President Barack Obama came to Vietnam to fully restore relations between two former foes. But he couldn’t escape the remnants of a decades-old war.
Obama tried to make his first visit to the communist country about future ties, largely ignoring the pressure to acknowledge ongoing impacts of the Vietnam War, which left nearly 60,000 Americans and 3 million Vietnamese dead.
“I come here mindful of the past, mindful of our difficult history, but focused on the future – the prosperity, security and human dignity that we can advance together,” Obama said in a speech Tuesday billed as an address to the people of Vietnam.
He did announce stepped-up efforts to remove unexploded landmines and bombs and to clean soil contaminated by Agent Orange. He also thanked Vietnam for its work in trying to account for American soldiers still missing in action. But he resisted calls to meet with victims of Agent Orange or to push Vietnam to do more to find missing Americans, disappointing activists and veterans in both nations.
“He’s going to focus on building toward the future, building trust, trying to lay a framework to keep engaging at the various levels that are happening already,” said Murray Hiebert, deputy director and senior fellow of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Obama, on a weeklong trip to Vietnam and Japan, faces ghosts from two wars, prompting some to question again whether he will be remorseful about past U.S. actions as he looks to rebuild relationships around the globe. The trip comes after a similar trip to Cuba in the spring, where Obama famously said he was burying “the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas.”
President Obama has been criticized for issuing too many apologies.
Miles Kahler, professor at American University’s School of International Service
The White House says Obama will neither apologize nor will he second-guess previous presidents’ decisions for the failed intervention in the Vietnam War or for the use of an atomic bomb that led to the surrender of Japan and the end of World War II. On Friday, he will become the first sitting U.S. president to visit Hiroshima, the site of the world’s first atomic bombing.
“The quality of our relationships with both Vietnam and Japan just demonstrates how far we have come, from a difficult past, in forging constructive relationships that benefit the peoples of the United States and Vietnam, as well as the peoples of the United States and Japan,” said Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser.
President Barack Obama is traveling to Vietnam and Japan this week on his 10th trip to Asia. His first visit to Vietnam includes stops in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. He will participate in his final G-7 Summit in Ise-Shima, Japan, before becoming the first U.S. president to visit Hiroshima, the site of the world’s first atomic bombing.
In Vietnam, Obama tried to make the two countries’ ties about more than just the Vietnam War, which took place largely before he came of age, recalling that Thomas Jefferson sought rice from Vietnam for his farm, that Americans supported Vietnam during World War II and that famed independence leader Ho Chi Minh evoked the American Declaration of Independence when his nation declared its independence from France in 1945.
Obama announced new programs – including the end of a 40-year-old weapons ban; new agreements on trade, climate change and wildlife trafficking; the arrival of the Peace Corps; and the opening of the nation’s first independent, nonprofit university.
The fact that Mr. Obama is the third consecutive American president to visit Vietnam is proof that old enemies can become new partners.
John Kerry, John McCain and Bob Kerrey, writing in a New York Times op-ed this week
Some wanted more action on the Vietnam War before the two countries moved on to other programs, especially regarding the fate of American soldiers whose capture was never acknowledged and who have not been returned to the United States. They include two Americans repeatedly seen in Hanoi years after the war.
“America should require Vietnam to answer these critical POW/MIA questions before we start shipping them weapons,” said Janella Rose, sister of a Vietnam War POW/MIA and chairwoman of the National Alliance for the Return of America’s Missing Servicemen. “If they are really allies deserving of our weaponry, they will finally answer the questions that have been posed to them for many years.”
Obama, too, was urged to meet with some of the thousands of Vietnamese people, who over generations were impacted by the toxic herbicide called Agent Orange that the U.S. used to try to destroy the jungles that hid communist soldiers during the war.
He announced that the first phase of decontamination at Da Nang Airbase had been completed and that a similar project at the Bien Hoa airbase outside Ho Chi Minh City would begin. Since relations between the two countries were normalized more than two decades ago, the United States has spent $100 million to clean up Agent Orange contamination, according to Capitol Hill staffers.
“There’s been significant contributions of American tax dollars cleaning up these Agent Orange sites,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a Vietnam War veteran and former prisoner of war, said in an interview. “They keep asking for more. But I think we have been more than generous.”
Various groups also want the Obama administration to extend benefits for Agent Orange exposure to 90,000 Navy veterans who served offshore during the Vietnam War. “We need to push back on policies that restrict benefits and care for those who still cry for help after 50 years,” Fleet Reserve Association National Executive Director Tom Snee said.
Before the trip, National Security Adviser Susan Rice met with leaders representing of several veterans’ groups about Vietnam and Japan.
Richard Weidman, director of policy and government affairs for the Vietnam Veterans of America, attended the meeting and urged Obama to visit a remediation site and to take another look at a program that would be useful in understanding the effects of Agent Orange. The administration, he said, did not commit. “They don’t do enough there and don’t do nearly enough here,” he said.