Vietnam Vet Kerry Returns to Mekong Delta on New Mission

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry returned to the murky rivers where he fought Viet Cong insurgents, focused now on the future of the two nations, not their past.

Kerry used his first boat trip yesterday through the same waters where he took fire more than 40 years ago to spotlight the contemporary threat of climate change to the lives and livelihoods of the people in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, and the need to expand a partnership with a former enemy to reverse environmental damage.

“Decades ago on these very waters, I was one of many who witnessed the difficult period in our shared history,” Kerry, 70, told Vietnamese students and climate researchers on a village pier in southern Ca Mau province. “On these waters, I’m bearing witness to how far our nations have come together.”

For Kerry, it was a personal as well as professional journey to a place and time that defined the course of his life -- from decorated naval officer and anti-war activist to senator, presidential nominee, and now top U.S. diplomat.

Kerry was a leading proponent of normalizing ties with Vietnam in 1995, two decades after the U.S. abandoned the war effort. Since then, trade has increased 50-fold to $25 billion a year, according to government data. Today, 40 percent of Vietnam’s population is under the age of 25, Kerry said, and never knew the U.S. as an enemy.

Kerry, though known for not displaying public emotion, acknowledged the river evoked a tumble of feelings.

Looking Back

“It’s weird,” he said quietly, looking out at the sun-streaked waters, “it brings back stuff.” Many of the stilt houses resemble those from 40 years ago, though now they line a riverbank that was once an uninhabited free-fire zone. “It’s fascinating to see both how it’s changed and how it hasn’t,” he said.

Cooperation between the two nations on environmental protection is one focus of Kerry’s three-day trip to Vietnam, his first as secretary of state. Global warming is a longtime cause for him and the Mekong Delta is one of the spots most vulnerable to rising sea levels caused by climate change.

Kerry stopped in a riverside hamlet to meet residents whose livelihoods depend on the shrimp- and rice-farming industries that scientists say are under threat from falling water tables, erosion and rising seas. He announced a $17 million commitment for a USAID project to promote sustainable development, and cited a $94 million clean-energy deal signed yesterday between U.S. multinational General Electric Co. and Vietnamese construction company Cong Ly Construction-Trading-Tourism Co. for wind turbines.

Seafood Exports

Highlighting links between the U.S. and Vietnamese economies, Kerry said Boston-based restaurant chain Legal Sea Foods LLC sources much of its shrimp from the Mekong Delta. That export from Vietnam is put at risk by plans for upstream dams in China and Thailand, he said.

This is Kerry’s first trip to Vietnam since 2000, when he accompanied then-President Bill Clinton. By then, Kerry had made a dozen previous trips as a senator.

Kerry volunteered to fight in Vietnam, serving as a naval officer and swift-boat captain in 1968-69, earning three Purple Heart medals for injuries and Bronze and Silver Stars for valor. He returned home questioning the policies fueling the drawn-out conflict to which he had lost close friends, and joined the anti-war movement, testifying on Capitol Hill.

Kerry’s Causes

That activism triggered his political career, and three decades later when he ran for president, his anti-war stance was used against him by opponents who claimed his honors were undeserved. Though the accusations were refuted by survivors of his swift boat, his campaign never recovered.

When elected to the senate in 1984, Kerry championed Vietnam veterans’ issues, including the cause of prisoners of war and missing in action, and made nine trips in six years to search for POW/MIAs and promote normalization of ties. With fellow veteran Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, Kerry led the effort persuading Vietnamese authorities to open records and excavate grounds to search for answers about thousands of Americans, work that paved the way for the U.S. decision to restore relations.

Clambering onto the boat behind him, Kerry’s old friend Thomas Vallely, a fellow veteran who advises the Southeast Asia program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, observed, “I don’t think there’s any real estate in the whole world that’s more defining” for Kerry than this corner of the Mekong Delta.

Trust Factor

Frances Zwenig, a former Kerry chief of staff who accompanied him on his first trip back to the Mekong Delta in August 1991 just after the Senate Select Committee was created to investigate POW/MIA affairs, recalled in an interview from Kuala Lumpur that Kerry brought along his two then-teenaged daughters to share what the place meant for him. It was an act that moved Vietnamese authorities, because “it indicated a level of commitment to the country and the relationship that went beyond the official,” Zwenig said.

Asked how Kerry’s history may affect his ability as secretary of State to press communist authorities on sensitive issues such as Internet and religious freedom, Zwenig said Kerry enjoys “a level of trust” with officials in Vietnam that may make it easier.

After meeting today with top government officials in Hanoi, Kerry told reporters that “the energy of this city is absolutely remarkable” and “the transformation is nothing short of amazing,” since his first visit to a much less-modern capital in 1991.

Kerry spoke at a joint briefing with Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh -- whose father Nguyen Co Thach lost his job as foreign minister that same year after advocating normalized ties with the U.S. Minh pointedly thanked Kerry for his leadership as a senator promoting better relations decades before he was secretary of state and said their shared interest in U.S.-Vietnamese cooperation was the basis of an “open, candid” talk today on issues of agreement as well as differences.

(Updates with Kerry’s comments from today in 18th and 19th paragraphs.)
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