Secretary of State Warren Christopher arrived here Saturday on a historic mission of reconciliation between America and the people of Vietnam, declaring it is time to “lay our past of conflict to rest.”
Christopher’s jet with “United States of America” emblazoned on the side touched down at Hanoi’s Noi Bai Airport at 9:45 a.m. local time after a brief visit to Cambodia. His two-day trip comes 20 years after the end of the Vietnam War and 26 days after President Clinton restored diplomatic relations with Vietnam.
“I have come to Vietnam on behalf of the United States to begin a new chapter in the history we share,” Christopher said. “As the first secretary of state to visit Vietnam in a quarter century, I am here to lay a basis for a better future, even as we continue to account for the past.”
Christopher and his wife, Marie, were greeted by Deputy Foreign Minisher Le Mai and foreign ministry official Nguyen Xuan Phong. He then walked across the tarmac to join a solemn ceremony repatriating the remains of what are believed to be U.S. servicemen missing in action.
Four small wooden boxes containing the remains were loaded into metal caskets, and an American flag was draped over each one. An honor guard of nine servicemen and women then carried each of the caskets into a military plane for transport to a forensic laboratory in Hawaii for identification.
During the silent 15-minute ceremony, Christopher stood with about three dozen U.S. servicemen who are based in Hanoi to search for MIA remains. After the caskets were loaded, he shook hands with about a dozen Vietnamese officials who work with the MIA search teams.
“A generation ago, the trauma of war bound together the history of our nation for all time,” Christopher said afterward. “Let us now lay our past of conflict to rest and dedicate ourselves to productive cooperation.”
Christopher was scheduled to meet later today with Vietnamese Foreign Minister Nguyen Manh Cam at a 77-year-old French colonial villa in downtown Hanoi that is typically used to welcome dignitaries.
Inside the buttercream-colored villa, where Ho Chi Minh once lived and worked, Christopher and Cam were to sign papers that officially restore diplomatic relations between the two countries.
On Friday, Vietnamese staff nervously practiced carrying armloads of champagne goblets and debated whether to serve the pair champagne from Vietnam, America, Russia or France.
“We are excited!” said Nguyen Tuan Thep, deputy director of the villa, as he clutched his heart. “It is an important event for Vietnam.”
Clinton announced July 11 he had decided to normalize relations with Vietnam’s communist government in an attempt “to bind up our wounds.” The decision has been opposed by some Republicans in Congress, veterans and family members who do not believe that Vietnam has fully cooperated in helping account for Americans still listed as missing in action from the war. Today, 1,615 servicemen are still listed as missing.
“This issue will remain the top priority on our agenda with the government of Vietnam,” Christopher said. “I will reinforce that message today and tomorrow in every meeting I have with the Vietnamese leadership and in every public appearance I make.”
He also touched on other key issues confronting the two countries, saying: “We can and should work together to improve human rights, to counter the scourge of illegal drugs and to promote economic reform.”
Christopher is the first U.S. secretary of state to visit Vietnam since July 4, 1970, when William Rogers traveled to Saigon, the former South Vietnamese capital that has been renamed Ho Chi Minh City.
Christopher’s visit comes almost exactly 31 years after the U.S. destroyer Maddox skirmished with North Vietnamese patrol boats in the Gulf on Tonkin. The incident resulted in a congressional resolution giving President Lyndon Johnson authority to conduct war against North Vietnam.