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Vietnam: Turning the Page

November 20, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT
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SPENCER MICHELS: From Hanoi in the North to Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon, in the South, President Clinton was cheered by thousands of Vietnamese during an historic three-day visit to Vietnam. Richard Nixon was the last American president to visit, in 1969. But in a major speech where Mr. Clinton spoke of shared suffering, an audience of handpicked college students remained unresponsive.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: The histories of our two nations are deeply intertwined.

SPENCER MICHELS: Like 60 percent of Vietnamese, the students were born after the war, which left three million Vietnamese dead and claimed 58,000 American lives. The President watched Vietnamese workers searching for the remains of an American pilot whose plane was believed to have crashed in this rice paddy 33 years ago. In meetings with leaders of Vietnam’s communist government, Mr. Clinton focused on forging stronger diplomatic and economic ties between the two countries. They discussed implementing the landmark trade agreement reached this summer. But when Mr. Clinton publicly encouraged liberalizing Vietnam’s economy and its political system, and privately raised human rights issues, Vietnamese officials were decidedly cool. They said it was not Washington’s business to lecture Hanoi or to interfere in Vietnam’s internal affairs.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: For more on President Clinton’s trip to Vietnam we get three perspectives. Stanley Karnow, who covered the war for the Washington Post and NBC News, is the author of “Vietnam: A History.” Andrew Lam was born in Vietnam and grew up in Saigon. He and his family were evacuated by the U.S. in 1975. Now a U.S. citizen, he is an associate editor at Pacific News Service. Nguyen Qui Duc, who was born in Vietnam and came to the U.S.A. When he was 17 at the end of the war. He, too, is an American citizen and is host of “Pacific Time,” a radio program broadcast on KQED-FM in San Francisco. We saw just a little bit of the crowds welcoming the president. They were apparently very warm in that welcome. How do you explain that given the suffering during the war?

NGUYEN QUI DUC, KQED-FM: Elizabeth, you’ve been there. You’ve been to Vietnam. You’ve seen that sense of welcome there. It’s not so different than the kind of welcome that veterans or other visitors from foreign countries received in Vietnam. It highlights the Vietnamese curiosity and desire to meet foreigners, to welcome them as friends and as good neighbors, as good visitors and certainly with President Clinton it is a chance for them to also be a part of the world as represented by President Clinton.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Stanley Karnow, is that how you see it, or is there something more at work here?

STANLEY KARNOW, Author and journalist: Well, I think the President was addressing two audiences on this trip which I think was a very important trip. Too bad it was eclipsed by events in Florida. I think it could have got more play on television. But I think he was speaking first to an American audience and secondly to a Vietnamese audience. He’s saying to an American audience, considering the trauma of the Vietnam experience for this country, let’s put it behind us; let’s go forward, let’s reconcile the war with ourselves and also with Vietnam. In the second place, he’s talking to the Vietnamese and, as was mentioned in the clip, 60 percent of the population is under the age of 21. I can sympathize with him. I gave a talk at the University of Hanoi a few months ago on the war; it was an absolute bomb. The kids are not interested in the war. They’re interested in technology; they’re interested in consumer goods. They’re interested in American pop culture, and I think a lot of that was expressed in the response of the people in the streets rather than the people in the audience.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Andrew Lam, do you think that’s the case? And is there a kind of separation between people and state here?

ANDREW LAM, Pacific News Service: In Vietnam, you mean?

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Yes, I don’t here – I mean in Vietnam, yes.

ANDREW LAM: In Vietnam, absolutely. I think there’s two parallel tracks that are going on. There is the Hanoi regime that is sort of running similar political system with China, and then you have young people who are, you know, 80 percent under the age of 30. So you’re talking about no memory of the war whatsoever. The only thing they are enamored with is America. I mean, Vietnam may be the symbol of a metaphor for disaster and division in America, but America increasingly is a symbol of freedom and happiness for the young Vietnamese, and globalization in a way is in Vietnam, and I think in some way Clinton’s visit is the validation of Vietnam is becoming part of that global culture and village.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So, look, do you think that what President Clinton said as he left is true – here is a quote – he said he believed the popular enthusiasm towards him showed, quote, the trend towards freedom is virtually irreversible in Vietnam, or would that be going too far in your opinion?

NGUYEN QUI DUC: I think if you look at it as people versus government I think he’s right. If you looked at the people, there is a sense in the Vietnamese populace that we want to move forward, have more freedom. And I think certainly the trip does that much in the sense of instilling that much belief in what the people want and hope for. But I think there’s a resistance from the government of Vietnam and from Hanoi. There were some intense moments as he was leaving when he was discussing this with all the leaders of Vietnam. They will welcome Clinton as long as it doesn’t shake their sense of their own power and their own seat of power.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, Stanley Karnow, could there actually be some kind of a backlash from the leaders because of this, in other words, a kind of crackdown?

