Twenty-five years after the end of a war that claimed 58,000 U.S. and an estimated 3 million Vietnamese lives, President Clinton told the Vietnamese people on today that the United States joins with them in honoring the sacrifices of war so that “a painful past can be redeemed in a peaceful and prosperous future.”
To a communist nation still suspicious of the West, Clinton pleaded for a more open Vietnamese society and economy.
He said the new generation deserves “the chance to live in your tomorrows, not our yesterdays.”
“We cannot change the past,” said the first American president to come to Vietnam since the war ended in U.S. surrender of the South 25 years ago. “What we can change is the future.”
In an unprecedented act, the authorities broadcast his speech live. His immediate audience was mostly students at Vietnam National University, listening to a translation through earphones. Passers-by along Hanoi’s Hai Ba Trung street, a stretch of TV and stereo shops, stopped to watch — at least a few at every shop, over a dozen at some.
Clinton: Tourist, Diplomat, Politician Clinton was first the diplomat, then the tourist, then the campaigner, grasping hands in the sidewalk crowd along Van Mieu Street after walking the walled grounds of the Temple of Literature, a 1,000-year-old museum, once a university dedicated to literature and philosophy. But his high point came in talking at the university, cautiously trying an occasional phrase in Vietnamese. His wife and daughter sat in the audience.
In urging a more open Vietnamese trading economy and society, Clinton acknowledged that no one can force change on a nation determined to make its own decisions — a nation which fought off the United States when it tried to block communism here.
Speaking of the long war he opposed and avoided by maneuvering around the draft three decades ago, Clinton said the suffering shared by Americans and Vietnamese alike in the war “has given our countries a relationship unlike any others.”
The pain, he said, is shared through the 1 million Americans of Vietnamese ancestry, the 3 million U.S. veterans and others who served here during the conflict, and “are forever connected to your country.”
“Finally, America is coming to see Vietnam as your people have asked for years: as a country, not a war,” Clinton said. He said it is a country “emerging from years of conflict and uncertainty to shape a bright future.”
Clinton urged that it be a future built on freer trade — and also on freedoms restricted by the communist regime. On the red-carpeted stage behind him was a larger-than-life bust of the man who emblemized that regime and the American defeat of 1975 while he lived, Ho Chi Minh.
The president said the knowledge to be gained on campuses like Hanoi’s will be vital in the future of globalization of economies, and so will the freedom to explore, travel, think, speak, worship and dissent.
“All this makes our country stronger in good times and in bad,” Clinton said. “We do not seek to impose these ideals, nor should we. Vietnam is an ancient and enduring country.”
“You have proved to the world that you will make your own decisions,” he said. But his words were a summons to a turn away from the barriers of the communist way.
“Let us continue to help each other heal the wounds of war, not by forgetting ... but by embracing the spirit of reconciliation,” he said.
Clinton Greeted with Cheers
On a bustling day, a moment for quiet reflection came in his visit to the ancient Temple of Literature.
Outside its head-high walls, Vietnamese street life blared on, a cacophony of horns and street noise, the rush of cars and bicycles. The street where Clinton’s motorcade waited had been blocked to traffic, yet crowded with people who stood eight and 10 deep on the sidewalk.
They cheered as he emerged, and he walked straight to them, to grasp hands in the style of the old vote hunter.
Smiling, then waving, he worked his way a half block, then went into Craft Link, a Vietnamese handicrafts shop. He strolled among the scarves, tapestries, purses and baskets, buying a shopping bag full but keeping his purchases to himself.
He said they were Christmas gifts and he didn’t want to spoil the surprise.
Clinton then went next door, to KOTO restaurant, for lunch. The restaurant is a vocational training and guidance center for Vietnamese street youths.
Crowds lined the streets all along Clinton’s route from the Daewoo Hotel, first to the mustard-yellow presidential palace, in the park-like setting of Ba Dinh Square, just beyond the giant mausoleum memorial to Minh.
A bust of Ho was the dominant feature of the ornate reception room where President Tran Duc Luong welcomed Clinton. First, the two presidents stood in the morning sun on a yellow-canopied, red-carpeted stand while a military band sounded the national anthems of the two nations, then played on as they walked the wide stairway to the palace.
“I’m glad to be here,” said Clinton, who arrived late Thursday night. “I’m looking forward to building toward the future.”
The two leaders posed for photographs standing before the bust of Ho, then sat together briefly in a first exchange of pleasantries. “I’ve been very moved by the friendliness of the people on the streets,” Clinton told Luong. “It is a very good omen for our relationship.”
Clinton conferred privately with Luong, then the two presidents watched as U.S. ambassador Pete Peterson and Vietnamese officials signed an agreement for cooperation in science and technology, including efforts to control AIDS and other diseases. They also signed a memorandum on labor cooperation, for worker safety, dealing with the disabled, skills training and other points.
The Vietnamese told Clinton they will sign an international convention aimed at curbing child labor abuses, White House Press Secretary Jake Siewert said.
The crowds lining Clinton’s route were indeed friendly, and where he stopped, there were cheers. But there seemed to be more curiosity than celebration.
These were not organized turnouts. Often, a foreign government prepares for a presidential visit by distributing tiny flags for onlookers to wave. There were none here, although U.S. and Vietnamese flags flew side by side on flagpoles at each official stop.
While there had been little advance billing, a Vietnamese government newspaper said the visit bode well. “The Vietnamese people have built and developed relations with the U.S. that look forward to the future, not to repeat the painful pages of the war,” said an editorial in today’s state-run People’s Army newspaper.