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Crowds Line Hanoi Streets to See Clinton

Diplomacy: Three-day Vietnam visit, first by a U.S. president since war, is heavy on symbolism.

November 17, 2000|ROBIN WRIGHT and DAVID LAMB | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

HANOI — In a trip designed to bring formal closure to one of the most painful chapters in American history, Bill Clinton today became the first U.S. president to visit Vietnam since the war ended--and the first ever to visit Hanoi, one of the world's last bastions of Communist rule.

Despite the midnight hour of his arrival, Clinton was greeted by thousands and thousands of people lining the streets on the long ride into town from the airport. Some had been waiting for eight hours or more for a glimpse of the American president.

The three-day visit is heavy on symbolism of the past and the future, blending a tour of a site being excavated for the remains of a U.S. pilot with a speech to Vietnamese youth born after the war ended in 1975.

Yet the historic visit, a quarter-century after U.S.-backed South Vietnam surrendered to North Vietnam, also has substantive and strategic importance. The goal is to expand and deepen ties that could, over time, leave a stronger U.S. imprint than the war did, according to Vietnamese officials and Americans alike.

"For totally different reasons, this could rank with [President] Nixon's trip to China--beyond its contribution to closing a chapter for both Americans and Vietnamese," said Stanley Karnow, who covered Vietnam as a journalist and later wrote the highly acclaimed book "Vietnam: A History."

Strategically, the Clinton visit signals that the United States is committed to remaining a major part of the Pacific community. That's important to a Vietnam fearful of a strong and growing Chinese influence in the region.

"The Vietnamese are deathly afraid of the Chinese and have been for 5,000 years," so in an ironic twist, Hanoi now wants the United States in the region as a counterbalance to China, Karnow said.

Substantively, Clinton will encourage political and economic openings, press human rights and religious freedom issues, promote trade and announce joint programs in education, law enforcement and health to foster cooperation and contact between the former rivals.

In his radio address last weekend, Clinton said he would go to Vietnam "to open a new chapter in our relationship with its people."

A Possible Turning Point in U.S. Psyche

The visit will also mark a turning point in the American psyche, analysts contend.

"It's a curious thing. A lot of American kids don't know about Vietnam, yet it's become a buzzword about far more than the war," Karnow said. "It resonates.

"Ever since then, when the United States has become involved in a conflict, the big question is whether it will become another Vietnam. Vietnam has become an adjective. This trip helps exorcise that ghost."

The magnitude of the change is reflected in the words of leaders from both countries.

As far back as 1963, two years before the first U.S. combat troops landed at Danang, Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay suggested that the best solution in Vietnam would be for the United States to bomb North Vietnam back into the Stone Age.

In 1966, Prime Minister Pham Van Dong, the political architect of revolutionary North Vietnam, struck an equally militant note, saying: "How long do you Americans want to fight? One year? Five years? Twenty years? We will be glad to accommodate you."

In the run-up to this trip, officials from both nations spoke almost warmly of the relationship and its future potential. Last week, National Security Advisor Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger said Washington wants Vietnam to see that the United States supports its development, "while encouraging those in Vietnam who have been willing to risk opening the country both economically and politically."

"President Clinton deserves credit for his participation in the process of improving ties between our two countries," said Phan Thuy Thanh, a spokeswoman for the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry. "We hope his visit will further promote bilateral ties and contribute to peace, stability and prosperity in the region and the world."

The visit also ends a painful chapter in Clinton's life that still colors his standing as commander in chief among GIs past and present. As a student in the 1960s, Clinton wrote and spoke and marched against the war.

In 1969, he sent a letter to the head of a local Arkansas ROTC thanking him for "saving me from the draft," which he called "illegitimate" for forcing men to fight a war they might oppose. He reluctantly agreed to accept the draft only to "maintain my political viability." In a reflection of changing times, the president has strong bipartisan support for his trip three decades later from former prisoners of war, including Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

But the fact that he is the first U.S. leader to make the trip sparked bitter reactions in some quarters.

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