It is a familiar adage—never judge a book by its cover. And yet, the image on the jacket of Nothing is impossible, a golden sunrise over Vietnamese hills with a bicycle in the foreground, gives a remarkably accurate impression of the book’s contents. Ted Osius, bicycle diplomat and former American ambassador to Vietnam (2014–7), argues that states can forge close relationships despite fraught histories. He believes that learning to build trust and demonstrate mutual respect, while sometimes a slow and difficult process, can increase security and economic opportunity for both sides. Ted Osius’s book is a full-throated and optimistic endorsement of the ideals of liberal internationalism. It feels refreshing when, under President Donald Trump, cynical and transactional views dominated American national discourse.
The book is not a scholarly text, nor is it strictly a memoir. Indeed, the author features only lightly in the first chapters. Osius tells the story of US–Vietnamese relations by writing about the American and Vietnamese officials and influencers he knew and worked with, and the ordinary people he met on his travels. He humanizes the practice of international relations through anecdotes, character sketches and remembered conversations that bring his subjects to life. The book is a treasure trove of information for historians, particularly as most government records from this period are not yet publicly available. It will also fascinate readers with an interest in US foreign policy or the practice of diplomacy.
The war between Vietnam and America ended in 1975. Diplomatic ties were re-established 20 years later. Osius’s work illustrates the struggle undertaken by many people, including veterans of the war, to move beyond resentment and toward reconciliation. Osius had more access to Americans, who consequently dominate the narrative. But he also relates with sensitivity the difficulties faced by his Vietnamese counterparts in engaging with a former enemy. He describes the enormous dedication and high-mindedness of early leaders who put the painful past behind them. Pete Peterson, the first American ambassador to postwar Vietnam, had been there before as a prisoner of war. So too had Senator John McCain, a vociferous advocate for reconciliation despite having been tortured in captivity.
In the early days of re-engagement, Americans were eager to locate soldiers listed as missing in action whereas the Vietnamese were concerned with the clean-up of unexploded ordinance and dioxin, a defoliation agent that was used by Americans during the war. Both inflicted terrible and enduring damage on the population. Osius brings the importance of these issues home with stories of the people he met, like Ngo Thien Khiet, a demining team leader who was killed by a cluster bomb, and Le Minh Chau, a young artist born disabled after his mother was exposed to dioxin. Both governments made efforts to facilitate the other’s priorities. With time, the bilateral dialogue expanded beyond war legacies to encompass migration, human rights, trade links and security cooperation.
As Osius sees it, the steady progress in relations over decades stalled during the Trump administration. He illustrates Trump’s disregard for diplomacy with an anecdote: during a five-minute briefing session before his meeting with then Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Trump interrupted to make a schoolboy joke about Vietnamese names. Then, having made an off-the-cuff demand for trade parity, the US president lost interest in the conversation and walked away. Osius laments the damage done under President Trump, especially America’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement and what he calls a racially based decision to deport Vietnamese refugees long resident in the United States. Still, the author ends on a hopeful note. Existing personal relationships and shared interests, most notably security concerns regarding China in the South China Sea, will allow close relations to continue despite recent challenges.
It is easy to look back and see past events as inevitable. But they do not feel so at the time. Osius’s book reminds us of how fresh the wounds of war felt to both sides in the 1990s. The book ends its narrative shortly after Osius’s resignation as ambassador in 2017. This leaves readers to wonder about the author’s impressions of recent events not included in the epilogue. The book went to press in 2022, a year after America’s withdrawal from its long war in Afghanistan and the re-establishment of the Taliban regime there. Although the cases and countries are worlds apart, the stories in this volume help us imagine how, gradually, a future reconciliation might be built between the peoples and governments of the United States and Afghanistan. As the slow, sometimes painful, and very human process of diplomacy shows us, nothing is impossible.
Trinh “Sky” Pham’s family honor to meet Ambassador Ted Osius at the event highlighting the launch of his new book in Orange County, California in 2022.