Americans Welcomed but War's Past Still Comes Up

In the years immediately following what is known here as the "American war," Vietnamese leaders had a very concrete reason for wanting to restore ties with the United States: In 1973, during peace talks with Vietnam, President Nixon had written a secret letter promising $4.7 billion in postwar aid.

But early attempts to restart US-Vietnamese relations foundered during the late 1970s, with the Vietnamese citing Mr. Nixon's promise in demanding compensation, and the US refusing to provide aid. The Americans ultimately decided that China was a more important partner as the Vietnamese joined with the Soviets.

Since the days of cold-war alliance-building, however, America has become pretty much indispensable - particularly as a market and a source of investment. "The US is a big country," says Maj. Gen. Tran Giang, a Vietnamese Army veteran of the war against the Americans. "Developing relations with the US is good for both of our countries."

This big-picture view is one reason veterans like General Giang support, and even welcome, the return of Americans to Vietnam. His view is voiced by many Vietnamese, even the northern Communists who struggled to evict the US a few decades ago.

Some Vietnamese are fond of pointing out similarities between themselves and Americans. Le Luu, whose bestselling novel on the experience of Vietnamese civilians during and after the war has been translated into English, notes that Ho Chi Minh's 1945 declaration of independence was partly inspired by a similar document written in the 13 colonies in 1776.

"The emotions and expectations of Vietnamese and Americans are quite similar," he adds, noting shared emphases on freedom and independence.

The Vietnamese are not as enthusiastic about American-style democracy and human rights, and bristle at Western critiques in these areas. "In some respects the American cannot fully understand the Vietnamese," Mr. Luu continues.

"Vietnam respects human rights and democracy, but we have also suffered through many wars during the existence of our nation," Luu continues. "In war there are commanders and obeyers ... there is no democracy. Vietnam is just getting over these wars, and it will take time for us to get rid of these habits." In pushing for progress in these areas, he adds, "sometimes the Americans are impatient."

Another instance of American impatience - the US insistence on resolving the whereabouts of the more than 1,500 Americans still listed as missing in action - is having a more inspirational impact. Roughly 300,000 Vietnamese remain unaccounted for, and families are beginning to push the government to do as much for them as the Americans do in tracking down their MIAs.

The Vietnamese have not forgotten the issue of compensation and postwar aid. There are steady calls for the US government to take responsibility for the damage attributed to the chemicals the US military used to defoliate the countryside during the war.

A number of birth defects and environmental problems have been blamed on Agent Orange, the most-used defoliant. "I hope the US Congress and the American people would be more realistic and take care of those consequences left by the war," says Giang.

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