What the Vietnamese Will Ask Kamala Harris When She Visits

Lecturing in Ho Chi Minh City recently, I learned how urgently bright young people there want to understand what’s happening here. Their future may depend on it.

When Vice President Kamala Harris travels to Vietnam later this month—the first sitting vice president to do so since 1962—she’ll meet a country hugely curious about the United States.

I say that based on my recent experience giving a series of lectures to Vietnamese students at Fulbright University Vietnam in Ho Chi Minh City.  As is often the case, my colleagues—journalists, pollsters, speechwriters, and media consultants—learned as much from students as we were able to teach. The questions we fielded were ferociously intelligent.

One line of inquiry was how the “American War” waged a half-century ago affected present-day U.S. attitudes. A student asked whether our country’s bad experience in Vietnam might explain the suspicions so many Americans harbor toward the Covid vaccine:

I would hope to hear more about the trust of the American people in the government. The political communication during the American war in Vietnam showed the people that what the government says might not be what they do.

Another student asked why we Americans didn’t learn a more basic lesson from our involvement in Vietnam:

If the United States is not going to stay in [a] country  – and they never will – they will never win the war.  Why does the United States keep repeating the same mistake from the Cold War to the intra-state conflicts in the Middle East?

The young people were deeply interested in racial relations here:

The 1619  Project of the New York Times was an initiative to reset the origin of American history.  Instead of 1776, the history of America went backs to as far as 1619, the year that 20 enslaved Africans were sold and sent to the British colony. What do you think about this act of rewriting or reconstructing American history?

There was also, hardly surprisingly, a concern about the situation of Asian-Americans today:

I do want to learn about what is going on with the current news sensation regarding hate crimes against Asian-Americans. I have been flabbergasted by the level of anti-Asian-American sentiment in the United States and the misleading portrayal of this community, to which many of my friends belong, by the U.S. media.

We heard the critique that the United States continues to view the world through the lens of Europe, and especially the country from which we won independence in the 18th century. One student contrasted that with American condescension toward “the ‘inferior, incomprehesible’ cultures.”

What truly stunned me was how sophisticated the students were about complicated media controversies in the U.S. that I wouldn’t have thought very likely to interest people living elsewhere. One student asked about the outrage voiced by staff at The New York Times over its decision to run an op-ed by a conservative Arkansas senator:

Is the situation regarding Tom Cotton … that people who are in higher positions should refrain from having an opinion?

Several students voiced concern about growing polarization in the American media:

When people only buy the kind of news that satisfies their emotions and reaffirms their beliefs, is the news today separating people?

The business model of the media is to capture attention from as many [people] as possible.  News headlines often exploit the “negativity bias” of humans.  What do you think about this problem?  Should the practice be governed or should we allow the press to run freely?

In the past Democrats [were] for the working class and Republicans [were] for the white elite…. Trump supporters , on average, are on the lower educational level.  Another phenomenon related to such social status is the rise of elitism, hatred, and envy against the people of the Ivy League and the rich.

It is scary how technology and the news today let people comfortably hear only what they want to hear.

Some students compared President Trump’s attacks on “fake news” to the actions of dictators in Russia and China.

What can be done to restrain powerful leaders from using the same strategy as when Trump says that the media is lying or when Putin and Xi Jinping censor the media?

I observed that not only Trump but also Putin applies the same strategy to talk about the South Western border clashes and Xi Jinping about the recent humanitarian crisis int he the Uighur.

Social media applies advanced technology to spread the news globally but without an editor. The concerns are not only in Communist Party countries such as Vietnam and China, but also nations with democratic political systems.

And:

Why is it that Trump’s repeated accusations, made without evidence-based data, are well received by some parts of the population?

On the other hand, there were questions about whether Twitter should have banned Donald Trump:

I am curious that [there] will be an increase in the government’s intervention in social media content in the US.

It’s remarkable how determined these young people living on the other side of the world are to keep up with our politics and our culture—especially when you consider how little effort most American intellectuals and politicians make to keep up with theirs. Vice President Harris should expect the same level of scrutiny—at least—by government officials she meets in Vietnam.

American politics matters in the classrooms and streets of Vietnam for the same reason it did in the 1960s and 1970s: What happens in the United States has an impact on what happens in Vietnam. When that last U.S. vice president (Lyndon Johnson) visited Vietnam 59 years ago, it was to buck up a pro-Western ally in Saigon. Johnson saluted Ngo Dinh Diem as “the Churchill of Asia.” The following year, Diem would be assassinated in a coup that received tacit approval from the American ambassador, Henry Cabot Lodge, and planning assistance from the CIA.

Six decades later, Kamala Harris, born one year after Diem’s removal, will meet a far stronger ally with an entirely new set of concerns. United now north and south, the Republic of Vietnam faces an empowered, aggressive China and has a keen interest in finding global partners. No wonder the smart young Vietnamese students I met felt an urgent curiosity about the worldview and direction of the United States. For them, the subject is not just academic.

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Chris Matthews

Chris Matthew's long career as a political aide, author, broadcast host, and journalist includes a stint with the U.S. Capitol Police. Simon & Schuster published his memoir, This Country: My Life in Politics and History, on June 1. He is also the author of 2013’s “Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked.” Both books are published by Simon & Schuster.