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Feb 12, 2024


It was a moment when time seemed to evaporate, as if dawn and sunset were converging. A young Vietnamese diplomat, new to her post in the embassy’s political section, was trying to explain to older

It was a moment when time seemed to evaporate, as if dawn and sunset were converging. A young Vietnamese diplomat, new to her post in the embassy’s political section, was trying to explain to older American guests at a formal luncheon what she called her country’s resilient DNA.

Sitting across from her in the embassy’s grand dining room was an American man nearly 70 years her senior, who had served as a senior Pentagon official during the Vietnam War. Like most Americans who were involved in the war, he doesn’t talk about it much. But this was a special occasion, as I’ll explain.

The young diplomat said the war had touched her family, as it did everyone in Vietnam. She lost an uncle, a cousin, probably many more people than that. But by the time she was born, the family’s scars had healed and the war was mostly a distant memory. Her grandmother, who recalled the painful days, explained to her: “Life has to move on.” The young woman repeated the words for us.

The United States today is admired by about 90 percent of Vietnamese, another young Vietnamese diplomat said, adding that few foreign countries have such a level of support in Vietnam. Vietnamese people know about the horrors of war, the carpet-bombing of villages and the defoliation of jungles with Agent Orange. But time and growing trust in the United States have dulled what anger remains.

The setting for this encounter was timeless, in its way: a Beaux-Arts mansion along Embassy Row, with elegant parquet floors dating perhaps to the 19th century. The food reflected mostly the delicate flavors of Vietnam: lightly fried spring rolls of minced prawn; stir-fried mien glass noodles topped with crabmeat. And, for American tastes, pan-seared filet mignon.

This story of reconciliation between the United States and Vietnam should be a “case study,” taught at Harvard Business School, the young woman said. It teaches how conflicts are resolved. The older American man nodded. As it happened, he had begun his career as a junior instructor at the business school before he founded a company and then went to the Pentagon.

A third young Vietnamese diplomat offered a lesson from his country’s history. Vietnam prevailed in most of its wars through the centuries, he said. After the conclusion of these conflicts, Vietnam would often send emissaries to its former rivals, to soften the pain of their defeat. It was our fault, the emissaries would say. We regret any suffering. That was a way of allowing the other nation to save face and maintain respect.

The older ex-Pentagon official nodded at that, too. He said that America’s problem in Vietnam had been partly that it couldn’t see the war through its adversary’s eyes. He recalled that when the Viet Cong attacked a big U.S. military facility at Pleiku in February 1965, during a visit by national security adviser McGeorge Bundy, the Johnson administration responded by bombing North Vietnam, a sharp escalation.

The Pentagon’s retaliation mirrored its own thinking. The Pleiku attack was so provocative that officials believed it must have been ordered by Hanoi to coincide with Bundy’s visit. In fact, said the former U.S. official, it turned out the attack had been ordered by a local Viet Cong commander who had no idea who Bundy was. That brought nods of assent from the Vietnamese hosts. Wars often turn on misread signals.

So what was this special occasion? The lunch was hosted by Vietnamese Ambassador Nguyen Quoc Dzung. It was meant to celebrate a breakthrough moment that’s just ahead in the long and complicated journey of the United States and Vietnam.

President Biden plans to visit Hanoi on Sept. 10. During his trip, Vietnam will formally upgrade its diplomatic relationship with the United States. The visit will mark one of most important strategic realignments in the Indo-Pacific in recent years.

Biden will underline the theme of reconciliation by offering American help in finding the remains of the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese who went missing during more than a decade of war. That’s a reciprocal gesture, to match at last Vietnam’s help, starting more than 35 years ago, in finding the remains of Americans missing or killed in action.

Dzung toasted one special guest of honor at the lunch, Kurt Campbell, the National Security Council coordinator for the Indo-Pacific. Campbell has been the chief American architect of improvement in U.S.-Vietnam relations, traveling there repeatedly over the past two years. It was Campbell who asked the young diplomats at the table to describe their work, and their sense of how their country’s relationship with the United States had evolved.

Another guest of honor was the older man, the former Pentagon official. He’s named Paul Ignatius, now 102, and he’s my father. During the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, he served as assistant secretary and undersecretary of the Army, assistant secretary of defense and secretary of the Navy. He might be the oldest surviving presidential appointee who served in the Kennedy-Johnson Pentagon through the Vietnam years. He uses a walker now, but he spoke in a firm, measured voice.

As the lunch was ending, my father told a story about the aircraft carrier on which he served during World War II. He explained to the Vietnamese hosts how the USS Manila Bay, as his ship was called, had survived the ferocious Battle of Leyte Gulf, perhaps the greatest naval battle in history, and several subsequent Japanese suicide bombing attacks.

Many years after the war, my father recalled, he read in a newspaper that the Manila Bay was being towed to Japan as scrap metal to produce steel for Toyotas or other industrial products. It was his way of saying that life goes full circle. Like the young Vietnamese diplomat, my father journeyed back in time to grasp the significance of the present.

Some wounds never heal. But when Biden touches down in Hanoi, we should take a moment to remember how far the United States and Vietnam have come since their terrible conflict. If that pain can be overcome, almost anything is possible.