Vietnam War’s Legacy Is Vivid as Clinton Visits Laos

Posted on July 12, 2012


Mrs. Clinton at the Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise Center which provides artificial limbs for victims of the Vietnam War, in Vientiane, Laos.

VIENTIANE, Laos — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made a brief stop on her Asia tour on Wednesday in Laos, the first visit by an American secretary of state here in 57 years and one that brought into stark relief the enduring legacy of the Vietnam War.

At an artificial-limb center, Mrs. Clinton met a 19-year-old who lost his forearms and eyesight when a bomb, dropped by the United States Air Force during the Vietnam War and unexploded for decades, finally blew up three years ago.

The young man, Phongsavath Sonilya, gesticulated with his arm stumps as he explained to Mrs. Clinton that more than three decades after the end of the war, not enough had been done to stop the use of cluster bombs and to support those who may be injured in the future by bombs still lying unexploded in the countryside. The United States has not signed the Convention on Cluster Bombs.

The four-hour visit by Mrs. Clinton to Laos provided other reminders of the Vietnam War.

The government is run by the Communist Party, and five of the nine members of the Politburo, including the prime minister, Thongsing Thammavong, who met with Mrs. Clinton, are veterans of the Pathet Lao guerrilla group that supported North Vietnam against the United States. Until 1975, Vientiane, the capital, had a strong American influence. After Saigon fell, more than 1,200 Americans were evacuated from Laos when the Pathet Lao, backed by the Soviet Union, took power.

Now Laos is closely aligned with China, its biggest benefactor by far, with investments of more than $4 billion in mining, hydropower and agriculture. The Chinese built many of the main buildings in this relaxed tropical capital and are now constructing a new convention center with 50 villas for a European-Asian summit meeting in November, a meeting that does not include the United States.

Mrs. Clinton’s visit, in keeping with the understated nature of the people, was quite subtle. When Secretary of State John Foster Dulles came here in 1955, he tried to persuade the Lao royal family to drop its neutrality in the cold war and join the American camp. Mrs. Clinton did not attempt anything as brazen, even avoiding mentioning China, though the import of her visit — to seek warmer relations between the United States and Laos — was quite clear.

There was no news conference with the prime minister but a carefully worded statement negotiated by both sides that noted the coming entry of Laos into the World Trade Organization, and cooperation between the United States and Laos on environmental protection.

After the meeting with the prime minister, the State Department said that Laos had decided to suspend the construction of the Xayaburi dam, a project being built by Thailand to send electricity there. Neighboring countries have complained that the dam would upset the flow of the Mekong River, the main waterway of Southeast Asia.

At the center that provides artificial limbs, known as the Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise, Mrs. Clinton viewed a map embedded with red dots that showed where bombs were dropped along the Ho Chi Minh Trail and on the Plain of Jars. There were more than 580,000 bombing missions by the United States Air Force, making Laos the most heavily bombed country on a per-person basis, the text said.

At the end of the war, more than 30 percent of the bombs remained unexploded, leaving Laos with a deadly problem in rural areas that persists today.

Each bomb contained about 600 bomblets, and in recent years about 100 people have been killed by unexploded ordnance, 40 percent of them children.

Rural people often scavenge for the bombs, believing the metal has value. Young children think they are toys, said Soksai Sengvongkham, the operations manager of the visitors center. As she toured the center, Mrs. Clinton asked several times why more sophisticated technology could not be used to find the bombs, which are currently located by workers with metal detectors.

There was evidence, too, of the low-cost nature of some of the homemade limbs that farmers put together using bamboo, metal tubes from bombs and wood, while they awaited more professional limbs.

After the visit to the center, Mrs. Clinton said it was “a painful reminder of the Vietnam War era.”

“The international community will join us in our efforts to bring this legacy of the Vietnam War to a safe end,” she said.

From Laos, Mrs. Clinton flew to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, for the annual meeting of foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

New York Times

Swords into plowshares

How long does it take for enemies to become allies, and allies to become enemies?

On Tuesday in Hanoi, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton celebrated the 20th anniversary of that country’s Fulbright exchange program, which has involved 8,000 American and Vietnamese students, scholars, educators and businesspeople.

