By Mark Ashwill at CounterPunch
Just before the Lunar New Year, I finally received my review copy of Nothing is Impossible: America’s Reconciliation with Vietnam by Ted Osius, who served as US ambassador to Vietnam from 2014 to 2017. Consider the following a modest attempt to set the record straight about some of the actions Osius took – and failed to take – during his time in Hanoi and his post-State Department retirement.
What I quickly discovered in reading Nothing is Impossible is that it was impossible for the author to get the facts straight about an array of important issues. There were also notable sins of omission that cast him in a more positive light and gave him a pass on some of the low points of his tenure. In that vein a more accurate title would have been The Life and Times of the Best US Ambassador to Vietnam. Added to the mix are the incessant name-dropping and subpar copy editing.
To his credit, Osius delves into a wide range of important issues, including climate change, educational exchange, the East Sea (known as the South China Sea to the rest of the world), energy policy, environmental pollution, LGBT, the Mekong Delta, religion, and war legacies. On another positive note, the book is chock full of insider information about Vietnam-US relations, some of which drew the ire of the Vietnamese government. (Retired diplomats should remain diplomatic.)
The McCain Myth
For those who know Vietnam and something about its history, this self-congratulatory tale is riddled with inaccuracies and downright fabrications. They practically jump off the pages. A good memoir is honest in its recounting of the writer’s life and observations, warts and all, not a whitewash or a perversion of history. Let me mention just a few of the more egregious examples. Osius wastes no time in this regard. He kicks off the book with his twisted version of the story of John McCain’s capture in October 1967.
“The men who pulled McCain from the water held him responsible for the deaths of their loved ones, and they stuck a bayonet in his groin. He was dragged to shore with one leg bent at a 90-degree angle and the bone protruding from the skin. McCain’s captors threw him into a cell in Hoa Lo Prison; its name translates as ‘fiery furnace.’ …Weeks passed before McCain received any medical attention.” According to Osius’s version, it was fellow prisoners, having “also endured torture at the hands of the Vietnamese,” who kept McCain alive. (pp. 1-2)
In reality, a man by the name of Mai Văn Ổn and his neighbor swam out to rescue McCain on October 26, 1967 after his A-4E Skyhawk crossed paths with an anti-aircraft missile, a joyous event for the Vietnamese and an unfortunate one for the pilot. McCain fractured both arms and a leg when he was ejected from his aircraft. Injured and caught in his parachute, he probably would have drowned without their assistance. Osius’s version of events is that “The Vietnamese soldiers swimming toward him wanted him dead.”
The two men saved McCain’s life a second time by shielding him from a crowd of understandably angry people who had assembled on the bank of Trúc Bạch Lake. If it were not for these two men, McCain’s undistinguished life would probably have ended that day at the age of 31 after his 23rd bombing mission.
Rather than being escorted directly from lake to prison, McCain spent up to two weeks in Việt Đức Hospital in Hanoi being treated for his ejection injuries before being taken to his prison cell at Hỏa Lò Prison, what the US POWs referred to as the Hanoi Hilton.
Osius’s comment about the early release offer and McCain’s supposedly honorable refusal and desire to “adhere to the code” is preposterous. As a POW, he was in no position to negotiate. His captors would have simply put him on a flight bound for Bangkok or Hong Kong, and notified US authorities to pick him up when the plane landed.
The sacrifice about which McCain wrote in his memoir Faith of My Fathers “for something greater than our self-interest” was for no one and naught. It was the brave Vietnamese who shot him down and the millions of their fellow citizens who were defending their homeland from the US invasion and occupation who made true sacrifices.
There’s a monument in front of Trúc Bạch Lake. Many US dignitaries go to pay their respects, making the mistake of assuming that it’s for McCain rather than the Vietnamese who were defending their homeland from US bombings. Last year on separate occasions, the US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Vice President Kamala Harris stood in front of the monument, a cement sculpture featuring a man wearing a helmet with his arms raised and head lowered. (Guess who?) They left flowers and a US flag.
In Harris’s speech, broadcast on C-SPAN, she said, “He was an extraordinary American. A hero…he loved our country. He was so courageous and really lived the life of a hero…always fought for the best of who we are. Here’s a spot-on comment by Juliet Huang in response to the C-SPAN video: Imagine if the deputy PM in Japan visited Pearl Harbor, then laid down flowers for all the Japanese pilots died in 1941. Imagine, indeed.
For the sake of diplomacy, the Vietnamese indulge official US Americans who insist on paying tribute to a man who was bombing their capital and its residents back in the day. A US vice president and secretary of defense paying tribute to a man whose bombing missions killed countless Vietnamese? It’s beyond perverse. Shame on Ted Osius for perpetuating this historical revisionism.
