Austin Bay

Vietnam and the United States "have a history," in the negative sense of the colloquial expression.

Last week's trip to Hanoi by President George W. Bush was about forging a new, positive relationship -- a new and better history.

After noting that Vietnam's prime minister had educated his children in the United States, Bush observed, "It shows how hopeful the world can be and how people can reconcile and move beyond past difficulties for the common good."

Bush used the tough but necessary word: reconcile.

Yes, a realpolitik energizes the emerging U.S.-Vietnam rapprochement. Vietnam worries about Asia's "Colossus of the North," China. The Vietnamese believe a solid Hanoi-Washington relationship will counter Chinese hegemony.

Washington and Hanoi want to establish a mutually advantageous trading relationship. In colloquial terms, that translates as, "Let's make money together." Capitalist victory? You bet. In Vietnam, communism is kaput as an economic model -- it is litter in history's dustbin.

But realpolitik, without the solidifying bond of reconciliation, is politically frail. Astute Vietnamese and Americans understand symbolic closure isn't full emotional or historical closure, but it serves individual as well as international needs. A number of American Vietnam War veterans have visited Vietnam, many making their own separate peace. Vietnamese-Americans have also increased contacts with their "old country," including re-establishing family ties. As the country opens for business, Vietnam's Communist Party will eventually confront empowered domestic critics. The Communists' depredations will require Vietnamese examination and reconciliation.

Vietnam may ultimately consider some form of domestic "reconciliation commission."

Cynics tend to dismiss "reconciliation commissions" as feel-good gestures, but this is another case of cynicism masking ignorance, for these commissions offer hope to deeply fissured societies.

The most successful example is South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The commission was established in 1995 by then-South African President and 1993 Nobel laureate Nelson Mandela. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, another Nobel Peace Prize winner, served as chairman. The goal wasn't punishment for crimes per se, but open examination of suffering and suffering's individual and societal consequences.

Austin Bay

Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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