In 2010, during the graduation ceremony for Fulbright School’s first Master of Public Policy cohort, the late Prime Minister Phan Van Khai remarked that he himself had learned a lot, especially about the market economy, through discussions with a group of Harvard and Fulbright professors. Such knowledge, which he “successfully applied during his tenure, contributed to the development of the country”.
As the Prime Minister of Vietnam from 1997 to 2006, he was one of the technocratic leaders with the most substantial contributions during the country’s reforming and opening period. He also played an influential role in establishing the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program, the predecessor of the Fulbright School of Public Policy and Management at Fulbright University Vietnam today.
His deep connection with the Fulbright School stemmed from a study trip to learn economic reform lessons from East Asian countries, organized by a group of Harvard professors who founded the School in the early 1990s. At the time, Mr. Khai was the Vice Chairman of the Council of Ministers (the equivalent position to the current Deputy Prime Minister). He and other senior officials in charge of the economic sector in the state apparatus then learned methodically for the first time the core pillars of the market economy – from supply and demand, prices, exchange rates, to the import-export mechanism – concepts that were still extremely foreign to those who had just come out of the centrally planned economy.
Although the Doi Moi process started in 1986, “Vietnam’s development programs, guidelines and strategies were still very vague and exploratory” because “very few people understood the principles of economics,” recalled Professor Thomas Vallely, Director of the Vietnam Program at Harvard University, who organized the study trip that year.
The impression from this trip was so profound that later on, Mr. Khai became an avid advocate for the idea of a training program in applied economics for Vietnamese leaders and officials taught by Harvard professors, at a time when the relations between the two countries still had not fully normalized.
That was because Mr. Khai, along with other visionary Vietnamese leaders at that time, understood that more than ever, the country needed leaders with knowledge and a market economy mindset in order to successfully lead the transition from a centrally planned economy to a market economy.
Later, Dr. Jonathan Pincus, Director of FETP from 2008 to 2013 noted that FETP “was an excellent idea born at the right time”.
“A factor that shaped the Fulbright School in its early days was the emergence of Asian economies and the aspiration of Vietnamese leaders to be a part of the historic movement where the economic center of the world shifted from West to East,” said Mr. Pincus.
Overcoming numerous obstacles and challenges from both sides, eventually, Ho Chi Minh City, which had been considered a “laboratory” for innovative ideas in the early Doi Moi period, was chosen to be home to a Harvard training program. In January 1995, the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program (FETP) was officially established, only half a year before Vietnam and the United States normalized diplomatic relations.
Foreseeing Vietnam’s path of reformation
When the Fulbright School was established, the founders faced different choices and they made strategic decisions that set Fulbright apart from any other economic or political training program in Vietnam even later on. It was a decision to not target central-level officials like the typical approach, but to focus on modern economic knowledge and improving management capacity for local government officials instead.
“In the early 90s of the last century, access to modern economic management knowledge was a luxury for local officials,” explained Mr. Vallely.
This decision of the Fulbright founders also came from keen observations of Vietnam’s reform trajectory when Mr. Vallely and his partner, Professor Dwight Perkins, Director of the Harvard Institute for International Development, visited Vietnam and did a survey here in 1989. They found that Vietnam’s crucial national economic reform was largely driven by local reformations, which were later often described as a journey to “tear down” the old mechanism from the bottom up.
“These ‘jumping the fence’ actions, such as the discreet ‘agricultural land allocation’ movements in localities on the verge of renovation were meant to ‘emancipate’ production and business activities that have been suppressed for too long in the old mechanism. These reforms were successful because they precisely hit local pressure points. When central-level leaders observed that these experiments succeeded locally, they felt confident and bold enough to enact them into national policies,” Dr. Vu Thanh Tu Anh, Director of the Fulbright School of Public Policy and Management, explains.
According to Dr. Tu Anh, FETP’s decision to focus on training local officials, therefore, showed ‘a deep understanding of the reform trajectory in Vietnam’ and such incredible ‘foresight’ that even to this day, he still feels truly fascinated and grateful about.
As a result of that strategic decision, a community of more than 1500 alumni from 62 out of 63 provinces in Vietnam has become an invaluable asset of FSPPM today. They have contributed to forming an excellent class of officials and civil servants of Vietnam in the Doi Moi era, pioneers who created positive change in their own communities.
Mr. Seth Winnick, U.S. Consul General in Ho Chi Minh City, shared a story with Dr. Vu Thanh Tu Anh which happened more than 10 years ago. Whenever he went to localities in Vietnam and met Fulbright alumni, he could recognize them almost immediately by their distinct expression of the “Fulbright DNA”. He even coined the term “FETP Index” – a province with a high index means there are many FETP alumni working there and they are definitely at the forefront of innovation and reform in Vietnam.
The outstanding contributions of FETP alumni didn’t just take place locally. Many people, after serving in the leadership role of a particular province or department, have been promoted to the Central Government to lead the planning and implementing of important policies at the national level.
Global knowledge – local action
When it first started, FETP did exactly what was “requested” by the Government of Vietnam at that time, which was to impart the most up-to-date knowledge on market economy to state officials, in accordance with the context of the country.
“We then taught neoclassical economics courses the way you would at Harvard, with the Harvard Kennedy School’s curriculum being translated into Vietnamese in a way that was easy to understand,” recounted Mr. Thomas Vallely.
Mr. Cao Van Trong, former Chairman of Ben Tre province was one of the first students of FETP. Before entering in the program, he had already obtained a bachelor’s degree in industrial economics from the Ho Chi Minh City University of Economics. However, a year at FETP for him was an entire journey of “reconstruction”, from his knowledge to vision and thinking.
“We learned very new knowledge about micro- and macro-economics, about the economy management tools, especially the two very important tools in the market economy: fiscal and monetary policies. But the most significant thing that I learned from Fulbright is the approach and mindset that dissects an issue from many different angles. That is a timeless value,” said Mr. Trong.
Taking it a step further, when FETP has built trust with the society and with the government system, the lecturers were able to boldly put real Vietnamese practices at the heart of the training program. Harvard’s famous “case study” method was modified by the lecturers to suit the Vietnamese context, which Dr. Vu Thanh Tu Anh often likened to the journey of “Vietnamizing global knowledge”.
2008 marked a historic milestone for FETP when it changed from a 1-year applied economics training program to a 2-year master’s degree program in public policy – the first Master in Public Policy program in Vietnam. Transcending the framework of a traditional economic training program, the School had begun to venture into the “sensitive” but increasingly urgent issue in Vietnam: public policy, public management, and public administration.
That was because, as explained by Dr. Vu Thanh Tu Anh, after more than 20 years of renovation and integration into the global economy, Vietnam had entered a period when the old driving forces of growth had gradually become outdated and required the apparatus to introduce drastic reforms, especially in terms of institutions. The decisions were no longer simply to “emancipate” from the old mechanism as before, these reforms must be relevant to the vivid, creative, and multi-dimensional realities in the drastically changing context of Vietnam and the world.
