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Secretary Clinton's Remarks from the Historical Conference on the American Experience in Southeast Asia September 29, 2010

From the East Auditorium, George C. Marshall Conference Center in Washington, DC
September 29, 2010

Thank you very much, Ambassador, and it’s a great pleasure and privilege for me to welcome all of you to the Department of State. I know we have in this audience scholars and historians, diplomats, and those who have great personal knowledge of and experience with the important issue that will be discussed throughout the day. A lot of history has been made in the State Department and continues to be made every day. And some of the people who are working here and who have worked here previously know that very well.

I want, personally, to welcome Secretary Henry Kissinger back to the State Department, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell, and all of my colleagues who are engaged in the art of diplomacy in the 21st century. I also want to offer a special word of welcome to our guests from the Republic of Vietnam: Ambassador Tran Van Tung and Dr. Nguyen Manh Ha. Thank you all for being here and thank you for participating in this important dialogue. I see former Deputy Secretary John Negroponte. Thank you for being here as well.

I want to acknowledge all of the hard work of the historians here at the State Department who have completed an exhaustive record of United States policy regarding Southeast Asia from 1946 until 1975. They have compiled more than 24,000 pages of official documents, many thousands of messages, memoranda, intelligence reports, military assessments, and transcripts of meetings and telephone conversations among key policymakers. They did not, at least, have to sort through millions of emails. (Laughter.) I’m afraid we’re going to have to quadruple the size of the Historian’s Office for future assessments. (Laughter.) This collection will be a resource for students and scholars, for families and citizens in both of our countries who remain keenly interested in this chapter of our shared history.

For Americans of my generation, the war in Vietnam shaped the way we view the world and our country. Like everyone in those days, I had friends who enlisted – male friends who enlisted – were drafted, resisted, or became conscientious objectors; many long, painful, anguished conversations. And yet, the lessons of that era continue to inform the decisions we make. And for Vietnamese of the same generation who saw their country torn apart by war and who shared also the anguish, the loss of loved ones, friends, and family members as so many Americans did, the memories are also vivid and, for many, still painful.

People do not easily shake off the weight of history. All over the world, we see the bitter legacy of old conflicts and enmities. It is a source of many of our most persistent challenges. I see it every day as I work with governments on very intractable conflicts that are difficult to even imagine resolving because of the accumulated history of mistrust, of violence that has joined peoples together over time. But how remarkable it is that the American and Vietnamese people have decided to leave behind a history they could not change and embrace a future that we can shape together.

I was recently in Hanoi. I will be returning to Hanoi at the end of next month. My first visit when I went with my husband when he was President, 10 years ago, was extraordinarily moving. We met our counterparts at that time in the Government of Vietnam. We walked the streets of the cities. There are many stores in Hanoi with our picture where we helped the economy dramatically. (Laughter.)

But the most moving experience was our visit to a site where Vietnamese and American archeologists, along with American and Vietnamese soldiers, were searching together for the remains of a missing United States pilot who had crashed 33 years before, Lieutenant Colonel Lawrence Evert. Bill and I stood there watching this work with Lieutenant Colonel Evert’s children, now grown beside us. We watched the workers carefully sift through the mud. Knee deep, they painstakingly excavated the fragments of Colonel Evert’s F-105 fighter plane and the tatters of his uniform. It was a sacred site and both sides were joined in that work. The Vietnamese Government had sent engineers to help, villagers had come forward with artifacts and information, and eventually the Everts were able to take their father home.

On this last trip to Hanoi, I stood on the tarmac of the airport while a military process that accompanies the return of the remains of every American lost in Vietnam occurred, and I again was struck by the solemnity and the sacredness of the work. Thanks to the unprecedented cooperation between our governments and our peoples, as well as the tireless efforts of leaders such as Senator John McCain, Senator John Kerry, and former Ambassador Pete Peterson, many families like the Everts in both countries have been able to find some measure of peace.

The image of that dig 10 years ago has stayed with me. Americans and Vietnamese covered in mud, searching together for traces of a shared and painful past, not because they sought to relive it nor to open old wounds, but because together we recognized we have to face our past if we’re going to make peace with it.

And that is what history, your work, this conference, and the many volumes that have been published, is all about. Historians are excavating, sifting, and straining, helping us know our history more fully so that we can put the past behind us and move forward together.

The progress between Vietnam and the United States has been breathtaking. When I was in Hanoi to help commemorate the 15th anniversary of the normalization of relations, I addressed a large group of American and Vietnamese businesses that are working together. Our trade agreement has created jobs and spurred growth on both sides of the Pacific. Our friendship has become an anchor of security and stability in the region. An entire generation of young people has grown up knowing only peace between Vietnam and America, and the relationships that they are forming through educational and cultural exchanges, through new businesses and social networks are drawing us even closer together.

Vietnam is home to an ancient and proud civilization. This year, Hanoi will celebrate its 1,000th birthday. But it is also a dynamic and growing nation with a young and vibrant population. I met so many young people working at the conference center, young Vietnamese, who came up and asked me if there could be more educational exchanges, more scholarships, more cooperation between the young people of both our countries. I think there is an enormous amount that still lies ahead of what we can do together as we deepen and broaden our relationship. And I am confident that the next 15 years will bring the United States and Vietnam closer together.

I also hope that our commitment to a shared future, despite our shared history, can serve as an inspiration and even a model to others, because there are so many countries who are being held back because they cannot overcome their past, who refuse to search for common ground because the ground behind them is littered with the bodies and the blood of previous generations. In today’s world, it is more imperative than ever that we seek to end conflict and to look for ways that we can connect based on our common humanity. We will not agree on everything. We will have different political systems. But we have to look for a way to find that common ground and to work toward common aspirations that fulfill the potential for peace, progress, and prosperity.

So I thank you for being here for this conference. I am looking forward to hearing reports of the day’s events. I have looked at the program. It is quite international. We have experts not just from Vietnam and the United States, but from universities around the world. And we appreciate greatly the efforts that everyone has made led by our historians here in the State Department, not only to put on this conference, but to help us come to terms with our own history.

Thank you all very much. (Applause.)