Vietnam is the nuclear option of historical analogies. Yet, rather than fear that Afghanistan will become another Vietnam, we should embrace the prospect. If the U.S. relationship with Afghanistan eventually resembles the one we now have with Vietnam, we should be overjoyed. Little more than a generation after a bloody, frustrating war, Vietnam and the United States have become close partners in Southeast Asia, exchanging official visits, building an important trading and strategic relationship and fostering goodwill between governments, businesses and people on both sides.The lessons of the Vietnam War are clear and sobering, but history does not end in 1975, when the last American diplomats fled Saigon. Once large-scale fighting ends in Afghanistan, Washington should strive for the kind of reconciliation it has achieved with Vietnam. America did not win the war there, but over time it has won the peace. As unlikely as it seems today, the same outcome is possible in Afghanistan......Today, however, 76 percent of Vietnamese say U.S. influence in Asia is positive, according to a 2008 study by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs -- a greater percentage than in Japan, China, South Korea or Indonesia. When President Bill Clinton visited Vietnam in 2000, citizens greeted him like a rock star, mobbing him whenever he stepped out in public. Two-way trade now surpasses $15 billion annually, compared with virtually nothing in 1995, the year the two countries normalized diplomatic ties. American companies have descended upon Vietnam, and last year foreign direct investment in the country tripled compared with 2007.
U.S. Navy ships now call at Vietnamese ports, and the two governments have institutionalized high-level exchanges, including a 2003 Pentagon visit by Vietnam's defense minister -- the highest-level Vietnamese military trip to Washington since the war. Following up on Clinton's visit, President George W. Bush traveled to Vietnam in 2006; the previous year, Bush welcomed Vietnamese Prime Minister Phan Van Khai on a visit to America.
Why the dramatic reversal? Time helped, certainly: Just as Americans will forget Mohammad Omar, eventually the images of tortured American POWs and massive bombing of the Vietnamese countryside began to fade on both sides. But more important, American war veterans publicly made peace with their old adversaries. In the Senate, vets John Kerry and John McCain pushed for the normalization of ties between the nations in the 1990s. And on the ground in Vietnam, groups of veterans met with civilians from the areas where they had served. These meetings had a profound impact on Vietnamese public opinion.Hanoi reciprocated American goodwill and allowed a U.S. investigative commission to scour the country for any remaining prisoners of war, a major concern of the U.S. veterans community. The commission reported in 1993 that it had found little evidence that any POWs remained. The report, more than any other gesture, helped bring the American public on board for reengaging with Hanoi.