In order to solve these increasingly complex policy problems, leaders and executives needed to be equipped with new knowledge and mindsets. Therefore, Fulbright School’s faculty members have made constant efforts to create new knowledge that caters to the needs of the time. There are Fulbright “specialty” subjects such as Regional and Local Development, Public Investment Appraisal, Law and Public Policy… Every lesson at the Fulbright School has now turned into lively discussions about practical problems facing Vietnam.
From environmental and energy policy for the Mekong Delta region, to the strategy to promote infrastructure development projects following the public-private partnership (PPP) model, or even the strategy to build Thu Duc into a smart city, each graduation thesis of Fulbright students has been very practical policy analysis that they can continue to pursue after returning to their daily work.
According to a veteran Vietnamese diplomat, it is the journey of engaging in the center of socio-economic development of Vietnam over the past 25 years, reflected in the constant efforts to update the curriculum to accommodate the needs of the community and provide the country with high-quality human resources has helped “Fulbright to become the only international educational exchange program that still continues to reach new heights”.
While other projects came to an end, FETP has now become the Fulbright School of Public Policy and Management (FSPPM), one of the first 10 public policy schools in Asia and the first in Southeast Asia to achieve accreditation from NASPAA – the “golden standard” of public policy, public management, and public administration schools around the world.
When they put down the first bricks to begin the construction of a humble school, located in a small alley on Vo Thi Sau Street, the founders of FETP could not have expected that it would go this far. Right now, Fulbright is not only “the most important educational legacy in the Vietnam-US relations”, but also an “invaluable intellectual property” of Vietnam.
On March 18, Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh welcomed Mr. Thomas Vallely, Chairman of Fulbright University Vietnam’s Governing Board and Director of the Vietnam Program at Harvard University, and senior faculty from Fulbright University Vietnam.
The Government of Vietnam attaches importance to strengthening economic and development policy dialogue and consultation with the world’s leading research institutions, said Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh during the reception for Mr. Thomas Vallely.
The Prime Minister spoke highly of Mr. Vallely’s initiative to establish the Vietnam Executive Leadership Program (VELP) – a platform for discussing socio-economic development issues in Vietnam.
He suggested the VELP should focus discussions on such topics as green growth, sustainable energy development, institutional building, innovation, and public-private partnership in order to put forward recommendations to the Government.
For his part, Mr. Vallely highly valued Vietnam’s groundbreaking commitments at the COP26, affirming his strong support for Vietnam in climate change adaptation and acceleration of green growth.
Vallely founded the Harvard Vietnam Program in 1989 and established the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program (FETP)in Ho Chi Minh City in 1994. FETP was later developed into Fulbright School of Public Policy and Management, the first academic unit of Fulbright University Vietnam.
He leveraged the Vietnam Program’s research to engage in a candid and constructively critical dialogue with the Vietnamese government about the strategic challenges confronting the country.
Under his leadership, the Fulbright school emerged as a center of excellence in public policy research and teaching and a pioneer in the development of new modes of institutional governance in Vietnam.
On December 04 and 05, 2021, Fulbright School of Public Policy and Management (FSPPM) collaborated with Vietnam Oil and Gas Group (Petrovietnam – PVN) to organize a Leadership Executive Education program on the topic “Navigational Leadership in a ‘VUCA’ world” for members of Board of Management and Board of Directors of PVN and its subsidiaries.
The program objectives include providing different perspectives on global economic issues and Vietnam development policies through up-to-date and independent economic policy researches conducted by leading academic institutions and think tanks like Fulbright School of Public Policy and Management, Fulbright University Vietnam, and Harvard University. The two-day program also looked to improve strategic vision, policy analysis capabilities, and adaptability for leaders of Petrovietnam and its subsidiaries to successfully cope with new changes in the modern world.
Due to complications of the Covid-19 pandemic, the program was organized in a hybrid format, with both online and offline components in many locations. The two-day program was delivered by FSPPM’s most senior lecturers, including Dr. Vu Thanh Tu Anh, Mr. Nguyen Xuan Thanh, and Dr. Le Viet Phu. PVN and FSPPM also welcomed many foreign scholars and world-leading experts on economic, energy, and environmental policy, namely Prof. David Dapice, Prof. Edward Cunningham – Harvard Kennedy School of Government (USA), and Prof. Zeger van de Wal – Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.
As an energy-intensive economy, Vietnam has been consuming a lot of energy (electricity, oil, etc.) to generate economic growth. According to research, Vietnam’s economy has a higher intensity of electricity usage than China and is twice as high as Thailand’s, even though Thailand has similar climate conditions and a higher degree of urbanization than Vietnam. Speaking at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP -26), Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh emphasized that “climate change response and nature restoration must become the highest priorities in all development decisions. They must form the highest ethical standards for all levels, sectors, businesses, and citizens.” The Prime Minister also proposed strong efforts to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. Hence, the transition to green energies for the premise of sustainable development is inevitable. However, it does place multiple challenges and opportunities for national oil, gas, and energy corporations.
One of the said challenges is the internal conflicts of interest caused by the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energies. Investment in research start-ups on renewable energy technology requires large capital commitment and yet, faces high risks of failure. To facilitate a smooth transition and achieve expected goals, a tight-knit, effective, and transparent governance mechanism is in demand to select and invest in projects that have the highest chance of success. In China, leading national oil corporations had implemented an adjacency strategy. As an example, China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOCC Ltd.) whose technical expertise is extracting offshore oil, focuses its investment on offshore wind power projects. Additionally, Sinopec Group, which owns 30,000 gasoline stations across China, is expecting to incorporate its retail outlets with recharging services for electric vehicles. Prof. Edward Cunningham, an international energy expert and a lecturer at Harvard Kennedy School, asserted that challenges and difficulties that Vietnam, generally, and Petrovietnam, in particular, are facing, are not unique. Thus, by analyzing the successes and failures of other countries, Vietnamese leaders can draw important lessons and implications for their energy transition.
Another key point that the executive program touched on is essential skills for leaders in the world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA) and the digital age. Given the unpredictability and severity of recent crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic, supply chain disruption, and oil price collapse, public leaders need to equip themselves and their teams with highly flexible skill sets. Leaders must know how to communicate policy messages effectively to successfully mobilize public support for their implementations. In addition, as more members from Gen Z and Gen Y enter the labor market and public organizations, the workforce will be increasingly diverse in age and the ability to acquire technological knowledge. This leads to a “reverse training” phenomenon in which young employees, in their 20s and 30s, can instruct middle-aged upper managers on how to use technology platforms and social media to communicate effectively with the public.
At the end of the program, Petrovietnam’s CEO Mr. Le Manh Hung thanked the lecturers at FSPPM, Harvard Kennedy School, and Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (National University of Singapore) for their cooperation in successfully organizing the training. The materials were well-tailored for the current trend, global context, and large enterprises in the energy and industrial sectors such as Petrovietnam.
“Over the past two years, Petrovietnam has paid extra attention to volatility management. We also put volatility and change management as our top priority. Hence, the curriculum of the Leadership Executive Education Program is highly relevant to the demands and realities of the Vietnam Oil and Gas Group at the present and in the future,” Mr. Le Manh Hung concluded.
Mr. Le Manh Hung highly appreciated the structure of the executive program and the lively discussions between enthusiastic participants and foreign researchers. He also hoped that in the near future, Petrovietnam and FSPPM could continue to collaborate in scientific research and training projects to solve difficult energy problems for Vietnam.
The 25th anniversary of Fulbright Economics Teaching Program (FETP), predecessor of Fulbright School of Public Policy and Management (FSPPM), functions as a Homecoming ceremony for different generations of alumni.
The Anniversary was cohosted by the FSPPM and FETP Alumni network. From all corners of Vietnam, over 350 graduates and current students gathered to celebrate, representing as many as 24 cohorts, from one year diplomat training programs (starting from FETP 1 – abbreviated as F1) to one comprehensive two year master’s in public policy (current cohort is Class MPP2022).
The excitement lingered in the air many days before the anniversary as alumni gathered for class reunions, sharing their love and nostalgia for the school, changing their Facebook profile picture to the 25th Anniversary frame – even those currently staying abroad. Dr. Vu Thanh Tu Anh began his opening remark with these observations. He also noted that “most of us have experienced different educational settings, but we all agree it is hard to find a school with such strong bonds among faculty, students and staff like we have here at Fulbright. Chemists may struggle to explain the bonding chemistry within our community. What cannot be justified by science can only be felt by heart and that’s when we truly understand and cherish the Fulbright spirit and our values.”
Small but mighty
Dr. Tu Anh recalled that, over the quarter century it took for FETP to grow into FSPPM, the Fulbright School as it is dearly called by its alumni was shaped by deep seated values, academic rigor, and discipline. Today, these values have become the DNA that makes us at Fulbright, and that runs in the FETP & FSPPM family.
This was the vision of our founders. 25 years ago, leaders from both sides of Vietnam and the U.S. dared to dream the impossible and step forward for a bold idea: build the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program, a bilateral U.S.-Vietnam partnership project organized by Harvard University and Ho Chi Minh University of Economics. The decisions were made prior to the return to official diplomatic relationships between the former foes.
“To this day, I cannot help but admire the founders’ vision in building this ‘small but mighty’ school,” emphasized Dr. Tu Anh.
Professor Jonathan Pincus was Resident Director of FETP from 2008 to 2013, a time of critical transition for the program as it transformed from a one-year diplomat program in applied economics into a two year comprehensive master’s in public policy. Joining us for the ceremony, he added to Dr. Tu Anh’s words on the founding values of Fulbright, noting:
“The other factor that shaped the early days of the Fulbright School was the rise of the Asian economies, and the desire of Vietnam’s leaders to be a part of that historical shift in the economic center of gravity from West to East. FETP was a good idea that came along at the right time. Obstacles had to be overcome on both sides, and the founders needed persistence and courage to get from the chalk board to reality. We salute them for their foresight and perseverance,” said Dr. Jonathan Pincus.
Reflecting on 25 years of history, Madam Dam Bich Thuy, President of Fulbright University Vietnam (of which FSPPM is the first academic unit), commended the strenuous efforts of the founders who turned the impossible into a tangible reality. What began as an educational partnership with Harvard University in a time when the Vietnam-US relations left many skeptical, led us to become a leading regional public policy school, achieving more than we could have ever guessed. FSPPM not only trains new generations of Vietnamese leaders, but also enhances open policy dialogue based on extensive research and sincere policy feedback.
“On such an incredible journey, we have overcome together many obstacles that felt unsurmountable. And so I want to convey my deepest gratitude to the generations of Fulbright members who have joined us over the last 25 years: Mr. Brian Quinn, FETP’s first director, Mr. Jonathan Pincus, Mr. Tu Anh, Mr. Xuan Thanh, Mr. Duy Nghia, the leaders, faculty, and staff of FETP who have worked tirelessly towards Fulbright’s educational legacy. Their unrelenting will and extraordinary dedication are the reason for our strong foundations, allowing for Fulbright University Vietnam to reach higher and fulfill our dream. One day, on those foundations will stand a world-class university in Vietnam, for Vietnamese people,” said Madam President.
3 critical decisions
The founders’ vision from those early days have since been realized into concrete action plans. After a quarter of a century, Dr. Brian Quinn reflected on some of the wisest decisions made at the time. As former FETP leadership and Harvard representative from 1995 to 2000, Prof. Brian Quinn recalled 3 important decisions that contributed to FETP’s rise. Firstly, the school would not focus its work on central government which already benefitted from abundant international aid and support. Instead, Fulbright would dedicate its resources towards increasing, through education, the economics and management capability of public officials operating at the local government level.
“In 1995, public administrators in local government in Vietnam were isolated, having limited connection to the world. We hoped that Fulbright could provide those provinces with opportunities to connect with the world,” said Prof. Brian Quinn.
Secondly, Fulbright would recruit students nationwide, making the school a national institution, not a regional one. A Fulbright cohort to this day remains composed of students from different regions and professional backgrounds, gathered from all corners of the country. Thirdly, Fulbright would be an institution for the Vietnamese.
“From the outset, we knew that Fulbright was not an American school. To be successful, it should stay true to its objectives as a graduate school in Vietnam. That is to say, we needed to invest in people, transferring teaching competency and management capacity to our Vietnamese colleagues. We saw this as the only successful path towards building a real school. Fast forward 25 years, and it seems we were right to make that choice,” shared Dr. Brian Quinn.
Indeed, Fulbright is now managed by Vietnamese administrators, setting the school apart from other foreign educational experiments in Vietnam. This unique feature was a deciding factor in FSPPM gaining accreditation and thus become one of the first ten public policy institutions in Asia – and the very first in Southeast Asia – to be accredited by NASPAA, a global standard for public administration, affairs and policy education.
One of the first Vietnamese faculty members to join FETP/FSPPM, Dr. Vu Thanh Tu Anh, former Dean of FSPPM, also shared his thoughts.
“I am fortunate to be a colleague of the most devoted teachers on earth. It is indeed impossible to fully gauge the depths of their devotion. I have seen generations of tutors ready to skip lunch or even dinner to ensure their students understand the lesson and do their homework. I have seen many teachers stay up all night to support students, even staying up until morning to ensure dissertations were submitted before 8:20 am. I wonder if there are other places like our school, where teachers love to prepare tough and long problem sets, and then worry whether students can do it and submit it in time,” said Dr. Tu Anh.
