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By Charles Lam
Life imitates humor in Little Saigon, where Vietnamese-American activists have lost what might be called the Second Vietnam War—the battle to isolate the communist nation—and have now declared victory. On Nov. 18, the same day Bill Clinton cruised the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi in a stretch limo, Whittier Law School sponsored a symposium on "Doing Business in Vietnam." Instead of protesting at the school's pristine Costa Mesa campus, activists from Little Saigon filled the audience, with one even participating in the daylong event.
Symposium panelists included newly elected Garden Grove City Councilman Van Tran, an attorney who last year represented the anti-communist demonstrators outside a Westminster video store. Tran, who while a student at UC Irvine in the 1980s founded the Project Ngoc support group for Vietnamese boat people abroad, predictably insisted that human-rights concerns should temper any trade with his homeland.
Tran's ideological mentor on the same panel turned out to be 32-year-old Viet Dinh, a Harvard-educated law professor at Georgetown University. Born in Saigon, Dinh came to Portland, Oregon, in 1978 as a refugee and worked at menial jobs before becoming a lawyer. Now a Republican, Dinh's conservative credentials are impeccable: he views affirmative action as illegal "racial preferences," he served as a special counsel on the anti-Clinton Whitewater investigation, and he clerked for conservative Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Observers believe he may eventually run for public office.
Dinh has apparently overcome his distaste for communists and has, in fact, advised Vietnam on legal reform. He served as a consultant to the U.S. Agency for International Development on the re-drafting of Vietnam's Company Law, which was enacted last year.
Dinh said that among Americans, Vietnam is "a word, a name that remains in the American psyche as a gentle reminder of our fallibility." But he sees it as something else. Invoking cold warriors George F. Kennan and Henry Kissinger, Dinh argued that, in fact, America won the ideological battle that was the basis for American involvement in the Vietnam War. To appreciative nods from the Vietnamese-Americans in the audience, he praised South Vietnam for playing a role in the battle that "ultimately contributed to the success of capitalism."
Dinh's geopolitical take on the Vietnam War did not sit well with the sole Vietnamese national speaking at the conference. Duyen Ha Vo, an international-trade lawyer based in Saigon, echoed what Vietnam's Communist Party General Secretary Le Kha Phieu told Clinton in Hanoi at about the same time: Vietnam fought a war of resistance against U.S. imperialism. Vo, a Fulbright scholar at Temple University Law School in Philadelphia, told the Weekly that the war was a struggle between two ideologies when it was merely a civil war between the North and the South. But U.S. intervention turned the war into a nationalist effort against "invasion by a foreigner." As for the situation today, she smiled, saying only that the issue was more complex than the triumph of capitalism over socialism. However, she conceded, "Vietnam will change."
Other panelists pointed out that trade agreements and government edicts mean nothing if there is no enforcement and that corruption and a bankrupt Vietnamese economy doom any prospect of immediate payoff for American corporations. Several speakers suggested that the only American firm making any money these days was the one moving corporate foreign executives out of Vietnam.
But no one brought up the 1973 Paris Peace Agreement. For all the talk at the symposium about the primacy of the rule of law, it's the U.S. that has flouted this international law. A still-unsatisfied provision of that treaty, which won Kissinger and his Vietnamese counterpart Le Duc Tho the Nobel Peace Prize, requires the U.S. to "contribute to healing the wounds of war and to postwar reconstruction." In a secret addendum, the U.S. pledged to contribute $3.25 billion in reparations to war-ravaged Vietnam. Thus far, its aid to Vietnam has been minuscule: last year, it totaled some $3 million. Vietnam, however, has honored its part of the deal by annually paying $9 million of the $145 million debt owed to the U.S. by the defunct South Vietnamese regime, whose financial liabilities Hanoi assumed after the war.
Even dissidents in Vietnam are now cautiously endorsing the trade agreement. According to a story in The Orange County Register, Tran Do, a 77-year-old retired lieutenant general and former Communist Party official expelled last year for publicly demanding political reforms, told Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez (D-Santa Ana), who has opposed improved trade ties, that he welcomed implementation of the trade pact. "But we don't want it in a way that seems like Americans are coming to take over," he added.