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Former POW, Ambassador Shares His Unique Perspective on Vietnam
By Chad Stewart
On two occasions, Douglas “Pete” Peterson served in Vietnam when he didn’t have to.
Already a 10-year Air Force veteran when his number was called in 1966, then-Captain Peterson, with a pregnant wife and two kids at home, was eligible for a deferment, but didn’t apply.
Instead, he took his F4-C Phantom II on 66 missions over Vietnam. On the 67th, an enemy missile ripped through the aircraft, sending it plunging toward the village of An Doai. Peterson and co-pilot Lieutenant Bernard Talley ejected from the fiery wreckage, only to end up as prisoners of war for the next 6 ½ years.
Suffering from head injuries, broken bones and two dislocated knees, Peterson was first taken to the infamous Hoa Lo Prison—nicknamed the “Hanoi Hilton” by the American prisoners jailed there—before finally receiving medical treatment days later.
For the remainder of his time in Vietnam, Peterson was shuffled around to four different North Vietnamese prisons, enduring inhumane conditions, isolation, interrogations and torture at each stop until his release in March 1973. He wouldn’t return for 18 years.
The Nebraska native remained in the Air Force when he returned to the United States, retiring as a colonel in 1980 after 26 years of service. He started a construction company in Florida, worked at Florida State University and counseled juvenile offenders before successfully running for Congress in 1990.
During his legislative career, Peterson made three trips to Vietnam, but his first, in 1991, was the most cathartic. With Senators John McCain and John Glenn in tow, Peterson returned to the Hanoi Hilton as a free man and started to come to terms with his war experiences.
After three terms in the House, Peterson chose to not seek a fourth and was content in his decision to step back from public life—until an unexpected opportunity came knocking. Initially uninterested in becoming the first postwar ambassador to Vietnam, Peterson said others in Washington were lining up for the job.
“I just wasn’t interested and was not participating in any of the gaming,” he said. “In fact, there was quite a lot of gaming by a lot of people who wanted to be the first ambassador to Vietnam.”
With some prodding from then-Rep. Bill Richardson and some persuading from the Clinton administration, he eventually warmed to the idea and was nominated in 1996. More than a year later, the protracted nomination process ended with a unanimous vote in favor of sending Peterson to Hanoi to represent the United States.
During his four years as ambassador, Peterson, popular among the Vietnamese, traveled to virtually every province in the country—unheard of at the time—and often cruised around the capital on his motorbike.
On Patrol caught up with the former ambassador to find out how the U.S.-Vietnam relationship has progressed since the normalization of ties in 1995 and how his ambassadorship helped pave the way forward for the former foes.
Q: I’d like to go back to your first return to Vietnam in 1991. How did your initial interaction with the Vietnamese people affect your work in Congress and your time as ambassador?
PETERSON: I think that’s a key question, actually. And interesting—no one’s ever asked that question. But that trip in ’91 was a cathartic event for me. And it was, I think, for a number of the others that were on the trip, which were John Glenn and a whole host of others in the Senate and the House. What that did was essentially shaped my mind very clearly into the idea that we really needed to move ahead with reconciliation.
Previous to that I had toyed with the idea. I had watched what had been happening, particularly on the MIA/POW issue. But it was really that trip that solidified in my mind that we needed to press on with reconciliation. And then, once that decision was made in my mind and essentially put in concrete, then it really helped shape a lot of the work that I did in Congress. And I carried that whole process right on into the ambassadorship.
It was a meaningful and an educational trip, and a mind-changing trip for me. And I suspect if you were to ask those others that were on the trip with me, they would agree.
Q: How, how was it mind-changing? Was it the reaction of the Vietnamese people when you arrived?
PETERSON: Well, there were a number of things. First of all, our objective on that trip was to seek improvements in the MIA/POW process. That was its main focus. The people that we met were people who had been working with us, cooperating with us pretty well, actually. We found flaws in that process on the American side and we had to fix that.
But so far as my attitude, it was to look at the country and to see it for the first time in a completely different light and, to be honest, for the first time ever, because on my previous visit there I was locked up and didn’t see anything. But to actually see the people on the streets and to see what the potential was there, I saw that as something I wanted to move ahead on.
The final issue [that helped change] my mind was that historically, looking at Vietnam and its geographic anchor position in Southeast Asia, it was essentially a historically insecure area, an area with great disruption, and that disruption obviously impacted the whole region. [I thought] that if we could have a reconciliation that was positive and mutually beneficial, then we could avoid having another Vietnam.
Q: At that time, there was a lot of pushback and resistance to normalizing ties. Why do think the opposition was so firmly against moving forward?
PETERSON: You just have to go back to the early ’90s, late ’80s, even go back to ’75 if you like. The point is that the U.S. was largely looking at a defeat. And that hadn’t happened before. And the American public wasn’t happy about it, particularly after having lost over 58,000 of their best. They were not interested in going back and looking for ways to heal the wounds. Their objective was essentially to widen them and to make the winners suffer. That really was the concept.
Q: You, as much as anybody else, could have been angry at the Vietnamese for the rest of your life, but you chose to look forward and be positive. Why did you choose that path?
PETERSON: Well that is a long story, but I came home in ’73, and of course I was not a happy camper.
Trying to re-enter society after having been away so long was a very tough challenge. I also recognized that I had lost a hell of a lot of my life to a cause that maybe the American people didn’t support. So I had a lot of anxiety and angst there. But frankly, I had a tendency to go back to the time I was locked up, and, God, I was full of hate and anger and all of the other negative psychological attributes that people would have in that circumstance. Essentially, I just kind of got a grip on that and said, “I don’t want to be angry anymore.”
