This week marks the 50th anniversary of the Tet Offensive, when the communist North Vietnamese launched synchronized, simultaneous attacks on multiple targets in U.S.-backed South Vietnam. Although the offensive did not achieve its goal of swiftly defeating the South, it made clear that the U.S. would not be able to put an end to the North’s threat easily.
The Vietnamese war dragged on for another seven years — and at a cost of nearly 60,000 American and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese lives — before the U.S. withdrew completely from the conflict and Vietnam was reunified as a communist state.
Last week, Defense Secretary James N. Mattis concluded a visit to Hanoi, once the capital of North Vietnam and today that of unified Vietnam. He called the leaders of the Vietnamese government “like-minded partners” and predicted an even brighter future for the partnership.
It was announced as well, by both U.S. and Vietnamese officials, that a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier, the USS Carl Vinson, is likely to visit Vietnam in March, the first time since the Vietnam war that an American military vessel of that size and class would be docking in Vietnamese waters.
In fact, the largest ship in Vietnam’s fleet is a former U.S. Coast Guard cutter, sold by our government to the communist nation last year.
On his trip, the American Defense Secretary met with Vietnamese president Tran Dai Quang, and the two held a press conference sitting side by side under a bust of Communist leader Ho Chi Minh, the North Vietnamese leader who first approved invasions of the South, and whose name was once synonymous with “enemy” in America. Mr. Mattis also met with Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong and thanked Vietnam for supporting U.N. sanctions against North Korea.
The high-ranking American visitor then paid his respects at one of Vietnam’s oldest pagodas, on a small island at the edge of a lake in Hanoi, a short distance from a concrete marker noting where Senator John McCain was shot down during a Navy attack mission over the city in 1967. McCain was retrieved from the lake and imprisoned at the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” prison and torture camp.
The Vietnam war was not ignored on Mr. Mattis’ visit. He expressed appreciation for Vietnam’s close support to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency mission in Hanoi, which works to recover U.S. personnel missing from the war.
The evolution in our country’s relationship with an erstwhile enemy is striking. The Defense Secretary addressed the change explicitly, telling his Vietnamese counterpart that “We recognize that relationships never stay the same. They either get stronger or they get weaker.” And, he added, “America wants a stronger relationship with a stronger Vietnam.”
The importance of Vietnam to the U.S. today lies in the fact that the Southeast Asian former enemy has been increasingly willing to challenge Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea, a strategic region for America and, increasingly, a zone to which China has lately laid claim, studding it with artificial islands that host radar arrays and military outposts, edging out Vietnam and other nations dependent on the waters for fishing and commerce.
The growing alliance between the U.S. and Vietnam is only one of numerous poignant examples of the ever-changing nature of geopolitics.
Germany, whose government once was the Third Reich, today is a staunch supporter of Israel’s security and maintains a close relationship with her, cemented by arms deals and intelligence sharing.
And Saudi Arabia, which in 1973 spearheaded an oil embargo against the U.S. because of American support for Israel, is now a full-fledged U.S. ally and has reportedly worked closely, if clandestinely, with Israel because of their shared enemy Iran.
Those examples are happy ones, but we know all too well that there is much evil in the world and that geopolitical changes can have dire as well as positive consequences. One need not be particularly old to remember the long and close relationship that Israel enjoyed with Iran before the Islamists forced the Shah to flee the country in 1979.
In the end, in geopolitics no less than in everyday life, the words of the Zohar we say when the Torah is taken from the aron, la al enash rachitzna” — “In no man do I put my trust” — ring true and important.
Until our galus ends, we can only applaud world-stage changes for the good and bemoan those that yield the opposite. But we can never truly feel more secure than any sheep wandering through a jungle.