Obama in Vietnam
By James Preston Allen, Publisher
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed,
it’s the only thing that ever has.”
—American cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead (1901-1978).
While President Barack Obama was in Vietnam the week of May 22, he acknowledged what previous administrations since the 1960s have been loathe to do: that Vietnam is ideologically closer to the United States than it is to China.
“What’s this?” You might say. How is it that we spent more than a decade fighting the communists in Southeast Asia, at a loss of some 58,000 American soldiers and $173 billion (equivalent to $770 billion in 2003 dollars)? These numbers were supplied by the Defense Department. Veteran’s benefits and interest adds $1 trillion in 2003 dollars.
This was a war that, in retrospect, never needed to be fought and never needed to divide our nation. It left a generation of veterans traumatized and disabled.
This visit wasn’t just about Obama pivoting U.S. foreign policy toward Asia. It was also about burying the ghosts of the Vietnam War.
The president has been criticized for including our former adversary and human rights abuser in the Trans Pacific Partnership. But the president deftly delivered a history lesson, noting how Communist Revolutionary leader, Ho Chi Minh, evoked the American Declaration of Independence in Vietnam’s own declaration of independence after World War II, which read:
All people are created equal. The Creator has endowed them with inviolable rights. Among these rights are the right to life, the right to liberty and the right to the pursuit of happiness.
The president expanded upon the values of universal human rights as articulated in the constitutions of democratic societies, noting:
The United States does not seek to impose our form of government on Vietnam. The rights I speak of, I believe, are not American values; I think they’re universal values written into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They’re written into the Vietnamese constitution, which states that “citizens have the right to freedom of speech and freedom of the press and have the right of access to information, the right to assembly, the right to association and the right to demonstrate. That’s in the Vietnamese constitution. So really, this is an issue about all of us, each country, trying to consistently apply these principles, making sure that we—those of us in government—are being true to these ideals.
In recent years, Vietnam has made some progress. Vietnam has committed to bringing its laws in line with its new constitution and with international norms.
With these particular references to core human rights and with their uncanny resemblance to certain “inalienable” rights found in our own founding documents, it was perhaps Obama’s intent to make this a teachable moment while cementing the contentious Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement. His speech was probably one of the most cleverly executed criticisms I have ever witnessed.
And yet, all these years after the end of the Vietnam War, even with the vast understanding of how historically wrong it was, the ghosts of this nightmare still haunt both our national psyche and our politics.
I’m sure that there are still some gung-ho conservatives who still want to reargue this war, just as there are conservative academics who attempt to rewrite this history.
In my mind, it was right for Obama to put this war to rest. One can only speculate what would have happened if it hadn’t been fought at all. Would President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty have succeeded without the political opposition to the Vietnam War? Would President Richard Nixon ever have been elected to launch the War on Drugs as a political gambit against the anti-war protestors?
The true cost of the Vietnam War on our civil society and our political history may never be fully calculated. But 43 years after the end of that war, there is only one presidential candidate who is addressing the fallout from that era with an aspirational message: Sen. Bernie Sanders.
A few weeks ago, I served as the caucus convener for the Sanders’ campaign in the City of Carson. I listened to some of the most moving speeches delivered by delegate contestants. Many young Latino men and women, and many first generation graduates who were just out of college explained why they supported Sanders.
It was an emotionally moving moment. I told them, “I have been waiting for you to be here for over 40 years.” This was odd because most of them were not even that old.
We are witnessing educated young people rising up against authoritarian rule of the elite—not just locally, but across this nation and around the world. From Hong Kong to Tahrir Square in Egypt; from the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York to activists at our own Los Angeles City Hall and police commission meetings, there is push-back. This is a response to the refrain of “enough is enough.” And, it is beginning to shake the power structure of governments.
Sanders is right. This is not just a campaign to elect him president. It is a revolution to shake the foundations of corporate capitalism.
Even as polls show Sanders gaining ground on Hillary Clinton in California—46 to 48 percent, respectively—there is considerably more to be gained than just delegates or a nomination. This is reminds me of a 1961 Bob Dylan tune:
Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who that it’s namin’
For the loser now will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin’