About the Author: John M. Carland is a Senior Historian in the Office of the Historian, and coordinated the "Conference on the American Experience in Southeast Asia, 1946-1975."
The Office of the Historian recently mounted the biggest event in its history: a Conference on the American Experience in Southeast Asia, 1946-1975. It was an amazing success. In her remarks at the conference, Secretary Clinton said, “I have looked at the program. It is quite international. We have experts not just from Vietnam and the United States, but from universities around the world. And we appreciate greatly the efforts that everyone has made led by our historians here in the State Department, not only to put on this conference, but to help us come to terms with our own history.”
As the conference itself recedes into history, a few points about its origin and development might be made. In the spring of 2009, it became clear that we would likely complete our multi-volume documentary history -- a sub-series in the Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series--on United States policy in Indochina/Vietnam from 1946 to 1975 sometime in the second half of 2010. This sub-series would consist of more than two dozen FRUS volumes and contain about 24,500 pages of documents, including thousands of messages, memos, memcons, intelligence reports, transcripts of telephone conversations and meetings, and so on. This seemed a remarkable achievement and one worth celebrating.
From that point, it was a short jump to a more important realization: the completion of the series would also provide the opportunity for participants, scholars, and journalists to re-examine the history of our policy in the Vietnam War -- its origins, development, and consequences for the United States and for the wider world.
Working from these two points, I drafted a proposal that we hold a major conference on this subject in late 2010. In mid-September 2009, I made the pitch in person to Public Affairs Assistant Secretary P.J. Crowley. After I spoke, he sat in silence for a few minutes (I always like to think of it as an appreciative silence but it may have been a stunned one), and then he said, “Let's do it.” And, with typical enthusiasm, he immediately suggested two possible speakers. He also told me that he wanted the conference to be a success. (I took this to mean that Public Affairs would support the conference, and indeed it did from beginning to end: financially, administratively, and with wise counsel.) Soon afterward, the Historian's Office formed a program committee to plan the conference program.
By mid-September 2010, the committee had produced a complex and sophisticated program that I regarded as a “dream program.” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton opened the conference; former Secretary of State Dr. Henry Kissinger, former Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, and current Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke spoke about their roles in the Vietnam policy story; scholars from the Socialist Republic of Vietnam provided our former enemy's views; senior historians such as George Herring gave their perspectives on the American role in war in Southeast Asia; prize-winning journalists such as Marvin Kalb, Edith Lederer, William Beecher, and Morley Safer spoke from personal experience about the media and the Vietnam War; and, in a series of scholarly panels, academics from here and abroad (from Australia, Canada, England, France, Germany, and Vietnam) and official historians from the State Department and Department of Defense substantially advanced our understanding of a variety of significant Vietnam War topics. The program both celebrated the completion of the Foreign Relations series on Vietnam and provided a vehicle for a careful reexamination of our policy during the Vietnam War.
I would only offer two additional comments: First, we in the Historian's Office believe that the conference bore strong, visible, and credible witness to our outreach mission of providing to the public documentation and discussion of key issues in the history of American foreign policy -- this was, after all, a conference open to citizens, officials, and scholars alike, not just to an invited foreign policy elite; and second, we also believe that the conference and our volumes reflect a core value of our society, even if at times only imperfectly manifested: that there should be transparency in the story and documentation of how our government makes critical policy decisions.
We have placed the speeches by Clinton, Kissinger, and Holbrooke, as well as the remarks by the media panel, on line, and hope to post videos and transcripts of the rest of the conference's presentations in the near future.