More importantly, the proof of Fulbright’s success lies in the continued support of generations of alumni; the network which now counts over 1500 alumni has become the most valuable asset of the school. Dr. Tu Anh recalled an anecdote where Mr. Set Winnick, the United States General Consul in Ho Chi Minh city, said that whenever he went to visit the provinces, he could immediately guess whether that person was a Fulbright graduate, as if they carried Fulbright’s DNA with them. Seth Winnick even came up with the term “FETP Index”: if a province has a high index – meaning there are many FETP graduates in the province – that province will definitely be at the forefront of innovation and reform in Vietnam.
Prof. Jonathan Pincus emphasized that both the founding vision and a supportive environment were necessary to get Fulbright started. But the reason it has survived so long, and even thrived as it evolved from a teaching program to a full-fledged graduate program, is the quality and enthusiasm of the students. That enthusiasm continues after graduation, in one of the most active alumni associations in Vietnam.
“Wherever I go in this country, I meet Fulbright alumni who speak with great affection for the school, and who still enjoy a deep sense of attachment, even decades after their Fulbright experience. The sense of belonging felt by present and former students is a testament to the intellectual community that has formed around the school, and has supported its development over the years,” commented Prof. Pincus.
FUV President, Ms. Dam Bich Thuy extolled how Fulbright alumni continue to exemplify the Fulbright spirit: integrity, commitment to service, team spirit and mutual support.
“They are an invaluable asset that any school would be proud to call their own,” said Ms. Thuy.
Nguyen Phuong Lam, Director of VCCI Can Tho, Class of FETP 9 and MPP 4, said that the word “Fulbright”, colloquially known as “Fulbright School”, always brings forth great feelings of affection and a deep sense of attachment. Because the School has fostered generations of Fulbright School Alumni (FSA), talented people who have realized their great potential. Among FSA members, there are senior officials in the central government, leaders or managers at local governments, and successful entrepreneurs in the business sector. Others are pursuing their passion with community-based development projects.
“We heard many stories about life at Fulbright School, which create strong impressions both for those who have gone through it and those who have yet to do so. The hard work, the pressure of deadlines are such that people unfortunately do drop out of the program. Finishing homework at dawn is a normal pattern, reaching the deadline of 8:20 am is a regular race, and no student can do more than try their best every 24 hours. The most terrifying part of studying here is that there is fierce competition among students regarding their place in the score distribution. One would feel the risk of falling behind if he or she does not catch up in the race or fails to respect academic integrity. Nevertheless, Fulbright graduates all have a strong personality, positive thinking, and transparency in their actions. We share a bond, and a sense of responsibility to one another. The fact is that no one seems to be left behind when it comes to graduation! For me, as well as for many other FSA members, Fulbright is where we came into our own!”
A day in mid-2007, in the office of Ben Wilkinson, Harvard Vietnam Program representative of Fulbright Economic Teaching Program (FETP), a candidate for a part-time librarian position was waiting for a job interview.
The candidate was Truong Minh Hoa, a bachelor’s degree holder from Library and Information Science Faculty of the University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Ho Chi Minh City. Hoa’s experience was still limited; having only worked as a full-time librarian at Van Hien University, HCMC.
Hoa looked anxious and nervous as he had never talked to a foreigner before, while he was the third candidate to be interviewed for this position. Much to his surprise, Ben spoke fluent Vietnamese; it made the interview much more comfortable and warm. Hoa wanted to be polite and called Ben “Sir,” making the latter laugh. Ben corrected him immediately: “I’m not that kind of high-ranking officer!” It turned out to be Hoa’s first memory about FETP.
Hoa got accepted for the position. In the library inside FETP’s small campus on Vo Thi Sau Street, District 3, his desk was set next to that of Ms. Mai, the full-time librarian. It was beyond his expectation that he would work here for 13 years, in a small library where he experienced the most exciting days of his work life.
For the pursuit of knowledge
Although the library of FETP was not home to a vast collection of books like those of old universities, it took Hoa by surprise in his first days of work. The library welcomed anyone seeking information, even if they were not FETP students. They could access all kinds of books, including the rare ones. Later on, Hoa realized it was part of Fulbright school’s culture: a student-centered approach for the pursuit of knowledge.
It was totally different from what Hoa experienced at other libraries, where books were strictly kept and the distribution of books to library users was restricted. Therefore, Hoa felt very pleased with FETP and quickly fitted in this new environment.
According to Hoa, FETP’s library also had a different approach towards its users compared to other libraries. Traditionally, students in Vietnam keep a certain distance with librarians; they feel reserved and uncomfortable when interacting. When they talk to librarians because they wish to borrow a book, librarians are addressed as if they were superior.
“They might think librarians are grumpy and unfriendly. But here at FETP, students could search and look for the books they wanted themselves, in a totally open library. They just had to sign up with the librarian if they wanted to bring the books home,” Hoa recalled.
The open library gradually grew the bond between Hoa and the students. Their interactions and mutual support formed a friendly and comfortable academic environment at Fulbright school, where the relationships between faculty and staff, library officers and students were more akin to a big family.
“FETP completely changed the way I think about my work, the way I interact with my colleagues and students, and made me understand that librarians can contribute to building the culture of “serving for the pursuit of knowledge,” Hoa emphasized.
A turning point in his career path was when Ms. Mai resigned from her position at FETP. Hoa became the full-time librarian, working very hard to keep up with all the responsibilities by himself. He classified the books, labeled them with barcodes, put them on the shelves… He settled into a routine in which he found excitement and inspiration.
After a while, he found the perks of being a librarian were not just helping students find the information they needed. It brought him endless opportunities to learn, immersing into knowledge in the wonderful academic environment of Fulbright.
Founded in 1995, FETP, which has now become Fulbright School of Public Policy and Management (FSPPM), was a partnership between the University of Economics, Ho Chi Minh City and the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS). IT was initially designed to teach applied economics for Vietnamese policymakers, with the curriculum “imported” from HKS. Books and other documents used at FETP were updated constantly by HKS.
“In an attempt to build the academic space at Fulbright, we bought a huge volume of books on modern economics and market economy, including macroeconomics, microeconomics, econometrics, development economics, and a vast literature reviewing economic development in East and Southeast Asian countries and in the world,” said Prof. Nguyen Xuan Thanh.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Amazon had just began operating internationally, and it was not easy to source books for FETP. Imported books were also subjected to strict censorship before entering Vietnam. HKS supported FETP in accessing the latest books and other economic documents from abroad. FETP translated these books into Vietnamese for students, mostly public officers from various cities and provinces across Vietnam who came to FETP for public policy study and had limited mastery of English.
Since the early 2000s, the bilingual library of Fulbright school has been home to a vast collection of newly published books on modern economics, something you may not find in other libraries across Vietnam.
True to a student-centered approach, there was a close connection between faculty members, academic affairs officers and the librarian at Fulbright school. Hoa actively assisted faculty members to find documents and prepare for translations. Sometimes, Hoa would go out himself to source the books students could not find in Fulbright’s library.
