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Professor David G. Marr
Symbolism overwhelmed substance during President Clinton’s trip to Vietnam in mid-November, yet that didn’t make the occasion less significant. For his American audience at home, Clinton made a pilgrimage to an airplane crash site being excavated a quarter century after the end of the war, accompanied by two grown-up sons of the pilot missing in action (MIA). Some TV viewers may have interpreted this as an act of contrition for Clinton’s wartime draft-dodging.
On the other hand, the presence in the presidential entourage of more than fifty senior executives of major US corporations affirmed Clinton’s political victory over the MIA lobby. It had taken both of his terms as president, first locating divisions within the MIA lobby, relaxing them and then eliminating the economic embargo, normalizing diplomatic relations with Hanoi, and finally negotiating a trade agreement last July. Although no executives expected to sign contracts on this trip, the momentum went up several notches, and Vietnam Communist Party (VCP) leaders came under more pressure to open up to American farm products, manufactured goods, banks and telecommunication firms,
For the Vietnamese audience, there was pride that an American president was visiting their country for the first time in peace, even if he was a lame duck. Clinton’s mass media celebrity status made him the object of particular fascination far greater than with the past visits of such heads of state as Francois Mitterand or Fidel Castro. Even so, on the evening of Clinton’s arrival in Hanoi people were far more excited to watch Vietnam’s soccer team participating in the Southeast Asia Tiger Cup on TV.
Subsequent public walkabouts by Clinton and his wife (separately) were major affairs in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh city, despite the Vietnamese mass media offering no prior notice. Some older Vietnamese recalled similar walkabouts by Ho Chi Minh in the early 1960s, attracting thousands of adoring citizens. No Vietnamese leader since then had attempted to emulate such performances.
Clinton’s speech at Hanoi University was probably the most important event of his trip. The Vietnamese voice-over on live TV was a disaster, not due to any communist plot, but because the American side had insisted on using a Vietnamese interpreter long resident in the US who was quite out of touch with current terminology or rhetorical nuance. Nevertheless, the image of row after row of Vietnam’s future intellectual elite listening attentively to the chieftain of global capitalism made a strong impression on TV viewer across the country.
VCP General Secretary Le Kha Phieu tried to counter this image in his meeting with Clinton, but his words and body language were tiresome to the more than 50 per cent of Vietnam’s population born since the end of the war. Bill Clinton’s visit served to highlight this generation gap, even if what he said and did was entirely predictable for audiences outside Vietnam.
WATCHPOINT: Unless Party leaders can find new ways to communicate effectively with the youth of Vietnam, they are in trouble.
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