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NOVEMBER 20, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 20

Richard Vogel/AP.
Bill Clinton will promote a favorite line -- that trade with the U.S. benefits more than the economy.

Burying the Hatchet
President Clinton's historic visit to Vietnam marks a thawing in relations between the former enemies

Despite his advancing years, Andrew Sauvageot still has the trim, sinewy body of an infantryman. More surprisingly perhaps, the 67-year-old American has chosen to live in the country where he once fought—Vietnam, where he served with the U.S. and South Vietnamese armies for nearly a decade, and where he returned in 1993 as chief representative for General Electric. But Sauvageot doesn't see anything odd in his personal reconciliation with Vietnam. "The lack of animosity toward Americans here is absolutely incredible," he says. "The streets of Vietnamese cities are safer at night for U.S. citizens than the streets of many U.S. cities, and that's not because of a high police presence. It's because the Vietnamese don't harbor grudges."

When U.S. President Bill Clinton arrives in Hanoi this week, he'll be looking to show that Americans no longer do either. Officially the four-day trip is meant to broaden dialogue on a wide range of issues from research into the effects of Agent Orange to the implementation of a bilateral trade agreement signed in July. But on a more symbolic level the visit—the first by an American President since Richard Nixon visited Saigon in 1969—marks the permanent return of the U.S. to Vietnam, this time as a friend. "Hopefully it will lead to greater understanding," says Chuck Searcy, a Vietnam War veteran who has coordinated a series of humanitarian programs from Hanoi since 1995, "because tragic misunderstanding led to all the mistakes we made in the past."

Clinton—accompanied by First Lady (and newly elected Senator) Hillary Rodham Clinton, daughter Chelsea and an entourage that will number at least 1,000—will mark progress already made rather than forge some breakthrough in U.S.-Vietnam relations. The itinerary is low-key precisely because those relations have mellowed in recent years. The once contentious issue of missing U.S. servicemen has been blunted by Vietnamese cooperation in searching for remains; "much of the hostility is gone," says a White House aide. Last month an influential group of U.S. senators—including veterans John McCain and Charles Robb—urged Clinton to take a hard line on human rights during his talks with senior Vietnamese leaders. But, says the administration official, "We will not gratuitously stick them in the eye with it."

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VIETNAM: A New Chapter
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Instead Clinton will push a favorite theme—the benefits of increased trade with America. In Ho Chi Minh City—the former Saigon and still the country's economic powerhouse—he will meet with local entrepreneurs and tour joint-venture factories. U.S. businessmen have long been pushing for access to Vietnam's cheap and talented labor pool, as well as its domestic market of close to 80 million people. Negotiations over the trade pact signed in July—which still needs to be ratified by legislatures in both countries—were long and tortuous, and an earlier agreement was canceled when Hanoi feared it was giving away too much. "The American attitude all along has been that the trade deal is some sort of gift," says historian and former North Vietnamese combat photographer Trong Thanh. "But the U.S. should also remember we survived despite them, and we already have trade agreements with many other countries."

Still, the pact does promise significant benefits for both sides. At present the U.S. is Vietnam's ninth-largest foreign investor with projects worth $1 billion, and that position should improve. According to the World Bank, the current value of Vietnamese exports to America—mainly seafood, footwear and garments—could increase by $800 million in the first year after ratification, with Vietnam's Ministry of Trade predicting exports to the U.S. of $3 billion a year by 2005.

But the past will continue to shape relations between the former enemies for some time to come. "The relationship between our two countries is complex and multi-faceted because of the war," says Virginia Foote of the U.S.-Vietnam Trade Council. As many as 3 million Vietnamese were killed during the American War, and many more maimed. Portions of the country remain poisoned by toxic chemicals and littered with explosives that have killed more than 38,000 people since the war ended in 1975. To add insult to injury, Washington abandoned an earlier opportunity to restore diplomatic relations with Hanoi in favor of better ties with China, and maintained a 19-year economic embargo that was lifted only in 1994.

Even young Vietnamese who were born after the war are fiercely nationalistic, which means they may not be entirely swayed by Clinton's famous charm. While the U.S. spent more than $350 billion on the war, Washington has provided less than $50 million in humanitarian aid to Vietnam since 1994. At the same time, Hanoi continues to pay back $145 million in U.S. loans to the South, and at this rate will continue paying—with interest—for nearly 20 years. Canceling that debt would engender far more goodwill than a few photo-ops. "We have to stop preaching to these people," argues Sauvageot. "They fought hard for the basic right to determine their own future at their own pace, and they've won that right." Only after more of his fellow Americans agree with him will Vietnamese be convinced that the grudges of the past have truly been laid to rest.

With reporting by Barry Hillenbrand/Washington

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