United States Recognizes Vietnam Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

U.S. diplomatic recognition of Vietnam marked an end to the traumatic and divisive Vietnam War era.

Summary of Event

On July 11, 1995, President Bill Clinton announced the diplomatic recognition of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam by the United States. Recognition of Vietnam brought to a close a war that officially had ended more than twenty years before. In announcing his decision, Clinton said, “We can now move on to common ground. Whatever divided us before, let us consign to the past.” Diplomatic relations;U.S. and Vietnam Vietnam;U.S. recognition [kw]United States Recognizes Vietnam (July 11, 1995) [kw]Vietnam, United States Recognizes (July 11, 1995) Diplomatic relations;U.S. and Vietnam Vietnam;U.S. recognition [g]North America;July 11, 1995: United States Recognizes Vietnam[09280] [g]United States;July 11, 1995: United States Recognizes Vietnam[09280] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;July 11, 1995: United States Recognizes Vietnam[09280] Clinton, Bill [p]Clinton, Bill;U.S.-Vietnam relations[U.S. Vietnam relations] Carter, Jimmy [p]Carter, Jimmy;U.S.-Vietnam relations[U.S. Vietnam relations] Bush, George H. W. [p]Bush, George H. W.;U.S.-Vietnam relations[U.S. Vietnam relations] Kerrey, Bob McCain, John Vo Van Kiet

Concerning Vietnam, moving away from the past had proved a long and agonizing process for the United States. The Vietnam War Vietnam War (1959-1975) took the lives of more than fifty-eight thousand U.S. personnel between 1961 and the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975. The United States had hoped that the peace agreement of January, 1973, which provided for a cease-fire, withdrawal of foreign troops, return of prisoners of war, and a peaceful reunification of Vietnam, might prevent a communist takeover of all of Vietnam.

North Vietnamese forces, however, remained in South Vietnam after the agreement and, after consolidating their areas of control, launched an offensive in March, 1975, that would lead, by the end of April, to complete victory and establishment of one Vietnam, with Hanoi as its capital. The final resolution of the war intensified United States resentment toward Vietnam and made reconciliation with the former enemy even more difficult. An embargo on trade with North Vietnam, imposed in 1964, was extended to all of Vietnam. Nevertheless, President Jimmy Carter, elected in 1976, took some first steps toward a rapprochement by lifting the prohibition on travel to Vietnam, beginning discussions with the Vietnamese government, and accepting Vietnam as a member of the United Nations.

U.S. president Bill Clinton (left) and Vietnamese president Tran Duc Luong sit in front of a bust of Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi in 2000. Clinton’s visit marked the first time a U. S. president had visited Vietnam since 1969.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

These initial steps were halted by the Vietnamese demand in 1978 for reconstruction aid promised in the 1973 Peace Accords. Hostility between Vietnam and the United States was increased in the same year by a Vietnamese friendship treaty with the Soviet Union, recognition of the People’s Republic of China (Vietnam’s historic enemy) by the United States, and Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia. From the perspective of the United States, improved relations with Vietnam henceforth were dependent on that nation’s withdrawal from Cambodia, its recognition of an independent Cambodian government, commitment to basic human rights for its own citizens, and, most important, a strict accounting of all U.S. servicemen missing in action or taken prisoner in Vietnam.

The Vietnamese agreement in 1989 to withdraw from Cambodia opened the way for a sequence of steps that ultimately would lead to normalization of relations. In 1991, President George H. W. Bush defined the incremental steps, known as the “road map,” that Vietnam would have to take before the United States would grant diplomatic recognition. One of these steps, a peace agreement between Vietnam and Cambodia, was completed in October, 1991.

The United States reciprocated in 1992 by permitting U.S. companies to open offices in Vietnam. With the trade embargo still in effect, however, there was little incentive for companies to do so. The next significant development was Clinton’s decision in 1993 to end U.S. opposition to international institutions and other nations making money available to Vietnam. Soon afterward, U.S. businesses were declared free to bid on projects funded by international financial institutions, so that they would not be shut out of business opportunities partially financed by U.S. dollars.

Throughout the early 1990’s, the Vietnamese had been increasingly helpful in locating the remains of missing U.S. servicemen. Teams from the United States were permitted to search the Vietnamese countryside; and war records, including the archives of the war museum in Hanoi, were turned over to the United States.

