The Political Arena

Steps toward reconciliation
The Vietnamese perspective
The view From Washington
Ambassador Peterson's perspective
The Vietnamese-American dilemma
Viet Kieu
The San Jose Mercury News, bridging two worlds.

Steps toward reconciliation:
In April 1975 after the fall of South Vietnam, the United States extended to all of Vietnam the trade embargo that had been in effect against The Democratic Republic of Vietnam since 1964. Four U.S. presidents renewed the embargo leaving it essentially unchanged until 1991 when President Bush lifted the ban on travel to Vietnam and authorized a $1 million aid package -- the first official U.S. assistance for the country since 1975. In July 1993, President Clinton ended U.S. opposition to IMF and World Bank. In February 1994, the embargo on U.S. trade with Vietnam — in place since the war — was finally lifted. In 1995, Secretary of State Warren Christopher visited Hanoi, the first Secretary of State to do so since Henry Kissinger visited in 1973, and opened the new U.S. Embassy. The final step came with the official exchange of ambassadors in May, 1997. At the same time Pete Peterson greeted crowds at Noi Bai airport, Vietnam's ambassador to the United States, Le Van Bang, was being received in Washington.

In the past two years additional significant steps have been achieved on both sides: A copyright agreement has been signed; the waiver of Jackson Vanik was agreed to by the U.S. Congress in both 1998 and 1999; and the "agreement in principle" on the Bilateral Trade Agreementhas brought an outpouring of optimism from all involved. Economic barriers that seemed insurmountable even five years ago have come down.

The Vietnamese perspective:
For the Vietnamese, accepting reconciliation has been difficult, even painful. Many in Vietnam are still not comfortable with the renewal of ties to a country they see as responsible for the war which left 3 million Vietnamese dead, and thousands more killed or maimed by landmines, unexploded ordnance and the residual effects of Agent Orange; as well as a thirty-year embargo that handicapped the country economically. But all realize that to insure the health and future of Vietnamese people there can be no stepping back. Vietnam must take its place in the world arena.

The view from Washington:
There are also those in the United States for whom the Vietnam War still smolders. Senator Jesse Helms, who fought against reestablishing diplomatic relations with Vietnam, still wears a POW bracelet. Some MIA/POW groups still claim that Vietnam is holding American prisoners. Many Vietnamese Americans still refuse to accept the current communist government of their former homeland. Change happens slowly; but with time even enemies can become friends

Ambassador Peterson's perspective
Will there ever be a final handshake between the two former enemies?
"I would have to say an unqualified yes. Not only will we be good friends in the future but we will be strong allies in this area of the world. There is no doubt in my mind. As to when that comes? Will it come during my tenure here? I don't know. The passage of the trade agreement will bring us full circle in normalization between our two countries in the sense of economics and diplomacy. And we will continue to work on the MIA/POW question. Hopefully, one day in the future we will be able to declare fullest possible accounting completed."

The Vietnamese-American dilemma
For North Vietnam, April 30th 1975 — the day Saigon fell — was a moment of triumph in its single minded pursuit to unite Vietnam. But for many in the South, it meant the division of families and the beginning of life as a refugee. North Vietnamese forces placed hundred of thousands of southerners in prisons, re-education camps and economic zones in efforts to remove subversion and consolidate the country. Throughout the late 70's and early 80's, famine and the fear of persecution prompted over one million southern Vietnamese to flee; many of them found passage on overcrowded boats with no idea of their destination. Over 500,000 of these refugees — often referred to as "the Boat People" — ended up in the United States. These Vietnamese Americans are now into their third generation and number over 1.5 million.

The San Jose Mercury News: bridging two worlds.

Realizing that ten percent of San Jose was Vietnamese Americans, The San Jose Mercury News decided to send a permanent reporter to Vietnam in 1994 to send back stories of particular interest to this community. The reporter returns to San Jose each year to participate in a public forum with readers. Kristin Huckshorn, the Mercury Reporter from 1994-1998 said, "We have seen an incredible growth in the numbers of people who come to the town meetings. It's been standing room only for the last couple of years. Vietnamese actually came to the paper to protest when we opened the bureau. They thought it showed support for (Vietnam's communist) government. They didn't understand that a paper like the San Jose Mercury goes into a country to provide unbiased information. The questions have changed from very anti-government comments to 'What's it like doing business there?' I think more and more people in the community now accept that the war is over and it's time to focus on Vietnam today." A totally separate Vietnam language paper, Viet Mercury, is now published weekly by the San Jose Mercury.

Visit the San Jose Mercury News at:

"Little Saigons" have sprung up all over the United States. Orange County, California is home to the largest Vietnamese American population. Other sizable communities exist in Northern Virginia and Texas. Vietnamese businesses have drawn together, forming community centers and rallying points for those who had to rebuild their lives.

The pain, anger, and hatred felt toward the communist regime that forced them into exile remains fresh for many Vietnamese Americans, and is expounded on daily in cafes, local Vietnamese newspapers and town meetings. Demonstrations that erupted in Orange County, California in April 1999, when a shopkeeper put up a picture of Ho Chi Minh and the flag of The Socialist Republic of Vietnam, reflect the incendiary atmosphere. Fiercely proud of their heritage, yet left without a homeland, many Vietnamese Americans have vowed never to acknowledge that Vietnam is now one communist country.

Viet Kieu
Many Vietnamese who fled their homeland are returning. They are called Viet Kieu — "overseas Vietnamese" — by Vietnamese nationals. Some are reuniting with family members after more than two decades of separation. Others come eager to invest in a country that has opened its doors for business.

For some Vietnamese nationals, the presence of Viet Kieu brings mixed feelings. On one hand, the Viet Kieu bring much needed capital and business know-how. On the other, they have garnered a reputation for being arrogant and for flaunting their American dollars. For more than twenty years, Viet Kieu have lived in and enjoyed the freedoms of America. When they return to Vietnam, where per capita income is about $30 a month, it's not surprising to hear criticisms of arrogance and insensitivity.

A New Generation of Vietnamese Americans Returns to Vietnam
The Vietnamese word "Tiên" roughly translates into English as a movement upward and forward in both time and space. Many young Vietnamese Americans are following that movement. For them, Vietnam has always had a strong, yet remote, presence in their lives. More and more they're going back to Vietnam not only to find their roots, but to help the nation move forward. Like their counterparts in Vietnam, they are turning their eyes to the future.

Trinh Nguyen was two years old when she and her family left Saigon. In 1993 at the age of 20, she returned to Vietnam to visit the relatives she had left behind. The short visit was a profound experience for her. Two years after finishing college she left her home in Massachusetts to return to Vietnam. She is working with a Canadian agency that helps small and medium scale farmers improve their efficiency and work together to become self-sufficient communities. Her sentiments and motivation are shared by many of her peers.

"Most of us came here because we wanted to learn, or re-learn, Vietnamese and learn more about our culture. Growing up in the States I tried to figure out where I belonged and where others thought I belonged. I felt like there were pieces of the puzzle that were missing. Now I've returned to find those pieces. My motivations for coming were personal but I'm also very happy to be making a positive impact. Almost every day brings both rewarding and stimulating experiences and in those moments I often step back and think how grateful I am to be here."

The Mission: Reconciliation
Two Nations Grieve | Business in Vietnam | The Political Arena

Links | Site Index | Order a Video