- The Washington Times - Monday, June 20, 2005

The ironies are abundant in this week’s itinerary for Vietnamese Prime Minister Phan Van Khai, who yesterday became his nation’s highest-ranking official to visit the United States.

At his first stop on American soil 30 years after communist forces defeated U.S.-backed South Vietnam to end a brutal war, Mr. Khai toured a Boeing assembly plant in Seattle.

Today, he was to meet with billionaire entrepreneur Bill Gates in California, and later in the week he will ring the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange — the very symbol of the capitalism his country once fought against.

Vietnam veterans, many still haunted by memories of a war that killed 58,000 Americans and the hostility they faced when they came home, have mixed feelings on Mr. Khai’s weeklong visit.

But Mr. Khai and President Bush, who hosts the prime minister at the White House tomorrow, seem ready to close the door on the war and open an era of trade and cooperation. The United States has become Vietnam’s leading trading partner since diplomatic ties were established 10 years ago.

“My presence in the United States reflects that we have put the past behind us,” Mr. Khai said in an interview with the Associated Press before leaving Hanoi. “The state of war and hostility has become a partnership in many fields. That shows that the past is behind us.”

American Gold Star mother Georgie Carter Krell, whose son, Marine Pfc. Bruce Wayne Carter, was awarded the Medal of Honor for his action in Quang Tri Province on Aug. 7, 1969, agreed that the time for anger was over.

“I’ve come a long way past that. I couldn’t live if I had the hate in me all this time,” she said in a telephone interview from Miami.

“You have to come to peace with yourself, then you can go on to what else there is in life. I’m in another stage of life [and] Bruce is in a better place,” said Mrs. Krell, 74.

The prime minister’s trip — it has not been billed as a “formal,” “working” or “state” visit — builds on a series of visits by Vietnamese government officials.

“There have been issues we have been working on, religious freedom issues, economic, recovery of remains, all kinds of ongoing stuff — it doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” said a State Department official.

According to the State Department, Hanoi has taken steps to improve its human rights and religious freedom records. It also is working hard to be accepted into the World Trade Organization, and is looking for U.S. backing to become part of the powerful trade group.

But for many Americans, the mention of Vietnam still calls up images of napalm-burned children, U.S. soldiers with distant stares, tortured prisoners of war and the humiliating 1975 helicopter evacuation from the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon.

Many veterans also feel a profound sense of betrayal over how the war was conducted and how U.S. allies were left behind, how the soldiers were treated on their return and how the conflict divided the nation.

“I was spit on. I flew into L.A. airport, and these people were protesting, and they tried to throw something at me and they called me a baby killer,” recalled former Marine Barry Halley, who was 16 when he enlisted. “Soldiers got no recognition when they came home, none of them. …

“I think it changed us in a lot of different ways, and no one wants to talk about it. The kids don’t want to relive it, and the government doesn’t want to talk about it. I think it really taxed our patriotism,” said Mr. Halley, 48, who was in the air wing VMC-J3 in the final throes of the war.

The former Marine, like many Vietnam veterans, has mixed feelings about Mr. Khai’s visit.

“I have mixed emotions. Not because they were an adversary, but because of their treatment of our servicemen. The savagery and barbarity with which they treated our POWs was unforgivable,” he said, speaking from his home in Texas.

“You have to mend fences, but I think it should have been handled by lower level officials until we get an apology and all the MIAs and bodies are back.”

Gary Sethmeyer of Rolling Thunder said, 1,800 Americans are still missing from the Vietnam war, and a “good possibility” that there are still some living Americans there, prisoners of war who were never released. The last live sighting was in the late 1990s, said Mr. Sethmeyer, whose private group works to publicize POW/MIA issues.

Mr. Khai is to meet Mr. Bush, members of Congress, business representatives, World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz and representatives of the Vietnamese community, according to the Vietnamese embassy in Washington.

The prime minister is to continue his visit in Seattle today, talking with executives from Boeing, Gap and Nike and with Mr. Gates of Microsoft. He is to meet Mr. Bush tomorrow before heading to New York for talks with financial and business leaders. On Friday, he will be in Boston to speak with the presidents of Harvard and MIT.

Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick, during a visit to Hanoi in early May, underlined the success of U.S. trade ties with Vietnam and Hanoi’s “progress” on religious freedoms.

Vietnam last year was blacklisted by the State Department as a “Country of Particular Concern” for its systematic religious repression.

Human Rights Watch dismissed recent actions taken by Hanoi as window dressing. In a report dated May 13, the group said Vietnamese security forces continued to mistreat and arbitrarily detain Montagnards, indigenous hill people from the Central Highlands who once worked closely with the U.S. Special Forces.

Montagnards in the United States, who together with veterans groups staged a rally in front of the White House on Saturday and will hold another event downtown tomorrow, are hoping that Mr. Bush will use his time with Mr. Khai to push Vietnam further down the path of tolerance.

“You cannot just listen to the words coming out of the Vietnamese government,” said Kok Ksor, 66, president of the Montagnard Foundation Inc. in the United States. Kok Ksor fought with the U.S. 4th Infantry Division in Plei Ku, was wounded in January 1968, then wounded and captured in the 1969 Tet Offensive.

“I really want President Bush to use his power to convince the Vietnam government not to treat our people as badly as they have been, to respect our basic human, civil and political rights, and the right to our land,” he said.

Mike Benge, a 69-year-old former POW who spent five years in captivity, called on Mr. Bush to remember his public commitments to free the oppressed, particularly the Montagnards, when dealing with Mr. Khai.

“Bush is annoying a core group,” said Mr. Benge. “The Vietnam vets had a very strong role in defeating John Kerry, and if President Bush abandons his promises, welches on them to the Vietnam vets, the Vietnam vets will work against the next Republican president that tries to get elected.”

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