A few pages later, Osius dredges up the tired old POW/MIA issue, tugging on the red, white, and blue heart strings of many of his readers, by describing the work of Ann Mills Griffiths, who founded the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia in 1970. (The impetus for this was the fact that her brother was listed MIA in 1966.)
He discusses the fantastical notion that Vietnam still held US POWs long after the war had ended, emphasizing that “no issue mattered more to the United States than the fullest possible accounting of those lost” became a national obsession. Osius writes that, “America’s crippling economic embargo on Vietnam after the Communist takeover, along with collectivized agriculture and two wars – in Cambodia and on the Chinese border, had led to economic ruin and famine in Vietnam.” (Important correction: The embargo was imposed on the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, or “North Vietnam”, in 1964, not 1975, using The Trading With the Enemy Act, created in 1917 as an anti-German tool.)
Not a critical word about the devastating effects of this embargo, including on people I know and love, only that “the possibility of ending the embargo incentivized the Vietnamese to cooperate on the POW/MIA effort,” (pp. 7-8), i.e., political pressure as leverage. Nor does Osius acknowledge that Vietnam has 300,000 MIAs while his country has fewer than a thousand, an issue I addressed in a 2021 essay Of Class Rings, Bone Fragments and Fish Ponds: the Interminable Search for US MIAs in Vietnam.
One Million People?
Osius’s nose grew a bit longer when he reminisced about President Obama’s 2016 visit to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). In an April 2018 article Respect, Trust and Partnership: Keeping Diplomacy on Course in Troubling Times, which he wrote for the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), Osius shared that “a three-year tour as ambassador in Hanoi was the high point of my 30-year career in the Foreign Service and the honor of a lifetime. The high-water mark of that tour was hosting President Barack Obama during a history-making visit to Vietnam. In Ho Chi Minh City one million people turned out to welcome him, and I knew we had done something right.”
The wildly exaggerated figure of one million, which he repeated in his memoir (p. 206), is reminiscent of Trump administration estimates of the malignant narcissist-in-chief’s inauguration attendance, conjuring up visions of Sean Spicer lying through his teeth in his White House press briefings. Crowd estimates of Obama’s visit to HCMC in international media reports ranged from “thousands” to “tens of thousands,” a far cry from one million.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)
His treatment of the TPP, which one observer referred to as “a Trojan horse cobbled together by a thousand lobbyists and corporate CEOs, and members of Ginny Foote’s US-Vietnam Trade Council” was fawning and superficial. Osius provided no background information about the implications of this trade agreement.
As in other countries, it would have subjected the Vietnamese to binding trade dispute settlements in which US companies could have overruled and abrogated Vietnamese law if it were not in line with TPP provisions, essentially giving up its sovereignty.
The Kerrey Affair
Osius’s “high point” and “honor of a lifetime” were sullied and marred by the dishonor and disgrace of the Kerrey debacle in 2016. During President Obama’s May 2016 trip to Vietnam, then Secretary of State John Kerry announced the appointment of Bob Kerrey as chairman of the Fulbright University Vietnam board of trustees aka chief fundraiser. That surreal announcement ushered in a season of diplomatic discontent and strain.
For someone who has consistently chosen the side of the oppressed over the oppressors and the victims over the victimizers, I would characterize this act as the low point of Osius’s career, not just his term as ambassador. I remember when Vietnamese journalists reached out to me for my reaction. I was busy at a conference in the US, but I did have time late one night to fire off an email telling them I thought Kerrey’s appointment was, in a word, disgraceful.
A month later, I penned an article entitled Bob Kerrey and Fulbright University – What were they thinking? that was widely read and translated into Vietnamese literally overnight. While his name does not appear in my essay, Ted Osius, who played a key role in Kerrey’s appointment, was one of the “they” to whom I was referring.
I wrote that, “While the focus should be on the FUV and the challenges ahead, including fundraising, the spotlight is squarely on the controversial selection of Kerrey and that tragic night in Thanh Phong in the Mekong Delta.”
You may recall that Kerrey led a squad of Navy SEALS who killed up to 21 civilians with automatic weapons and knives in a Phoenix program operation in the village of Thanh Phong in the Mekong Delta in February 1969, a massacre for which he was awarded the Bronze Star. This is how Kerrey recalled that war crime in his memoir, When I Was a Young Man (Harcourt Books 2002): “I saw women and children in front of us being hit and cut to pieces. I heard their cries and other voices in the darkness as we made our retreat to the canal.” It was Kerrey who gave the order to open fire and cut the women and children to pieces.
