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U.S., Vietnam examine why peace was elusive

Conference shows divisions still remain

June 20, 1997
Web posted at: 3:55 p.m. EDT (1955 GMT)
Vietnamese field worker

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HANOI, Vietnam (CNN) -- The men who made war policy for the United States and North Vietnam in the 1960s began meeting in the Vietnamese capital on Friday to see what they might have done differently to cut short the 15-year Vietnam War and prevent more than 3 million combat deaths.

War-makers, scholars and political analysts met to compare notes on why peace initiatives failed and the United States became entangled in a war that former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara -- a participant in the Hanoi conference -- has since has called unwinnable.

But even as the four-day gathering got under way, some U.S. participants complained of frustration.

Each side criticizes the other

"Some of the questions we asked got completely sidestepped," said Chester Cooper, a CIA analyst who specialized in Southeast Asia during part of the war.

"(The Vietnamese) were not forthcoming. But what do you expect? These people aren't used to open and free discussions," he added.

war-era planes spraying chemicals from air

Vietnamese officials, however, made it clear that if there were lessons to be learned, they were not for Vietnam.

"We'll be looking at 10 missed opportunities for the United States," said Luu Van Loi, a retired diplomat and member of the negotiating team at the 1972 Paris peace talks.

"There were no missed opportunities for Vietnam. We had no option but to fight. If we didn't fight we would have been beaten."

Ambassador Dao Huy Ngoc, General Director of Vietnam's Institute for International Relations and chairman of the conference, was similarly direct

"It is regretted that the U.S. ... missed many opportunities," he said in his opening speech.

But McNamara says Vietnam should also be held accountable. While he ran the Pentagon, the United States offered seven "opportunities to negotiate solutions" that might have reduced Vietnamese casualties, he told CNN.

At a conference under way in Hanoi, the United States and Vietnam are examining why the Vietnam War was so hard to end. CNN World Affairs Correspondent Ralph Begleiter reports.

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Dao also repeated complaints about the lingering effects of "Agent Orange," used by the United States for 10 years during the war to defoliate the Vietnamese jungle.

The Vietnamese claim that 2 million of its citizens, including 50,000 deformed babies born to parents exposed to the chemical, were affected by the dioxin contained in Agent Orange.

Emphasizing the positive

Despite continuing differences, Pete Peterson -- tortured during six years as a prisoner of war and now the first U.S. ambassador to post-war Vietnam -- stressed the positive. "The potential for our two nations to go ahead in a friendly, peaceful and constructive relationship is so real and so important," he said.

Vietnam has remained a mostly agricultural country since the war, and the Hanoi government hopes improved relations with the United States will help Vietnam catch up with other booming economies in Asia.

Hanoi's cooperation with the review of war policy is partly designed to set aside the bitterness of the past. Participants also hope the formalities of the first day will give way over the weekend to frank talk and expose previously secret documents in Hanoi.

But disputes within Vietnam's government are making it hard to break the secrecy. In one example, Vietnamese officials have reversed an agreement to allow complete television coverage of their talks with the United States.

What went wrong

Despite repeated efforts, the United States and North Vietnam for years failed to broker an end to the war that eventually cost the lives of 58,000 Americans and more than 3 million Vietnamese.

The primary cause for the enduring war was the failure of both sides to understand the other, McNamara said prior to the start of the conference. "They thought we were colonialists and we thought they were a pawn of the Soviet Union or China."

The Vietnam War ended in April 1975 with the climactic fall of Saigon -- capital of U.S.-backed South Vietnam -- to the forces of communist North Vietnam, two years after the United States withdrew most of its military forces from the country.

World Affairs Correspondent Ralph Begleiter and Reuters contributed to this report.


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