Remarks by Ramu Damodaran, Co-Chair of the United Nations Centennial Initiative and First Chief of the United Nations Academic Impact

Dec 4, 2022News

Harvard University Loeb House, November 23, 2022


Note: I am indebted to the memoir of Vu Quoc Tuan for many of the insights into this remarkable life and career.

Imagine if you left home one morning, said goodbye to your spouse and children, and learned a few hours later that they had been killed in a bombing raid, their bodies never to be recovered.

Most of us would have allowed that destruction of our lives to imbue us with a sense of hate, of anger, of revenge. Who among us would reach out to those whom we considered our enemies and work with them to create reconciliation, to restore trust, to nurture friendship?

One individual did. His name was Vo Van Kiet. As Prime Minister of Viet Nam from 1991 to 1997, he reciprocated the decision of the Clinton administration in the United States to lift embargos against Viet Nam in 1994 with the normalization of diplomatic relations the following year.

As the Foreign Minister of Viet Nam told the United Nations General Assembly that year “The lifting by the United States of the embargo imposed upon Viet Nam has opened up new prospects for building and broadening multi-faceted cooperation between our two countries in the interests of the two peoples and in the service of peace, stability, cooperation and development in the region and throughout the world.”

This was also an affirmation of what Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet had said at an ASEAN summit, “gone are the dark days for the Southeast Asian region.” In always looking to the future, rather than regretting or reliving the past, he brought to life five important principles that informed his national and world view.

One: That “unity in diversity” was the driving force to attain national, regional and global aspirations. He gave voice to this in Viet Nam itself, when he spoke of the need to respect those in his own country who had supported invading forces during the war so that full national reconciliation could take place. He gave voice to this in ASEAN where he spoke not of uniformity but a respect by each nation of the independence and sovereignty of other nations. And he gave voice to this globally when he established the “consultative group for reform” which included scholars originally from Viet Nam but working at the United Nations, Germany and Japan, among others.

After he met with then-Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa in Tokyo in March 1992, Japan resumed its ODA to Vietnam in November 1992 ($370 million) and indicated willingness to provide grants and loans to help repay Vietnam’s debt to the International Monetary Fund. To assist with Vietnam’s market reforms, Tokyo announced in October 1993 that it would send a team of legal experts to help in drafting commercial and investment laws. This set into motion a pattern of bilateral cooperation which continued to be nurtured in later years, including during the Prime Ministership of Shinzo Abe, whom we also mourn today.

Vo Van Kiet was a champion of inner party democracy which he saw as a prerequisite for drawing wisdom from the people, a “subsidy” that could propel the country forward, informing his assertion that democracy needed to be promoted in the Party to ensure freedom of thought.

Two: Seeking unconventional means of communication and dialogue. He was an accessible and respectful leader, listening, in particular, to members of the creative community. His former assistant Vu Quoc Tuan has recalled how poet   Nguyen Duy once read to him a poem which had criticisms of government functioning which he appreciated and took on board.

Vu Quoc Tuan also cites the case of Dong Thap Muoi where rice was annually cultivated in only a single crop; in certain localities, rice yield was less than 1 ton a hectare. He directly met farmers, came to each field, wading through the mud to ask them what should be done to improve production and then made the breakthrough decision to build the irrigation system. As a result, paddy production in the Mekong River Delta was raised from 4.6 million tons in 1976 to 16.7 million tons in 2000 and the Mekong River Delta became the largest granary in Vietnam.

Three: what Governor Michael Dukakis has called an “open door policy” to integrate with the world, in parallel with national reconciliation at home. Too many nations have sought to reach out to the outside world, for reasons of politics or commerce, while ignoring the need for cohesion and unity at home.

Vo Van Kiet’s Vietnam was an exception; he brought together his nation’s north and south as assuredly as he reached out to west and east. He directed the construction of a 500kV North-South Transmission Line, contributing to regulating the power volume throughout the country and, as important, symbolizing the true reunification of the country. This was done through what is described as “the guerrilla method”: dividing the span into several sections, setting the poles simultaneously, and then assembling the sections together. The line was expected to take four years to build, but it was completed in two years.

The line was also an affirmation of the power of youth; young people were the main force in the construction of electric poles, pulling wire and addressing the many other necessary tasks. Many sections were assigned to the Ho Chi Minh Communist Youth Union or the Da Nang Youth Volunteers Association. Vu Quoc Tuan recalls the days when he and the Prime climbed to the high mountain peaks to inspect the construction of electric poles and pulling of the wires. The young people gathered around “uncle Sau” like a family member. During a visit to the people constructing the Line on occasion of the Lunar New Year, he spoke to every person, asking them about their family, about the food and drinking water, reminding them of the cakes on Tet holiday. He was enthusiastically cheered.

As relations normalized, several travel agencies in Little Saigon in California reported up to a 50% increase in inquiries about trips to Vietnam.

Si Duong, a 42-year-old Garden Grove businessman, looked forward to diplomatic normalization bringing him back to his homeland for the first time since the fall of Saigon. “I have waited 20 years to see my parents,” he said.

Four: invigorating the ethic of “doi moi”, or renovation, with a truly entrepreneurial spirit which allowed the private sector to realise its ambitions and the public sector to seek unexplored areas of adventure. Again, to quote the Vietnam Foreign Minister, the core of this reform and renewal was the development of a multi-sector economy operating through a market mechanism and employing State regulation at the macro-economic level with a view to maintaining the country’s socio-economic stability, along with the step-by-step establishment of a state of law of the people, by the people and for the people.

The reform and renewal process achieved important initial results. The average annual growth rate of gross national product for the three years from 1991 to 1993 was 7.3 per cent; for the first six months of 1994, the rate rose to 8%.

