HANOI — Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove) and a delegation that arrived Friday to seek information about missing Vietnam War soldiers cut short their stay when a high-ranking Vietnamese official abruptly canceled his talks with them.
Two hours after the nine-member congressional entourage arrived in Hanoi, Vietnamese officials announced that Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach would not be able to keep his scheduled Saturday appointment with the American officials.
The news touched off a chilly exchange between several congressmen and Vietnamese dignitaries during a series of toasts preceding an official dinner Friday night.
"We're U.S. congressmen, we've traveled a long way to talk about American MIAs, and we need better cooperation than this," said Dornan, whose face turned crimson as Vietnamese officials reiterated that Thach would not be able to meet with the group.
'Pack Its Bags'
Dornan, who had joked earlier that he would lock himself in his nearby hotel room if Thach refused to appear, sounded less amused several hours later when he told his hosts that the delegation was likely to "pack its bags" and return to Bangkok earlier than planned Saturday if the foreign minister did not revise his schedule.
Members of the delegation stressed that Thach is the highest-ranking official in Hanoi who is empowered to discuss the issue of Americans missing in action from the Vietnam War. Without his presence the congressmen might be "wasting their time," said Rep. Gerald B.H. Solomon, a New York Republican who chairs the bipartisan group.
As a result, members decided to trim several hours off their schedule Saturday and return to Bangkok earlier in the day. Earlier, Solomon and other members had said they would ask Thach about reports that there are 50 to 60 American soldiers held captive in Vietnam. Last year, American military officials received 900 reports about such prisoners, based on information supplied by Laotian, Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees.
"We have a full agenda of issues to discuss," Solomon told Deputy Foreign Minister Hoang Bich Son, shortly before the delegation sat down to dinner with Vietnamese officials. "But our discussions must have meaning."
Son, who sat stoically in a reclining chair as the congressmen spoke, told his guests that one individual, meaning Thach, could not solve the complex MIA issue and assured the officials that Vietnam would cooperate in helping American families solve the mysteries of loved ones who disappeared.
"We view this as a humanitarian issue, a problem that is separate from politics, from any other concern," said Nguyen Can, who is deputy director of North American Affairs for the Vietnamese government. "We are prepared to help as best we can."
Vietnamese officials refused to discuss Thach's cancellation, except to say that he had been called away on important business outside Hanoi. Knowledgeable government sources, however, said it was likely that Thach and other officials were meeting to discuss the deteriorating health of Le Duan, the secretary general of the Vietnamese Communist Party. Last week, Hanoi officials denied reports that Duan, 79, had died while being treated for a kidney ailment in Moscow.
Hammered at Issue
Despite these uncertainties, Dornan and other congressmen continued to hammer at the MIA issue during their meeting with Son.
Noting that Vietnamese officials had recently turned over the physical remains of 26 American soldiers, Dornan told Son that "your ability to help us find just one American who is alive and missing in action would be worth more than a thousand boxes of bones."
"Let me tell you something, Mr. Minister," he continued, "if we knew once and for all what happened to our men who died in Vietnam, we would tell you to water the graves of our heroes once and for all."
As Son looked at him impassively, Dornan said Hanoi officials would "open the hearts" of the American people "if you would just free all the war criminals, the uneducable traitors in your jails . . . and let them free, to come to our country."
Son replied that Vietnam would cooperate with the U.S., but did not respond to Dornan's other questions.
Minutes later, after the toasts had concluded and both sides had filed into an official dining room, Solomon said the group had no choice but to leave earlier than planned Saturday.
The delegation plans to return to Bangkok and will tour a refugee camp on the Thailand-Cambodian border Sunday.