As you can judge from a number of our blogs, things were not always friendly between the United States and the countries of Vietnam and Laos. However, after many years of war, misunderstanding and acrimony, the U.S. has finally joined hands with Vietnam and Laos. It is amazing what impact an expansionist China can have on its neighbors and the U.S. as the Chinese build man-made islands with aircraft fighter hangers on them in the South China sea without any plausible justification of a sovereign claim whatsoever. Arrogance and ignorance often create an explosive cocktail as it has in Southeast Asia.
During what has become frequent trips to Vietnam, the author began to hear "TPP" from many senior Vietnamese business and government contacts. In Vietnam, one does not admit ignorance. However, I quickly learned that it was an acronym for Trans Pacific Partnership, an alliance between the U.S. and various Southeast Asian countries. The Vietnamese were giddy that the U.S. was flexing its muscle in the area. On the other hand, in a U.S. election year with varying degrees of xenophobia and populism being evidenced, one could understand why "TPP" was not a household word bantered about by the administration.
Over the past several years, Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam have stepped up their defense budgets and arms purchases. In fact, the author's company was competing for two oil exploration blocks offshore Vietnam when they were withdrawn and awarded to a Russian company. Following the license award, the Vietnamese navy received two Kilo class Russian submarines. It is difficult for a western company to compete in that manner though it is somewhat understandable when the largest armament source in the world had an embargo against most arms sales to Vietnam.
However, on May 23, 2016, President Barack Obama became the second U.S. sitting President to make a state visit to Vietnam. At that time, he fully lifted the arms embargo which is the first major step in the U.S./Vietnam reconciliation process and the beginning of a new most needed era in bilateral relationships.
Below, you can see the bust of Ho Chi Minh in the background behind President Obama and Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang in Hanoi. Uncle Ho would have chuckled as he had directly appealed to President Harry Truman to recognize the sovereignty of Vietnam with a democratic society when the French were reclaiming it as a former colony following WWII. His letter of appeal went unanswered.
To add another chapter to the reconciliation process, several weeks ago President Obama became the first sitting U.S. President to visit Laos. In fact, from 1961 until May 1975, Laos had been a focal point of U.S. foreign policy due to the widespread, though mistaken, belief in the "Domino Theory." The fiction was that once Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia submitted to communist control, all of Southeast Asia would follow. Once Laos fell, it totally disappeared from the U.S. State Department screen.
For the first time in history, President Obama admitted that the U.S. conducted an illegal war in Laos, during which the Central Intelligence Agency assembled a secret army of Hmong hill tribe people to fight the Pathet Lao communist forces. We would add that The Elephant Story has openly referred to the illegal war for the past three years though I doubt we paved the way for the mea culpa. Another worthy announcement was a $90 million aid program for unexploded ordinance clearance and help for victims thereof. U.S. aid over the past two decades of some $100 million brought unexploded bomb casualty rates down from hundreds per year though they still occur. In fact, the 7 million population of Laos is thought to have sustained the highest per capita bombing in the history of warfare. Given the wild elephant population of Laos, it is a major step forward in elephant conservation there as well.
President Obama looks a bit stern as he reviews the Lao troops.
Though the bomb clearance folks seem happy to see him.
Lastly, the Buddhist spirituality encountered once he left Vientiane, Laos and headed up to Luang Prabang, Laos is evident on his face.
Maybe we have finally closed a very dark chapter in the history of the U.S. representing an unjust and unneeded Southeast war that cost millions of Vietnamese lives, 50,000 U.S. armed forces in Vietnam and 29,000 Hmong hill tribe people in Laos. All I can say is that had it not happened, the author might have spent his whole life in Wichita Falls, Texas.
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