Moving on to a Common Ground: Vietnam-U.S. Normalization of Relations after 1975


While studies about a post-Vietnam America are much concerned with the political, psychological, and cultural legacy of the war, recent scholarly attention has been drawn to how Vietnam and the U.S. came to reconcile their differences and build normal relations. Historical record on the process of normalization between two countries are often characterized by the phrase ‘lost opportunities’, which either referred to Vietnam’s failure to seize their chances when the Carter Administration offered normalization under no condition, or the U.S’ slow entry into the bustling market-oriented Vietnamese economy of the 1990s. Scholars like Edward Martini characterized the post-1975 U.S. policy toward Vietnam as another war on the economic, political, and cultural fields, or “the continuation of war by other means” (Martini, 2007). Nevertheless, I would argue that the legacy of the Vietnam War as well as the influence of the Cold War created so many roadblocks that the Vietnam-U.S. normalization of relations could not have taken shape shortly after the war ended. Thus, my project is intended to explore the complexities of the normalization process in both Vietnamese and U.S. contexts, as well as to specify the most important factors contributing to normalized relations after 1975. Principally, I will draw on the following points in my research: 1) the politicization of the prisoners of war and missing-in-action (POW/MIA) issue 2) the resolution of the Cambodian problem 3) the weight of mutual economic interests in moving towards normalization of relations, 4) the role of Vietnamese Americans, among other interest groups in America, in the establishment of bilateral relations.

Theories and sources

My thesis incorporates theories in international relations and foreign policy analysis to shed light on the process of normalization between two countries. In the U.S., establishing relations with foreign countries traditionally rests in the power of the President, and would normally be comprised of two steps: recognizing a sovereign state and then establishing diplomatic relations with that state. More broadly, normalization of relations encompasses recognition, diplomatic relations, and political, economic, and social exchange between two governments (Reed, 1996). As normalization with Vietnam signified more of a closure of the Vietnam War’s bitter memories, and the beginning of a “No More Vietnam” era, it involved not only the determination of the executive branch, but also the approval of the American public on the accounting of prisoners of wars or missing-in-actions (POW/MIA) and the authorization of the U.S. Congress on lifting the trade embargo. This, perhaps, explained why U.S.-Vietnam normalization was a uniquely long and difficult process which took more than two decades of extensive government-to-government negotiations and long-term settlement of the political obstacles.

In Vietnam, the decision to normalize relations with the U.S. was caught in an intense debate between hardliners who upheld communist ideology and did not want reconciliation with the capitalist U.S., and reformists who supported “expanding relations with capitalist countries for the economic reconstruction of Vietnam” (Takayuki, 1989). In spite of these debates, normalization was claimed to be an effective policy instrument for the Vietnamese government at a time when it wished to secure investment capital from foreign countries to fuel its economic domestic renovation, to foster political stability in Southeast Asia, as illustrated by Carlyle A. Thayer and Ramses Amer in their book “Vietnamese Foreign Policy in Transition”. With international scholars’ discussion and analysis, this book shed light on Vietnam’s foreign policy of multilateralism and improvement of its relations with China, ASEAN, and the U.S. Vietnamese doctrinal changes in its foreign policy, from the ai thang ai  (who will will over whom) to cung ton tai hoa binh (peaceful coexistence), as well as its Doi Moi (renovation) policy were argued to be highly beneficial to its relations with these foreign counterparts.

I also intend to take a look at theories in immigration politics to see how the Vietnamese Americans exerted their influence in American politics, particularly in the process of Vietnam-U.S. normalization. In so doing, I would draw comparisons between Vietnamese Americans and Cuban-Americans, who formed a very influential immigrant group in U.S. politics.

This project is undertaken with a blend of historical and political perspectives of the normalization process. My method of conducting the research will be close reading of primary sources and secondary literature on the Vietnam-U.S. normalization process. Primary sources are in the form of government documents, memoirs, letters, and newspaper articles. Secondary sources are mainly books, journals, and research papers. Both Vietnamese and English materials are employed in the research. Moreover, I intend to use the oral history approach in collecting materials for my research. Insightful interviews of the crucial members of the U.S. and Vietnamese delegates who participated in the negotiations of the normalization process after 1975, as well as foreign policy-makers who were in charge of the policy of normalization will be conducted in both countries Vietnam and the U.S.

Structure of my research

My thesis is divided into the five chapters. Each chapter deals with a particular dimension of my research.

