U.S.-Vietnam Reconciliation: Reassessing U.S. Discussion of Vietnam War Legacies

In September 2023, U.S. president Joseph Biden and Vietnam communist party chief Nguyen Phu Trong elevated the U.S.-Vietnam relationship to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, a status that will strengthen military-to-military, business-to-business, and people-to-people ties between the two nations. It is an impressive feat of diplomacy for two countries that were in direct violent conflict half a century ago.

However, healing the trauma of war between the American and Vietnamese peoples requires more than joint statements of cooperation between governments. Both governments have encouraged people-to-people interactions to build mutual trust and understanding, aided by steady increases in American tourists visiting Vietnam as well as Vietnamese students studying in the United States. Yet mutual understanding is impeded by the reality that the American and Vietnamese people hold different and sometimes contradictory notions of the war and its legacy. Addressing different historical conceptions is critical for the United States, as memories of the war shape perceived responsibilities in conflict resolution, peacebuilding, and global affairs.

In most U.S. schools, the “Vietnam War” is taught as a brief history lesson sandwiched between the dramatic episodes of the Cold War. U.S. intervention in Vietnam is framed as an effort to keep Vietnam and surrounding countries from succumbing to communism. While the war was once a virtually taboo topic in the 1980s, U.S. classrooms now openly engage in discussions about its controversies. Still, discourse remains centered on the war’s consequences to the United States—to American soldiers, the American public, American morals, and American institutions.

Lacking the power of Hollywood and the advantages of English-language media, Vietnam’s notion of the “American War” is largely overshadowed on the international stage. Vietnam tells a different story, where the “liberation” of Saigon marked the end of a nearly century-long struggle for independence that began during French colonialism and continued under American occupation.

Ahead of the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War and the thirtieth anniversary of the normalization of U.S.-Vietnam ties next year, the two nations must reevaluate how to foster mutual understanding from contested memories. Ongoing collaboration between the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and Vietnam’s War Remnants Museum present the perfect opportunity to do so.

The War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City is Vietnam’s most visited museum. Best known for its graphic portrayal of the consequences of war on the Vietnamese people, the institution focuses on Vietnamese victims without glorifying Vietnamese victory. A new joint exhibit between USAID and the museum marks the first time the U.S. government has a direct say in how events surrounding the Vietnam War are memorialized in Vietnam. This collaboration is critical as American tourists have at times decried the War Remnants Museum as one-sided propaganda, not acknowledging how the museum has sought to provide a place for remembrance and collective healing. The museum, run by the Vietnamese government, notably houses a permanent exhibit curated by veterans from Kentucky featuring works from North Vietnamese, Viet Cong, and Western combat photographers. The new exhibit may further solidify the museum’s message that its graphic displays are not solely to accuse the United States of war crimes, but more importantly, to serve as a reminder of why war should be avoided at all costs.

The new exhibit is set to feature U.S. efforts in “overcoming the consequences of war” and “resolving war legacies” dating back to the 1990s, featuring joint efforts in mine clearance, environmental remediation, support for persons with disabilities, and recovery of missing persons. However, to make sense of what the United States has done, American curators need to define why the United States has approached reconciliation the way it did. What are the United States’ moral responsibilities in post-war engagement with Vietnam? Is Washington apologetic for its wartime decisions, or only for the devastation caused because of them?

The answers to these questions have broader foreign policy implications. First, notions of wrongdoing and accountability shape how the United States calculates its aid obligations to war victims, from medical care to vocational training, and from the individual to their relatives. A 2019 proposal in Congress even suggests that the United States should help repair and rebuild substandard homes where victims of Agent Orange or their dependents reside, given the generational impoverishment of impacted households. Policy toward Vietnamese victims sets a precedent for victims of other U.S.-led violence.

Second, the debate over whether U.S. actions in Vietnam were a “well-intentioned mistake” or “fundamentally wrong and immoral” shape the way U.S. policymakers learn and move forward from Vietnam. Those who identify Washington’s mistake as losing the war or pursuing it at too high a human cost might reevaluate intelligence and combat tactics. Those fundamentally reassessing U.S. Cold War justifications might strive to not only reform war strategy but also the foreign policy underpinning it. They may be more open to understanding accusations of U.S. imperialism in Vietnam as well as attempt to repair this reputation through alternative, less overt, approaches to advancing U.S. values abroad. Notably, the United States no longer calls for regime change in Vietnam, and presidents since the Obama administration have shifted toward fostering mutual respect for each other’s political systems.

Accordingly, the exhibit should reflect the shift in U.S. policy from morally obligatory post-war cleanup to the active pursuit of mutual trust and respect with Vietnam. This means not only featuring post-war cleanup but also highlighting the impact of collaborations such as the U.S.-sponsored Fulbright Program in Vietnam. Curators should also amplify the work of individuals and organizations striving to rebuild ties between the United States and Vietnam. Features of literature, cross-cultural dialogue, and philanthropy may encourage visitors to consider how they too could join the narrative and substantive processes of peacebuilding.

While the joint exhibit is already a positive step towards achieving reconciliation through mutual understanding, curators can push it one step further. The United States should take the opportunity to admit its mistakes and regrets in Vietnam in a somber, low-stakes atmosphere. Displays of American hypocrisy and brutality already exist throughout the museum; the new exhibit is a chance to step in front of this common interpretation by showing how the United States has contemplated and learned from its history with Vietnam. Only then can the United States more credibly resolve its own consequences of war by addressing questions of American guilt and morality. The exhibit is a chance for the United States to emphasize that mistakes made during the Vietnam War do not have to be characteristic of U.S. foreign policy or U.S.-Vietnam relations.

Vietnam can also use the exhibit to take an unprecedented step in national healing. Vietnamese curators should consider including stories and artifacts of Southern Vietnamese victims, whose post-war sufferings remain undiscussed in public spaces of memorialization. Displays alone might not resolve the struggles and discrimination faced by refugees and former sympathizers of the Saigon government. However, museums are symbolic; the inclusion of these perspectives may help underrepresented victims feel seen in the government-led reconciliation process. Particularly, the inclusion of Vietnamese American stories may help the community more fully embrace U.S.-Vietnam normalization and take a more prominent role in U.S.-Vietnam engagements. By honestly subjecting themselves to scrutiny, the two governments can show that they are genuinely committed to bringing peace and closure to their dark chapter.

It is crucial that both governments open discussion of the consequences of war to all sides, especially for underrepresented Vietnamese victims. Given American dominance over global narratives, the United States should take the lead in reassessing how the “Vietnam War” is presented in museums, memorials, history classes, and popular culture. These efforts can foster more constructive and mutually beneficial people-to-people engagements between the two nations. Ultimately, a truthful and inclusive understanding of Vietnam War legacies will pave the way for more comprehensive reconciliation between the United States and Vietnam.

Tappy Lung is a research intern with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Tappy Lung

Research Intern, Southeast Asia Program