Comments offered at Morning Prayers in Harvard’s Memorial Church
February 25, 2020
Douglas W. Elmendorf

A reading from the Letter to the Colossians, Chapter 3, Verses 12 to 14: “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do.”

Good morning, everyone. I had the opportunity recently to observe forgiveness on a scale I had not seen up close before, and I want to tell you that story.

My wife Karen and I, and some of our colleagues at the Kennedy School, spent a week in Vietnam, where we had never been before. More than 25 years ago, as Vietnam was moving toward a more market-oriented economy, Vietnamese leaders asked the Kennedy School to teach their senior public officials about economic policy. My colleagues have now taught many dozens of officials, and our original program has evolved into a school of public policy, which has become the hub of a new university. 

Our group went to Vietnam to celebrate the past success and plan for the future. We met with government officials, educators, students, Harvard alumni, and others. The trip was an extraordinary experience for which I am very grateful, and I came away with a lesson in people’s astonishing capacity for forgiveness.

Between 1965 and 1975, more than 58,000 Americans were killed in Vietnam, and probably between 1 and 2 million Vietnamese were killed. Roughly 1500 Americans, and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, remain missing in action. Unexploded ordnance kills and maims people to this day. So, one might think that relations between our countries could never be healed. Certainly, many people have wounds--physical and mental--that will never heal, and my heart goes out to them.

And yet … The first American ambassador to Vietnam after we normalized relations had been a prisoner of war in Hanoi for more than 6 years. When he became ambassador, he spoke not of anger or bitterness but of hope. He said, “I want to heal the wounds between the United States and Vietnam. It’s a tragic history that we’ve shared as two peoples. No one can change that, but there is a great deal we can all do about the future.”

Similarly, the president of the new university showed us poll results that about 80 percent of the Vietnamese people have a favorable view of the United States. We noted that if we asked a similar question about Americans’ view of the United States, we might not get such a positive response. And every official we met greeted us warmly and thanked us effusively. My colleague Tommy Vallely served in the Marine Corps in Vietnam during the war. Now he is leading the Kennedy School’s work in Vietnam with great energy and skill. And the prime minister of Vietnam ended a formal meeting by coming around the table to hug Tommy.

And so, when I encounter situations in the future where history seems too raw to move beyond and divides seem too wide to be bridged, I will think about this trip and about the astonishing forgiveness that we saw.

I want to add, as a postscript, that I was reminded on this trip of the amazing power of the Harvard name. When we checked out of our hotel to head home, I handed the desk clerk my Harvard credit card. He looked at the card and said “Oh, you are a professor at Harvard--that’s a very great university.” In his eyes, I was not just an average traveler but a distinctive person--because of this name that I carry, that we carry.

The power of that name gives each of us a great responsibility--to use the name to do good in the world. Sometimes that good is abstract and unfolds slowly: Harvard attracts the most talented and curious people, who are turned loose to see what they can discover and create. Other times the good we do is concrete and immediate: Harvard people have helped the Vietnamese transform their economy, and we saw the positive changes in people’s lives. 

And so, in my week in Vietnam, I learned about particular people in a particular place at a particular time. But I also learned lessons of broader value--of the possibility of forgiveness, and of our power, as sharers in the Harvard inheritance, to do good in the world. Thank you, and have a wonderful day.