“The Fulbright environment changed me completely, from someone who just sits passively waiting for students to borrow books to an active, multi-tasking librarian,” he reflected.
It was not just the books that consumed Hoa’s time and efforts. The librarian was also heavily invested in building and maintaining OpenCourseWare, an important online platform for FETP’s teaching and learning program built in the early 2000s. At that time, Vietnam’s internet landscape was dominated by internet cafés all over the big cities. FETP began to publish its teaching and research materials online.
Inspired by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s OpenCourseWare Initiative (OCW), FETP, and now FSPPM, publish course syllabi, lecture notes, reading lists, assignments and case studies online. Both teachers and learners can access these resources and freely download documents.
The OpenCourseWare requires constant updates on a yearly basis, from majors, lectures to assignments; for cases studies, updates are more frequent. For more than one decade, Hoa has kept a steady course at the helm of OpenCourseWare, a unique legacy for those learning and working in policy-related fields offered by Fulbright school.
Nowadays, the booming development of technological platforms allows easier access to knowledge. But Hoa still dedicates his time and efforts to the platform, with a systemized approach and in accordance with copyright laws.
“FSPPM’s OpenCourseWare is up to date and hits over 1.5 billion page views each year, not just from FSPPM students and users inside Vietnam. We also have users outside the country,” Hoa added.
In 2008, FETP shifted from a one-year training program on applied economics to a complete Master in Public Policy. Hoa actively helped students find statistics for their research and graduation theses, though it was not part of his job. As students came from various cities and provinces and their graduation theses covered different areas, the statistics they required differed greatly. Each year, Hoa would contact the Bureau of General Statistics of Vietnam and the statistics offices from cities and provinces across Vietnam, collecting data from statistical yearbooks. So far, FSPPM has owned a collection of statistical yearbooks from all cities and provinces, providing a comprehensive compilation of statistics on social and economic conditions and activities at local level with constant updates.
“The collection of figures and statistical yearbooks has been a very interesting experience for me at Fulbright. In my first days here, professors taught me to search for official data from the databases of international organizations such as the World Bank, United Nations Development Program, International Monetary Fund, United Nations, Economist Intelligence Unit and more, all for the research and reports on macroeconomics; at that time, the data was not widely available online like today. That experience helps me a lot when I am assisting lecturers and students with their research and learning,” he explained.
Dang Thi Manh, former MPP2 student, remembered how busy she was in 2011, juggling her graduation thesis and a new job. Her thesis compared public finance models in Da Nang and Binh Duong provinces in relation to a socio-economic development model. She needed figures regarding the two provinces’ budget, revenue, and spending, and turned to Hoa.
“The collection of statistics became a burden for me given the pressure and time constraints. I deeply appreciated Hoa for his care and his willingness to help me gather the data for my thesis. I remember waiting for the release of the 2010 Statistical Yearbook to get the updated figures. As soon as the yearbook was available at the library, Hoa called me. Thankfully, I managed to use the figures to finish my thesis on time,” she recalled.
Hoa experienced memorable moments both bitter and sweet with the students of FSPPM who share the motto “Work hard, play hard.” He remembered the students of MPP4 class usually gathered to eat sweet soup after lunch under the tamarind tree when the campus was located on Vo Thi Sau Street. One of them would enter the names of all students present in an Excel file and use the Randbetween function. The random number indicated the person numbered would have to pay for all the sweet soup servings that day.
FSPPM students said they always remembered the 8:20 a.m. deadline to submit their daily assignments. Hoa was tasked with labeling the assignment papers as “Late,” in red letters, if they missed it.
Former students like Manh said they cherished the moments spent together and thought of Hoa as a sincere, warm-hearted, and dedicated person.
“He knew very well the topics that we were interested in and recommended books related to those topics to us. Whenever the school or each class hosted an event, he quietly held the camera and sneaked into different corners to take photos for us. When we had free time or took a rest, he always talked to us. During the lunch breaks under the tamarind tree, we chatted about our studying, our life, our family and our hometowns. Hoa became close to us. Looking at the number of former FSPPM students who attended his wedding, many people were so surprised and asked how come that young librarian had so many friends!” Manh recalled.
Nguyen Thi Ngoc Diep, a student of LM2020 class, also shared her warm feelings for Hoa, ‘the guy with the unforgettable smile’. “I wonder how he managed to finish so many tasks in such limited time. He has a lot of work to do, and many of us ask him for help, but he always smiles.”
“After the graduation ceremony on August 6, Hoa wrote a note to say goodbye to us on his Facebook page; he made me cry. I think our students may forget this or that person in school, but Hoa is always remembered. Thanks to him, I realized that a humble job done wholeheartedly is really valuable. The way Hoa is doing his job each day, the way he is serving students is a pillar of Fulbright,” she added.
Xuan Linh-Doan Hang
As part of the “COVID-19 & Our Future World” leadership talk series at Fulbright University Vietnam, Harvard epidemiologist and Public Health professor Yonatan Grad spoke about his recent research in Science on intermittent social distancing and its implications on Vietnam.
This past Wednesday evening, hundreds of people listened intently to an online speech that professor Yonatan Grad gave with Fulbright University Vietnam. Only hours before giving his talk at Fulbright, Professor Grad was on CNN with Anderson Cooper to share his research on COVID-19. So what did he find, and what are the implications for Vietnam and the region?
Professor Grad began the talk by discussing the question on everyone’s mind: when will this pandemic end? He outlined that there are two scenarios for the virus to end – “total extinction” or “herd immunity,” in which enough people are immune to the virus such that it slowly dies out.
Given the widespread nature of Coronavirus already, professor Grad argued that “total extinction” of the virus seems unlikely. So, how could we possibly get to herd immunity? This could come from either a vaccine or it could come from enough people getting infected over time to develop this immunity. As Grad explained, it’s unclear when or if a vaccine will be developed – and how long it would take to spread across the world. So, their research explores what would happen without it.
Their model finds that one solution may be “intermittent social distancing” or social distancing that follows an off-and-on pattern. Intermittent social distancing occurs when a country locks down to “flatten the curve” of case counts and reduce the load on the health care system. Then as the virus begins to die out, the country re-opens. Once the virus spreads again and begins to reach that critical threshold, the country returns to social distancing. In Grad and his colleagues’ model, this type of intermittent distancing in the U.S. would need to last until 2022 to reach population-wide immunity.
But, what does that mean for a country like Vietnam that has so far successfully contained the virus? In the Q&A, professor Grad addressed this question and noted that even initially successful countries like Vietnam would likely follow a similar path to herd immunity. Grad used the example of Singapore, which just entered a lockdown for the next month after initially holding back a wave of COVID-19 cases. Even though Vietnam has been successful up to now, it does not mean that a single lockdown may be enough.
