ON THE COVER North Coast Journal Weekly

Back to Vietnam: Healing old wounds

photos by  MIKE THOMPSON

Interview by  BOB DORAN



On Nov. 7 and for the five weeks that followed, the U.S. presidential elections had a stranglehold on newspaper headlines in this country and abroad. Coverage of President Clinton's trip to Vietnam in mid-November was bumped to the inside pages. But that didn't mean the journey was any less historic. It was the first official visit by an American president since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975.

Clinton was joined by his daughter, Chelsea, and wife, Sen.-elect Hillary Clinton as well as a congressional delegation that included 1st District Rep. Mike Thompson.

In a conversation Dec. 18 with the Journal -- the day before Thompson joined Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt on another historic trip -- down the Trinity River in a dugout canoe -- the congressman shared his reflections and recollections of the journey back to Vietnam.

Thompson, like many in the congressional delegation who travelled with the president, is a Vietnam veteran. He had not been back to the country since the war but had been trying to arrange a trip for years.

[photo of Mike Thompson]"When B.T. Collins was in the state Assembly he and I were going to go, but he became ill and we lost him," Thompson said. Brian Thomas "BT" Collins died in 1993 of a sudden heart attack."I tried another time to go with some friends from Napa who were Vietnam veterans, but my work schedule didn't allow it."

Thompson sits on the Armed Services Committee and last year he approached the chairman about leading a congressional delegation. The idea was approved, but the trip postponed due to full agendas in the busy election year -- until Clinton decided the time was right.

"It was a quick trip," Thompson said.

The congressional entourage flew to Hanoi, linked up with the president and his family, Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska and Reps. Vic Schnieder of Arkansas, Loretta Sanchez of Orange County, Calif., and Earl Blumenhaur of Oregon.

"The assistant secretary of veterans affairs and the secretary of veterans affairs, the head of the Vietnam Veterans of America and the founder of AOL were also there -- all of them Vietnam vets," said Thompson.

 

Journal: How did you end up going with the President?

I think everybody knew that if there was a Vietnam trip coming up I was one of the people who wanted to go. Then, kind of in the 11th hour, the president decided to go and I was invited to go along.

 

Why were you interested in going?

Well, I served there. I was in the war in Vietnam -- we call it the Vietnam War; the Vietnamese call it the American War -- and I wanted to go back. I wanted to see the country. I remembered it as being a very beautiful place and I was always disillusioned that I was viewing the country under the cloud of war. I really didn't get a chance to see it in a different way, to meet the people. I wanted to do that. I guess another part of it was closure for me. I wanted to go back for that reason.


[photo of US and Vietnam presidents]President Clinton of the United States and
President Trân Dúc Lùóng of Vietnam
walk in the color guard ceremony.


Did you volunteer for the Army?

I did, when I was 18.

 

Did you enlist knowing you would go to Vietnam?

I don't think I knew I would go. I was pretty young. It was 1969 so I should have known, but as I said, I was young and probably didn't put that together. It was 1970 before the reality struck me that I was going.

 

What was your experience over there?

I was a sergeant. I served as a squad leader, as platoon sergeant. But because of attrition, I was a platoon leader for the majority of time I was there. I was in combat -- in country -- packing an M-16 rifle and leading a platoon.

 

You ended up with a Purple Heart.

I was wounded over there which cut my trip short. The total time in country and in the hospital was about six months. I got hit by a booby trap and came home.

 

You stepped on a land mine?

It wasn't a land mine, but it was something explosive. Someone in front of me hit it and it blew up.


[photo of ceremony] "Out in the courtyard the Vietnamese and American flags were flying and the president of the United States and the president of Vietnam were standing there while Vietnamese Army Band played "The Star Spangled Banner."

--Mike Thompson


What was it like going back?

