U.S. Secretary of State Coin Powell spoke Thursday of the conflicting emotions stirred by his visit to Vietnam, eulogizing “buddies” killed in the war but reveling in the happy vibrancy of modern-day Hanoi.
Powell, in town for an Asian forum, returned to the scene of America’s worst military humiliation for the first time since surviving two tours of combat duty in the ’60s.
The former Gulf War general said his thoughts were with comrades who did not make it home alive, as he honored U.S. teams who scour Vietnam’s paddy fields for the bones of 2,000 men still listed as missing in action (MIA).
“All my buddies came home. Even those who died we got the remains, but for the ones who did not, there is a longing in the heart of their family members, their fellow veterans,” Powell told reporters.
As his air force jet nosed towards Hanoi Tuesday, Powell joined the cockpit flightcrew for an evocative first glimpse of Vietnam for more than three decades.
“We came over Thunder Ridge which is well known to all of our air force pilots, the series of mountains north of the river,” he said.
“Just to see the paddies, the beautiful green, and then to hear the voice of the air traffic controller in the tower at Hanoi, greeting our pilot … to hear that voice and the accent again brought back lots of memories of years ago.”
Powell’s visit to the Hanoi headquarters of the MIA tracing unit, Joint Task Force-Full Accounting, was especially poignant since the group is mourning the loss of seven members in a helicopter crash in April.
Nine Vietnamese also died in the accident on the central Vietnamese coast.
“It just gives you a sense of pride to see young men like this, young men and women, keep on with the mission and reconstitute themselves and go on,” said the secretary of state.
He performed a simple ceremony of remembrance at a marble plaque bearing the names of the Americans and Vietnamese killed in the crash, planting two incense sticks in a vase.
Powell, 64, said he had been impressed during an impromptu walkabout Wednesday by the bustling capitalism evident across Hanoi as communist authorities open up the Vietnamese economy.
“My impressions are robust. The city, Hanoi, I mean just the movement and the shops, and the sense of small entrepreneurial activity is pretty exciting.
“Walking around the street yesterday I did get a sense of the sights and sounds of the city, and see people and it brought back a lot of memories.”
“It reminded me of my days in Hue and Quang Tri. Same kind of shops; smiling people; happy people. They wanted to talk. And if I hadn’t been committed it would have been an opportunity to talk, shop or sit down.”
“So much has changed of course, but so much is the same — the rice paddies, the houses I remember, the people, industrious, hard at work. There’s always a twinge.”
Powell completed two tours of duty in Vietnam. He was one of President John F. Kennedy’s special advisers in 1962, among the first Americans sent to the conflict, and also served there in 1968. He was awarded the Purple Heart for wounds received in combat.
The bitter experience of American’s defeat by Communist North Vietnamese forces has been instrumental in framing Powell’s military and political philosophy.
What has become known as the “Powell Doctrine” stipulates that if the United States must intervene overseas it should do so with maximum force, minimum risk and with a clear exit strategy.
U.S. policy towards Vietnam is designed to heal deep wounds left from the conflict in both countries, a generation after the war.
The highpoint of that policy is a pathbreaking bilateral trade agreement which is expected to be ratified shortly in both countries.