While much has been written about the Vietnam War, less has been written about the aftermath, especially the normalization process between the United States and Vietnam, through first-hand accounts of the diplomats involved. Due to the recent event - normalization happened less than 30 years ago in 1995 - the lack of anecdotal accounts is understandable.
Ted Osius’ “Nothing Is Impossible: America’s Reconciliation With Vietnam,” published in 2021, offers a rare glimpse into the process through the lens of a junior diplomat who would become the sixth U.S. ambassador to Vietnam. According to Andrew Wells-Dang from the U.S. Institute of Peace, the book is an “unusual insider’s guide to the rapprochement of two former enemies.”
The normalization process mainly happened in two U.S. administrations: Jimmy Carter (1977-1981) and Bill Clinton (1993-2001). Talks about normalization were initiated during the Carter administration but ultimately failed because the U.S. prioritised normalization with China; official diplomatic ties were finally established under Clinton in 1995. Events in “Nothing Is Impossible” mainly concern the latter period and beyond, with little to no discussion relevant to the first attempt at normalization.
If readers are expecting a comprehensive lecture on U.S-Vietnam relations, they will be very disappointed. This is not an academic production. Despite an entire chapter devoted to Vietnamese history, the book is, first and foremost, a personal memoir in which Osius tells his story and experiences through a very optimistic voice. There are many stories inside the book that are incredibly moving. Still, there are also stories that offer researchers a glimpse into the behind-the-scenes of American diplomacy in Vietnam.
Some stories will be especially amusing for readers. For example, Osius tells the story of John Kerry and other American diplomats going to a condom cafe in Vietnam, which aimed to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS. He entertains his readers with anecdotes about himself cycling around Vietnam and hosting the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg when she visited Vietnam. Throughout the book, there are stories about high-level diplomats, officers and Vietnamese people - personal friends of Osius or simply strangers he met on the streets of Vietnam.
This book is not just about diplomatic normalization, however. Osius touches on multiple topics, from his support for the LGBTQ+ movement to his advocacy for releasing political prisoners in Vietnam.
Osius tells stories of how he touched the hearts of Vietnamese people as an openly gay ambassador in a conservative society. For instance, despite wanting privacy for his children, he still decided to have public outings with them and his husband to show young Vietnamese people a positive image of an LGBTQ+ family.
It is clear from the book that the human rights situation in Vietnam is a topic to which Osius devoted much of his thoughts. He was a supporter of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). And he believed that entering TPP would contribute to a better human rights situation in Vietnam, despite bloggers like Nguyen Huu Vinh (Anh Ba Sam) being tried and sentenced to prison during the negotiations.
Osius also believes that Vietnamese people enjoy a lot of internet freedom, or in his words, “near-universal access to free discussion on Facebook and other internet forums.” Although recent reports by democracy watchers like Freedom House question this narrative, Osius is right that Vietnam cracks down on pro-democracy activists and bloggers because it fears the (relatively) open flow of information.
Despite the overarching optimistic narrative, Osius is conscious of the limitations of American diplomacy. For example, even though Vietnam sometimes agrees to release prisoners of conscience by deporting them to the United States, it is usually only to appease Washington temporarily before high-level visits to Vietnam. “The United States would then hail the release as progress,” Osius admitted, “and after the visit had been forgotten, the Vietnamese would arrest another activist.” Situations like this show the limitations of American diplomacy and the Communist Party’s resistance to change.
“Nothing Is Impossible,” like any other memoir, is not to be read without some words of caution. Firstly, it is not a book about Vietnamese domestic politics. Journalist David Hutt wrote that “Osius doesn’t offer a grand interpretation of Vietnamese politics, nor of how the VCP machine thinks and reasons.” Both Hutt and Andrew Wells-Dang took notice of Osius’ lackluster mention of the problems among Vietnamese political elites, from Nguyen Tan Dung’s corruption scandals to factionalism within the Party.
Secondly, Osius’ background might have also influenced his narrative. Wells-Dang’s critical review also pointed out that Osius has an overtly positive attitude about the role of trade and transnational corporations in his book as potential solutions to improving human rights in Vietnam, which is highly debatable. Osius’ position as the CEO of the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council and his former leadership position at Google Asia-Pacific might have contributed to this optimism.
Nevertheless, the book is an essential source of information for scholars, researchers, and students interested in U.S-Vietnam relations and human rights.
- Hutt, David. “A Review of ‘Nothing Is Impossible: America’s Reconciliation With Vietnam’ by Ted Osius.” Council on Foreign Relations, 7 Dec. 2021, www.cfr.org/blog/review-nothing-impossible-americas-reconciliation-vietnam-ted-osius. Accessed 27 Dec. 2022.
- Osius, Ted. Nothing Is Impossible: America’s Reconciliation With Vietnam. Rutgers UP, 2021.
- Wells-Dang, Andrew. “Nothing Is Impossible: America’s Reconciliation With Vietnam by Ted Osius.” The Journal of Asian Studies, vol. 81, no. 3, Aug. 2022, pp. 631–32. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0021911822001000.
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