Tags: Clinton | Starts | Vietnam | Trip

Clinton Starts Vietnam Trip

Friday, 17 November 2000 12:00 AM

While his putative successors scrapped ignominiously over events in Florida, Mr Clinton was able to play not merely world statesman but historic peacemaker.

Twenty-five years after the Vietnam war ended and more than 30 years after he managed to dodge the possibility of being drafted Mr Clinton stepped out of Air Force One hand-in-hand with his daughter Chelsea to try to heal the wounds that in some ways are still rawer in the US than in the country that was ravaged.

Although Vietnam goes to bed early and the presidential plane arrived late, at least 30,000 midnight gawpers lined the streets between the airport and the presidential hotel to greet Mr Clinton.

Most were teenagers, not yet born when US bombers regularly attacked the city. They seemed enthusiastic but might have been as welcoming to anyone else: entertainment is thin here, and the last high-profile westerner to come to Hanoi was Jane Fonda, during her anti-war phase.

For Mr Clinton, this is the culmination of his eight-year strategy to ensure that Vietnam is regarded as a country as well as a war. If he succeeds, he may yet try to visit North Korea before he leaves office on January 20.

But the visit's success is not assured. Vietnam's communist leadership has been making a half-hearted attempt to give this event no more official build-up than they would give a fraternal visit from the presidents of Laos or Belarus.

However, some of the deep red banners strewn across the streets have had their messages changed. Quotes from Vietnam's founding father, Ho Chi Minh, such as "Unity, Unity, Unity - success, success, success" have been replaced by signs welcoming "Uy-liam gio'pheson Clinton and spouse".

Mr Clinton could certainly not have come two weeks earlier. It was a trip that would have been too highly charged to make before the election, given that mid-western folklore holds that scores of ageing PoWs remain locked in tiger cages somewhere in the mountains.

The president will have to tread very warily during his three days here. Vietnam is one of the last communist regimes, much criticised for its continuing political and religious persecution. Its leadership is touchy, and demands from the west on human rights are dismissed outright.

However, like China, it is now committed to what might be called "commie-talism". If the president tries a walkabout in Hanoi today, he might have to do so in the gutter because the streets are full of mad motorbikers and the pavements are piled high with western consumer goods sold from thousands of tiny shops.

After the huge Soviet subsidies vanished in the late 80s, leaving the prospect of ideological purity coupled with starvation, the Vietnamese government and people reached a tacit understanding. Politics, it is understood, is left to the apparatchiks; in return the party will let everyone make some money. Closer ties with the Americans are crucial to that process.

The reaction to Mr Clinton's visit has been almost unanimously favourable. The only apparent dissident has been a 100-year-old rural matriarch interviewed by the BBC. Having lost several children in the war she damned the Americans wholesale and was deemed beyond correction by despairing party officials. Some slightly younger party hardliners are thought to share her views privately.

In essence, most Vietnamese have moved on. Lieutenant-General Vu Xuan Vinh, who commanded the anti-aircraft batteries on the Ho Chi Minh trail, now regularly meets his former enemies.

"In the heart there is still something we dislike," he said, "but in the mind we know we have to look into the future."

Both sides have to be careful over the next few days. Mr Clinton cannot apologise for the war, but he has to express general regrets. He has to make his points about human rights forcefully, but not too forcefully. He has to appease the Vietnamese over the use of toxic defoliants in the war, without acceding to every unproven allegation.

Of all the balancing acts of his presidency, this is one of the trickiest. At the end of it may lie rapprochement, but perhaps never deep friendship. Somehow, this quintessential American has to win Vietnamese hearts and minds - something his predecessors failed to do so spectacularly a generation ago.

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While his putative successors scrapped ignominiously over events in Florida, Mr Clinton was able to play not merely world statesman but historic peacemaker. Twenty-five years after the Vietnam war ended and more than 30 years after he managed to dodge the possibility of...
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2000-00-17
Friday, 17 November 2000 12:00 AM
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