CLOSURE 5

When Fidel Castro visited Hanoi a few years earlier, officials had to bus kids in from the countryside and give them Cuban flags to make a crowd. Russian President Vladimir Putin attracted nothing more than yawns and a score or so of curious onlookers outside his hotel when he visited in 2001. But for Clinton, the Vietnamese went nuts. They started lining up on the road from Noi Bai Airport at 4 P.M. By the time Clinton arrived at midnight, young Vietnamese by the tens of thousands stood six-deep along the airport road, and as his limousine sped by a throaty roar of excitement filled the night. Another huge crowd gathered outside the Daewoo Hotel to cheer his arrival. The police had never seen a spon¬taneous display of public enthusiasm before and didn’t know what to do. So they threw up rope barriers and pushed at the throng of twenty-some¬things with electric cattle prods, to no avail. Everywhere Clinton went for three days there were multitudes of cheering young people.
What they cheered wasn’t Clinton the man. It was what he repre¬sented: prosperity, opportunity, freedom—attributes in short supply in Vietnam. This was the voice of the postwar baby boomers, and it under¬scored the vast generation gap between the young who wanted change and the old-time conservatives who liked things as they were. Clinton’s reception unnerved the leadership. For days afterward the press banged away on the need for young people to hold fast to Vietnam’s socialist tra¬ditions and nationalistic values.
Despite their misgivings, Vietnam’s leaders were good hosts. Ho Chi Minh (who would have been no years old) was conveniently off in Moscow when Clinton arrived, his corpse being pumped up and touched up. And the memorial to Vietnam’s war dead near his mausoleum was closed for “renovation,” thus sparing Clinton an uncomfortable visit, as every foreign dignitary was expected to make. The politburo also let Clinton deliver his major speech—to college students—on live national television, a concession Hanoi had never made before to any head of state. An estimated 20 million people—one of every four Vietnamese— watched it.
A gaggle of 300 foreign journalists—the likes of which Vietnam had not seen since the war—descended on Hanoi for the visit, and most of us traipsed out to the university for Clinton’s speech, which would be deliv¬ered in a lecture hall, with a bust of Ho Chi Minh off Clinton’s right shoulder, the American and Vietnamese flags, side by side, to his left. His speech struck a tone that reflected remarkable sensitivity toward Vietnam and the Vietnamese. He did not lecture or tell Vietnam how it should run its affairs. Instead he spoke of a history of shared suffering that had bound former enemies with different cultures, religions, and languages in some sort of common destiny.
Two centuries ago, during the early days of the United States, we reached across the seas for partners in trade and one of the first nations we encoun¬tered was Vietnam. In fact, one of our founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, tried to obtain rice seed from Vietnam to grow on his farm in Virginia two hundred years ago. By the time World War II arrived the United States had become a significant consumer of exports from Vietnam. In 1945, at the moment of your country’s birth, the words of Thomas Jefferson were chosen to be echoed in your own Declaration of Independence: “All men are created equal. The Creator has given us certain inviolable rights—the right to life, the right to be free, the right to achieve happiness.”
Of course, all of this common history, two hundred years of it, has been obscured in the last few decades by the conflict we call the Vietnam War and you call the American War. You may know that in Washington, D.C., on our National Mall, there is a stark black granite wall engraved with the name of every single American who died in Vietnam. At this solemn me¬morial, some American veterans also refer to the “other side of the wall,” the staggering sacrifices of the Vietnamese people on both sides of that conflict—more than three million brave soldiers and civilians.
This shared suffering has given our countries a relationship unlike any other. Because of the conflict, America is now home to one million Amer¬icans of Vietnamese ancestry. Because of the conflict, three million Ameri¬can veterans served in Vietnam, as did many journalists, embassy person¬nel, aid workers and others who are forever connected to your country.
Almost twenty years ago now, a group of American servicemen took the first step to reestablish contacts between the United States and Vietnam. They traveled back to Vietnam for the first time since the war, and as they walked through the streets of Hanoi, they were approached by Vietnamese citizens who had heard of their visit. Are you the American soldiers, they asked? Not sure what to expect, our veterans answered, yes, we are. And to their immense relief their hosts simply said, “Welcome to Vietnam.”
More veterans followed. . . . When they came here, they were deter¬mined to honor those who fought without refighting the battles; to re¬member our history, but not to perpetuate it; to give young people like you in both our countries the chance to live in your tomorrows, not in our yes¬terdays. As Ambassador Pete Peterson has said so eloquently, “We cannot change the past. What we can change is the future.”
Two nights after Clinton’s university speech, I dined with several Viet¬namese officials in Ho Chi Minh City. Clinton had clearly been a hit, with the young as well as with the Old Guard, but the officials said polit- buro members had been so unsettled about Clinton’s speech they had agreed to the live broadcast only on the condition that the government receive a copy of the speech three hours before its delivery. If there were any surprises, they would simply pull the plug and blame the blackout on technical difficulties. No objections were raised. “We are closer today than we were yesterday because of Clinton,” one of my guests said. “He played by the rules. He showed an understanding of our culture and re¬spected our dignity. That’s all we ask, but that has not always been the case with American presidents.”
Clinton’s trip to Vietnam represented a significant step toward recon¬ciliation. For everyone, except those who would never accept the notion of a communist Vietnam, there was every reason to believe that now, more than twenty-five years after the shooting stopped, there was light at the end of the tunnel. It was the light of closure.

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