In a 2001 CBS 60 Minutes interview, Gerhard Klann, one of the seven SEALS under Kerrey’s command, said that Kerrey kneeled on the chest of one old man, a 65-year-old grandfather who was “putting up a fight” while Klann pulled his head back and slit his throat.
That’s really the heart of the matter. Bob Kerrey, a self-confessed war criminal, as chair of the board of trustees of a US-supported university in Vietnam named after Senator J William Fulbright? What parallel universe do people like Osius inhabit? They either do not comprehend the implications of selecting such a polarising figure for such an important position, or do not care. Could it be that sense of superiority and exceptionalism that distinguishes nationalists from patriots, what Fulbright wrote about so eloquently and passionately in The Arrogance of Power?”
Who was Ted Osius with, in this instance? Was it the victims who were murdered in cold blood with automatic weapons and knives, and whose cries and Kerrey and his men heard in the darkness as they made their retreat to the canal, or the victimizers?
Did Osius view this callous and insensitive decision to appoint someone with Kerrey’s bloodstained record to a prominent position in a binational university as a kind of tradeoff? Where was the seasoned diplomat who took all points of view into consideration, especially those of the host country he claims to love and respect, knowing it’s not all about us(A)?
I brought up this issue in a 2018 email exchange with Osius:
“What did you think about Kerrey’s appointment to that position? As AMB at the time, I assume you were consulted, if not directly involved in that discussion. Did you support it? Did you express concern? If it was the former, why?
What I’ve discovered in all of this is how invisible the victims of that massacre are, both the dead and the living. To be perfectly honest, that is my main motivation, not ‘sticking it’ to any individual or institution. The tendency of most people involved with this issue to completely ignore them is both heartless and morally reprehensible. Your thoughts?”
The response I received was… silence. My guess is that he either nodded approvingly or looked the other way while Kerrey’s appointment was being discussed, finalized, and proposed to then Secretary of State Kerry and President Obama. There was no known hint of opposition. In either case, Osius is complicitous in that monumental ethical and PR blunder.
Open Gay Ambassador as Role Model
Osius’s novelty status as one of a short list of openly gay US ambassadors turned out to be one of his strengths. While the LGBT issues are being discussing with increasing frequency in Vietnam, including on social media, it was not too long ago that they were taboo in a more conversative time. On the other hand, Vietnam is a still a country in which many gay men succumb to societal pressure to get married and end up living a lie, similar to gay men of my parent’s generation.
In one touching passage, Osius writes about a young Vietnamese man who visited his residence and asked if he would take a selfie with him. “Later, he wrote to tell me that he had returned to his conservative, rural home province and shared the photo with his father. When he told his father that I was gay, his father replied, ‘That’s not possible. The American ambassador could not be gay.’ The young man then showed his father the photo of my family with President Obama. At that moment, the young man wrote, his father began the journey toward acceptance of his own gay son.” (p. 208)
Madison Avenue Ted
In the Gospel According to Ted, his stand against President Donald Trump’s cruel and inhumane immigration policy cost him his job, an issue he highlights in Nothing Is Impossible. Shortly before President Donald Trump’s visit to Vietnam in November 2017, the White House requested that Osius leave his post and the country within six days.
Was Osius going to be given the boot because of his steadfast opposition to Donald Trump? The answer is yes and no. US ambassadors normally serve a three-year term. He was appointed on December 10, 2014, presented his credentials in Hanoi six days later, and headed for the exit on November 4, 2017. Osius resigned from the State Department on November 9, 2017, and claims in his book that “by the summer of 2017, I had concluded that I could not work for the Trump administration any longer.” (p. 217)
That means his term was over in a month, anyway. The obvious question is why didn’t he resign earlier if he was so concerned about the deportations. It was not an issue that suddenly reared its ugly head in the waning days of his tenure.
What Happened to Fulbright University Vietnam?
Given his affinity for Vietnam and the lucrative non-governmental employment opportunities waiting in the wings, Osius took the logical step of resignation over disruption and humiliation. Sure enough, Fulbright University Vietnam (FUV) issued a press release at the end of November 2017 stating that Osius had been appointed vice president with a starting date of January 1, 2018.
He resigned from that position six months later.
Osius was probably asked to a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) on his way out the door, hence the silence and omission. Those of us who are familiar with the inner workings of FUV, including the Bob Kerrey scandal, can probably guess why he resigned after only six months, but that’s grist for another mill.