In parallel, an inclusive policy to harness the skills of the young, mirrored in his famous statement “no one can choose their parents.” Youth had traditionally been inspired by a song whose refrain ran “If you are human, I will die for the country.” Today’s homeland, the Prime Minister said, does not require every young person to die for it. Rather it requires him or her to live and live meaningfully. And so, the refrain should be corrected as “If I am a human, I have to live for the homeland.” Living is not parasitic, living is to work”.

After April 30, 1975, when the South was liberated and the country united, Vo Van Kiet was assigned to be the Chairman of the People’s Committee and then the Secretary of the Party Committee in Ho Chi Minh City. Vu Quoc Tuan recalls that the State could not buy paddy; the people had to eat rice mixed with maize, potato, and other root vegetables. Mr. Vo Van Kiet devised many measures to deal with the problems. State owned enterprises were allowed to borrow foreign currencies to buy raw materials and buy paddy from farmers at reasonable prices, through a system called “fence breaking.” It was contrary to the established regulations of the State but solved practical issues and helped the people and guided the entire country during the next few years.

Five: The courage of public expression. As Prime Minister, he spoke openly about matters that were traditionally discussed in hushed tones privately. In so doing, he took his nation and his people into confidence. And he gave measure of himself to the world. An instance of this is also the letter he wrote on August 9, 1995 in anticipation of the 8th National Party Congress (July 1996). The letter outlined four important issues for the Politburo to consider: (i) A need to understand and be integrated into the world in which we are living, (ii) Concern about breakdown of social order and security, (iii) Improving the state management capacity, and (iv) Party reform.

The US “opening” to Viet Nam was a vindication of the assertion by Governor Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts in his “State of the State” address in 1990 where he spoke of the need to “go international with a vengeance” whether in business and commerce or in education.” Our kids have to go back to the study of geography,” he asserted. Looking at any map of the world, the shared Pacific linkages between Viet Nam and the United States speak of the inevitability of their cooperation. As does their shared presence in the United Nations.

If, as Suzanne Nossel writes, “the United Nations remains the closest thing to a system of global governance that the world has ever known and may ever achieve,” much is owed to its unique convening capacity in bringing together erstwhile adversaries, even combatants, to a shared sense of participatory purpose which, at its finest, is reflected in the unanimity of resolutions consciously conceived in common cause. In 2021, fifty years after the verdict in the My Lai massacre case was consummated, the United States, President of the United Nations Security Council in March, was looking to hand over its leadership of that body in a matter of days to Viet Nam, next in line of alphabetical rotation. This some 44 years after Viet Nam (which could well have been a founding member of the United Nations in 1945) was admitted to the world body, its then Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs Nguyen Duy Trinh, affirming his country’s readiness to “continue negotiations for a satisfactory solution to the problems still outstanding with a view to normalizing relations between” Viet Nam and the United States.

Those negotiations, facilitated by the commonality of United Nations membership, succeeded; as United States Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said at a UN Security Council Ministerial Open Debate on Mine Action, chaired by Viet Nam on April 3, “our two countries now sit together as partners in this Council – and that has not always been the case. However, in the 26 years since our countries normalized diplomatic relations, the United States and Viet Nam have developed a thriving partnership, which includes jointly addressing war legacies and unexploded ordnance. This collaboration has allowed Viet Nam and the United States to make enormous efforts to ensure that the Vietnamese people can be safe from explosive remnants of war.” It was particularity heart-warming to see instance of that “trusted partnership” in the “soft power” of shared music featuring the outgoing United States ambassador in Ha Noi, Daniel Kritenbrink, with references to Vietnam’s “hot spots and hot pots.”

I was privileged to join a conversation in mid-March 2021: which included a number of friends from Viet Nam. The event was led by Governor Michael Dukakis, who recently co-founded Artificial Intelligence World Society (AIWS), “a project that aims to bring scientists, academics, government officials and industry leaders together to keep AI a benign force serving humanity’s best interests.” The idea of an AIWS struck a particular chord since the United Nations had, just two years after its inception, organized a conference on the idea of a “world society”;  just as that society sought to be both a physical and a spiritual concept, so too did our 2021 conversation suggest what the Boston Global Forum  describes as a “sophisticated pioneer model: a combination of the virtual, digital AIWS City and a real city”, the model being Phan Thiet in Viet Nam, developed by the Nova Group in that country whose Chairman, Bui Thanh Nhon, described it as “ the place for the World Leadership Alliance-Club de Madrid and the Michael Dukakis Institute to hold important annual events marked by the theme of ‘Building a New Economy’ for the world in the digital and artificial intelligence era, a venue to announce new achievements in the history of artificial intelligence and the digital economy.”

Nguyen Anh Tuan, co-founder and CEO of BGF, speaking at the Riga Conference 2019 in Latvia, referred to the “need for a new social contract, one that is suited to a world of artificial intelligence, big data, and high-speed computation and that will protect the rights and interests of citizens individually and society generally. A fundamental assumption of the social contract is that the five centres of power – government, citizens, business firms, civil society organizations, and AI assistants – are interconnected and each needs to check and balance the power of the others. Citizens should have access to education pertaining to the use and impact of AI,” a thought reflective of what Governor Dukakis said at the March event, of the possibilities of “new ideas, initiatives, and solutions by thinkers and creators in an effort to build a civilized, prosperous, peaceful, and happy world,” a reference that also brought to mind Viet Nam’s youthful academic energy and, indeed, the youthful energy of Vo Van Kiet himself. Were he to have been alive today, one can imagine him, with wit and ready smile, championing all that the United Nations and the Boston Global Forum are working to do together —seeking the opportunities of technology, digital advance and artificial intelligence to create a truly harmonious world society, justly governed, its social contract woven by the talents of its peoples.