Reading her talk reminded me of a day 42 years ago when I flew over the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos in the back of a two-seater forward air control plane. The pilot, a U.S. Air Force officer flying out of uniform in an unacknowledged operation, was trying to find North Vietnamese or Viet Cong troops or their base camps and target them for the Royal Lao Air Force planes that were circling in the area.
I was there as an investigator for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, sent by its chairman, Sen. J.W. Fulbright (D-Ark.), to get on-the-scene facts about what was going on.
Fulbright wanted to get a true picture of the war out to the American people, in this case the secret U.S. role in Laos along with other unpublicized activities related to the war. For example, we had an agreement with the South Korean government that gave higher salaries to its troops in Vietnam than U.S. soldiers received. But that detail had not been made public.
Richard Nixon was president, the war was going badly, and fighting would go on for nearly five more years. In the end, more than 58,000 U.S. service members died, and the losses among Vietnamese soldiers and civilians and Laotians were many times that.
The Fulbright hearings on the Vietnam War played a role in getting the public to understand the issues involved and eventually led to public pressure to end U.S. combat operations in that country.
In Hanoi on Tuesday, Clinton talked about another side of the late Arkansas senator’s impact on U.S. foreign policy. She talked of the Fulbright Exchange Program that “helps Americans to visit other countries to learn and form lasting bonds, and we want people from other countries to do the same in the United States.”
Fulbright, she said, “believed so strongly that what was most important was breaking down the walls of misunderstanding and mistrust.” It doesn’t mean “we will agree on everything, because no two people, let alone two nations, agree on everything,” she said.
It also doesn’t mean that the past is forgotten.
In her meeting with Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh, Clinton said she discussed “legacy issues such as Agent Orange.” The U.S. sprayed the herbicide on more than one-third of rural South Vietnam to clear forests and croplands to deny hiding places to Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops.
Now, both the United States and private groups are working to deal with the diseases that have emerged among people directly or indirectly exposed to the dioxin. The Vietnam Red Cross estimates some 3 million Vietnamese children and adults “have suffered adverse health effects, congenital and developmental defects,” according to a 2010 Aspen Institute study.
The Vietnam War also hung over talks Wednesday in Vientiane, Laos, where Clinton told the U.S. Embassy staff “the past is always with us.”