On days when the sky in Dang Xa, a village in North Vietnam, was a crisp shade of blue, 7-year-old Dang Dinh Quy would climb to the top of a tree to watch the United States bomber planes dodge the surface-to-air missiles bursting from the ground below. Dang is Vietnam’s ambassador to the United Nations, living and working in New York City, but he is returning to Vietnam at the end of February. He led his country in its two-year term in the Security Council, from 2020-2021, and twice served as the Council president.
He talked to PassBlue about his country’s experience in the Council and why the act of forgiveness is vital in world affairs.
Back in 1968, while the adults in the village understood that the US was at war with North Vietnam, Dang recently told PassBlue that he and his friends thought they were living on the edges of a wild game. “Especially when the first bombing began in 1965, 1968. For some time, we considered it a kind of interesting thing to experience,” he said in an interview recently. In short, the Vietnam War — now called the American War, in Vietnam — is the second-longest conflict in US history, lasting from 1954 to 1975. (Afghanistan is the longest war in American history.) What began as a joint effort by the governments of South Vietnam and the US to stop the North Vietnamese from establishing Communist rule in the South ended in the deaths of more than three million Americans, Vietnamese civilians and military combined.
Dang didn’t lose any of his immediate family to the fighting. However, when he reflected on the conditions of his childhood as a 61-year-old adult, informed by decades of work in foreign affairs and diplomacy, he said that he saw things differently than he did as a boy, now understanding the devastating impact war has on children. “When I think about Syria or Yemen, I immediately think about what happened in my childhood . . . and how difficult it was and how dangerous it was.”
Although it ended nearly 50 years ago, the Vietnam War made headlines again in August 2021, when, after 20 years of warring with the Taliban, the US, under the Biden administration, pulled its remaining troops out of Afghanistan, seemingly yanking the American rug of security away from thousands of defenseless Afghans. Described as chaotic and haphazard by most accounts, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan — and in the last stages, from Kabul, the capital — drew comparisons worldwide to the fall of Saigon in 1975 when the city, as the capital of South Vietnam, was captured by the North Vietnamese, prompting the US to evacuate its embassy in a dramatic rush photographed for the world to see. The sudden departure was a move that also sparked chaos and led to the abandonment of thousands of American allies.
Since being appointed the ambassador of Vietnam to the UN in July 2018, Dang not only led his country as an elected member of the Security Council from January 2020 through December 2021, but also as the Council’s rotating president twice, in January 2020 and in April 2021. During the two year-term, in addition to addressing numerous crises in the Middle East and Africa, the ambassador led debates on the military takeover in Myanmar; enabled the approval of Resolution 2573, on protecting indispensable civilian objects, such as hospitals and schools, during conflict; and reaffirmed the Council’s commitment to supporting the work of the UN Mine Action Service (Unmas), an office in the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations tasked with removing latent mines and other explosive devices left in war zones. The reaffirmation particularly resonates for the ambassador, given that unexploded ordnances are commonplace in the wake of war, especially in Vietnam.
According to the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor, which tracks explosive remnants of conflict, between 1975 and 2017, over 100,000 Vietnamese have either died or been seriously injured by latent mines and other hidden explosives.
In the last 20-plus years, relations between the US and Vietnam have normalized, making forgiveness possible, Dang said. Today, instead of trading bullets, the two countries reap the benefits of a bilateral trade relationship in goods that has grown from $451 million in 1995 to more than $60 billion in 2018. Over the last two years, when the Council met physically (before Covid-19 hit in March 2020 and in the last half of 2021), Vietnam sat next to the US at the horseshoe table in the Security Council, according to alphabetical order. They also sat next to each other as friends, and at one point Dang and Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield poignantly acknowledged the remarkable evolution of history.
PassBlue interviewed Dang via Zoom to learn more about his tenure in the Council and how Vietnam became unlikely partners in diplomacy with the US decades after the Vietnam War ended. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
PassBlue: In addition to serving as an elected member in the Security Council, Vietnam also held the presidency of the Council twice. When you look back on these experiences, what lessons did you learn? What surprised you?
Ambassador Dang: I found out to be the president is a big opportunity. Why is it a big opportunity? Because when you are the president, you have the chance to set the program of work, and you can take the lead on some issues that you want to put into the agenda . . . especially a country like Vietnam, because we are not in a region that has a lot of issues, like the Middle East or Africa.
PassBlue: It seems like it’s a lot of late nights. What time would you get up in the morning when you were in the Security Council?
Ambassador Dang: I keep a very normal [schedule] because the term lasts for two years. So we have to survive. And then we have to spend some time and energy for things that happen unexpectedly. In the Council, I think more than 40 percent of work is unexpected. It appears [on the schedule] by the additional program of work, or AOB [any other business]. AOB is the kind no one wants to do because it comes all of a sudden and we have no time to prepare. . . . So, you know it’s a kind of difficult job for everyone. Well, it is for me.
PassBlue: In April 2021, you participated in a civil society dialogue hosted by the World Federation of United Nations Associations, held for the Council president of the month. During the discussion, you were asked how Vietnam and the US transitioned from being foes to friends. You said, “Vietnam has a long history at war with many big powers, but at the end of the day, we’ve become friends . . . we have to set the past aside and look to the future. It’s the only way to settle issues peacefully.” Does setting aside the past mean forgiveness?
Ambassador Dang: I look at the meaning of forgiveness in the dictionary, because I am not an English speaker; a non-native speaker. Yes, forgiveness means that no resentment and no thoughts of revenge. Forgive but not forget. We still remember but remember so that we do not make it happen again, but not to remember to revenge anyone. You know, the champions from the Vietnamese side for the normalization [of relations with the US] were the veterans and those Vietnamese who lost family during the war. One champion was the late Prime Minister of Vietnam, Vo Van Kiet. He lost two of his sons, a daughter and his wife, in the 1960s. After him is another champion, former Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung of Vietnam. He himself joined the war in the 1960s. And he also lost his family members and relatives, but he is a very strong supporter [of reconciliation]. And from the United States side . . . John Kerry, John McCain and Jim Webb. They’re all veterans. So they agreed to put the past aside; but from our side, we think, forgive but not forget. We do not teach our children about the grievance about revenge. Because if we teach them that way, we could not live with anyone.
PassBlue: That seems like a hard thing to do, to forgive the US for its decades of bombing and devastation on the peninsula of Vietnam.
Ambassador Dang: I think it’s hard. . . . We have many emotional stories about [American and Vietnamese mothers who lost children during the war]. Years after the war ended, the mothers agreed to meet with each other in Vietnam to celebrate the victory of no more war. Not who won over who, but that the war has ended. And no more sons or daughters are sacrificed and leave their mothers alone. . . . It’s become a kind of tradition with myself and the Vietnamese people about reconciliation, about forgive the enemy after wartime . . . because if we live with the grievances, we cannot live our lives happily.