Retired Army Colonel Who Served in Vietnam Optimistic About Lifting of Arms Embargo

May 23, 2016

The Director of National Security Studies at Syracuse University says the full lifting of the arms embargo against Vietnam is long overdue.   WAER brings the unique perspective of a retired army colonel who served in South Vietnam.

Credit Perry-Castaneda library /

Bill Smullen hopes the diplomatic overture is the first of many steps that could also lead to a stronger economic and defense relationship with the country.

"Having had two tours in Vietnam,  when I returned from my second tour, I never anticipated that any time soon we would have any kind of a relationship with Vietnam."

Now decades later, Smullen says he’s encouraged by the opportunities is presents with Vietnam and also the position of the U.S. in that part of the world.  He says there’s been growing concern about China reclaiming islands in the South China Sea, along the entire coast of Vietnam.

"That's a major stretch of territory, and obviously sea, that has an impact on that country," Smullen said.  "I think they feel they are being overwhelmed with the Chinese island building, and we are not in favor of that, either."

But an NPR reporter in Hanoi has reported some in both the U.S. and Vietnam have argued the arms embargo should remain until the country improves its human rights record, especially the treatment of dissidents.  Smullen is optimistic that this is a just the start, not the end of that difficult conversation.

"The fact that the president is going to spend time in Vietnam suggests that human rights, corruption, and other issues which are not perfect in Vietnam  will likely be discussed," Smullen said.  "I think the president will, hopefully anyway, encourage them to do much better.  And good things can come from such a challenge."  

Despite those lingering concerns, the retired army colonel sees the lifting of the embargo as an important beginning to a relationship bonded by diplomacy, the economy, and defense. 

Bill Smullen is Director of National Security Studies at Syracuse University's Maxwell School.

"I don't hold any ill-will against the Vietnamese, even though I spent two years of my life fighting against the North Vietnamese," Smullen said.  "It just seems to be we're in a world today where relationships need to be forward- looking rather than more historical with regard to how they take shape."

And Smullen believes the feeling is mutual, especially since Vietnam’s population is so young.

"So many Vietnamese no longer harbor ill-will toward the United States  based on the activities of my era," Smullen said.  "That's past history, almost ancient history in the minds of the Vietnamese people.  I see this [lifting of the arms embargo] as a good thing."