> 2015 > October
Winning the “hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese people was a U.S. strategy during the Vietnam War that didn’t go exactly as planned. Trying to persuade an entire population that an American-style democracy and economy was preferable to nationalistic notions was a tough sell while we were also bombing the bejesus out of them. While some inroads were made in rural areas controlled by the Viet Cong, the hearts and minds effort was at best a “hold and protect” effort that never really went much further.
Since the end of the war in Southeast Asia some 40 years ago and the normalizing of relations between Vietnam and the U.S. some 20 years ago, things have changed. For one, there are now about 17,000 Vietnamese students studying in American universities. That’s more than from our two neighboring countries, Canada and Mexico, and is the eighth largest number of students in the world studying in the United States.
If the North Vietnamese living in Hanoi were once the mortal enemies of America, you’d never know it from the reception I received from the nearly 200 college-age students who came to hear an unknown Nevada legislator speak at the American Center in the United States Embassy. As I prepared to speak, I reflected on the fact that not too far from the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” (Hoa Lo Prison) I had visited that day lies the former French penitentiary where American pilots and prisoners of war like John McCain were held captive until their release in 1973.
Some 42 years later, I stood in front of a “captive” audience of my own – one made up of young Vietnamese students who see the United States as a “shining city upon a hill” that they aspire to one day reach in their quest for a political model on which to build their futures. At least, that’s the impression I got from both public and private discussions I had with younger Vietnamese people who clearly harbor no animosity toward America. I found them simply hoping to enjoy the many freedoms, both educational and economic, that Americans so routinely take for granted.
But even without prized university institutions and sophisticated economic system, Vietnam is doing pretty well for itself on the world stage. The country is one of five emerging nations – and the only nation in Asia – whose economy is growing above its prior average growth rate. This has been true since 2010.
Economists forecast that Vietnam’s economy will grow at a rate of 6.1% this year and a rate of 6.2% in 2016. In fact, Vietnam ranks seventh among all countries, including the U.S. and China, in direct foreign investing. Most of that money is going into manufacturing investment, an industry the U.S. (and now Nevada, with the advent of Tesla) is currently trying to revive. Not too bad for a country that had an average income of barely a dollar a day just 20 years ago.
In addition to explosive economic growth, Vietnam has also seen impressive gains in education. According to the latest international test scores, Vietnam is now ranked twelfth in the world in basic math and science, subjects in which students in the U.S. are consistently lagging behind. Still, the United States has something a growing number of Vietnamese deeply desire. Freedom. Speaking candidly (and quietly) to me, students and young professionals alike say they want to see the communist bureaucracy loosen its grip on both the economic reins and educational rigors the centralized government presently imposes upon its population. They want to be free to think, create, and achieve. Yes, ironically enough, so many decades after we sought to engender – and the Vietnamese largely rejected – pacification, our two countries may each have something that the other needs.
Today’s Vietnamese youth are chomping at the bit with entrepreneurial energy and seeking to run free like unbridled stallions in the Wild West. Despite the country’s impressive academic rankings, parents who can afford to send their children to private schools do so not for access to the “rote-learning” style that comprises Asian socialist education but to expose their children to the Western values of creativity and individualism. So I was assured by a female attorney who studied law in the United States and expressed dissatisfaction with a political system that allows its participants to do only what it prescribes – and not much else.
Americans could perhaps learn a thing or two from our former combatants, too. Would it really be so bad if our own public schools were so rigorous as to have parents complain that curriculums are “too hard and demanding” of their children? In the United States, we too often come up with masterfully complex excuses for the lack of success by students from difficult socio-economic backgrounds. In Vietnam, most students come from a deprived economic background – and most, if the international rankings are correct, are succeeding. We might also learn something from a country that once taught us on the battlefield what the meaning of determination is.
The fact that today’s Vietnamese people are so hard working but overwhelmingly admire what America is – and who Americans are – imparts a human lesson that should not be missed or dismissed. Many people I’ve met this past week hope to travel or study in the U.S. in order to “import” what they view as the tools of our success story. They see our higher education system producing credible and creative participants in a growing global economy. They see our representative democracy (as flawed as we know it is) as the last, best hope for a world in need of nations that are both free and responsible.
Yes, in spite of the fact that our soldiers once gunned each other down on the battlefield we are now becoming friends. Highlighted in the “Hanoi Hilton” Prison Museum was the fact that former pilot and POW Douglas “Pete” Peterson became the first United States Ambassador to Vietnam. Gestures such as this from America are helping to turn a former foe into a friend. Many American soldiers gave their all in the hope peace and prosperity would one day come to this ancient land. Both are gradually emerging, in no small part due to Americans’ investment here – once in the form of a war and now in the form of education and economic partnership.
Yes, it appears to this visitor that the U.S. is finally winning a battle for the “hearts and minds” of a far away people. Like the Paul Simon song, “A nation turns its lonely and longing eyes to you,” America. One such nation is Vietnam.
Soon I’ll be blessed to lay eyes upon the stunning islands of Ha Long Bay and the mountain majesty of Sapa, both of which I’ll describe in next week’s “postcard” from Vietnam.