When Grad was asked about travel restrictions and their possible timeline, he indicated that travel was one of the core questions in the future. The issue is that even as one region may bring the virus under control, other areas may not – causing possible recontamination. Until herd immunity exists in the population, the population remains susceptible to the virus.
Grad’s model did not directly address the economic outcomes of doing intermittent distancing, but this was one area of future research. As Grad discussed, work on intermittent distancing should combine with research on the economic impact. The combination of those two will allow policy-makers to make decisions about what should and shouldn’t re-open.
Similarly, another area of future research Grad identified is understanding what is most effective in helping reducing transmission – and what is less effective. Many countries, like the U.S., have used all available methods to reduce transmission, such as closing schools, public gatherings, in-person work, etc. However, it may be possible to reduce the transmission rate below an R of 1 (after which the virus dies out) with only some, but not all of these measures.
Grad ended his talk by striking a note that countries could and should learn from one another. Just as Fulbright’s community can help learn from the research that Grad’s team is doing in Cambridge, Massachusetts, so can the United States learn from the effective responses thus far from places like Taiwan, Singapore, and Vietnam.
*Yonatan Grad’s talk is part of an on-going series by Fulbright University Vietnam entitled “COVID-19 & Our Future World.” To follow future talks, like Fulbright’s Facebook page here.
On January 14th, 2020, Fulbright University Vietnam was honored to host a public lecture from Dr. Elmendorf, Dean of the prestigious Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the historic Fulbright Economics Teaching Program (FETP) at HKS. FETP was a bridge in the US – Vietnam relationship: initiated before the release of the American embargo and the normalization of diplomatic relations between both countries, the program provided public policy research and training for generations of Vietnamese students and policy makers aspiring to renovate their country. It is also the distinguished precursor of our Fulbright School of Public Policy and Management (FSPPM), the foundational academic unit of our University.
Dr. Elmendorf was joined by FETP alumni as well as FSPPM graduates and faculty to commemorate the decades-long efforts in shaping leaders and thinkers dedicated to public service. This was also the chance to celebrate the considerable progress achieved in the last quarter of a century, as future policy makers can now pursue their education here at Fulbright. In his informed lecture, Dr. Elmendorf discussed the 5 key forces currently shaping global events and public policy in the world: demographics and productivity gains, low interest rates, income inequality and stagnant living standards, populism, and nationalism.
In terms of demographics, a major issue for Dr. Elmendorf will be how to care for an aging population. Many countries are experiencing lower birth rates and increased longevity. This is a marker of success, denoting better access to nutrition, education, healthcare, and family planning. But this poses significant challenges of its own for sustainable economic growth, with concerns over caring for an older population that is relatively larger in proportion to the workforce. In the case of Vietnam, the elderly population will be doubling over the next few decades, at a faster rate than some neighboring countries. Those people will need healthcare, personal care, different living conditions, different solutions for transportation. Challenges as a society will be profound.
Productivity gains, as it is often understood as directly related to improving living standards, are also a measure of successful economies. Unfortunately, those gains have not been very impressive in many countries in recent years, despite the revolutionary nature of information technology and the use of big data. Dr. Elmendorf identifies a few factors hampering its growth. In some countries at the technological frontier, scientific and technological progress becomes incrementally harder with each advance. For other countries, allocating capital and resources efficiently is a challenge, with investments not providing consistent returns. Insecure property rights can also be factor, as well as poor systems for resolving disputes, further hampering investments. It can also be due to a shortage of public investment in infrastructure, education, and healthcare. Therefore, productivity growth is more moderate than can be hoped, and an important challenge for policy makers around the world is to find ways to identify these obstacles to boost productivity.
Dr. Elmendorf also observes the record lows for interest rates, for the US and other countries with large capital markets, with causes not entirely clear. Leading possibilities include declining demand for dollars and other currencies used for investments, shifts in saving patters related to income inequality, or an increasing focus on safety and liquidity in capital markets. He explained that the best research indicates the trend will persist. The benefit is that governments can leverage this to finance more public investments. But the challenge, for our lecturer, is the reduced flexibility for central banks to stimulate slowing economies through monetary policies, i.e. further lowering interest rates. To fight future recessions, it is crucial researchers work to provide more options for economic stimulus beyond monetary policies.
Regarding income inequality, the main takeaway is how income is distributed less widely today than it used to be. This is related with much slower growth, as well as stagnant or declining living standards. By most measures, inequality has worsened in the US and many other countries, as has the ability to do better over time. The causes seem to fall in different categories, some more global than others. One is technological change. Expanding use of digital tools and artificial intelligence is mostly benefitting better educated people. Another cause is globalization. As the world becomes more connected, opportunities are created, but not everyone can seize them. Talented, educated, mobile individuals can compete in a larger world, while those with less distinct competencies or resources can be left behind.
Globalization might benefit society as a whole, but not everyone in that society, especially without deliberate policy to that effect. The evolution of social norms and the role of public institutions is also at cause. Top salaries were allowed to surge in the US, while the minimum wage lags behind. In many European countries on the contrary, inequality has risen much less due to different social norms regarding the role of public goods, financed in turn by higher tax rates. It has better protected a larger population from the adverse effects of those forces.
For Dr. Elmendorf, populism is on the rise in part due to growing inequality and stagnation of living standards. Many people around the world feel their established political leaders are making decisions too much in favor of an elite rather than society as a whole. Not only do material circumstances diverge, but also broader aspects of their lives. People more financially capable are finding ways to separate themselves out from the rest of society. In the US, a larger range of the population has finally a fuller role in society, such as people of color, women and LGBTQI+, but there are others whose status in society has relatively declined. Immigration as well, at a historical high, has provided tremendous benefits for society broadly. Yet some Americans feel disoriented and concerned over the lack of control over those societal changes that do not necessarily benefit them directly.
Although rolling back some aspects of globalization can be beneficial to certain groups, there is a risk of also unwinding the gains achieved over the last several decades. There is going to be more attention to tax and regulatory policies involving people beyond the elites. There will also potentially be stricter migration policies, with less movement of people around the world. On the other hand, an encouraging sign of progress in policy making is greater attention to distributional effects of policies. Instead of focusing on the rise of overall income or GDP in the country, there is more interest in how to raise income for people who are not immediate beneficiaries of societal changes or segments who have not been doing well.
Finally, Dr. Elmendorf broached the subject of nationalism, which is related, yet distinct from populism. As mentioned above, many see economic globalization as a source of trouble rather than gain. Meanwhile, a majority of elites support global trade and increased migrations. In that sense, elites are perceived as having more connections and commonalities with the establishment of other countries rather than with the people they are supposed to serve. This reinforces populist concerns that elites take care of each other rather than their own populations. Therefore, populists gain credibility by depicting the interests of their country as opposed to the interests of other countries. This line of reasoning carries increasing weight in public debate, with renewed stridency. For Dr. Elmendorf, we can expect higher levels of national tensions over the next few years.
