When I left Vietnam on a helicopter just hours before the fall of Saigon in 1975, I couldn’t imagine that the US military would ever return—and certainly not with an aircraft carrier.
But here we are more than 40 years later, and the USS Carl Vinson, with over 6,000 sailors aboard and accompanied by a cruiser and destroyer, has docked outside the Vietnamese port city of Da Nang.
As a young reporter for United Press International in 1966, I was constantly in and out of Da Nang, using it as my starting point to cover US Marine operations.
I never fathomed at the time that I would end up covering the war on and off for the next nine years, a period where I got to know Vietnam as a country and not just a war.
UPI gave me assignments that got me to every province in South Vietnam and after studying Vietnamese for a stint I took a job with The Christian Science Monitor newspaper.
The pressure on many American journalists was to focus on the US troops in Vietnam. But The Monitor was a paper that allowed me to do that while also getting into rural areas to cover the impact of the war on Vietnamese civilians.
So it’s the human side of this week’s USS Carl Vinson’s port call that interests me as much as the symbolic signaling that’s so evident in the carrier’s visit.
Nearly everyone agrees that from a symbolic point of view, the carrier’s visit sends a powerful signal to China that the US is in the contested South China Sea region to stay. But Vietnam experts caution against exaggerating the impact of a single ship’s visit.
Bill Hayton, an author who has written extensively on the South China Sea for the BBC, acknowledges the symbolism but notes that smaller US ships have been visiting Vietnam since 2003. Vietnam is signaling to China that it has a powerful friend, he says, but the message is nuanced.
It’s worth noting, he says, that Vietnam has a policy of “three no’s:” no foreign bases on its territory, no military alliances, and no involving third parties in its disputes. Vietnam isn’t about to endorse a US-led containment of China, says Hayton.
David Brown, a former US diplomat stationed in Vietnam and now journalist who frequently visits the country, says that for the past five years the US and Vietnam have been engaged in increasingly close consultation on strategic matters.
The two countries have held discussions about the procurement of American weapons by Vietnam, but not much has come of this yet.
He says, “the current Vietnamese leadership has made a sustained effort to improve relations with China, building on ideological affinity” following a period of strain and skirmishes between the two sides around South China Sea islands long occupied by Vietnam but contested by China.
Murray Hiebert, a Southeast Asia expert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) think tank, says that the US has tried to get Vietnam to engage in joint naval exercises with the US, but Hanoi has consistently declined in order to avoid offending China.
Vietnam’s Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong made his career as a Party theorist. Trong outmaneuvered previous Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung in a power contest at the Party’s Congress in January 2016 and is now seen as the country’s top political figure.
According to Hayton, Trong viewed Nguyen Tan Dung’s most powerful comrades as too individualistic, too corrupt and too pro-American.
But Trong, while wary of American rhetorical support for human rights, is apparently no longer concerned that the US might actively seek to undermine Communist Party control over Vietnam, including through support of pro-democracy activists.
By demonstrating his strategic usefulness to Washington, Trong may be hoping to deflect attention away from Vietnam’s large trade surplus with the US, says Hayton.
For the past year, Vietnam has courted US President Donald Trump to prevent the imposition of protectionist measures on Vietnam’s export industries.
Beyond the strategic signaling and other big picture issues, what happens on the sidelines of the USS Carl Vinson’s visit could impact positively on the views of ordinary Vietnamese toward America.
During the ship’s four-day port call from May 5 to 9, some of the carrier’s sailors will visit an orphanage and a center for the treatment of victims of Agent Orange, the defoliant used by the US military that poisoned many rural Vietnamese.
Other sailors will play soccer and basketball with their Vietnamese counterparts.
Although it doesn’t make headlines, people-to-people relations between Americans and Vietnamese have grown stronger over the past decade or two and help to provide a basis for improving relations.
Importantly, tens of thousands of Vietnamese have come to study in the US in recent years, mostly at the undergraduate level.
Young people whom I met in Hanoi in 2013 viewed the US as a country driven by entrepreneurship and technological innovation. Some expressed a desire to go to business school in the US.
Surveys show that many Vietnamese have a positive attitude toward the United States. Vietnamese have shown an ability to separate their views of US government actions taken during the Vietnam War from their views of American citizens now.
According to Mark Ashwill, managing director of Capstone Vietnam, an educational consulting company in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, surveys show that American soft power has influence. Many Vietnamese like American movies and television, for example.
Their views towards neighboring China, it seems, are less warm.
In an article written for VietnamExpress, a popular Vietnamese online newspaper, pro-American views are often “a reaction against China, the result of current concerns about territorial conflicts in the South China Sea, known in Vietnam as the East Sea, and Chinese influence on Vietnam’s economy.”
China’s 1979 border war against Vietnam added considerably to Vietnamese antagonism toward China. The Chinese did a lot of damage to civilian facilities in the short-lived conflict, including to a hospital and a Vietnamese railroad on their way out just “to teach Vietnam a lesson,” as then Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping was reported to have put it.
Some of the Chinese troops looted and destroyed Vietnamese homes. That’s not easily forgotten even with more recent strong economic relations.
The two sides fought a de facto proxy war in Cambodia for well over a decade after Hanoi toppled the China-backed Khmer Rouge regime in 1979. More recently and on a lower boil, those conflicts have extended into contested areas in the South China Sea.
While Hanoi clamps down on nearly all forms of social agitation, it has allowed for nationalistic anti-China protests in recent years—if they don’t grow too large and unruly — when tensions in the maritime area have run high.
The appearance of a Chinese oil rig not far from the Vietnamese coast in mid-2014 triggered anti-Chinese rioting.
In 1981, when I returned to Vietnam for the first time following the fall of Saigon, I didn’t know what to expect. But I found that the Vietnamese whom I met were extremely friendly while uninterested in discussing the past.
I went to the old US Embassy building, which I believe was then used as the national petroleum company headquarters. Several Vietnamese gathered around and asked me where I was from. When I told them that I was an American, they gave me a round of applause.
I asked two Buddhist monks whom I met what the Russians were like, since the Russian presence in Vietnam was still fairly large only six years after the end of the war. “They’re like the Americans but without the dollars,” one of the monks said jokingly.
When I returned again for a reporters’ reunion in 2005 and visited the Mekong Delta, I met rural people who were extraordinarily friendly, including a few who had suffered from American bombing and Agent Orange.
When I returned again for an international broadcasting meeting in Hanoi in 2013, feelings against China were running high. Those feelings, fueled now by rising South China Sea tensions, have opened the way for America’s naval return to Vietnam.
“The USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier is the epitome of modern naval power,” said Carlyle Thayer, professor emeritus at the Australian Defence Academy and expert on Vietnam in a policy brief written last month.
“The message the carrier sends,” said Thayer, “is that the US will maintain its naval presence in the South China Sea and Vietnam supports the presence of the US Navy as long as it contributes to regional peace and security.”
Beyond such insights, the port call brings back memories to me of meeting Vietnamese six years after the end of Vietnam War and discovering that many were ready even then to put the war behind them and move on to better relations with Americans.