Chapter 1: A Sense of Bitterness: Post-war Vietnam-U.S. relations, 1975–1980

This chapter looks at the issue of war reparations as promised in a letter from U.S. president Nixon to Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Van Dong in 1973. This became a primary condition that the Vietnamese government required for normalization with the U.S, which was then turned down by President Ford. However, President Carter was more inclined towards normalizing relations between two countries with no condition, but the international political scene at the time made the Carter Administration change course and finally opted for normalization with China as its priority.

Chapter 2: Myth or Reality? Politicization of the POW/MIA issue

This chapter explores the prominence of the POW/MIA in the U.S. and Vietnamese political contexts. It charts the creation of the “Rambo faction” in Congress, near-religious believers in the existence of POW/MIAs in Vietnam represented by the National League of POW/MIA Families, and a myth-driven media following the controversial POW/MIA issue. What is noteworthy about the two government’s treatment of the POW/MIA issue was that while both expressed cooperation on POW/MIA issue as a humanitarian issue separated from any political influences, “in truth, both knew POW/MIAs were highly political” (Brown, 1997).

Chapter 3: The Cambodian Problem and its Consequences

This chapter addresses the complexity of the Cambodian impasse. In 1978, Vietnamese troops fought against Khmer Rouge groups led by Pol Pot to save, first the Vietnamese living near the border, and then Cambodians, from Pol Pot’s mass killings. However, Vietnam’s involvement was often labeled as an invasion, which made it a potential “expansionary ally of the Soviet Union” (Niehaus, 1979) in the eyes of the U.S. The U.S. wanted to contain the Vietnamese influence in Cambodia and stopped the Khmer Rouge genocide, but found itself complicated by the differences among China and ASEAN countries in defining the appropriate role of the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese influence after the withdrawal of Vietnamese troops (Sutter, 1991). Thus, in the late 1980s, the Cambodian peace process was put at the core of Vietnam-U.S. normalization.

Chapter 4: Friends or Foes? The Vietnamese Americans’ views on normalization

As the biggest community of overseas Vietnamese, Vietnamese Americans exerted significant, yet contradictory, influence on the development of U.S.-Vietnam relations. Historian Robert Schulzinger concisely stated that Vietnamese Americans’ “own memories and their continuing contact with family and friends in Vietnam helped determine the ways in which official relations developed between the governments of the United States and the SRV” (Schulzinger, 2006). While anti-communist Vietnamese Americans expressed staunched opposition toward normalization with Vietnam, many Vietnamese Americans strongly supported reconciliation between two countries so that ties with their homeland could be better fostered. This chapter places Vietnam Americans into comparison with Cuban Americans in the U.S, and measures how immigrant politics would impact on the making of U.S. foreign policy.

Chapter 5: Vietnam-U.S. Economic Interests

In the early 1990s, the U.S. started to show increasing interests in the dynamic economies in Southeast Asia, as countries in this region attained impressive economic growth and were more open to international investment. As a second largest country in Southeast Asia with a relatively young population of 70 million in the 1990s, Vietnam gradually entered into the recognition of world business competitors while trying to end the U.S. embargo. On the other hand, in introducing market-oriented reforms of eliminating impediments to international trade and investment, legitimizing the private sector, and increasing the autonomy of state-owned businesses in late 1980s to jumpstart its under-developed economy (Craig-Bereuter, 1995),Vietnam was keenly aware of the needs to normalize relations with the U.S. to be integrated in the international community and global economic trends. This chapter draws on the heightening of mutual economic interests, which significantly motivated both sides to put aside “the battle fatigues of a bygone era” (Terzano, 1993) and normalize relations.

Research to date

A major part of my research so far is done in Germany with primary sources such as internet archival materials, newspaper articles, and memoirs, as well as secondary sources such as books, journals, and research papers. The Vietnam Virtual Archive at the Texas University in the U.S. have so far provided invaluable English sources for me to research about Vietnam-U.S. relations. I have recently spent two months in Vietnam to do library and archival research. During my research at the Vietnam National Library in Hanoi, I could find many books, journals, and dissertations relevant to my topic. Most of the Vietnamese books and journal articles are written by former diplomats and senior researchers on Vietnam-U.S. relations, which showcase a true picture of the Vietnamese attitude towards normalization.  Archival research at the Vietnam National Archives was not very productive. The archival files during the years 1945–1985 taken from the Prime Minister’s Office were temporarily inaccessible at the time of my visit. Future research in Vietnam is therefore needed to explore more Vietnamese materials for my research.