If you’re angry and full of hate, you can’t do anything positive in the future. And I really did want to put the POW affair behind me. I didn’t want to be measured on having been sitting in a cell for 6 ½ years. I wanted to be measured on what I could contribute into the future. And if I was full of hate and anxiety, then that wasn’t going to happen.
So I made the decision that I was going to put that behind me and move ahead.
Q: What were your goals going into your ambassadorship, and what was the most important thing for you to accomplish as you started?
PETERSON: Well, my primary objective was to make certain that we were doing everything possible and that the Vietnamese were doing everything possible to have a resolution to the MIA/POW issue. And I have a flashback to the trip in ’91, which, when we came back from that trip, we saw huge voids in the American side on how we were dealing with that issue, and there was a lot of smoke and mirrors, frankly, associated with that relative to public expressions versus boots on the ground.
And so we—those of us on the trip—went directly to the president and the secretary of defense and insisted that the whole system be revamped. And the result of that is what we have today. We actually have an undersecretary of defense for POW/MIA affairs and a whole host of financial arrangements and budgeting that was changed in order to ramp up the MIA/POW search efforts. … I essentially took that back to Vietnam and sort of put it on the ground, and that was my first objective. I think we were, and have been, quite successful in that.
The second one was that I saw reconciliation would take place best by economic enhancement, so I began to focus on the things that would enhance the benefits for both countries. We did all kinds of small agreements, but ultimately I saw that we had to have a bilateral trade agreement in order to really seal the deal.
Q: What role does Vietnam directly play with helping JPAC (Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command) carry out its mission in the region?
PETERSON: The Vietnamese played an enormous part. We had an ongoing, every day committee on the ground with the Vietnamese and American sides together working jointly in an incredibly positive way to reach the same goal, and that was fullest-possible accounting. We worked with the Vietnamese and they worked with us without reservation. I mean, they let us into places that had previously been totally unacceptable so far as military secrets or whatever. … We did everything with them without any outside interference, and it was very highly cooperative.
I just can’t commend them enough for their early assistance in that area. The fact that we had already established a cooperative arrangement with them on the MIA/POW issue, that really was the key in establishing credibility and trust, which helped us through the reconciliation process.
Q: So working together on repatriation really opened the doors for all of the other things that came after, with trade agreements and all the other policy matters?
PETERSON: That’s correct. I would hasten to say that the Vietnamese had more MIAs than we did, by multiple thousands. (An estimated 300,000 Vietnamese are still declared missing in action.)
We trained their forensic personnel in all sorts of different specialties. … We also assisted them in their searches, which now is paying off big dividends for them because they’re making discoveries almost every day.
Q: When you returned as ambassador, how did the postwar generation—the younger people who didn’t live through the war—how did they view the United States?
PETERSON: I think it was very positive. The Vietnamese are not people that hold a grudge. They really can’t because they’ve been dominated by foreign invaders for 4,000-plus years. America’s invasion was quite short compared to some of the previous ones. So there wasn’t a huge amount of pent-up animosity towards the Americans. In fact, it was quite the opposite.
When we released the trade embargo, that was a huge plus factor on the streets in Vietnam, particularly among the young people, because they saw that as the future.
Q: Why is a strong relationship with Vietnam important to U.S. strategy in the region?
PETERSON: The fact is that the history of Vietnam has been quite violent and … destabilizing to the entire region for generations. And the stability that we can bring there through reconciliation and through mutual activity is a huge factor in working positively with other neighbors within the region.
Q: Where are we right now with Vietnam on economic and trade issues? Did the groundwork that you laid down as ambassador play a significant role in America’s current relationship with Vietnam?
PETERSON: I think so. I don’t want to take credit for that as an individual by any means, but the way we moved [the trade agreement] forward opened the door for Vietnam to achieve [World Trade Organization] status and a whole host of other trade-related successes, and the result of that far exceeds what anyone remotely imagined.
We have a trade relationship now that is stronger than we could have ever hoped for. This is really the bottom line of where I was coming from … I wanted to improve the quality of life in Vietnam.
If people are reasonably comfortable and aren’t having to sell their soul for a bowl of [soup] each day, then they’re going to be good citizens and they’re going to contribute to the development of their economy and their society. And that’s exactly what has happened.
The standard of living in in Vietnam right now is higher than it’s ever been in its history of 4,000-plus years. And it was through the trade relationships and good policy that we’ve helped Vietnam achieve that.
Q: I’m sure Western culture, like a lot of other places in Asia, has influenced the people of Vietnam. But has it particularly influenced the postwar generation and subsequent generations?
PETERSON: My God. They are into anything that is American.
It’s really remarkable to see that their films and music and virtually everything they’re doing is focused on a kind of a Western take of what’s going on. They’re much more knowledgeable than they once were, and they essentially now recognize that they’re living in a world instead of a country.
And it’s quite remarkable that they have essentially attached great emphasis on finding the future in working with the U.S., and actually, many of them are now studying in America and they’re bringing those lessons home. That’s having an enormous impact across the board economically, socially and within their own particular lives. It’s really beautiful to see.
Q: And a lot of that goes back to normalizing ties. Would this growth have occurred without normalization?
PETERSON: No. If we hadn’t moved ahead with normalization, the Vietnamese would have suffered right on. We really kind of forced them out of the box. They came kicking and screaming initially, but once they realized that, in my case, that I was genuinely interested in making progress in bringing them out of the doldrums, they jumped on.
—Pete Peterson is a senior director at Albright Stonebridge Group, a global strategy company, and lives in Melbourne, Australia, with his wife, Vi. They co-founded The Alliance for Safe Children, a nonprofit organization dedicated to childhood injury prevention.
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