Location of the longest war in American history, where nearly 60,000 American lost their lives, Vietnam has a long tradition of resistance to foreign powers seeking to influence its affairs. The Vietnamese achieved independence after 1,000 years of Chinese rule, and in the 19th century endured over 80 years of French imperial domination before expelling them. Though much of the country is hilly and even mountainous, rich agricultural land in the north and south are capable of feeding the populace.
Lay of the Land: Over 1,000 miles in length from north to south, Vietnam forms the eastern edge of the Indochinese Peninsula in Southeast Asia. It is bordered by China to the north, Laos and Cambodia to the west, the Gulf of Thailand to the south and west, and the South China Sea to the east. Vietnam has an area of 128,527 square miles, slightly larger than the state of New Mexico, or almost the size of Germany. Except for the coastal plains and two major river deltas – the Red River in the north and the Mekong in the far south – most of the country is dominated by the Annamese Cordillera mountain range. Specifically, level land covers no more than 20% of the country, while mountains account for 40%, and smaller hills another 40%. Tropical forests cover 42% of Vietnam, mountains and flatlands alike. Vietnam’s capital is Hanoi, with a population of 3.4 million, while the largest city is Ho Chi Minh City (which under the name Saigon was the capital of the French colony of Cochinchina from 1864 to 1948, and of South Vietnam from 1955 to 1975), where 6.6 million Vietnamese live.
Between 1954 and 1975, the US had close relations with South Vietnam, which was a client state of the US, and was fighting an undeclared war with North Vietnam. Between 1975 and 1995, relations between the reunified Vietnam and the US were hostile, though they thawed gradually following Vietnam’s decision in 1986 to reform its economic and political policies. In 1995, President Clinton announced the formal normalization of diplomatic relations with Vietnam. As diplomatic ties between the nations grew, the United States opened a consulate in Ho Chi Minh City, and Vietnam opened a consulate in San Francisco.
US relations with Vietnam have become increasingly cooperative and broad-based in the years since 1995. A series of bilateral summits have helped improve ties, including President Bush’s visit to Hanoi in November 2006, President Triet’s visit to Washington in June 2007, and Prime Minister Dung’s visit to Washington in June 2008. The two countries hold an annual dialogue on human rights, resumed in 2006 after a two-year hiatus. They signed a Bilateral Trade Agreement in July 2000, which went into force in December 2001. In 2003, the two countries signed a Counternarcotics Letter of Agreement, a Civil Aviation Agreement, and a textile agreement. In January 2007, Congress approved Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) for Vietnam. In October 2008, the US and Vietnam held political-military talks and policy planning talks to consult on regional security and strategic issues. Bilateral diplomatic engagement expanded at ASEAN and APEC, and with Vietnam’s January 2008 start of a two-year term on the UN Security Council.
Agriculture is by far the most important economic sector in Vietnam. The great majority of the population earns its income from farming. In addition, agriculture is the main source of raw materials for the processing industries and a major contributor to exports; by the late 1980s Vietnam was again exporting rice after years of shortages. The export of such seafood as shrimp, squid, crab, and lobster has become a growing source of foreign exchange. There also has been an increase in the number of commercial shrimp farms. The fledgling petroleum industry has grown steadily since oil extraction began in 1986. Food processing is the largest industrial activity in Vietnam. Seafood is processed for export, while coffee and tea are processed both for export and for domestic consumption. Beverages and a variety of condiments also are produced in significant quantities. Textiles are of increasing importance; silk production was revived in the 1990s after a period of decline.
The Socialist Republic of Vietnam is an authoritarian state ruled by the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV), which monopolizes political power. The most recent National Assembly elections, held in May 2007, were neither free nor fair, since all candidates were vetted by the CPV. Civilian authorities generally maintain effective control of the security forces.
The question of whether the Vietnamese government has continued to imprison American servicemen since the end of the war continues to be debated, though a Senate Select Committee on the subject, led by three Vietnam veteran Senators (John Kerry, John McCain and Robert Smith) found “no compelling evidence that proves that any American remains alive in captivity in Southeast Asia.”
Donald R. Heath
Le Cong Phung, a career diplomat, was born on February 20, 1948 in Thanh Hoa Province, Vietnam. He graduated from the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry’s School of Diplomacy in Hanoi in 1971. During his 37-year career, Ambassador Le Cong Phung served in various foreign service posts in England (1974-1977), China (1978-1980), Indonesia (1984-1987) and as Ambassador to Thailand (1993-1997). He served as Assistant Foreign Minister from 1999 until 2000. From 2000 through 2004, he acted as Chairman of the Committee on Border Affairs and as Chairman of the National Commission for UNESCO. He served as Deputy Foreign Minister between 2001 and 2004. Prior to becoming ambassador to the US, Phung was the First Deputy Foreign Minister, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ second ranking official, assisting Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister in the conduct of Vietnam’s foreign policy. He was appointed by President Nguyen Minh Triet as Ambassador to the US in October 2007. He speaks fluent English and French.
It took almost eight months after his nomination, but veteran Foreign Service officer David B. Shear officially became the ambassador to Vietnam, on August 4, 2011. Shear’s appointment was held up after Senators from both parties placed multiple holds on the diplomat’s confirmation, to protest problems that Americans have had with adopting orphans from Vietnam.
Michael W. Michalak, was born in Hamtramck, Michigan, in 1946. He earned a BS in physics from Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, in 1969, and an MS in the same field from the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC, in 1971. He received a second Master’s degree in Public Administration from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1981. A career Foreign Service Officer since 1972, Michalak has worked in Tokyo, Japan; Sydney, Australia; Islamabad, Pakistan; and Beijing, China; as well as Washington, DC, where he was assigned to the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, the Office for Japan and the Office of Chinese and Mongolian Affairs. He received a group award for valor for his actions in time of crisis when the US Embassy in Islamabad was burned down. Prior to becoming Ambassador to Vietnam, Michalak served as the US Senior Official to APEC, Bureau of East Asia Pacific Affairs, from 2005 to 2007. He was sworn in as Ambassador to Vietnam on August 10, 2007. He speaks Chinese and Japanese.