Vietnam Circles Slightly Closer to Military Ties to U.S.

 

By Elizabeth Becker, April 27, 2000

 

WASHINGTON, April 25 -- Last November, on Veterans Day, Maj. Joseph M. Gaines of the Air Force circled the airfield at Hue, in central Vietnam, and then landed his military cargo plane filled with emergency supplies of plastic sheeting, blankets and water bottles.

On one level it was a standard relief mission, intended to help flood victims, and it was over in less than 12 hours. But it was also a milestone: Major Gaines and his team were the first uniformed members of the United States armed forces to undertake a mission in Vietnam since the last few American troops pulled out in 1975.

The visit represented the quandary that confronts Vietnam 25 years later: that the victor of the war now needs the loser to build the security and prosperity that have so long eluded it.

"The U.S. is the No. 1 country we want to help us in security issues, in military issues and in economic issues," said Le Van Bang, Vietnam's ambassador to the United States. "But the war is always in the background."

Despite the passage of time, Vietnam has remained reluctant to allow any American troops back into the country. Hanoi recently refused another American offer to help remove land mines and unexploded ordnance, saying it feared that too many American soldiers would be seen around the country and be heckled.

It is just as possible that they were afraid that American soldiers would be given a hero's welcome, like the one that greeted Major Gaines.

"When we touched down I stepped out, and people came up to me to give me flowers, stuff to drink," the major said. "They were really happy to see us."

He was just 14 when Saigon fell to Communist forces on April 30, 1975, ending a war that killed three million Vietnamese and 58,000 Americans.

Major Gaines's mission opened the way to the first visit to Hanoi by an American defense secretary when William S. Cohen went to Vietnam last month.

An impoverished nation with a shrunken army, Vietnam needs the access Washington could give it to the modern training and equipment that would put it on an equal footing with its more prosperous neighbors in Southeast Asia.

With the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Vietnam lost its oldest military ally and patron, leaving it weak and alone as it faces a possible confrontation with China over competing territorial claims in the South China Sea.

But although the United States lifted a trade embargo against Vietnam in 1994 and the two countries established diplomatic relations in 1995, Vietnam has yet to approve a trade agreement and has hesitated at establishing fuller military-to-military relations, which might include regular port calls, weapon sales, training at top American military war colleges and joint exercises.

"We want to have full normal military relations, but we aren't ready yet," said Ambassador Le.

For its part, Washington would like to see Vietnam safely ensconced in an informal security community with the other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a goal often articulated by Adm. Dennis Blair, the commander of United States forces in the Pacific.

Apart from Vietnamese resistance to dealings with the American military, China has warned against any military partnership between Washington and Hanoi that might suggest a threat on its southern border.

Pentagon officials insist that they would never jeopardize relations with China to get closer to Vietnam, which today has little strategic importance for the United States. But that assessment could change.

"Good relations with Vietnam will be important if China ever got aggressive, but those are things we don't want to talk about," said Michael O'Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution.

Even if barriers remain, the one that Major Gaines's mission breached last fall represents a significant accomplishment, one that took 20 years to achieve, as well as $500 million and the disparate efforts of American veterans.

In the aftermath of America's military defeat, it became a point of honor and a political requirement in Washington that neither diplomatic nor military relations could be opened with Hanoi until questions about Americans missing in Vietnam were resolved. But it was that search that ultimately proved to be the key to opening the door between the American and the Vietnamese militaries.

In the late 1970's, President Carter explored the possibility of opening diplomatic relations, but he gave up when Vietnam asked for the equivalent of war reparations. During the 1980's there was no question of negotiations, because President Reagan was convinced that Hanoi still held American prisoners.

But there were other, unofficial contacts. Bobby Muller, an early leader of Vietnam Veterans of America, whose anti-land-mine group was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997, went to Hanoi in the 1980's to press for an accounting of the American missing. He got a cold response until he met face to face with the men he had fought against.

"No one could raise the theme of reconciliation without the veterans who paid the price of the war," said Mr. Muller, a paraplegic. "The veterans wanted relations, and we knew it was incumbent upon us to extend a hand of friendship and move on."

In 1988 Gen. John W. Vessey Jr., former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and himself a Vietnam veteran, was sent by President Reagan to persuade Vietnam to help in the search for America's missing.

General Vessey's first breakthrough was at a meeting with Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, the legendary hero of Vietnam's wars against France and the United States. In a private meeting in 1988, the former enemies fell into an animated, two-hour conversation that "covered the waterfront," according to General Vessey.

They talked about how the war had been fought, the high cost in human lives and what could be done to bring the countries together again.

"After that conversation I sensed an almost immediate improvement in relations with the government," General Vessey recalled.

Since that meeting the Pentagon has sent 100-member teams every other month to Vietnam -- though not in military uniform -- to scour the countryside for the remains of Americans. So far, 554 remains of military personnel have been identified, and the missions have concluded that there are no live American prisoners held by Hanoi. About 1,400 cases are left to be investigated.

In 1991 Senator John F. Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, led a Senate committee to report on the missing in action. A veteran who became a national antiwar figure, he teamed up with Senator John McCain, the conservative Republican from Arizona and a former prisoner of war.

"I was driven by the sense that we really needed to end the war," Senator Kerry said. "We Americans were acting and behaving as if the war was still going on and Vietnamese were holding Americans as prisoners." The committee determined that there were no live prisoners, and four years later the two senators flanked President Clinton when he announced the establishment of diplomatic relations with Hanoi.

Importantly, from the Vietnamese perspective, the Pentagon has opened up its considerable trove of maps, documents and other archival material to help Hanoi find the more than 200,000 Communist soldiers it still lists as missing.

For the Vietnamese military, the problem is not only to find its missing. Since the end of the cold war, the country's economic plight has forced it to reduce its armed forces by more than half, from 1.2 million to 480,000.

"In the past few years the Vietnamese armed forces have gone through a harsh change," said Capt. T. McCreary of the Pacific command. "They have moved to self-defense completely, to a small armed force that's not bad and can still defend the country and territorial waters."

The search for the missing in action has developed into regular exchanges of American and Vietnamese officers and military officials and invitations to Vietnamese officers to attend seminars and conferences in the United States -- though not training or access to modern equipment.

It also created a spirit that finally made Major Gaines's relief mission possible. And that, in turn, led last month to Defense Secretary Cohen's visit.

Mr. Cohen promised the Vietnamese government help in dealing with issues left over from the war, including joint research into the effects of Agent Orange, the defoliant that American forces sprayed from the air across the south during the war.

He also helped persuade the Vietnamese to reopen negotiations on a trade agreement with Washington to open up Vietnamese markets, said Charlene Barshefsky, the United States trade representative.

"The United States believes that the security of both of our nations can be enhanced by working together," Mr. Cohen told the Vietnamese.


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© 2000 by Neil Mishalov