Dr. Douglas Elmendorf emphasized, in conclusion to his lecture, that although there are major forces shaping global events, each country will be uniquely affected depending on its context. He then reiterated the importance of public service, whether in governments, civil society, or private businesses focused on public needs. By attending not only to our individual needs, but to the interests of our fellow citizens, good and sound policy making has the power to create safer, freer, healthier and more prosperous societies. As a student in the audience asked how she and other young Vietnamese people can best serve their society in the face of those global forces, Dr. Elmendorf advised:
“Harness the passion you and many of your peers share and combine it with research and education. This is how will have the tools to best tackle the challenges that come your way. This is how you will have a more discernible impact on the world around you. Stand for principles but keep an open mind. It is important to hold on to your values to change the world, but remember you might not be entirely right at a given point in time. To listen and hold on to other perspectives is an opportunity to learn. To be a more effective leader that serves the needs, and the voice, of the broader public.
March 24, 2017.
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Dr. Drew Faust met with faculty and alumni of the Fulbright Economics Teaching Programs (FETP), originally a collaboration of Ho Chi Minh City’s University of Economics and Harvard Kennedy School that was transferred to FUV last September. President Faust praised FETP as great distinction part of Harvard’s global engagement over the last twenty-five years.
She also participated in a discussion on the design and development of FUV, which built on FETP legacy and envisioned as the first truly American style university in Vietnam with the FUV leadership.
Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) and Fulbright University Vietnam signed a memorandum of understanding in which the two sides agree to explore opportunities for collaboration in public policy teaching, research and related areas.
“It is with great pleasure and enthusiasm that Fulbright University Vietnam welcomes Harvard President Drew Faust on her first visit to Vietnam. The Harvard Kennedy School Vietnam Program has played a pivotal role in developing FETP as a leading center of public policy teaching and research. We deeply believe that our connection with Harvard will be an important driver in our effort to create a transformative educational experience to students across Vietnam”, said FUV President Dam Bich Thuy.
Dr. Faust is the 28th President of Harvard University and the Lincoln Professor of History in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences. During her tenure at Harvard, President Faust has expanded Harvard’s financial resources to improve access to people from all socioeconomic backgrounds. Her efforts include raising Harvard’s international profile, embracing sustainability measures, and launching EdX in partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to offer Massive Open Online Courses.
Dr. Faust received her bachelor’s degree from Bryn Mawr College in 1968, magna cum laude. She subsequently earned her master’s (1971) and doctoral degrees (1975) at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of six books. Her most recent book, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, won the 2009 Bancroft Prize, was a finalist for a U.S. National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize, and was named one of the 10 best books of 2008 by The New York Times.
About Fulbright University Vietnam:
Fulbright University Vietnam (FUV) is a private, nonprofit Vietnamese university inspired by the American liberal arts education tradition and dedicated to serving Vietnamese society through innovation in teaching, learning, and discovery. FUV emerged from and inherits the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program, a twenty year Harvard Kennedy School initiative to create Vietnam’s first center of public policy teaching and research.
FUV’s first two academic programs are a graduate program in public policy and management (scheduled to launch in 2017) and an undergraduate program in engineering and the liberal arts and sciences (scheduled to launch in 2018). FUV was officially announced by President Barack Obama in May 2016. FUV receives core financial support from the United States Department of State and a number of private supporters. FUV’s founding sponsor is the Trust for University Innovation in Vietnam, a US nonprofit organization.
Prof Drew Gilpin Faust is the 28th president of Harvard University and the Lincoln Professor of History in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences.
Remarks by Prof. Drew Gilpin Faust, President of Harvard University, Thursday, March 23, 2017, Ho Chi Minh City University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Vietnam.
For more than three decades before I became president of Harvard, I worked as a scholar and teacher of history. For that reason it gives me special pleasure to be here at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities, one of Vietnam’s preeminent centers for historical study.
It also means a great deal to me to be here in your country, for important parts of our national histories have been intertwined in ways that have affected all of us. What you know as the War of National Salvation Against the Americans—what we call “Vietnam”—indelibly shaped those of us coming of age in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s.
Even though I never came within 8,000 miles of your country during those years, its names and places have reverberated in my mind for decades: Khe Sanh, Pleiku, Ap Bac, Dien Bien Phu, Gulf of Tonkin, Da Nang, Hue, Saigon, Hanoi. I have long wanted to make at least some of those names more than words. You have a slogan directed at tourists: “Vietnam: A Country, Not a War.”
Like so many other Americans who have travelled here, I have wanted to make Vietnam into a place in my mind—not the name of a conflict that overtook my generation of young Americans, but a society and nation with all its complexity, its beauty, its history, its vibrancy, and its promise.
And somehow seeing your country has come to seem for me necessary to understanding my own. American men of my generation confronted the military draft, which cast many into a struggle of conscience about whether they would comply with laws that required them to serve in a war they believed unwise and unjust. For young women, like me, the dilemma was less immediately personal, but it propelled us to ask unsettling questions about our nation, our democracy, and our very humanity. Michael Herr, a journalist from the United States who covered the war, once wrote that Vietnam is “what we had instead of happy childhoods.”
Each May at Harvard, hundreds of former students return to campus to mark the 50th anniversary of their graduation. This is an important annual ritual, and this spring, a special event will take place within the customary set of observances.
Members of the class of 1967—both men and women—will devote a segment of their time together to remembering the way the War defined their College years and discussing how what they call “Vietnam” has affected them for over half a century. As one class member who served as a Marine writes, “Many in my . . . generation made choices about Vietnam that . . . have haunted us, in dreams and awake, for the rest of our lives.”
The war was not fought on American soil; 3 million tons of bombs and 11 million gallons of defoliant were not dropped on our country; 58,220 American soldiers died, compared to more than an estimated 3 million Vietnamese military and civilian deaths during the Second Indochina War. But both our societies live with ghosts, with memories, and with legacies. With the aftermath.
I was not a member of the Harvard class that will have its reunion this spring, but I am close to their age, and like them, I was shaped by the war in ways I am sure I still do not fully understand. But one influence I can clearly identify has been upon my work as a historian.
Coming of age in the 1960s produced in me an enduring fascination with war, with the way its terrible demands can define individuals and societies, with war’s inevitable refraction of ideas and ideals, with the extremity of its pressures. War often proves to be the quintessential “moment of truth,” both for individuals and their societies.
Within the history of the American experience of war, the conflict that rests at the core of national identity is the American Civil War, fought between 1861 and 1865. Both because of its ferocity and because the very meaning and survival of the nation were at stake, the Civil War continues to loom large in our national consciousness, and it has been the focus of my historical research and writing. Many of the war’s critical debates—about justice, equality, citizenship, democracy, and the locus of national power—continue to shape our politics a century and a half after the war’s end. And we continue to struggle over the war’s meaning for the nation’s abiding racial divisions. Americans still battle over the use of the Confederate flag, the emblem of the would-be white southern nation that fought to preserve black slavery, a symbol today seen by most Americans as an affront and an obstacle to racial justice.
