THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
______For Immediate Release November 18, 2000
PRESS BRIEFING BY
AMBASSADOR DOUGLAS "PETE" PETERSON
Hilton Hanoi Opera Hotel
2:10 P.M. (L)
MR. CROWLEY: Good afternoon. We thought that before we depart Hanoi
for Ho Chi Minh City that we would provide you an opportunity in person to
talk about Vietnam with our extraordinary Ambassador, Pete Peterson. You
did have the opportunity earlier in the week, when he was gracious enough
to do a phone interview with you from Brunei. But for those of you that
were out at Tien Chau Village to see the extraordinary efforts being made
on the recovery of the remains, you can also appreciate this day has a
special meaning for Ambassador Peterson, himself, a former Air Force pilot
and prisoner of war.
But I think before you leave Vietnam you ought to have the
opportunity, jump in a taxi and drive around either Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh
City -- from perhaps a hotel room, what's happening on the streets with the
interaction among the bicycles, the mopeds and the cars looks like a
ballet. When you're actually on the streets themselves, you know it's a
free for all. But one of Ambassador Peterson's initiatives is to try to
put a helmet on every single Vietnamese motorist, in a safe Vietnam
initiative. I think once you're on the streets here you can appreciate how
important that is.
To kind of put the first portion of the President's visit in
perspective a little bit on today's activities, but just overall, the
promise that exists in the Vietnam-United States relationship, we're happy
to have Ambassador Pete Peterson.
AMBASSADOR PETERSON: Good afternoon. I hope, indeed, all of you will
have an opportunity to get out and see the city in more personal terms.
This room will become quite small to you, I'm sure, after you sit in it
The fact that you're here is historic in itself, because you're
accompanying the first President to ever step foot in Hanoi and the first
President to visit the unified Vietnam, as well. And, of course, what that
signals to all of us is that the relationship between the United States and
Vietnam has matured, matured to the point now where we are able to cross
vast uncharted areas across virtually every subject and sector of interest
that exists between our two countries. And I'm very happy to say that we
have been very successful in many of those sectors of which are rather
You've seen of course the JTF today, out at the excavation site, but
we're also working with the Vietnamese in military-to-military activities
in a very genuine and trustful way in the demining, which is another event
later today at which you will be able to participate in. And also we're
doing search and rescue and other kinds of cooperative efforts with the
Vietnamese military that have proven to be very well accepted and welcomed
by the Vietnamese.
The other areas of course was noted, one being in what I call injury
prevention area, working in the safety areas, and then health in general,
infectious disease, HIV/AIDS and education, science and technology across
And then, of course, then the President comes, five years after we've
normalized diplomatic relations. And we've now concluded our bilateral
trade agreement, which essentially normalizes our economic relationship.
His visit can set us straight into the future. And as we have the used the
term, and you have, too, that we're beginning a new chapter.
His objectives, clearly, are to help us analyze where we've been,
where we've been successful and then to look at the opportunities for the
future and chart the future course.
I couldn't be more pleased. You have been out on the road with the
President and in the events of which he has been participating, and you've
seen the enthusiasm -- spontaneous enthusiasm, I might add -- of the
Vietnamese people wherever he goes. That is true, too, for the First Lady.
The welcome that has been made by the Vietnamese people and the government
has been extraordinary in my view, and it's going to make a big difference,
I think, in how we work in the future. Because in my view, what this trip
will ultimately provide for us is an improved understanding and greater
trust between our two countries as we work on areas of mutual interest.
The President's trip thus far has to be rated as a huge success. His
bilateral meetings were all cordial, informative and quite candid, I might
add. And the President I think has come away with a much greater
understanding of the leadership and the principles and the views that have
been held by the Vietnamese government and leadership for what they see as
their past, of course, but where they see where they want to go in the
future. It matches perfectly with our objectives and the events that have
taken place thus far have led us, I think, to a conclusion that this is a
successful trip no matter what happens, following today.
As you know, tonight we'll depart for Ho Chi Minh City. This will
give you a great opportunity to make a comparative. The two cities are
vastly different, with Hanoi being what we call a city that possesses a
unique character, its quaintness and those things aren't necessarily found
in Ho Chi Minh City, which is a real metropolitan area, much more
hustle-bustle than even Hanoi, if that would frighten you a little bit,
perhaps. And you'll find the people in Ho Chi Minh City much more, if you
will, business-oriented. Whereas, I guess the comparative will be maybe
Boston and Washington, D.C. -- you have a capital city versus a city of
great business strength and there are differences between the cities.
