“Nothing is Impossible” Finds It Impossible to Tell the Truth About Vietnam

Here’s my latest for CounterPunch. Thanks to Rutgers University Press for the review copy. Better late than never.

Here are some excerpts, including the two paragraphs followed by a section entitled The Measure of the Man.

Enjoy (or not)!

Just before the Lunar New Year, I finally received my review copy of Nothing is Impossible: America’s Reconciliation with Vietnam by Ted Osius, who served as US ambassador to Vietnam from 2014 to 2017. Consider the following a modest attempt to set the record straight about some of the actions Osius took – and failed to take – during his time in Hanoi and his post-State Department retirement.

What I quickly discovered in reading Nothing is Impossible is that it was impossible for the author to get the facts straight about an array of important issues. There were also notable sins of omission that cast him in a more positive light and gave him a pass on some of the low points of his tenure. 

The Measure of the Man

Ted Osius’s familiarity with the host culture and his Vietnamese proficiency helped him connect with many people from different walks of life. However, as the book reveals, his time in Vietnam was mostly spent among his small circle of expat and Vietnamese friends. As someone who worked with two and has lived through four other US ambassadors, including Michael Marine, Michael Michalak, David Shear, and Daniel Kritenbrink, it was clear that Osius was more style than substance.

One Vietnam observer expressed surprise at how superficial the book was. She had expected “much more political and policy substance, depth and context – what the Vietnamese suffered at the hands of America, the consequences of the war, real difficulties and impediments in reconciliation based largely on America’s dishonesty, and refusal to face harsh truths – but most of that was missing other than passing references to ‘putting the past behind us’ which conveniently absolved us Americans of any real responsibility or understanding of what happened”.

While America’s reconciliation with Vietnam was not impossible, the ability to decipher the objective truth about his country’s history and its role in the world, and to care about the implications, appear to be beyond Ted Osius’s grasp. To paraphrase a quote from a 2020 Tweet about Trumpism, Ted and I don’t have a difference of opinion; we have a difference in morality.

Another described Osius this way: “He’s a nice guy. He was fine as ambassador when the duties were mainly keeping the seat warm. He and Clayton (his husband) were photogenic and caught the spotlight at precisely the right moment in political and cultural history to be local Facebook stars. But I don’t see much of an imprint he’s left behind other than a nice smile and no scandals or embarrassments.”

An embassy staffer noted that there were other ambassadors who were much better, for example, David Shear, who was seen as far more knowledgeable and capable than Osius, who was viewed as shallow and out of his depth. A favorable image can camouflage a lot of deficiencies.

A Vietnamese American acquaintance emailed me to say that he found himself agreeing with me “heartily about the lack of integrity in the Osius book. I find Ted and Clayton appealing as a family and as gay pioneers in the foreign service.  They and their children are all very attractive posters. Yet the sycophancy and adherence to the horrible Madeleine Albright sticks in my craw.”

Shalom (שלום), MAA

3 thoughts on ““Nothing is Impossible” Finds It Impossible to Tell the Truth About Vietnam

  1. Some of my favorite comments. Thanks for reading!

    Great book critique. Osius seems odious.

    You nailed it accurately and undiplomatically. (😉)

    The subjects you write about from time to time contain much outrageous and sad information. The clarity and credibility of your position, the morality of it, without rancor, brings me, in a way, “happiness” because the exposure of the unvarnished truth about American actions in Vietnam (and alas almost everywhere else) by an American, especially for the Vietnamese, is important. Important for their souls, their inner being, their spirits. Mine, too. I am proud to know you.

    Disproportionate indeed. How maddening those numbers and exacting cruelty are never truly acknowledged. If a similar war memorial was built for their war dead, it would be nine miles long with conservative estimates. Some say five million war dead. Add another three miles. I was a boy when this was happening. It still disturbs me to this day.

    Boy, you sure land a few punches there — and I sure can’t disagree, especially your take on America’s world view & actions.

    On the nose for me. You are unusual if not a total exotic as an American-raised person of your vintage, in being able to see the world other than with American rose-tinted glasses.

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