THE PAINFUL ART OF RECONCILIATION 8

Peterson became such a popular figure that ordinary Vietnamese would stop him on the streets and ask to have their picture taken with him. A popular expat restaurant, the Red Onion, located next to the Hanoi Hilton, printed a line on its menu stating that in deference to Am¬bassador Peterson it did not serve pumpkin soup. Peterson rode through Hanoi on weekends, unescorted, on his motor scooter, got his hair cut at a local barber shop for half a buck, and enjoyed slurping pbo, the tradi¬tional noodle broth, in sidewalk cafes for lunch. At a diplomatic recep¬tion, he met a beautiful Vietnamese businesswoman, Vi Le, who had left Saigon as a child and become an Australian citizen, and in 1998 they were married in Hanoi’s Catholic Cathedral. Their marriage, he said, wasn’t about reconciliation—just love.
“I went back to Vietnam not because I had to,” Peterson said. “I went back because I wanted to. I saw the Vietnamese at their very worst, and they saw me at my very worst as well. And it’s a rare opportunity for someone to go back to a country like this in which there was so much pain, and to then focus on the future. I can’t do anything about what hap-pened yesterday, but I can help move forward positively and construc¬tively on what happens tomorrow.”
My time in Hanoi overlapped with Peterson’s assignment as ambassa¬dor, and we became friends. I poked around, looking for a soft spot in his shield. He delivered his reconciliation message with the zeal of a warrior-turned-missionary, but surely lie carried some animosity. He couldn’t have laid all the demons to rest. Surely some monster images rattled around his head when he passed Hoa Lo Prison a couple of times a day en route to or from work. He denied it, and I came to believe him with¬out understanding where he had found the capacity to separate past and present. Perhaps part of the explanation was that he was a religious man, which I assume gave him strength, but this was not something he talked about. He had known great personal loss with the deaths of his son and wife, and that probably reminded him of the value of filling Kipling’s un¬forgiving minute with sixty seconds of distance run. The military had taught him discipline; prison, how to survive; war, that it was easier to de¬stroy than to build.
My wife spent months shadowing Peterson for a documentary profile of him broadcast by PBS. Sandy and I both reached the same conclusion: He was who and what he said he was. Like the Vietnamese themselves, he had forgiven if not forgotten. He had channeled his pain into con¬structive energy. He did not let memories take control of him or what he did. “If I’d let them,” he said, “I couldn’t have functioned.”
On Vietnam’s National Day in 1997, his first in Hanoi as U.S. ambas¬sador, Peterson walked in ceremonial procession up the red-carpeted stairs of Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum with other members of the diplo¬matic corps. At the open casket, each ambassador was to execute a left- face and make a respectful bow. Every eye was on Peterson. Would the former POW bow as he once had to do, in a sign of forced respect, before his sadistic prison torturers? Would the new ambassador show reverence to the man who had been his country’s mortal enemy for a generation?
Inside the mausoleum the temperature was a controlled sixty-eight de¬grees. The light was dim, almost eerily so. At the coffin, Peterson did a smart left-face, paused with his arms extended at his side, and bent for¬ward slightly from the waist. “I really had no trouble doing it,” he later re¬called. “Especially when I remembered Ho’s policy that prisoners not be killed on the spot. If it wasn’t for that, I might not be here today.”

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