Richard Holbrooke's Missed Opportunities with Vietnam

As Obama struggles to escape from a Vietnam war-like morass in Afghanistan, Dick Holbrooke's talent and counsel will be missed.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

Obama's policy proposals--whether on climate change, energy, Africa, Cuba, or Iran--are forward-leaning; he proposes adjusting old and static policies to new and evolving realities.

-- Richard Holbrooke, Foreign Affairs September/October 2008

The sad and unexpected passing of Richard Holbrooke brings to mind our periodic contact related to Indochina.

Holbrooke served as Assistant Secretary of State for Asian and Pacific Affairs during the Carter Administration and was involved in its futile effort to normalize relations with Vietnam seventeen years before Bill Clinton.

Given today's warm economic and strategic relationship between the US and Vietnam, it is hard to recall that post-war US attitudes were at least as harsh as today's prevailing views of Cuba.

When Carter first took office he boldly tried to heal the wounds of war by sending a commission to Vietnam in March 1977 led by Leonard Woodcock, then head of the United Autoworkers, later the first US ambassador to China. Woodcock and his union had actively opposed the US war in Indochina. He was prepared to offer Vietnam membership in the UN, normalization of relations and the end of the unilateral US embargo, asking only cooperation on American soldiers missing in action.

However Vietnam demurred absent US fulfillment of a promise made by President Nixon during the peace negotiations to provide $3.6 billion in reconstruction assistance.

Holbrooke followed up in May at a meeting with Vice Foreign Minister Phan Hien in Paris. He told Hien that the US was ready to announce on the spot normalization of relations without preconditions. Much to their later regret the Vietnamese reiterated privately and publicly that normalization required addressing the destruction of the war.

In subsequent personal conversations, Holbrooke insisted the Vietnamese were misled by Americans from the anti-war movement to believe they had enough moral and political support in the US to hold out for both normalization and aid. Certainly it was not a view I had conveyed to the Vietnamese during my encounters as a staff member of the American Friends Service Committee and I could never find any of their US interlocutors who acknowledged having given such advice.

Vietnamese friends, including Phan Hien, later acknowledged their negotiating position had been a big mistake but insisted it was entirely due to internal debate and their conviction of US legal obligation.

In September 1978 Holbrooke returned to negotiations with the Vietnamese in New York, represented by Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach. Thach said Vietnam was prepared to accept the US position of normalization without preconditions. However, it was Holbrooke's turn to demur.

Carter had become heavily influenced by National Security Adviser Zbibgniew Brzezinski's view that normalization with China must come first as part of his anti-Soviet strategy. Holbrooke and his boss Secretary of State Vance insisted afterwards that the boat people exodus, Vietnam's preparation to oust the Khmer Rouge from Cambodia, and its closer relations with Russia led to the US reversal, not Brzezinski's machinations.

Other factors in the crucial delay, with echoes of Cuba policy today, were wanting to wait until after the mid-term elections and disregarding the pro-normalization views of Vietnam's neighbors in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

After Vietnam invaded Cambodia in December, responding to brutal Khmer Rouge border attacks, the US aligned with Beijing against Hanoi. Holbrooke implemented American strategy to isolate Vietnam and to rebuild the Khmer Rouge as a means of military pressure. He personally persuaded Prince Sihanouk to not seek asylum in the US and to continue as the titular leader of the KR dominated Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea so that it continued to hold Cambodia's seat in the UN. Holbrooke successfully pressured European and international aid agencies to end or not provide development assistance to Vietnam or to post-KR Cambodia.

By 1985 however, Holbrooke challenged Rep. Steve Solarz' plan to provide overt military aid to anti-Vietnamese forces in Cambodia. Elizabeth Becker in her invaluable book When the War Was Over, quotes Holbooke that Solarz' proposal was "highly irresponsible in terms of its impact on the people involved, and it still raises in my mind deep moral questions about connections with the Khmer Rouge."

From 2002 to 2009 Richard Holbrooke served as chair of the Asia Society, an organization which has made a significant contribution to the development of full and successful US relations with both Vietnam and Cambodia. Occasionally our paths crossed at its events and we found we still disagreed about whether the US rebuff of Vietnam in 1978 was necessary or had missed a history changing opportunity.

Our last contact by e-mail in September 2008 related to our shared enthusiasm for the positions on foreign policy espoused by candidate Barack Obama as Holbrooke had articulated in thehuffingtonpost. He pointed me to the Foreign Affairs article cited above.

As Obama struggles to escape from a Vietnam war-like morass in Afghanistan, Dick Holbrooke's talent and counsel will be missed.

I often wonder whether Holbrooke ever had an opportunity to share with the President the passing comment he made to me at the Asia Society that the US needed to follow a different path with Cuba.