Vietnam as a US Friend?

Ho Chi Minh's political heirs who now rule in Hanoi know how often Vietnam's revolutionary leader tried to win support from a string of American presidents in the 20th century.

With President Clinton's historic four-day visit to Vietnam, those heirs will have another chance to ask for United States support. How should Mr. Clinton, or his successor, respond?

Ho's requests are worth recalling. The first came in 1919 when, as a budding Communist, he sent a plea to President Wilson at the Versailles peace conference, asking him to back Vietnamese self-determination against French colonial rule. In 1945, Ho sent a message to the Roosevelt administration asking the US to attack Japanese troops in Vietnam. Then in 1946 he sent a letter to President Truman asking once again for an end to French rule. Finally, in 1966, Ho sent a letter to President Johnson seeking an end to US bombing of then-North Vietnam.

Unified since 1975, Vietnam and its post-Ho Communist rulers have won minimal US support. They had expected more - billions of dollars more. But not until Vietnam withdrew its troops from Cambodia in 1989 and after its chief backer, the Soviet Union, collapsed did the US begin to embrace its former enemy. Diplomatic ties came in 1995. And this year, a trade pact was signed.

Clinton's visit was delayed, in part, because of his reputation among many Americans back home as a former draft-dodging, antiwar protester. In Hanoi, he's known as a "good American" for his youthful actions.

Now that he's safely in his lame-duck days, Clinton can set in motion a number of steps that will let Americans engage a country that, like Japan and Germany, will always be close to Americans just by the memory and aftermath of war.

His steps can include promoting US investment, forgiving official debt, and offering humanitarian aid for recent flood victims. The US can also deal with the war's lingering effects from Agent Orange, land mines, and unexploded bombs.

On one key measure of warmer ties - the search for American MIAs - Vietnam has cooperated admirably. And the fact that it invited Clinton at all shows Vietnam is ready to balance its foreign relations among the three powers who were also once its enemies: the US, France, and China.

In fact, the subtext during this visit is how much of an alliance the US and Vietnam might reach someday that would serve as a bulwark against the expanding power of China in Asia. Worth noting is that China's president visited Cambodia just days before Clinton's visit to Vietnam.

An independent Vietnam that works well with the US will serve American interests in Asia more than one that's kept at arm's length. Warmer ties will also serve the 1.3 million Vietnamese Americans, who are now the third-largest Asian-American group.

But just as in its relations with China, the US must gently nudge Vietnam to end its suppression of religious and political dissidents, and move toward a participatory democracy. That should be done more tactfully than in the recent past.

Perhaps both sides could heed these words from Ho, given to a friend around 1919: "Everywhere we meet good and bad people, honest and crooked people. If we are good people, we will meet good people."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.