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From prisoner to ambassador: Peterson returns to Vietnam


In this story:

May 9, 1997
Web posted at: 1:43 p.m. EDT (1743 GMT)

HANOI, Vietnam (CNN) -- The first U.S. ambassador to post-war Vietnam arrived in Hanoi on Friday, proclaiming a new era of relations between the former foes and chance to move past their history of conflict and suspicion.

Ambassador Douglas Peterson -- a former prisoner of war in Vietnam -- was met at the airport by about 100 well-wishers, including war veterans and business leaders.

"Today we exchange ambassadors, marking the full normalization of diplomatic relations between our two countries," Peterson said. "This is a historical event and the beginning of a new era of constructive relations."

Peterson was gunned down on an almost moonless night in 1966, when his Air Force bomber was struck by an anti-aircraft missile near Hanoi. He was released from the notorious "Hanoi Hilton" prison in 1973, after more than six years of torture and solitary confinement in a dank prison cell.


Peterson, 61, returns hoping to serve as an example of someone who survived the worst of the Vietnam War.

Former enemies embrace

Waving U.S. and Vietnamese flags, the crowd at Hanoi's Noi Bai airport welcomed the ambassador's message of moving forward from the legacy of war.

As Peterson made his way to an awaiting car, a former North Vietnam militiaman, Mai Van On, greeted the new ambassador with a bear hug -- a warm smile spreading across his face. .

"The war belongs in the past," On said. "The Vietnamese people value anything the United States can bring to develop our country."

On, 79, won fame in the United States when he saved U.S. Sen. John McCain in 1967 after McCain was shot down over Hanoi.

Vietnam's ambassador to the United States, Le Van Bang, 50, was due to arrive in Washington later Friday.

MIA search to be priority


Peterson said his priority would be to strive for accounting of the 2,124 American troops still listed as missing from the war.

"My mission is to advance U.S. interests in Vietnam and our highest national priority is to advance the fullest possible accounting for persons missing from the war," the ambassador said.

He also noted that bilateral relations were moving ahead in other areas and expressed hope that a comprehensive trade agreement -- a prerequisite for Hanoi to gain most favored nation status -- would be signed soon.

President Clinton in 1994 lifted a decades-old trade embargo on Hanoi and established diplomatic ties the following year. But a trade pact and most-favored nation have yet to be reached.


Many are optimistic that Peterson will bridge the gap between the two sides.

"He understands Vietnam. Here is a guy who sacrificed over six years of his life in a prisoner of war camp in Vietnam," said Eric Rehmann of America Trade and Investment Consulting Co. (VATICO) Vietnam. VATICO became the first U.S. company to operate officially in Vietnam since 1975. "The real purpose is to move us forward, not backward, so I think he's the right man for the job."

Bangkok Bureau Chief Tom Mintier and Reuters contributed to this report.

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