Customarily, war’s victor writes its history. But by the end of the nineteenth century, the triumphant North had come to embrace a version of the war that sought to reconcile sectional divisions in a narrative of common sacrifice, suffering shared by white Americans North and South. As the price of reunion, the nation abandoned the Union’s emancipationist commitment to a “new birth of freedom” and all but deserted the 4 million former slaves who with their descendants were consigned to segregation and discrimination for more than a century to come. The legal foundations of slavery were ended, but the vision of true freedom for African Americans was set aside in order to enable North and South to reunite in their common sense of mourning and loss.
The Civil War had indeed demanded great sacrifice. An estimated 750,000 died—more than in every other American war combined up through Vietnam. Losses claimed 2 ½ percent of the population. A similar rate of death in the United States today would mean nearly 7 million fatalities.
This was a war for which Americans were ill-prepared. Both sides thought it would likely end after a single battle if indeed blood would be shed at all. With some few exceptions, it was a war of organized encounters, not guerrillas or irregulars. But the scale of the conflict—nearly 3 million men served in the course of the war—far exceeded anything the military had previously experienced and so challenged the logistical imagination and capacities of both armies.
The war’s unexpected scale had many implications, but one that has particularly captured my attention was the meaning and impact of mass death. Death, its threat, its proximity, its actuality became the most widely shared of the war’s experiences. How did the nation cope with this loss? I have sought to ask that question on every level, from the logistical—what did they do with the bodies?—to the psychological, political, and spiritual.
Neither northern nor southern armies had regular burial details, graves registration units, identity badges like dog tags, or official next of kin notification. Burial was an act of improvisation. After a battle, the victor who held the ground became responsible for the bodies left upon it.
This often resulted in anonymous mass trench burials, especially of enemy dead. Coffins were rare, except for officers.
Soldiers and civilians alike were shocked by the inhumanity represented by such treatment of the dead. Nineteenth century Americans shared deeply-felt attitudes about what constituted a “good death” and how it could determine one’s fate into eternity. Emerging battlefield practices seemed to upend almost every hope and expectation for proper treatment of the slain. Men were being interred, one soldier observed, as if they were nothing better than “dead chickens.”
In face of circumstances that undermined fundamental assumptions of human dignity and identity, civilians and soldiers alike worked to sustain some semblance of beliefs and customs that had defined them. Soldiers struggled to identify comrades, dig and mark individual graves, or bury the unknown with some sort of marker—perhaps a name on a paper inside a bottle—that might later be found.
Voluntary societies were formed to undertake the work governments did not—mapping locations of graves and recording names of the slain.
Comrades offered makeshift funeral ceremonies, seeking to maintain some semblance of reverence and meaning even under trying and dramatically changed new conditions. [It was my great privilege yesterday to visit a military cemetery at Ap Bac.
Created a century after our American Civil War and half a world away, this graveyard represents the same human urgency to honor the dead and their sacrifice.]
Despite such efforts, in the American Civil War, hundreds of thousands of men—more than 40 percent of deceased Yankees and a far greater proportion of Confederates—perished without names, identified only as “Unknown.” To modern Americans this seems unimaginable. To your country it is all too real, for the actual number of missing and unidentified in our Civil War—an estimated 300,000—is probably quite close to the total number of Vietnamese unaccounted for in the Second Indochina War.
Today the United States expends more than $100 million annually in the effort to find and identify individuals still missing from World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. I am certain you in this country are well acquainted with the vehemence of the MIA movement after 1975. But the assumption that the American nation is obliged to account for and return—either dead or alive—every soldier in its service is of recent origin. Only with the Korean War did the United States establish a policy of identifying and repatriating every dead soldier.
Only with World War I did combatants begin to wear official badges of identity—what we now call dog tags. But this revolution in both consciousness and practice began with the Civil War. Its last days saw the origins of graves registration systems in the military, and, by the end of the conflict, the United States government had begun to establish a national cemetery system, a powerful acknowledgement of the obligation of the state to those who have died in its defense.
In the years between 1866 and 1871, after the end of military hostilities, Union soldiers were detailed to scour the war-torn countryside in search of their dead comrades. Ultimately, they located and reburied 303,000 individuals in 74 new national cemeteries and succeeded in identifying more than half of those they found.
The very scale of this effort would have been unimaginable before the war, when the national government was very limited in its powers and programs. The project of reburying the dead defined a different sort of nation state, a government newly dedicated to the dignity of each human being in death as well as in life, a government of the people, by the people, and for the people who had risen in its defense.
But these unprecedented federal initiatives were far from sufficient to relieve the sense of loss and mourning that permeated the nation. Hundreds of thousands of Americans were left with the “dread void of uncertainty” about loved ones whose fate remained unknown. Families wondered for the rest of their lives about lost husbands, fathers, or sons. One grieving woman described how “It was years before I gave up the hope that he would some day appear. I got it into my head that he had been taken prisoner and carried off but that he would make his way back one day.” The absence of identifiable bodies left the bereaved with abiding uncertainty and fantastical hopes, illusions to make the world endurable.
Aftermath. The enduring challenge of how to live with the residuum of war. Ambrose Bierce, a writer who served in the Union army, wrote of being permanently haunted by “visions of the dead and dying,” and felt himself “sentenced to life” and to making sense of how Civil War death had redefined what life might be. Sidney Lanier, a Confederate poet who had been both a combatant and a prisoner of war, commented in 1875 that for most of his “generation in the South since the War, pretty much the whole of life has been not-dying.” A kind of survivors’ guilt. A version of post-traumatic stress that seizes not just individuals but societies.
The aftermath of war is devastation—humans wounded and disfigured, children who have become orphans, property and sources of livelihood destroyed, economies shattered, populations divided. But the aftermath rests not just in the body, but in the soul, even in the souls of those born long after the guns have gone silent. That is why the American Civil War and its enormous cost continue to influence our national debates today. That is why members of the Harvard College Class of 1967, men and women now in their seventies, feel an urgency to confront experiences more than five decades old, memories of a time when “Vietnam” asked them to define themselves and their nation. That is why I am so glad to be in your country at last, for I too am of their generation.
“Why choose war? Why must he write of the war?” the character Kien asks in Bao Ninh’s acclaimed novel, The Sorrow of War. Even as he struggles to find another subject, he “cannot stop writing war stories.” Like him, we write and we talk and we remember because we struggle to understand how war has made us. Vietnam and the United States fought against one another in a long and devastating war. Now, both separately and together, we confront its aftermath.
History is indispensable in that effort. It helps us confront the ghosts and the demons that the tragedies of the past leave as their legacy to the present. It illuminates the blindnesses and cruelties that enable war. It equips us to imagine and strive for peace.