WESTMINSTER — On the morning after Saigon fell in 1975, Dr. Co Pham fastened his 4-month-old son to his shoulder with a piece of cloth and boarded a fishing boat with his family, not knowing whether his decision to leave his war-torn country would ultimately keep them alive or kill them.
"He and I had one future," Pham said. "At that time, all I thought about was that we were going to die out in the middle of the ocean. I had chosen death rather than to stay home.
"With that in mind, how can anyone accuse me of being a Communist? Or for that matter, a Communist sympathizer?"
In his first interview since he led a controversial trade mission to his homeland that earned him those epithets and worse in the Vietnamese community, Pham, president of the Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce, called on U.S. opponents of normalized relations with Vietnam to compromise with him and aid the 70 million people living in one of the world's poorest nations.
The political tide is rolling in the direction of normalization, with or without the acceptance of Vietnamese American opponents of the current Communist regime.
"I want them to face the fact that South Vietnam lost the war, and we lost because of our own corruption, of our own weakness," Pham said. "There's no going back. We can't change what happened.
"But we can change the future by accepting compromise as a token to solving the problems of Vietnam. The country is not moving forward, and that means it's moving backward."
Pham's 27-member delegation hoped to lay the groundwork for U.S. business ventures in Vietnam by meeting with top Vietnamese government officials and business leaders to investigate current economic policies and practices in the Communist-ruled country. The mission was spurred by President Clinton's decision in February to lift the embargo on trade with Vietnam.
The eight-day trade mission that began Oct. 1 sparked angry protests from anti-normalization activists, who demonstrated for months before to the trip and for several weeks afterward.
Death threats against Pham were common, and some of the obstetrician's patients were shouted at and spat upon, he said. Pham had to enter his clinic through a back door to avoid demonstrators. At home, he feared for the safety of his wife, Thuy Bui, who is also a physician, and their four children, ages 3 to 21.
On Sept. 24, nearly a thousand demonstrators picketed Pham's medical practice in the heart of Little Saigon.
Despite the uproar, members of the trade delegation said the trip was worthwhile because they made new contacts that could yield lucrative business ventures.
But critics said the delegation came back empty-handed and prompted resentment from Vietnamese Americans who fled their homeland.
"We wouldn't have cared if he went over there on his own," said Cau Tran, a pharmacist and member of the Vietnamese Community of Southern California, which is opposed to normalization. "But to pretend to represent the overseas Vietnamese is a slap in the face for all the refugees whose fathers, mothers and children died under the hands of the Communists," Tran said.
The privately funded trip further strained relationships between the two sides of the normalization issue within the Vietnamese community here.
"What have you seen so far?" asked Anthony Dang, one of the chamber's founders, who resigned in 1989 and disagrees with the direction in which Pham is taking the organization. "The only thing I've seen are the people who protested his trip."
Dieu Le, editor of Nguoi Viet Daily, the largest Vietnamese-language newspaper in California, also believes there is no tangible evidence that the Vietnamese community benefited from the trade mission.
Pham said he has not answered the charges since returning from the trade mission because he hoped his silence would placate the anti-normalization forces. Now that the protests have died down, he wants to offer his side.
Pham contends that the trip resulted in 10 "preliminary deals" potentially worth as much as $300 million, although he acknowledged that many negotiations did not involve Orange County business people.
"Any time you have people going back to Vietnam to do business, you will have people bringing money back to the United States," Pham said. "And because Orange County is such a major link between Vietnam and the United States, Orange County will benefit. How can it not?"
Sherwin-Williams, an Ohio-based paint manufacturer that Pham said considered the trip a success, is in the process of inviting several Vietnamese contacts to visit the United States, said Richard Elliott, the company's Asia-Pacific regional director.
Elliott said the trip allowed delegates a chance to gauge Vietnam's economic climate, but "nothing is for sure" beyond that. Elliott had planned to visit Vietnam with or without Pham, but said his goals were realized more quickly because of the chamber-sponsored trip.