Remarks by Former President Bill Clinton at the Twentieth Anniversary July 4 Celebration

Photo of former President Clinton
Former President Bill Clinton gives remarks at the Twentieth Anniversary July 4 Celebration.

President Clinton:  First I thank all of you for the warm welcome.  Ambassador Osius, Mr. Bond, Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh, thank you for what has been said already today.

To former Ambassador Pete Peterson, former Ambassador Michael Michalak, Chargé Desaix Anderson and other members of the diplomatic corps.

I’d also like to say I don’t know whether you felt the same, but I was very moved by the choir who sung Vietnam’s National Anthem, and I am very moved by the fact that the young Air Force enlisted person who sang our National Anthem is part of the first U.S. Air Force Band to play in Vietnam since we normalized relations 20 years ago.  So let’s give them all a big hand.

When the Ambassador was up here introducing me in Vietnamese, your Deputy Prime Minister said he’s pretty good.  [Laughter].  I said well he should be, he was part of the original crew that helped us set up shop here, and then he came back and worked in the National Security Council when I was in office.  I’m glad he got a well-deserved promotion and I thank him for what he’s doing.

The normalization of relations in Vietnam was for personal, political and geostrategic reasons one of the most important achievements of my [career].  It helped to heal the wounds of war, to build bonds of genuine friendship, and provide proof in an increasingly divided world that cooperation was far better than conflict.

I think most every Vietnamese person could say what Vietnam has gotten out of it.  I would like to tell you that from my point of view America may have won the war, so my friends say.  To me the symbol of why we did the right thing will always be Ambassador Pete Peterson and his wonderful wife.  Many of you know, he spent more than six years as a guest of the Vietnamese government during the war.  He then went home and did his best to put his family back together, ran for Congress, got elected, became our Ambassador — our first Ambassador, one of the best appointments I ever made — and then married his wonderful wife and moved to Australia so he could come to Vietnam once a month and visit here.

I tell you all this because for millions of Americans 20 years ago, actually July 11th, was a different form of independence day.  Vietnam had captured our imagination and taken up so much space in our spirit that there were people who were wounded and injured, and no American my age didn’t know at least someone who was killed here.  There were raging debates at home.  People on both sides thought the others were crazy.  And somehow when finally our Vietnamese friends said they would accept us and we said we would accept them, we were set free.  Those being set free included those who made this day possible, members of the Senate in both parties including President Johnson’s son-in-law, Senator Chuck Robb who supported this, and who probably lost more men under his command, more than any other person working on this; Senator Max Cleland from Georgia who lost two legs and an arm; and of course Senator John Kerry, now Secretary of State; and Senator John McCain, now Chairman of the Armed Services Committee of the Senate.  I want to thank them.  They were the win beneath the wings of this movement.  They made what I was able to do as President possible.  They knew it was a bigger movement in America than it was in Vietnam.

Our partnership has taken so many different forms.  I think the most moving one to me when I came here first in [2000] was going to a site where Vietnamese and Americans were working together to excavate the place where a plane had crashed to recover the last available remains of an American pilot named [Mark Everett].  By then his children, infants when he died, were grown.  But they were there, and I saw the tears in their eyes when they saw the Vietnamese people alongside the Americans stomping in the mud, desperately looking for shards of bones or other evidence of life.  Hillary and I were standing there and she said I never saw in my life, in this small piece of land people buried up to their knees in mud looking for the remains of one soldier.  It was a symbol of what was to come.

I also want to thank the Vietnamese government and the Deputy Prime Minister for the fact that the recovery efforts continue along with our cooperation in removing and remediating unexploded mines and toxic spilled contamination in too much land in Vietnam.  We’ve had some success and we’ve had some disasters together.

Look at all the other places our cooperation has gone.  Three years ago I announced that Senator McCain and Senator Kerry were establishing a foundation with about 100 scholarships for Vietnamese students to study in America.  We thought that was a big deal.  There are now about 17,000 Vietnamese students studying in universities in America, more than from our neighboring countries, Canada and Mexico, the eighth largest number in the world.

