Legacy of War Tinges An Ambassador's Role

Ex-POW forgives past to forge better ties

Douglas "Pete" Peterson, a former Florida congressman who spent nearly seven years in Vietnamese jails as a prisoner of war, knew that serving here as ambassador would be an emotional experience.

Still, there have been unexpected moments: Shortly after he arrived in Hanoi this May, officials picked him up in a Mercedes-Benz limousine. For a guy who remembers being trundled through the Vietnamese capital in "the back seat of an old beat-up truck ... in manacles and a blindfold," the limo ride "was quite a departure."

Perhaps no one better represents the evolution of America's relationship with Vietnam than Mr. Peterson. More than three decades ago he dropped bombs on North Vietnam until he was shot down in 1966. Today, as the first US ambassador to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, he zips around Hanoi on a moped, tries out his Vietnamese, and envisions a remarkable future.

He predicted, in a recent Monitor interview, that "within the next decade, the US and Vietnam will be as close as we are to Korea or Japan," America's two most important allies in Asia.

Writer Le Luu, author of "Time Long Past," a bestselling novel about how Vietnamese civilians experienced the "American war," agrees that the two former adversaries will grow closer - except in one regard. "The US maintains troops in Japan and South Korea. That will never happen in Vietnam."

Despite this prickliness, the Vietnamese have come further than Americans in discarding the painful memories of their two countries' cold-war confrontation. In Hanoi, where residents once fled bombs from B-52s, they now choose from 31 flavors. Like most Americans in the country now, Peterson says he "never" feels uncomfortable here.

All across the US, meanwhile, black flags still hang from many public buildings remembering the 1,578 Americans who are unaccounted for in Vietnam. US-Vietnamese relations remains a sensitive subject in Congress.

As a result, Peterson says his responsibilities go beyond simply being the face of the US government in Hanoi. A widower and father of two who seems to work endlessly at his new job, he feels he must also represent Vietnam to the US and assist "the American people in healing wounds of the war."

"I talk to every single delegation that comes over here," he continues. "Business, humanitarian, student, professional - any time I can get an American group here I will take the time to help them understand, one, why we are here and, two, the potential for us remaining engaged and developing our relationship here."

Peterson uses his own experience in encouraging those ill-disposed toward Vietnam to change their outlook. "My family suffered every indignity and virtually every pain and element of suffering one [could] have from a conflict like that, short of death, and I was very near that several times myself. And I've reconciled.... My only hope is the individuals who were so involved and the families that we so injured would stop and take another look at the benefit [of] moving forward constructively."

Tracking down what happened to those listed as "missing in action" remains the top diplomatic priority of the US government, but the real engagement is economic. The US has drafted a detailed trade agreement that would require significant reforms in Vietnam's economy and speed the country's ability to join the World Trade Organization.

The Vietnamese are pushing for "most-favored-nation" trading status, which would make it easier for products made here to compete in the vast US market.

"Over the next 10 years, this country will become a very successful economic entity," Peterson promises, ticking off its advantages: an energetic and generally well-educated population of 78 million, raw materials that include oil and gas, access to the sea, and the potential to develop the sort of export-driven growth that has created such prosperity in other East Asian countries.

He acknowledges that few foreign investors are making money and that many are frustrated with the pace of reform, but says those are short-term considerations. "In the long term those companies are going to ... be here when [the Vietnamese] start to really get this economy rolling."

Besides the residues of the war, there are other complications in the US-Vietnam relationship. The State Department has been critical of political and religious repression in Vietnam, as have international human rights groups.

Peterson notes that the US is pleased with an ongoing diplomatic dialogue on these topics, but says real progress may come with economic advancement. "If we can improve the quality of life for 98 percent of the folks here," Peterson says, "they then are going to speak more loudly and more freely and seek a greater individual freedom, which is what I think we're all after."

The ambassador does not do all his work in air-conditioned offices. "I have a little bike that I ride," he says, referring to his Honda "Dream II," a moped that is the must-have mode of transportation for any Vietnamese who can afford the $2,400 price tag. "The fun is getting on my machine and riding out into the countryside."

"The people are not unlike people anywhere else in the world," he adds. "They work hard. They have to earn enough for their families, and they have all the crises that everyone else has: They cry and they bleed and they weep. They have problems just like everyone else, and so to get out there and to get with the people ... I thoroughly enjoy that. That's a remarkable experience."

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