But remember that this is a unified country, and the leadership of
course has on their mind to make this one country, a very successful
country in the future. And as I noted with my phone call with you in
Brunei, the attributes for success and the potentials for success clearly
are there, and it's only for the leadership and for those of us who are
interested in providing assistance to take them to where I think they can,
in fact, declare themselves a country of magnitude and a country that wants
to work with the rest of the international community constructively and
So let me take whatever questions you have.
Q The Vietnamese leader said in the toast last night that the
United States should do more to help Vietnam recover from the war. Do you
expect that sort of pressure to increase as ties normalize? Do you expect
those calls to rise?
AMBASSADOR PETERSON: I don't think they'll rise any further than they
already have. It's not a surprising request, and it's also not a new
request. Since the day I arrived, I'm certain before my arrival those
pleas have been made to the United States for assistance. And we have
heeded that call. We have helped the Vietnamese in all kinds of ways in
the process of disaster activity and recovery and then now mitigation.
In all kinds of areas that I mentioned earlier, too, is the grievance
that we have in demining and dealing with the problems of unexploded
ordnance. And now, just next weekend, I will depart with a lot of my
colleagues and the Vietnamese to Singapore to talk about how we engaged in
a very serious scientific effort to seek the answers for the real impact of
the herbicides that were used here during the war.
I feel very comfortable in the activities that we are engaged in with
the Vietnamese and many of those activities are directly applicable to the
consequences of the war, which is the terms that they would use. Some are
tangential, but all, collectively, are helping Vietnam to reach its
Q Mr. Ambassador, you said something last night that caught my
attention -- actually, several things, but one of them was when you said
the United States had a unique role to aid Vietnam, and that only the
United States -- the United States alone could really help Vietnam come out
of its current backward status and join the rest of the modern world.
I wonder if you could elaborate a little bit on that and why you feel
that's so, and that only the United States could do that? And tell us
whether you think the Vietnamese see it the same way, because talking to
the people on the street you get a little bit of the sentiment that people
are very proud of their independence and they don't think they need help
from anyone, and they're a little bit suspicious of offers of assistance.
And maybe also if you could help us to kind of deconstruct a little
bit the sentiments in the toast last night, because as an outside onlooker
that doesn't really know a lot about how to interpret the nuances of what
the leaders here say, this looks like a fairly flat, almost it's a
negative, dour kind of toast. There's a lot of these expressions of, the
United States needs to do more, we have this troubled history; and it
doesn't seem to be balanced at all by any kind of expressions of gratitude
or enthusiasm, that relations appear to be warming. And the tone of it
seems to be so different from the fairly gracious sentiments that were
expressed by the President, himself. Did that surprise you or are we
missing something in interpreting these remarks in that way?
AMBASSADOR PETERSON: I'll try to take the questions backward, if I
can remember them all, here. But the toast is pretty much of a standard
issue, I think, relative to our formal engagement with the Vietnamese. I
can assure you that the Vietnamese have expressed orally to the President
in his bilats that they're very, very keen to continue to build this
relationship and to strengthen it in every facet of the interests that we
have mutually, and that they're prepared to take the steps that are
necessary to improve in those areas.
I can't remember the speech with great detail. You're probably
referring to the one paragraph that specifically noted that we needed to
address the consequences of the war in more detail, much to the question
that was asked earlier. And my response is much as I just said, that they
would like for us to, obviously, take over all of their concerns about
that. The problem with that is that the science doesn't necessarily
support a conclusion. And if one was to have concluded already that the
herbicide problem is this, this, this, then why would we enter into a joint
The very fact that the Vietnamese have agreed to a scientific effort
jointly to make discoveries would also suggest that maybe their conclusions
are without all of the necessary scientific data to support those
conclusions. And that's our position.
We're prepared to do everything we can to move forward with the
scientific effort, and through that scientific effort, look for avenues and
opportunities to assist the Vietnamese as to the level of the data
supporting the action. And that's, I think, the way we see it.