It was wonderful. The countryside was as beautiful as I remember it. It's strange when you're in war and there as a young soldier. You know intuitively that it's a beautiful area -- especially if you come from a rural area and have experienced open countryside -- you know it's beautiful, but your view is obfuscated by the conditions under which you're serving. You don't have time to fully appreciate the beauty of the country if you're trying to make sure you don't get hit with a booby trap.

And I always had the sense that the people were wonderful. But again, when you're a soldier you've always got your guard up. Visiting there I found that my instincts were right; the people were just marvelous.

Everyone recognized that this was an historic visit, the first time an American president had been there since the war. If we had two events two blocks or even 20 miles apart, the street would be lined with people. When we went to an event in a little bitty hamlet in the middle of nowhere, there were thousands of people who came out to see us and to see the American president.

I think the authorities were a little concerned about that. When you have a Communist country, the last thing you want is thousands of people on the same street corner. I think the fact that they were all interested in this great democracy sent a message. I think you're going to see changes coming quickly over there. They want to westernize and get out from under the control they live with daily.

Another thing that was almost overwhelming was an event on one of the first days at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi. We participated in the color guard. We were just blocks away from the little house that Ho Chi Minh used during the war. I could look over my shoulder and see Ho Chi Minh's house, then look out on the parade ground and see the Vietnamese Army assembled in full uniform. Out in the courtyard the Vietnamese and American flags were flying and the president of the United States and the president of Vietnam were standing there while Vietnamese Army Band played "The Star Spangled Banner." That was overwhelming. Later we went back to the Presidential Palace and had dinner with both presidents.


[photo of delegation]Sen. Bob Kerrey stands next to Loretta Sanchez as the delegation poses in front of the presidential palace. Rep. Mike Thompson stands in the center next to Rep. Earl Blumenhaur.

Below, Sen.-elect Hillary Clinton
and daughter, Chelsea.[photo of Hillary and Chelsea Clinton]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is there residual ill will toward Americans?

I don't think there is. Someone on the trip was making a speech and quoted a Vietnamese general who said, "If you have one enemy, it's too many. And you can never have enough friends." I think that's probably advice that we could all try to live by. It's clearly a belief that they maintain.

The other thing working in our favor is that 60 percent of the population is under 40 years of age and only 5 percent is over 60. So most of the people there don't remember the war. They were just children. There is still a lot of influence from wartime, but there has been a lot of change since the war. Some of the projects we visited were emblematic of that.

We visited an excavation site, a spot where a U.S. airplane was shot down. They were sifting through the pieces to be able to identify it.

 

As part of the search for MIAs?

Right. We're working with the Vietnamese government to find our missing soldiers. And we've been sharing the documentation that our military intelligence has, to help them find their missing in action as well.

This particular project was a cooperative effort between the Vietnamese government and the U.S. government and there were actually Vietnamese digging through this rice paddy, sifting out the pieces to be able to identify the aircraft and the pilot. And the two sons of the pilot were there with us.


[photo of excavation]"Notice that the Americans are wearing boots. The Vietnamese are bare-foot. Each bucket holds a shovel full of the mud, they pass them bucket- brigade style. They push the mud through screens in the boxes and what's left are pieces of the plane."

--Mike Thompson

 


 

 

So they knew specifically what plane it was?

They knew who it was; they were all but positive. They had eye witnesses who saw it go down. The people who were flying alongside this particular pilot saw him go down. They were trying to take out a railroad bridge and they saw the explosion, estimating it was 300 yards from the bridge.

It was 30 years ago, but they know it was the plane. The parts that they've picked up so far, if you spread them all out, would fit on this desk. And none is anywhere close to as big as this little tape recorder. I think the biggest piece was a rod that was no bigger around than this pen.

When the plane crashes it creates a crater. The first thing that happens is the village folks come out and take all the salvageable stuff from the wreckage to use in their day-to-day lives. The second thing that happens is they fill in the crater so they can continue to farm.