Of Glass Houses and Stones
What would Nothing is Impossible be without the de rigueur and Orwellian references to human rights? This is a core issue official US is fond of paying lip service to but has violated on a wholesale basis – both domestically and internationally – throughout its short history. Here’s an excerpt about the 1997 visit of his old boss, the late Madeleine Albright to Vietnam when he was a political officer at the US Embassy in Hanoi.
The Secretary’s visit wasn’t all celebration though. She met the Communist Party’s eighty-year-old General Secretary, Đỗ Mười, in Independence Palace, once the home of South Vietnam’s presidents. As note-taker, I appreciated Madeleine’s direct and forthright manner as she pressed the old war leader on his country’s miserable human rights record. Đỗ Mười wasn’t accustomed to being challenged in this way, but he knew he had to engage with her if Vietnam hoped to have a relationship with the United States. (p. 34)
This is the pot calling the kettle black. While Vietnam has its issues, it can’t hold a candle to the government that Albright and Osius represented, one of the world’s most prolific and egregious human rights violators and the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today” when Martin Luther King, Jr. uttered those words and 55 years later. The entire war, in which the lives of 3.8 million Vietnamese were snuffed out, countless others tortured, traumatized, and displaced, was a human rights violation of the nth degree.
Osius writes elsewhere, presumably with a straight face, “From my first day at the embassy, I told our nine hundred staff members, ‘we are all human rights officers.’ I wanted every member of our team to know that America’s human rights requests for Vietnam were written on the card that was always in my shirt pocket.” (p. 170) What about the “human rights requests” of the USA’s legion of victims, past and present, both the living and the dead?
Osius shows that, like most of his fellow citizens, he, too, is afflicted with a chronic case of moral equivalence. He writes that, “America’s involvement in Vietnam caused terrible suffering on all sides,” which trivializes the disproportionate scale of suffering. Millions of Vietnamese were killed as a direct result of the war and millions of others continue to suffer because of war legacies. (p. 254)
The Measure of the Man
Ted Osius’s familiarity with the host culture and his Vietnamese proficiency helped him connect with many people from different walks of life. However, as the book reveals, his time in Vietnam was mostly spent among his small circle of expat and Vietnamese friends. As someone who worked with two and has lived through four other US ambassadors, including Michael Marine, Michael Michalak, David Shear, and Daniel Kritenbrink, it was clear that Osius was more style than substance.
One Vietnam observer expressed surprise at how superficial the book was. She had expected “much more political and policy substance, depth and context – what the Vietnamese suffered at the hands of America, the consequences of the war, real difficulties and impediments in reconciliation based largely on America’s dishonesty, and refusal to face harsh truths – but most of that was missing other than passing references to ‘putting the past behind us’ which conveniently absolved us Americans of any real responsibility or understanding of what happened”.
While America’s reconciliation with Vietnam was not impossible, the ability to decipher the objective truth about his country’s history and its role in the world, and to care about the implications, appear to be beyond Ted Osius’s grasp. To paraphrase a quote from a 2020 Tweet about Trumpism, Ted and I don’t have a difference of opinion; we have a difference in morality.
Another described Osius this way: “He’s a nice guy. He was fine as ambassador when the duties were mainly keeping the seat warm. He and Clayton (his husband) were photogenic and caught the spotlight at precisely the right moment in political and cultural history to be local Facebook stars. But I don’t see much of an imprint he’s left behind other than a nice smile and no scandals or embarrassments.”
An embassy staffer noted that there were other ambassadors who were much better, for example, David Shear, who was seen as far more knowledgeable and capable than Osius, who was viewed as shallow and out of his depth. A favorable image can camouflage a lot of deficiencies.
A Vietnamese American acquaintance emailed me to say that he found himself agreeing with me “heartily about the lack of integrity in the Osius book. I find Ted and Clayton appealing as a family and as gay pioneers in the foreign service. They and their children are all very attractive posters. Yet the sycophancy and adherence to the horrible Madeleine Albright sticks in my craw.”
Words and Actions as Legacy
As I wrote in a November 2021 essay Former US Ambassador to Viet Nam Chooses Expediency Over Integrity Time and Again, while Ted Osius may have been one of the better US ambassadors to Vietnam since the normalization of diplomatic relations in 1995, his record is flawed and his memoir disingenuous, at best. I am reminded of the last of the Buddha’s Five Remembrances: “My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground on which I stand.” Osius cannot escape the consequences of his actions or inaction.They are part of the ground on which he will always stand, an immutable aspect of his legacy.
Nicely penned counterpoint to a facile book. I appreciate your pointing out facts and letting them speak for themselves.
Thank you. All in a day’s work. Someone has to jam Ted’s transmission, right?