In the area of why do I think America can do more than any other
country, it's because America has greater capacity to do the kinds of
things that need to be done here -- that is, in the areas of technical
training and technical transfer and engagement in systems development. And
to build institutions, which is one of the most critical lacking factors in
Vietnam now. They just do not have the institutions in existence now to
support even the full implementation of the bilateral trade agreement that
we've just signed. And that's why the President has announced that we're
going to add even greater funding into that technical assistance in the
areas that we would refer to perhaps as institution building and rule of
law to help the Vietnamese over that. And I don't know that any other
country has the capacity and many times the expertise to do those kinds of
And then, finally, I just think that because we are who we are -- we
might be in denial in America about who we are, but the rest of the world
knows who we are and they see America as the most successful and powerful
nation in the world and they want to emulate America in the way that they
live and work. I think that part of us being involved is that inspiration
that we bring that helps them through their development. So those are the
factors that I use in measuring why I think America is probably the only
country that can help the Vietnamese to the degree of full success.
Next question, way in the back.
Q Ambassador, here it is, 25 years after the war and the President
of the United States is here dealing with the communist government of
Vietnam, trying to establish cordial relations. With all due respect, sir,
to you and to others who have served in the war, might not the families of
those who perished in that war ask what did their loved ones die for?
AMBASSADOR PETERSON: Well, each of those families would have to
answer that for themselves, of course. I would never try to preempt their
feelings, because I know -- I know -- how they feel. My family, too,
suffered greatly. In fact, I personally suffered every imaginable hurt and
problem that one could, short of death.
But I am convinced that those who lost their lives, those who suffered
here would be among the first to stand up and say, we don't want this to
happen again. And that by constructive effort and engagement on our part,
the United States can make sure that we do not have a circumstance arise
that could give the opportunity for misunderstanding, and then therefore an
opportunity for the renewal of a conflict either here or in the region.
So my view on it is that you have an opportunity here to prevent. And
I know that those people who served here, I think every single one, even
though they have painful memories, would engage with me and others to
prevent any similar conflict in the future. And that's why I'm here.
Q It's such a sensitive topic about these MIA excavations and
continuing search for our soldiers. Do you foresee a day when the
administration, whichever administration it is, finally says, enough, rest
in peace, let's withdraw, we'll stop?
AMBASSADOR PETERSON: No, I don't see any administration doing that.
I don't see any politician doing that. I certainly don't see any
ambassador doing that. And I don't see any military general doing that.
The decision of fullest possible accounting -- and that is difficult to
define, because there's no written word on that -- it has to be defined by
the American people, and most assuredly by America's veterans and the
families of those who were lost here.
Fullest possible accounting is a great descriptive, but it's
incredibly difficult to define. And it has to be defined ultimately, in my
view, by those who served here and by those whose lives were most deeply
touched by our engagement here.
Q Not too long ago at least one Vietnamese official, military
official, complained about the lack of cooperation from the United States'
side in finding -- in searching for the missing North Vietnamese and Viet
Cong. Now with the release of these new documents or the transfer of these
new documents by the United States, do you see that as a response to that
complaint, or were these documents in the pipeline already?
AMBASSADOR PETERSON: No, it was clearly not a response. In fact, I'm
aware of that statement and I just feel that that person was uninformed.
I suspect that there are people in this room who, until they came to
Hanoi on this trip, were quite uninformed on the activities of our Joint
Task Force-Full Accounting. And it's a matter of understanding the
commitments on both sides before one can adequately or accurately report on
them. I think the individual who made the statement was simply not well
informed on the actions that we had taken in the past and want to take in
As you know, when that statement was made, we had already had paid and
asked the Vietnamese to send, I believe it was five -- four or five
archivists back to the United States, where they spent several weeks going
through every archive that our military has, and within the National
Archives as well, as you know, there are millions of documents that have
been released. And we have assisted in forensic training, we have assisted
in material ways. We have linked up our veterans with their veterans. We
have done an enormous amount of work with them to help them seek the fate
of the 300,000 that they have lost.
So, no, this was not a response; this was just an additive to the
work, and the good work, that we've already done, and a signal of our
long-term commitment to assist the Vietnamese in reaching their fullest
possible accounting as we go along in search of ours.
MR. CROWELY: Just to add one point before closing on the issue of
fullest possible accounting, that is not a policy that is specific to
Vietnam alone. As with the fall of the Soviet Union, we are getting access
to and now learning more about the fate of prisoners of war during the
Second World War. We are trying to build a relationship with China that
might lead to excavations or further information. We just had a successful
excavation in North Korea, for example, and last week I think welcomed 15
remains from the Korean War back to the United States.
This has been basically a pledge that the American people provide to
those men and women in uniform and that effort will continue, just as long
as we think there is information that may lead to the fullest possible
accounting from any war that the United States has participated in. This
is an effort that is obviously focused on Vietnam right now, but continues
in other conflicts, as well.
Very good. Thanks.
END 2:35 P.M. (L)