STANLEY KARNOW: One thing I would be interested in seeing is the names of many people that appeared in the newspapers, Vietnamese who went out and said to the President we admire your democracy, let’s see if these people are going to be able to remain free or whether the police are going to come around and wrap them up. Can I add just one more point?

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Sure.

STANLEY KARNOW: Which is — I think the trip is very symbolic in one respect. When Saigon fell, when the Communists took over Saigon in April of 1975, it was a debacle. I mean, we all looked at it with horror – you know — the war was lost because we were in many ways happy it was over. But it’s turned out that since then it has not been a disaster for the United States. And the United States is still a symbol, it’s a beacon for people. If you get these people in Vietnam, which is really kind of on the dark side of the Moon, a very isolated place, clamoring for the Internet, claming for globalization and pop culture and really wanting to join the world, it symbolizes that the United States itself represents something in the world.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Andrew, what is the significance of the trip for Vietnamese-Americans like yourself?

ANDREW LAM: Well, I think ten years ago Vietnamese-Americans would have protested the idea, but after the Cold War it really changed the mindset. I think they’ve come to the point where they can disagree with the government but nobody wants to see Vietnam sliding backward. And the idea that interaction with Vietnam will bring about changes is increasingly taking hold in the Vietnamese-American imagination. But you must take note that the fact that Vietnamese-American is a very influential group of people in the terms of relation to Vietnam. You know, we sent home somewhere between $2-$4 billion a year, 16 percent of the GNP of the country. And if there is a propaganda Vietnamese-American is a very good symbol for what America can do in terms of transformation, the second largest population outside of Vietnam is in the Silicon Valley.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The president actually mentioned that freedom had given these Vietnamese-Americans opportunities.

ANDREW LAM: He traveled with 200 Vietnamese-American businessmen who traveled with him in the last three days to Vietnam.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So among people that, for example, your family knew – I mean, your father suffered terribly — he was 12 years in prison camp — there wasn’t bitterness about this trip?

NGUYEN QUI DUC: I think there would be bitterness in the older generation but I think if you look at it now, the Vietnamese-American community has changed. It’s a younger community as well. It has seen opportunities in Vietnam. It is also a more confident community that knows that it can go to Vietnam and work its way through and have an influence in Vietnam as well as with hopefully the next administration and bring some help to the Vietnamese people. And there is that separation. The government is one thing but we want to go back and help our people.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You didn’t much like the media coverage of this, right?

NGUYEN QUI DUC: I think media covered so much of the aspect of Clinton and the MIA stories, certainly the TV shows that I’ve seen have not really looked at Vietnam or the Vietnamese-American issues, and there is still a lot to be said there. And I think Clinton did a very good job in bringing up these issues, in looking at the pain of all sides. I think the media missed that part.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Do you agree?

ANDREW LAM: Yeah, I agree. I mean I was in Vietnam in April. And I was with a few journalists, American journalists. And we saw a beggar who lost both of his legs. And immediately the American journalists said, “Look what we’ve done to them”. When I came up and talked to them, they said they were soldiers who occupied Cambodia. So we see Vietnam through a certain political or historical lens. But if you’re Cambodian, you see the Vietnamese at occupiers. The point is you can only see Vietnam in a different lens. But it’s hard for America to get out of the war sort of status.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So, Stanley Karnow, looking at this from the vantage point of many years and a lot of involvement that you have, what’s the overall significance of this for both Vietnam and for the United States?

STANLEY KARNOW: It’s that we’re moving forward. I think the President rightly said you can’t forget this. I mean, we’re not going to forget it. It’s a part of American history. Obviously, the Vietnamese are not going to forget it, given the tremendous losses that they took. But you have to turn the page. And, you know, it’s a curious thing. I think the two gentlemen on there would agree with me. The United States is much more haunted by the Vietnam War than the Vietnamese are. I mean, the Vietnamese have fought wars for thousands of years. They’re looking forward in many ways more than we are. But this is a chance, I think, for us to sort of put the chapter behind us and go on.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What do you think about that, Duc? What do you think the overall significance is?

NGUYEN QUI DUC: I think Mr. Karnow is right in terms of the Vietnamese having had that long history looking forward to something new. I think President Clinton gives them a chance now to confirm the idea of Vietnam wanting to join the community at large and the world at large. I think President Clinton did very well at recognizing the work of reconciliation of veterans, of other visitors who have come before him. I think he did his tour of duty in four days but achieved a lot. Others have had to have a tour of duty for a longer time and suffered a lot more. But I think symbolically and for the future it will be very good.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Andrew Lam.

ANDREW LAM: Well, I think it’s a good first step but I think reconciliation will have to happen in so many different levels within the Vietnamese country, the population itself, there’s still a group of people who feel that they have always been suffering under the Communist system. If they’re going to have reparation and so on, you know, the boat people situation on the reeducation camp, all these things will have to bring up to the front in order to overcome the past.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, thank you all three very much.