, I finally had a moment to reflect on the significance of this 15th anniversary, and the remarkable story that is the history of U.S.-Vietnam relations. When I tell people from my parents' and grandparents' generations that I am working on Vietnam issues, the conversation often travels back to the 1960's and 70's. As Vietnam veterans, Senators Kerry and McCain and Congressman Faleomavaega spent a few moments at the reception reflecting on their own wartime experiences. In spite of the painful memories associated with that conflict, the Senators, Congressman, and former President all emphasized the importance of moving forward together towards the opportunities and challenges of the future.
As Senator Kerry noted, many Americans and Vietnamese living today have never known a day when our countries weren't at peace. He added, "For Americans today, Vietnam is not just a war. But it's not just a country, either. Thanks to your efforts, Vietnam, this former enemy is now a friend." I was six years old when the United States and Vietnam normalized relations. The only U.S.-Vietnam relationship I have ever known is one of increasing cooperation on number of forward-looking issues, such as nonproliferation, health, security, and climate change, as well as frank and constructive dialogue of issues where we disagree, such as human rights.
In my opinion, one of the most important areas of growing U.S.-Vietnam cooperation is education. Ambassador Michalak in Vietnam has placed high priority on this area, and the number of students from Vietnam in the United States has grown from 800 to over 13,000 in the last fifteen years. The number of American students in Vietnam is increasing, too. As a former exchange student, I strongly believe in the value of such programs for promoting mutual understanding, and I believe that our cooperation in this area is laying the foundation for even stronger ties between future generations of Americans and Vietnamese.
Because of my fellowship, I will join the Foreign Service after graduate school. As a future Foreign Service Officer -- and a member of the post-normalization generation -- I look forward to watching the U.S.-Vietnam relationship continue to grow and deepen in the coming years. As Senator McCain said on Wednesday night: "If you live long enough, almost anything is possible."