United States Defense Chief Makes Historic Visit to Hanoi


HANOI, Vietnam -- Conscious of the symbolism, William Cohen arrived in the Vietnamese capital today as the first U.S. defense secretary to visit since the Vietnam War ended 25 years ago in defeat for America.

"I intend to focus on the future, not on the past," Cohen told reporters accompanying him as his Air Force jet approached the Hanoi airport, where he was greeted by a few Vietnamese officers and U.S. Ambassador Pete Peterson.

At a formal welcoming ceremony in a courtyard outside a government guest house, Cohen and Defense Minister Pham Van Tra walked down a red carpet reviewing a color guard as a military band played the American and Vietnamese national anthems.

The two defense chiefs then led their delegations into the guest house and sat across from each other at a conference table.

Afterward Peterson told reporters the talks had been "very cordial, very comfortable," and he described the occasion as a historic step toward achieving truly normal relations between former war enemies.

"You couldn't have imagined this happening four or five years ago -- maybe not even two years ago," Peterson said.

Cohen later was driven in a four-wheel drive vehicle to an excavation site, about 20 miles southwest of Hanoi, where U.S. forensics experts are directing a search for aircraft wreckage and human remains where a Navy F-4B Phantom jet is believed to have crashed during the Vietnam War.

Hiking along a dike between vast expanses of rice paddies to reach the dig site, Cohen gazed into a six-foot hole where workers were lifting buckets of mud and passing them along a human chain of dozens of Vietnamese in conical straw hats. Each chunk of mud was then broken down with tools and streams of water to sift for possible evidence to identify the aircraft and its missing pilot.

Addressing a small group of reporters as water buffalo wandered along a dike behind him, Cohen said the excavation work was an example of the tedious, meticulous effort required to account for missing American servicemen. He thanked the Vietnamese workers, some of whom stood in brown mud nearly up to their knees.

U.S. officials believe, but have not yet proven conclusively, that the aircraft lost at the site was an F-4B piloted by Navy Cmdr. Richard N. Rich, of Stamford, Conn. His F-4B was shot down on May 19, 1967. The plane's radar intercept officer, Lt. Cmdr. William Stark, was captured, imprisoned and released in March 1973.

Cohen said the main focus of his two-day visit will be emphasizing the importance of joint U.S.-Vietnamese efforts to find, recover and repatriate the remains of American servicemen missing from the war.

He said before his arrival that Washington wants to push the pace of reconciliation on a broader front.

"We're hoping to improve our overall bilateral relations, and the military-to-military part will be a component of that. But it has to proceed in the context of an improvement in our overall relationship," the defense secretary said.

Cohen was greeted at the airport by Maj. Gen. Vu Tan, who told him, "This has been a long time coming. We have been looking forward to it for a long time."

Among the sites Cohen passed as his motorcade sped through the city's dusty, bustling streets was the prison where American POWs were held during the war. Nicknamed the "Hanoi Hilton," it now is a war museum. Vietnamese officials later gave him a brick they said was from the former prison.

Asked by reporters about the coincidence of his visit coming amid Vietnam's national celebration of the 25th anniversary of its defeat of U.S.-backed South Vietnam, Cohen said he preferred to emphasize a different milestone -- the coming five-year anniversary of the resumption of political ties.

President Clinton restored diplomatic relations with communist Vietnam in June 1995.

"The reason I'm here is to look to the future," Cohen told reporters.

He also intends to suggest ways of building a broader military-to-military relationship, possibly starting with joint work on removing old land mines and studying military medical problems. Cohen is scheduled to address the National Defense Academy on Tuesday and meet with Communist Party leaders.

The only military unit Cohen will visit -- the air force's 921st Fighter Regiment -- holds the distinction of shooting down more American aircraft during the war than any other unit, U.S. officials said.

More than 58,000 Americans were killed in the war. The last American troops were withdrawn in 1973, and two years later the communist forces took Saigon -- now known as Ho Chi Minh City -- and reunited the country under communist rule.

About 2,000 U.S. servicemen are listed as unaccounted for in Southeast Asia, including about 1,500 on Vietnamese soil. Some 440 were lost in Laos, 74 in Cambodia and eight in Chinese territorial waters.


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