Eager to banish lingering shadows of the Vietnam War, President Barack Obama lifted the U.S. embargo on selling arms to America’s former enemy Monday and made the case for a more trusting and prosperous relationship going forward. Activists said the president was being too quick to gloss over serious human rights abuses in his push to establish warmer ties.
After spending his first day in Vietnam shuttling among meetings with different government leaders, Obama will spend the next two days speaking directly to the Vietnamese people and meeting with civil society groups and young entrepreneurs. It’s all part of his effort to “upgrade” the U.S. relationship with an emerging economic power in Southeast Asia and a nation that the U.S. also hopes can serve as a counterweight to Chinese aggression in the region.
Tracing the arc of the U.S.-Vietnamese relationship through cooperation, conflict, “painful separation” and a long reconciliation, Obama marveled during a news conference with the Vietnamese president that “if you consider where we have been and where we are now, the transformation in the relations between our two countries is remarkable.”
President Tran Dai Quang said later at a lavish state luncheon that he was grateful for the American people’s efforts to put an end to “an unhappy chapter in the two countries’ history,” referring to the 1965-1975 U.S. war with Vietnam’s communists, who now run the country.
The conflict killed 57,000 American military personnel and as many as 2 million Vietnamese military and civilians.
Quang added, though, that “the wounds of the war have not been fully healed in both countries.”
Still, Quang said, both sides are determined to have a more cooperative relationship.
That mindset was evident in the friendly crowds that lined the streets as Obama’s motorcade zigzagged around Hanoi on Monday. And when Obama emerged from a tiny Vietnamese restaurant after a $6 dinner with CNN personality Anthony Bourdain, the president shook hands with members of the squealing crowd and waved as if he really didn’t want to get back in the limousine.
Obama was to address the Vietnamese people on Tuesday morning. A White House official said the president would use his address to stress the importance of having a “constructive dialogue” even when the two nations disagree – including on human rights.
But that is unlikely to mollify activists, who said the president had given up his best leverage for pressing Vietnam to improve its rights record by lifting the arms embargo.
Duy Hoang, U.S.-based spokesman for Viet Tan, a pro-democracy party that is banned inside Vietnam, said that until Vietnam makes progress on human rights, the U.S. should not sell it military gear that could be used against the population.
“The U.S. should also reiterate the message that closer security cooperation is to bolster Vietnam’s external security and that the proper role of the Vietnamese military is to protect the nation, not the current political regime,” Hoang said by e-mail.
Veterans were split. Bernard Edelman, deputy director of government affairs for the Vietnam Veterans of America, cited the good cooperation surrounding efforts to account for troops still missing in action.
“The war’s over,” he said.
He said the organization has not taken an official position on the president’s action, but he compared it to U.S. efforts after World War II to normalize relations with Japan, Germany, Austria and Italy.
“We’ve tried to build bridges to the Vietnamese,” Edelman said, while acknowledge that people “whom I know and love and respect might be angry at what the president’s doing.”
But Steve Rylant of Loveland, Colorado, who served at Ubon Air Base in Thailand during the Vietnam war, said he was “offended.”
Asked if there would come a better time for lifting the embargo, Rylant said, “For me, there’s never a time. … It’s just really difficult for us to try and agree to any kind of a thing like this with Vietnam, I guess.”
The way Terry Neilen sees it, lifting the ban on U.S. arms sales to Vietnam makes sense in the face of China’s growing influence in the region.
Fellow Vietnam veteran Ned Foote said Americans long ago forgave Germany and Japan for World War II, so there’s no reason not to do the same with Vietnam.
“We’re actually acting as a team in a sense,” said Neilen, of Saratoga Springs, New York, who served in the Army infantry in Vietnam in 1967 and 1968. “They’re joining together to give a show of strength.”
Foote, who heads the New York State Council of Vietnam Veterans of America, noted that the Vietnamese have helped account for missing American service members.
Steve Rylant, of Loveland, Colorado, said he didn’t think lifting the ban was a good idea.
“The wounds are too deep,” said Rylant, who served at an Air Force base in Thailand during the war. “It’s taken this long for people to say ‘welcome home.’”
Al Huber, 69, is president of the Illinois state council of the Vietnam Veterans of America. He said he’s not worried about whether that country gets weapons, but he doesn’t think Obama’s decision to lift the embargo near the end of his presidency “serves any purpose except his personal agenda.”
Neither the American Legion nor the Veterans of Foreign Wars has taken a position on the embargo, officials said.