President Clinton's trip to Vietnam and the 2000 contested election
In November 2000, Bill Clinton made the first U.S. presidential visit to a united Vietnam. I was working at the White House as Vice President Gore’s Asia advisor and, as someone who knew Vietnam, I was asked to assist with preparations for President Clinton’s visit, including a briefing to the president from Vietnam experts. Stanley Karnow, the greatest chronicler of the war, joined the briefing, as did Harvard University’s Tommy Vallely; Fred Brown of Johns Hopkins University; Ginny; and Mike Jendrzejczyk, the Human Rights Watch’s director for Asia in Washington.
President Clinton outlined his goals for the trip: focus on achieving the fullest possible accounting of those lost in the war; consolidate the process of diplomatic normalization; help the American people see Vietnam as a country, not just a war; and help the Vietnamese see that America supported their economic development.
Ted Osius, Al Gore and Clayton Bond, Jakarta Indonesia, 8 January 2011
President Clinton’s trip followed the contested presidential election of November 2000 by a little more than a week. Each evening during the trip, we staffers raced to our hotel rooms to watch newscasters discuss hanging chads and butterfly ballots in Florida. If Vice President Gore were to prevail, I would likely become his senior Asia advisor. If Governor George W. Bush won, I did not expect warm treatment from the new administration.
President Clinton followed the events in Florida carefully. When Katherine Harris, Florida’s secretary of state, certified results that showed Bush ahead of Gore by more than seven hundred votes, President Clinton was apoplectic. Believing that the election had been stolen, he wanted to make a statement. His traveling staff prevailed on him to remain publicly silent.
Still, the turmoil at home did not detract from the excitement of the enormous crowds that welcomed the U.S. president. An iconic photo of that visit shows two young Vietnamese reaching from an adjoining window to touch President Clinton’s hand.
In a speech to the people of Vietnam, the president spoke of Vietnam’s progress from isolation to the political and economic reforms called "Đổi Mới", enabling the country to begin reaping the benefits of globalization. “Globalization is not something we can hold off or turn off,” he said. “We can work to maximize its benefits and minimize its risks, but we cannot ignore it.” The bilateral trade agreement with the United States, he predicted correctly, would lead to Vietnam’s entry into the WTO and to the country’s integration into the global economy.
The worst flooding in a generation had just hit the Mekong Delta, and the United States had an opportunity to show how its government’s scientific expertise could support Vietnam in a time of need. As Vice President Gore’s representative on the trip, I met with the director of Vietnam’s Disaster Management Center and officials responsible for flood control and relief efforts. I provided them with maps and data, and USAID donated one million dollars for flood mapping and the strengthening of warning and forecasting capabilities.
President Clinton had included a reference to this in his speech: “We want to bolster our efforts on disaster relief and prevention, including our efforts to help those suffering from the floods in the Mekong Delta. Yesterday, we presented to your government satellite imagery from our Global Disaster Information Network—images that show in great detail the latest flood levels on the Delta that can help Vietnam to rebuild.” The president participated in a disaster relief event with the Red Cross, the United States provided flood relief supplies, and a USAID senior official joined me in visiting flooded areas of the delta by boat.
President Clinton had included a reference to this in his speech: “We want to bolster our efforts on disaster relief and prevention, including our efforts to help those suffering from the floods in the Mekong Delta. Yesterday, we presented to your government satellite imagery from our Global Disaster Information Network—images that show in great detail the latest flood levels on the Delta that can help Vietnam to rebuild.” The president participated in a disaster relief event with the Red Cross. The United States provided flood relief supplies. A USAID senior official joined me in visiting flooded areas of the delta by boat.
This is a lot more than a first-rate memoir. It is a brilliantly organized account of a decades-long struggle towards reconciliation, not just on the part of two governments but on the part of two nations bearing the physical and emotional scars of a protracted war.
As U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, Ted was far more than merely diligent. He was intensely creative in finding ways, both moral and material, to soften bitter memories with new hope. In the process, he served the strategic interests of the United States by stressing common interests and building mutual respect. His work in Vietnam is a reminder of something often overlooked in our country: the extraordinary value of its professional Foreign Service -- which I personally saw every day as Vice President, and which is clear as day on the pages of this book.
Al Gore, former Vice President of the United States
From Nothing Is Impossible: America's Reconciliation with Vietnam by Ted Osius. Preorder here and apply the promo code RFLR19 to get a 30% discount for both the hard copy (and free shipping - only in America) and ebook: https://www.rutgersuniversitypress.org/nothing-is-impossible/9781978825161