One major step short of diplomatic recognition remained: lifting the trade embargo. Debate centered on several issues, including the economic implications of maintaining the trade embargo. The U.S. business community recognized Vietnam’s resources, including oil reserves estimated to be the fourth largest in the world and a labor force with one of the highest literacy rates in Southeast Asia. It also was obvious that other nations were gaining significant investment advantages in the country. Impediments to foreign investments also were recognized, among them inadequate distribution capabilities, state control of businesses, and both a market philosophy and legal system still in flux.

The continuing communist nature of the government and restrictions on individual rights raised concerns among many persons in the United States, but others noted that the United States had long done business with a variety of repressive regimes, including China. From a geopolitical perspective, it was argued that an economically strengthened Vietnam would be a counterbalance to Chinese domination in the region.

The most emotional issue surrounding the trade embargo and diplomatic recognition of Vietnam was continuing uncertainty over the fate of U.S. troops still listed as missing in action or known to have been taken prisoner. Many viewed the trade embargo as a means to pressure the Vietnamese government into cooperating on the issue of prisoners of war Prisoners of war, Vietnam War (POWs) and those missing in action (MIAs). On the other hand, many argued that improving relations with Hanoi would both reward the country for past cooperation and encourage future efforts.

On February 3, 1994, President Clinton announced an end to the U.S. trade embargo against Vietnam. This decision, Clinton stated, had been based on only one criterion: “gaining the fullest possible accounting for our prisoners of war and our missing in action.” He continued, “Today I am lifting the trade embargo against Vietnam because I am absolutely convinced it offers the best way to resolve the fate of those who remain missing and about whom we are not sure.” Lifting the embargo did not involve granting Vietnam most favored nation trade status, so tariffs on Vietnamese goods imported into the United States remained high. In addition, U.S. businesses operating in Vietnam would not have the support afforded by a U.S. embassy.

Diplomatic recognition was the next logical step, but it also excited controversy. The arguments for and against lifting the trade embargo, especially regarding POW/MIA issues, were also applied to normalization of relations. President Clinton’s announcement on July 11, 1995, was boycotted by the American Legion and by several family groups, including the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia. Members of Congress were divided, arguing either that recognition acknowledged Vietnam’s cooperation and would further the effort to reach as final an accounting as possible, or that it would remove the final incentive for Vietnamese cooperation.

As Clinton spoke, he was accompanied by politicians from both parties, including Republican senator John McCain, a former prisoner of war, and Democratic senator Bob Kerrey, who had lost part of a leg in combat during his tour of duty. “Never before in the history of warfare has such an extensive effort been made to resolve the fate of soldiers who did not return,” the president said. He promised that “normalization of our relations with Vietnam is not the end of [that] effort.”


Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet of Vietnam greeted the resumption of diplomatic relations with an expression of gratitude to President Clinton and a promise that Vietnam would continue to help the United States resolve questions concerning the fate of the missing U.S. servicemen. The U.S. business community generally welcomed the president’s decision but called for additional steps, such as granting most favored nation status to reduce tariffs and making insurance available from the Overseas Private Investment Corporation in order to protect U.S. investments. Diplomatic relations;U.S. and Vietnam Vietnam;U.S. recognition

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Castelli, Beth. “The Lifting of the Trade Embargo Between the United States and Vietnam: The Loss of a Potential Bargaining Tool or a Means of Fostering Cooperation?” Dickinson Journal of International Law 13 (Winter, 1995): 297-328. Provides a reasoned discussion of background, considerations involved in lifting the trade embargo, and projections for the future.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chang, Tim Tien-Chun. “Joint Ventures in Vietnam.” Commercial Law Bulletin 9 (July 1, 1994): 17-19. Offers succinct, clear explanations of types of investments and of challenges facing foreign investors in Vietnam.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Howes, Craig. Voices of the Vietnam POWs. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. Provides important context for understanding the continuing importance of the POW/MIA issue.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Moss, George Donelson. Vietnam: An American Ordeal. 5th ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 2006. Although no single book can adequately cover the story of American involvement in the Vietnam War, this work is among the most thorough available. Includes maps, bibliographic references, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Solomon, Richard H. Exiting Indochina: U.S. Leadership of the Cambodia Settlement and Normalization with Vietnam. Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace, 2000. Brief volume describes the diplomatic negotiations that led to U.S. recognition of Vietnam. Includes bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sutter, Robert G. Vietnam-U.S. Relations: The Debate over Normalization. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1992. Presents a detailed view of the political debate regarding normalization of relations with Vietnam.

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