Two decades after the fall of Saigon, President Bill Clinton establishes full diplomatic relations with Vietnam, citing Vietnamese cooperation in accounting for the 2,238 Americans still listed as missing in the Vietnam War.
Normalization with America’s old enemy began in early 1994, when President Clinton announced the lifting of the 19-year-old trade embargo against Vietnam. 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 might earn after broadening its program of free-market reforms. In July 1995, Clinton established diplomatic relations. In making the decision, Clinton was advised by Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, an ex-navy pilot who had spent five years as a prisoner of war in Hanoi during the Vietnam War. Brushing aside criticism of Clinton’s decision by some Republicans, McCain asserted that it was time for America to normalize relations with Vietnam.
In May 1996, Clinton terminated the combat zone designation for Vietnam and nominated Florida Representative Douglas “Pete” Peterson to become the first ambassador to Vietnam since Graham Martin was airlifted out of the country by helicopter in late April 1975. Peterson himself had 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. Confirmed by Congress in 1997, Ambassador Peterson presented his credentials to communist authorities in Hanoi, the Vietnamese capital, in May 1997. In November 2000, Peterson greeted Clinton in Hanoi in the first presidential visit to Vietnam since Richard Nixon’s 1969 trip to South Vietnam during the Vietnam War.