The following is the speech of Mr. Chuck Searcy, American veteran who is President of Veterans For Peace Chapter 160, Co-founder of and International Advisor to Project RENEW during his attendance in the RENEW/NPA event to celebrate 25 years of U.S. – Vietnam relations on 8 July 2020.
It was July 1995 and our small American community in Ha Noi was abuzz with anticipation. President Bill Clinton was about to normalize relations between the U.S. and Viet Nam.
Several of us Americans agreed that we should celebrate the historic event in Ha Noi. But where?
In 1995 in Ha Noi there were not many choices. At a new bar on Bao Khanh Street, near Hoan Kiem Lake, the owner, Mr. Manh, agreed to turn his TV to CNN so our group of Americans, Vietnamese, and other nationalities could watch President Clinton’s important announcement.
The night of July 11th the Polite Pub was packed for Pres. Clinton’s announcement from the White House Rose Garden.
By the time Clinton came on camera, after midnight, the patrons at the Polite Pub were generously lubricated with beer, eager and excited. The bar fell silent as Clinton stepped up to the mike and with no further introduction, intoned, “Today, I am announcing the normalization of diplomatic relationships with Viet Nam.”
The room erupted in cheers, whistles, toasts raised high, camera flashes and TV strobe lights. The celebration began.
The efforts of so many in that room, to bring an end to the painful memories and the tragic legacies of a war that should never have happened, was now a happy step closer to reality.
The Polite Pub celebration continued for a while longer, until everyone retreated to their various abodes happy, exhausted, ready for the next morning and a new beginning.
Next day, there were news stories on all major TV channels in the U.S., front page articles in many newspapers which guaranteed Mr. Manh a booming business at the Polite Pub for some years to come.
The opportunities for US-VN collaboration had entered a new phase. Ordinary Americans, Vietnam vets, teachers and students, business entrepreneurs, could now deal with Vietnamese colleagues at a level of trust and collaboration that had been missing for too many years.
The past 25 years have proven that the decision of U.S. and Vietnamese policymakers to “close the past and open the future” was the right one. In nearly every field of endeavor – business, trade, education, social services, clean-up of the continuing legacies of the war including bombs and mines, and Agent Orange – at every level of cooperation, the engagement has been beneficial for both sides.
The U.S. has gradually regained the trust and confidence of our Vietnamese friends, both at personal and official levels. The Vietnamese have earned new respect from us, for their straightforward manner in handling tricky policy decisions that often involve third countries in the region and globally. We respect each other.
We are working together to deal with the legacies of the war, slowly but steadily managing the “closure” that we have sought for so long, finally binding the wounds that are such a necessary part of healing.
That long and difficult process began soon after the war ended, in 1977 when President Jimmy Carter sent a delegation to Ha Noi to begin discussions about normalizing relations between the two bitter enemies. The trip was unsuccessful. Why? Because the Vietnamese government hosts asked the U.S. representatives when would we honor the promise made by President Nixon, during the Paris Peace Talks, to provide around $3.5 billion to help rebuild Viet Nam from the bombing damage throughout the country. The embarrassed U.S delegation told the Vietnamese that the promise was causing “political difficulties” in the U.S. The talks collapsed.
In 1981, Bobby Muller – my friend and a former U.S. Marine who got shot at Con Tien in Quang Tri Province and has been paralyzed and in a wheel chair ever since – Bobby led the first delegation of American veterans to come back to Vietnam since the end of the war. After that trip, Bobby and other members of Vietnam Veterans of America, including me, became stronger advocates of reconciliation between America and Vietnam.
Our loud voices and intense pressure on government officials in Washington ultimately may have helped to lift the economic embargo imposed by the U.S. in 1994, and then in 1995 to normalize relations between the countries.
Already the Leahy War Victims Fund (LWVF) had started to provide assistance to Vietnamese who had been injured in the war and other people with disabilities.
In 1992 the Joint Task Force – Full Accounting, an office established to account for American Missing in Action (MIAs), was set up in Ha Noi. A year later, in 1993, the IMF and World Bank made funding available to Vietnam.
And in 1994 Pres.Clinton lifted the U.S. trade embargo against Vietnam.
The next year, on July 11th, 1995, Pres. Clinton announced full normalization of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Viet Nam. That’s the anniversary that we are celebrating today.
Soon after normalization, in August 1995, the two embassies in Washington and Hanoi were officially opened. In 1996 a draft trade agreement was signed, and a stream of American officials and delegations began to visit Viet Nam. In 1997 Ambassador Pete Peterson was assigned to US Embassy in Ha Noi, a veteran and former prisoner of war (POW) at Hoa Lo Prison in Ha Noi. USAID began to provide aid to Viet Nam. A Bilateral Trade Agreement was signed in 2000, the same year that USAID opened an office in Hanoi and President William J. Clinton visited Vietnam for the first time.
I was at that meeting in Ha Noi in November, 2000 when Clinton addressed the UXO legacy – and so was my friend Nguyen Duc Quang, Deputy Director of the Quang Tri Department of Foreign Affairs, who is here today. Clinton said, and I quote: “I thank the Vietnamese people who are doing this, the NGOs. And I’d also like to especially thank the American veterans who have been involved in this endeavor.” Kind words for us veterans.
More important for me, however, was Clinton’s recognition of the sacrifice and leadership of Quang Tri Province. Present that day were four boys from Quang Tri who had lost arms or legs or had been badly burned in UXO accidents. Clinton looked at them and said, “Please stand up, so we can all recognize your courage.” The audience burst into applause, swept by emotion and tears. Clinton announced that the U.S. Department of Defense was donating more than $700,000 in hospital supplies to Quang Tri Province to assist victims of UXO explosions. He also pledged that the U.S. would help Viet Nam deal with the problem of bombs and mines, “no matter how long it takes.”
Soon after that, in 2001, Project RENEW was launched as a partnership between the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF) and the provincial government of Quang Tri, creating Viet Nam’s first “comprehensive and integrated” approach to mine action which combined clearance with risk education and victim assistance. The RENEW effort built on the earlier initiatives of Peace Trees Viet Nam, which began in 1996, and MAG, which began working in Quang Tri in 1999, SODI, and forged an important partnership with Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA) in 2008.
I don’t need to tell you about the years since, because many of you have been part of that growth and have contributed your skills and the experience you have gained to the success that all of us can be proud of: the fact that during the past three years, there has not been a single UXO accident in Quang Tri Province.
Twenty-five years from now, what will many of you in this room, and your friends, your children, your grandchildren, be saying about the achievements of Project RENEW and the progress that has been made in Quang Tri Province? Will they say, “Project RENEW and NPA, MAG, Peace Trees, and others who joined together in a mine action mission have accomplished their mission. Quang Tri Province is now safe from bombs and mines?” Will RENEW and other professional organizations be working in other directions, pursuing other missions, achieving other goals? Or will everyone look back and say, “That was an excellent example of success, of everyone working together to make Quang Tri and Viet Nam a safer, better place?”
I cannot answer that question, and you cannot either. But what you do in the short term, from now until 2025 and maybe beyond, will help determine what opportunities or challenges you face and how you deal with them.
However that turns out, I hope the words of Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap to me, when I met him the first time in 1995, will remain true. He said to me, as he looked at the Vietnamese-American flag pin on my jacket, “Vietnam and America must always be friends.”
Twenty-five years is not always. But it’s a good start.