When we were there they said they had about a meter (39 inches) to go before they would find the major wreckage. Yet from the small pieces they had, they were able to identify the type of aircraft and bracket, within a three-year period, the model of aircraft. Each one of the teams includes a forensic expert and an anthropologist.

[photo of women excavating]

Are these types of operations going on all over Vietnam?

I believe there were about seven or eight taking place. They showed us a map of the different sites. We also saw another sign of the war -- the de-mining program. They're going out and locating land mines, unexploded ordinance, and removing those. Then there's a prosthetics component where they fit people who have been victims of explosions with prosthetics.

There's an interesting juxtaposition. You've got the excavation program taking place, an effort to heal old wounds in both communities, but particularly the American community. Then you've got the de-mining program, an effort to prevent new wounds.

 

Are there still a lot of mines lingering?

If there's one, it's too many. It's a terrible, terrible tactic to deploy, one that lingers after the war is over to kill and maim innocent people. It's mostly children and old people who get hit by these things. We need to stop using land mines, but in the interim, we need to help them get these things taken care of.

 

Didn't the United States decide not to sign the international treaty on land mines?

You're absolutely correct. When I was in the state Senate I was the principal coauthor of a resolution asking the Congress to sign on to the treaty and to start doing away with these mines. It's something I bought into lock, stock and barrel.


[photo of Clinton at the excavation]President Clinton at the excavation site.

"The kid in the light shirt and the kid in the dark shirt are the children of the pilot who was shot down."

-- Mike Thompson


Who is digging up the mines?

It's an NGO -- non-governmental organization -- with funding from the private sector and the public sector.

 

Wasn't the trip also some sort of trade mission?

Part of the reason for the trip was to advance the efforts to normalize trade relations. We talked to a lot of people who were very much in favor of that. As a matter of fact I didn't talk to anyone who wasn't. Of course when you go on a trip like that -- no matter how much you try and probe -- there's a certain element of the trip that's going to be sanitized. You're meeting the people they want you to meet.

In this case, Loretta Sanchez, who came with us, has been an outspoken critic of the Vietnamese government and its lack of democratic dealings. She has been there a number of times herself, so she snuck off and met with a group of political dissidents. She told us even the dissidents want this trade agreement. They understand that the only way they will be treated fairly is if their country becomes more participatory.

I met separately with some folks in academia and they were very critical of the government and I spent some time in the agrarian communities to see what they were facing. I just straight up asked them, "Will normal trade relations help or hurt?" They said, "If we don't have them, we don't have a chance."


This is the railroad track leading to the bridge they tried to bomb. When we arrived there was no one there but scary-looking guys with binoculars and guns -- Vietnamese military guys. When we finished, we walked up there, Blumenhaur was talking with some of the local folks. I'm not sure if they were showing us they want peace or they won. "

-- Mike Thompson


 

 

What's the status of the effort to normalize trade?

At the time of the trip there was a bill before Congress. My suggestion to the president was that we should try to get it done before the end of the session, given the fact that Congress had not finished the work that we're supposed to do, and that two leading Republicans, Sen. Roth and [Rep.] Archer in the House, who are both retiring, had both worked as hard toward pushing this as the Democrats. He thought it was a good idea, but because of all that happened with the election it was not a front-burner issue. I suspect it will be passed quickly in the 107th Congress.


[photo of "Hanoi Hilton"] "We went to the `Hanoi Hilton' where John McCain and Pete Peterson,
the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, were both held prisoner during the war.
It was all very powerful."

-- Mike Thompson


Do you think the visit changed anything?

It changed a lot. I believe we were able to prevail upon the government that they need to treat their people differently. If they heard once, they heard 50 times, if they want normal trade with the U.S., we have to be able to support doing that. The way that happens is we have to be able to assure people that human rights will become a top priority.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


IN THE NEWS  |  ARTS! ARCATA  |  CALENDAR

Comments? E-mail the Journal: ncjour@northcoast.com

North Coast Journal banner

© Copyright 2001, North Coast Journal, Inc.