It's kind of fun to imagine the response you might get if you travelled back in time 45 years and told Americans that in 2014, America's black president will arm the Communist Vietnamese government in Hanoi.
If you can transport yourself to the headspace of Woodstock and the Vietnam War for a second, just imagine the bafflement, outrage, and shock this kind of revelation would have generated in everyone from the fringe anti-communist John Birch society all the way through to the Black Panthers and Weather Underground.
Which makes it even more remarkable that, with little notice, the administration is moving ahead with the support of the Pentagon and key members of Congress with plans to sell weapons to Vietnam. And yes, "key members of Congress" includes Republican John McCain, who was shot down on a combat mission over Vietnam, and who spent the following five and a half years being tortured by his North Vietnamese captors, leaving him permanently disabled.
My, how times change.
Certainly, America's new relationship with Vietnam has a lot to do with realpolitik. Vietnam is understandably interested in maintaining its territorial claims in the South China Sea, because in addition to containing valuable fisheries and shipping lanes between Asia and Europe — which carry $5 trillion worth of goods annually — the South China Sea also sits atop immense oil and gas reserves. (Incidentally, the letters in South China Sea can be rearranged to spell "A Cash Outshine.")
Thing is, Vietnamese and Chinese territorial claims in the region overlap and have been the subject of military scuffles, diplomatic protests, and a self-immolation. The overlap also prompted one of China's strategic rivals, India, to reach out to Vietnam and build closer ties by arming the country with supersonic anti-ship missiles.
Vietnam has been dealing with its powerful next-door neighbor for a millennium. Vietnam and China fought a brief but bitter war in 1979, less than five years after the end of the Vietnam War, and turned into a series of border clashes up until 1990. So it's not surprising Vietnam has learned what diplomatic angles it needs to work if it wants to retain meaningful sovereignty and autonomy from its northern neighbor.
Hence the steady improvement in relations between Vietnam and one of China's main strategic rivals, the United States, over the last decade or two.
There are a few interesting elements worth mentioning. One is that Vietnamese sentiment about the US varies widely among those old enough to have a personal experience; not everyone was pro-Viet Cong, nor was everyone pro-US. Second, while the Vietnam War still looms large in US cultural memory, it hasn't remained as relevant in Vietnam — no doubt in part because the median age there is significantly lower than in the United States.
Yes, Vietnam has moved past the war more than the US. Thanks to World War II, the French Indochina War, the Vietnam War, the Cambodia-Vietnam War, the China-Vietnam War, and a bunch of other conflicts, Vietnam has come to appreciate peace and realize that it can't hold a grudge against every single country that's fought a bloody battle there. Why, did you think it's the Caucuses?
But there's another factor at play here, and that's Vietnam's most important bargaining chip: absolution. Whether the US is being praised, condemned, or accused of hypocrisy for its world dealings, the subject of ethics always crops up. The US public and its politicians often want to be perceived as the good guys. And the Vietnam War was, in the American mind, a very bad war indeed.
The US may be far more powerful than Vietnam in military and economic terms, but the US approach to Vietnam in recent years has felt like it's partly motivated by contrition. And if the US gets to thwart China in the bargain, all the better.
Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan
Photo via DVIDS