Gibbons urges end to Vietnam embargo

Published Aug. 25, 1993|Updated Oct. 9, 2005

Tampa Rep. Sam Gibbons fought in World War II, but he has always believed the United States was smart to open trading relations with its former enemies after the shooting stopped. Now, Gibbons wants to start trading again with a more recent enemy _ Vietnam.

Gibbons, who has just returned from a trip to Vietnam, Japan and China, met with National Security Adviser Anthony Lake on Monday and urged the Clinton administration to lift the 18-year-old trade embargo with Vietnam.

Gibbons said the administration is cautious about the move.

One reason for the reluctance is opposition from the survivors of the American soldiers still listed as missing in Vietnam.

But Gibbons believes lifting the embargo will foster cooperation in the search for missing Americans.

"The Vietnam government is doing all that it possibly can to clear up the problem of the MIA people," he said Tuesday in a telephone interview. "That was driven home by every briefing that we attended.

"I think that the embargo should be lifted," he said. "Everybody in the U.S. military says lifting the embargo would increase the amount of information that we're able to get from the Vietnamese."

Gibbons, who spent three days in Vietnam, came away with a tale that he says shows how relations could improve if the trade embargo were ended.

A Chrysler representative told Gibbons that soon after he hoisted a U.S. flag outside his Hanoi office, several Vietnamese came to him with information that could help with locating missing Americans. He passed the information along to the Pentagon officials who are in Vietnam trying to account for the U.S. servicemen.

Consequently, Gibbons said, "I think the more Americans we get there the better."

The United States is spending $100-million a year in an effort to account for the 2,264 soldiers listed as missing. A Senate committee report this year said it is doubtful any Americans remain alive, though many families have not given up hope.

The families argue that lifting the embargo will remove the bargaining leverage the United States has to force Vietnamese cooperation.

"We feel there has not been great progress," said Mary Dzaugis, director of operations for the National League of Families. "There should be a significant number of people accounted for before they move ahead with (lifting) this embargo."

Vietnam is one of eight countries under a U.S. trade embargo, putting the Southeast Asian nation in a class with Cuba, North Korea and Iraq. An embargo on North Vietnam was imposed in 1964 and on South Vietnam in 1975.

Last December, President George Bush took the first step toward removing the embargo by allowing U.S. companies to set up offices in Vietnam. Though they still are prohibited from actually selling their goods in Vietnam, at least 190 companies have received licenses to open the exploratory offices there, said Treasury Department spokesman Bob Levine.

With 72-million people, Vietnam is the largest untapped market in Asia, so the opportunity has interested IBM, Chrysler, Caterpillar, Coca-Cola and Bank of America, among others. "I think they're just sitting there hoping that something begins to happen," Gibbons said.

They may learn something next month, when President Clinton must decide whether to renew the embargo.

"I think we'll have something to say then, but not before," a White House spokesman said Tuesday.

There have been signals that Clinton is willing to open relations. Earlier this year, he removed the United States' long-standing veto that had blocked international development loans to Vietnam. And his secretary of state, Warren Christopher, has noted that it is "unfortunate that many other countries are getting ahead of us in their commercial endeavors in Vietnam."

Those countries include Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

Gibbons, who is chairman of the House Ways and Means subcommittee on trade, says the Vietnamese have taken steps to modernize their economy. They have opened shops and privatized their farms and housing, and have become the third-largest exporter of rice in the world.

Economically speaking, "It's probably less communist today than either Russia or China," Gibbons said.

At the same time, however, its roads are bumpy, its hospitals are dirty and under-equipped and many of its people were maimed in the war. "It's a poor country that wants everything. It's just a matter of how quickly it could build up its purchasing power," Gibbons said.

If the Tampa congressman sounds a little like a salesman in making his arguments to lift the embargo, it's because he is a staunch free-trader who believes that encouraging international business will lead to a more peaceful and prosperous world.

He knows his advocacy will anger the survivors of missing Americans. But the World War II veteran notes that more than 80,000 Americans who fought in that war are still considered missing. The Vietnamese reminded him, too, that they can't account for 300,000 of their soldiers.

"I'm not hardened to it. I'm very saddened about death and combat."