Reading her talk reminded me of a day 42 years ago when I flew over the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos in the back of a two-seater forward air control plane. The pilot, a U.S. Air Force officer flying out of uniform in an unacknowledged operation, was trying to find North Vietnamese or Viet Cong troops or their base camps and target them for the Royal Lao Air Force planes that were circling in the area.I was there as an investigator for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, sent by its chairman, Sen. J.W. Fulbright (D-Ark.), to get on-the-scene facts about what was going on.

Fulbright wanted to get a true picture of the war out to the American people, in this case the secret U.S. role in Laos along with other unpublicized activities related to the war. For example, we had an agreement with the South Korean government that gave higher salaries to its troops in Vietnam than U.S. soldiers received. But that detail had not been made public.

Richard Nixon was president, the war was going badly, and fighting would go on for nearly five more years. In the end, more than 58,000 U.S. service members died, and the losses among Vietnamese soldiers and civilians and Laotians were many times that.

The Fulbright hearings on the Vietnam War played a role in getting the public to understand the issues involved and eventually led to public pressure to end U.S. combat operations in that country.

In Hanoi on Tuesday, Clinton talked about another side of the late Arkansas senator’s impact on U.S. foreign policy. She talked of the Fulbright Exchange Program that “helps Americans to visit other countries to learn and form lasting bonds, and we want people from other countries to do the same in the United States.”

Fulbright, she said, “believed so strongly that what was most important was breaking down the walls of misunderstanding and mistrust.” It doesn’t mean “we will agree on everything, because no two people, let alone two nations, agree on everything,” she said.

It also doesn’t mean that the past is forgotten.

In her meeting with Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh, Clinton said she discussed “legacy issues such as Agent Orange.” The U.S. sprayed the herbicide on more than one-third of rural South Vietnam to clear forests and croplands to deny hiding places to Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops.

Now, both the United States and private groups are working to deal with the diseases that have emerged among people directly or indirectly exposed to the dioxin. The Vietnam Red Cross estimates some 3 million Vietnamese children and adults “have suffered adverse health effects, congenital and developmental defects,” according to a 2010 Aspen Institute study.

The Vietnam War also hung over talks Wednesday in Vientiane, Laos, where Clinton told the U.S. Embassy staff “the past is always with us.”

In Laos, the United States has provided nearly $59 million since 1995 to help move more than a million cluster munitions. An estimated 80 million cluster munitions are scattered across the country and “continue to kill or injure about a hundred people a year,” she said.

In a meeting with Laos Deputy Prime Minister/Foreign Minister Thongloun Sisoulith, she praised Laotian government efforts to reintegrate families from the Hmong tribe who, because they supported the U.S. effort in Vietnam, had to flee to Thailand. She also said the United States would continue to provide humanitarian aid to Hmong families, and to communities located near where the Hmong live who suffered during the war.

There is another side to our Laotian and Vietnamese relations. The U.S.-Laos discussions dealt in part with the importance of unity among members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations on pressing regional issues, as well as the forthcoming entry of Laos into the World Trade Organization.

The Fulbright program may make a difference in those areas, too.

In Hanoi, Clinton traced some of the Fulbright program’s impact, saying “alumni are already major figures in Vietnamese policies,” including deputy prime ministers and the foreign minister.

Today, she said, “there are more than 15,000 Vietnamese students in the United States, and I believe this generation of students and scholars is well positioned to make great contributions to Vietnam’s future.”

In reflecting on history’s trajectory and Clinton’s remarks, a cautionary note arises.

During the 1960s, when Washington and Tehran were allies, the Iranian student population in the United States was about 12,000 — among the largest in the country.

Today, “if you are an Iranian citizen, you are not eligible for the Fulbright program, unfortunately,” reads the State Department Web site.

It’s a binational program based on a formal country-to-country agreement, and since there are no diplomatic relations, the exchange program does not operate in Iran.

Instead, military threats are being exchanged.

It probably would take longer than 20 years to see Iran as an ally if we attack to halt Tehran’s nuclear program. The aftermath would be a mess, particularly as we attempt to withdraw from Afghanistan and deal with Iraq as well as Syria at the same time that we try to get our own finances stabilized and our government in working order.

How long does it take for enemies to become allies, and allies to become enemies?  How long, indeed.

Walter Pincus

Posted in: Politics