November 18, 2000 The Forgotten Debt to Vietnam <http://partners.nytimes.com/2000/11/18/opinion/18LANG.html> By A. J. LANGGUTH LOS ANGELES As President Clinton talked with officials in Hanoi this week, he undoubtedly hoped to lay groundwork for more progress in what is already a much improved relationship with Vietnam. And chances are his hosts, who have much to gain from stronger ties, did what they could to build a case that a friendly and prosperous Vietnam is very much in America's interest. In 1997, when the American visitor to Hanoi was Robert McNamara, General Vo Nguyen Giap, Vietnam's legendary hero in its wars against France and the United States, carried the theme to what might seem an extreme: he broached the idea of a future American-Vietnamese alliance. I was one of several Americans to witness the extraordinary scene that day. Mr. McNamara, the defense secretary during the Vietnam War, had just concluded three days of discussions with a group of American historians, generals and political figures and their counterparts from North Vietnam's Politburo and army. As Mr. McNamara was about to leave, General Giap was led into the meeting on the arm of an aide. For the next hour he sailed serenely through his version of the war. From a man then 86, it was a remarkable filibuster, and it flummoxed the former secretary. Mr. McNamara had to leave because he had a plane to catch, and he did not appear to react to a remark that General Giap had made: The United States, the general predicted, might someday realize the importance of Vietnam's geopolitical position. He added: "The United States and Vietnam can contribute to the stability of Southeast Asia." He seemed to be warning of the day when China might stir aggressively. If that happened, Washington would need an ally to help contain the Chinese. One of the sadder misconceptions of America's involvement in Vietnam was our assumption that because Ho Chi Minh and Mao Zedong were both Communists, Vietnam was a Chinese pawn. Vietnam had struggled against Chinese domination for 2,000 years, and as America's war in Vietnam progressed, Western visitors were surprised by the visceral hatred of the Chinese displayed by the North Vietnamese. A few years after the war, Vietnam and China were fighting each other along their common border. Today, the ancient belief remains that Vietnam must never let down its guard against China. This explains the Vietnamese attraction to an alliance with Washington. The United States, for its part, might well consider the wisdom of cultivating the Vietnamese counterweight to China. But it also has a nearly forgotten historic reason for helping Vietnam: an unpaid debt. In 1972, pressing the North to sign a peace agreement, Henry Kissinger agreed in Paris to reparations for the war damage to Vietnam. The chief Communist negotiator, Le Duc Tho, first suggested $8 billion $4.5 billion for the North, $3.5 billion for the South. By the time an agreement was initialed in January 1973, the figure was down to a total of $3.25 billion over a five-year period, with the possibility of an additional $1 billion to $1.5 billion for food and commodities. Of course, neither side respected the peace agreement. South Vietnam's president, Nguyen Van Thieu, launched military actions against Communists in the South, and Hanoi's forces made major gains in the Mekong Delta. Washington had its excuse to back off from its commitment to reparations. That was almost three decades ago. Aside from General Giap's strategic arguments, simple justice suggests that it is time to pay our debt. Last year, the United States offered Vietnam $3 million; at the same time it continues to hold Vietnam to the $145 million debt that the Communists inherited when they took over the South. Vietnam prevailed in the war, but it was Vietnam, and not the United States, that saw its land devastated, and it is the United States that has the power now to heal the lasting damage both to Vietnam and to the relationship of our two countries. We should give the Vietnamese the kind of substantial aid we once gave to Germany and Japan. It is time to forgive them for winning. ---- A.J. Langguth is professor of journalism at the University of Southern California and author of "Our Vietnam."
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