In the end, both sides went home from the New York negotiations empty-handed. The State Department had been pressing for simultane¬ous recognition of Vietnam and China; Vietnam had been making plans to invade China-backed Cambodia. Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s Na¬tional Security Advisor, decided that Vietnam was a “peripheral issue” and feared that the deal with Hanoi would kill all chances for a deal with Beijing. Within two months of the talks’ breakdown, Vietnam had signed a twenty-five-year friendship treaty with the Soviet Union and invaded Cambodia. The stately old villa on Hai Ba Trung Street would stand empty for another sixteen years, until President Clinton lifted the trade embargo in 1994. By the time I returned to Vietnam it had been spiffed up and reborn as the American Club, a social facility that offered video rentals, five-star hamburgers, and an annual Fourth of July festival for the 300 or so Americans living in Hanoi.
Among the many strange twists along the rapprochement road Hanoi and Washington traveled was that the reconciliation process was started by the men who fought the war and concluded by a man, President Clin¬ton, who avoided it. It began with the small group of vets Bobby Muller, the paraplegic Marine, had taken back to Hanoi in 1981. When he re¬turned to Washington, he went to see then-U.S. Representative (and now Senator) John McCain, the former Navy pilot who had been shot down and taken prisoner within spitting distance of my Hanoi apartment. Mc-Cain shook with anger and pounded on his desk, “God damn it, Bobby! What are you going back and talking to the enemy for?” But McCain gradually softened. He came to believe the anger and hatred inside him only served to keep the past alive, and although he continued to refer to his torturers in Hoa Lo Prison as “gooks,” he became a leading advocate of reconciliation. He was joined by other veterans, Republicans and Democrats, on Capitol Hill: Senators Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, John Kerry of Massachusetts, Max Cleland of Georgia, and Chuck Robb of Virginia; Representatives Jay Rhodes and Jim Kolbc of Arizona, Tom Carper of Delaware, Lane Evans of Illinois, David Skaggs of Colorado, Wayne Gilchrist of Maryland, and fellow POW Pete Peterson of Florida.
Clinton formalized the reconciliation process. He lifted the trade em¬bargo and established diplomatic relations in 1995. He sent Peterson to Hanoi in 1997 as the first U.S. ambassador to Vietnam since Saigon fell. In 2000 Clinton signed a bilateral trade agreement with Vietnam and visited Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. He was the first U.S. president to set foot on Vietnamese soil since 1969, when in a muddy field twelve miles north of Saigon Richard Nixon told two rifle companies of the 1st Infantry Division: “Out here in this dreary difficult war, I think history will record that this may have been one of America’s finest hours, because we took on a difficult task and succeeded.” He went on to note: “This is the first time in our history when we have had a lack of understanding of why we are here, what the war is all about.”
Two MEN WHO HAD BOTH everything and nothing in common found themselves seated next to each other at a dinner party in Hanoi, strug¬gling to find common ground for conversation. One was Do Muoi, a onetime house painter who had joined the Communist Party in 1939 and become a revolutionary. French authorities had sentenced him to ten years in prison at the onset of World War II, but he escaped after serving less than half his time. He rose steadily in the Party’s hierarchy, always the conservative ideologue, and now was one of Vietnam’s most powerful figures. The other man was Pete Peterson, eighteen years Do Muoi’s jun¬ior. He was a retired career U.S. Air Force colonel and Vietnam vet, a freshman Democratic congressman from Florida who knew more than his share of tragedy after the war ended: His teenage son, Doug, had died in a car crash in 1983; his wife, Carlotta, would die of cancer in 1995.
Do Muoi leaned close to Peterson and asked, “Were you ever tor¬tured?” Such bluntness is unusual in Vietnam, and Peterson wasn’t sure what to say. Had he wanted to, Peterson could have told him about his six years in Hoa Lo Prison—the Hanoi Hilton as American POWs called it—and other wartime prisons with nicknames like Heartbreak Hotel, the Zoo, the Pigsty, Dogpatch, and Camp Unity. He could have told him about the beatings that left him unconscious; about the leg irons and the elbows manacled so tightly behind the back that it felt his chest would explode at any moment; about solitary confinement and a diet of grass soup and pumpkin; about the ropes that curled his body into the shape of a rocking horse and the guards who sat on his contorted body and, smil¬ing, bounced him up and down like a toy; about being forced to kneel for days, arms extended overhead, until swollen limbs went numb with pain and the mind went dead. He could have said all this, but he didn’t. That chapter of his life was over. Peterson dismissed the question with a wave of the hand. “I’d rather talk about the future, about what we can do to move relations between the United States and Vietnam forward,” he said. But Do Muoi was insistent. “No, I want to know. Were you tortured?” “Yes,” Peterson said. He rolled back his shirtsleeves. Rope burns still scarred his elbows. He held up the hand that sometimes went so numb he momentarily wondered if it had fallen off his body. Do Muoi said nothing at first. Then he pulled up one trouser leg. The long scar he revealed was ugly and jagged. “I was tortured, too,” Do Muoi said, “in the same prison as you, Hoa Lo. By the French, a good many years before you got there.” That exchange occurred in 1991, during Peterson’s first trip to Vietnam since being released from Hoa Lo with other American POWs in 1973. He had come back to grapple with a question Americans were just begin¬ning to ask: Was it time for the United States and Vietnam to exorcise the past and reconcile their differences? Peterson found the answer in the streets of Hanoi—in the faces of the students he passed, in the eyes of the street kids who hawked pirated reprints of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American and Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War, in the enthusiasm and gra-ciousness of the young people with whom he stopped to chat—and the answer was a resounding yes.