Twenty-two years and 10 days after the fall of Saigon, former Florida Representative Douglas “Pete” Peterson becomes the first ambassador to Vietnam since Graham Martin was airlifted out of the country by helicopter in late April 1975. Peterson himself served as a U.S. Air Force captain during the Vietnam War and was held as a prisoner of war for six and a half years after his bomber was shot down near Hanoi in 1966. Thirty-one years later, Peterson returned to Hanoi on a different mission, presenting his credentials to Communist authorities in the Vietnamese capital on May 9, 1997.
Normalization with America’s old enemy began in early 1994, when U.S. President Bill Clinton announced the lifting of the 19-year-old trade embargo against Vietnam, citing the cooperation of Vietnam’s Communist government in helping the United States locate the 2,238 Americans still listed as missing in action during the Vietnam War. Despite the lifting of the embargo, high tariffs remained on Vietnamese exports pending the country’s qualification as a “most favored nation,” a U.S. trade-status designation that Vietnam could earn after broadening its program of free-market reforms.
In July 1995, the Clinton administration established full diplomatic relations with Vietnam. In making the decision, Clinton was advised by Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, an ex-navy pilot who spent five years as a prisoner of war in Hanoi. Brushing aside criticism of Clinton’s decision by some Republicans, McCain asserted that it was time for America to normalize relations with its old enemy. In 1996, Clinton terminated the combat zone designation for Vietnam and nominated Democratic Congressman Pete Peterson as the first U.S. ambassador to Vietnam. Confirmed by Congress in the next year, Ambassador Peterson began his mission to Vietnam on May 9, 1997. In November 2000, Clinton became the first president to visit Vietnam since Richard Nixon’s 1969 trip to South Vietnam during the Vietnam War.