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"The first time I went to Vietnam, I prayed to go home," says Thomas J. Vallely (MPA '83) who was 18 years old when he was sent to fight in the Vietnam War. A member of the U.S. Marine Corps infantry, Vallely was stationed at the coastal city of Danang, a strategic center dominated by Communist forces. "The second time, I went and never really came back."
Vallely returned to Vietnam in 1985 as a Massachusetts State Representative, invited by Senator John Kerry as part of a goodwill delegation. The trip marked the beginning of Vallely's commitment to fostering exchange between the two countries. Awarded a scholarship to the Kennedy School, the Newton, Mass. native gave a cash donation to the School to help a Vietnamese student as a way of thanking his hosts. While his generosity ultimately aided a Chinese student, the seed for what would become the Vietnam Program had been planted.
Established in 1988, the Vietnam Program at the Kennedy School's Center for Business and Government serves as a central organizing point for a variety of research, teaching, and policy advising activities with the dual goal of promoting U.S.-Vietnamese understanding and enabling Vietnam to integrate successfully into the global economy.
As director, Vallely coordinates a public policy program at the University of Economics of Ho Chi Minh City, as well as a Fulbright Exchange Program, which selects qualified Vietnamese professionals to study at U.S. graduate programs. "We were lucky enough to be in the human capital business early on," remarks Vallely, noting that the program's launch established its presence several years before the U.S. and Vietnam resumed diplomatic relations.
"These are people who want Vietnam to be a modern country. They don't want it to be a mere image of the U.S., either -- they have their own understanding of what that means," he says.
Cao Duc Phat (MPA2 '95) is a particularly dramatic example of how program graduates can effect change in their native country, notes Vallely. Phat returned to Vietnam as Vice Minister of Agriculture and eliminated the state's monopoly on selling farm products to the world market, increasing rural income by one-third.
Phat's success won the approval of colleagues, but importing new concepts from the U.S. is not always easy, Vallely observes. "There's a fear that the ideas one learns here will change the country too quickly. On the positive side, Vietnam has the right framework in place to be a successful member of the global economy."
"Vietnam is a big part of American history," he continues. "I was lucky enough to come home from the war in one piece, go to school, and be involved public life before I realized I wanted to think more about the country and its issues. Now I want to continue doing that. My best friends in the world live in Vietnam."
Photo: Tom Vallely with Charlene Barshefsky, former U.S. Trade Representative in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.