Now a government that presided over a country with an income of barely a dollar a day 20 years ago, has seen explosive economic growth and spent 20 percent of its budget on education — far more than we do — and ranks, according to the latest international test [scores], 12th in the world in the performance of its students in basic math, science and literature categories.  Twelfth in the world.  You should be very proud.

Twenty years ago our trade was $500 million a year; now it’s [inaudible] and rising.  And Vietnam just passed Malaysia and Thailand to become ASEAN’s top exporter in merchandise to the U.S.  And listen to this.  Cargo container deliveries are averaging 1700 every single day.

Now, as you know, President Obama is trying to add to this record of economic cooperation with the TPP negotiations.  I hope more than anything else that there will be as much bipartisan support for it as there was for the normalization of relations, and if we can get good labor and human rights and environmental standards, if we can get a resolution of the [inaudible] program that is generally open and representative and accountable to all elements in society, we can perhaps achieve that.  I am very hopeful that in these last days the final details will command the support of a broad swath of the American people.

I want to thank both the Ambassador and the Deputy Prime Minister for making [inaudible] health access and making it much easier to get life-saving medicine to people who have HIV and AIDS, to help those with malaria, those with tuberculosis, and help people, children mostly, who have [inaudible].  And I want to thank the people from our project here who are in this crowd today.  They’ve saved a lot of lives and loved doing it.

One more area of cooperation I wish to mention.  In January Vice Foreign Minister Ngoc opened a conference exhorting our two countries to move beyond bilateral cooperation to regional and global collaboration, a strategy that the current U.S. government strongly supports.  Vietnam’s partnership in the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, agreements to [inaudible] port security and counternarcotics, this is the beginning of what I hope will be a regional way of attacking problems, seizing opportunities, and resolving [disputes].  Every country in this region without regard to their size or the size of their military deserves the right to be free [inaudible] and independence and to have their claims fairly adjudicated, and I thank the Vietnamese government and the people for asking the United States to support their program.

I am very glad that your Party General Secretary, Mr. Trong, will soon come to America.  A lot of us are going to try to make him feel very welcome.  I hope he likes what he sees.  But I hope in the process of covering his visit our media will cover the rest of you so that America will come to see what Vietnam has become in the past 20 years.  An amazingly diverse, multi-faceted society of gifted, hard-working people, beautiful landscape, deep culture, and a really bright future.

I want to end by asking you to consider the implications of another planned anniversary, that of the Fulbright Economic Teaching Program.  Soon it will move into Fulbright University of Vietnam, the first private, not-for-profit university in the nation.  The program grew out of the famous Fulbright Scholarship program allowing people in other countries to go to the United States for school.  The Deputy Prime Minister who was one of the very first Fulbright scholars of Vietnam, earning his Master’s degree in international law and diplomacy from Tufts University, one of our greatest [pieces] of our education [system].

There are a lot of younger people here who have no idea who Senator Fulbright was.  He was the strongest opponent of the Vietnam War in the United States Congress, the Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and instead of calling the people who disagreed with him names and having a fight all the time, he held the most educational set of hearings I believe ever held by a congressional committee just to teach people about Southeast Asia, to teach people about the history of Vietnam, to teach people about the dynamics of the conflict, and he believed that if he could only get enough people to listen it would change America’s core.  He was an astonishing man and I worked for him for two years when I was in university.  We were friends until he died at 87 when I was President.

I want to read you one sentence that my old mentor said 50 years ago that describes what we have tried to do with each other.  He said, “We should make our own society for an example of human happiness, make ourselves the friend of social revolution, and go beyond simple reciprocity in the effort to reconcile hostile worlds beyond our border.”  He was right then, he’s right today, and in the end it’s what we’re really celebrating — A decision to go with an outstretched hand, not a clenched fist.  That decision is at the heart of every conflict in the world today and the decisions other people make about their own identity and whether they are better or worse, stronger or weaker, with an outstretched hand or a clenched fist will decide the whole shape of the 21st Century.  So I hope this day will set them free too.  Thank you.

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