BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN, Brunei -- President Clinton has no intention of apologizing in Vietnam for the war he bitterly opposed, with his ambassador to Hanoi saying the United States has already transformed relations with its onetime enemy "from pretty awful to pretty good."
"I don't necessarily think anyone is looking for an apology," Ambassador Pete Peterson said Wednesday on the eve of Clinton's visit to Vietnam, the first by a U.S. president since the fall of Saigon and the communist takeover in 1975.
Clinton's anti-war youth probably is well known in Vietnam, Peterson said, but "it's never mentioned to me and I doubt seriously if there will be any reference to it at all during his visit."
Not officially, but Clinton's personal history as a war protester and in avoiding the Vietnam draft are an unavoidable backdrop to his historic visit. He is the third president to go to Vietnam -- the first ever to Hanoi and the first to a unified Vietnam. Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon made swift, undisclosed visits to what was then a war zone to rally American troops.
A former POW, Peterson said, "I don't think there's very much postwar animosity" in Vietnam. Eighty percent of Vietnamese are under 40 years old, he said, and the average youngster knows as much about the war "as one of our high school students somewhere in America -- which is probably almost nothing."
Before setting out Thursday, Clinton and Pacific Rim leaders closed the 21-nation summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum by calling for a new round of World Trade Organization talks next year. Clinton, who had played golf until 2 a.m. at a lighted course, also was talking separately with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori and Chinese President Jiang Zemin.
Following their golf game, Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong and Clinton announced on Thursday that they have agreed to start negotiations on a bilateral free trade agreement.
Clinton took time to sign a resolution authorizing federal government spending to continue through Dec. 5, the day the 106th Congress expects to return to work. The legislation was brought to Brunei for Clinton's signature by a White House aide.
Two months before he leaves office, the president also held farewell talks Wednesday with Russian President Vladimir Putin and South Korean President Kim Dae-jung.
The United States showed little interest in a proposal by Putin for deeper cuts in strategic arms than current U.S.-Russia arms accords would provide. Putin's offer "generally does not contain many new elements," a senior U.S. official said, but there are a "few new twists" which the administration will study.
In Clinton's talks with Kim, the South Korean leader said he "clearly sees value" in a Clinton visit to North Korea, but that the United States must decide if such a trip was in its national interest. Wendy Sherman, a top State Department official, said Clinton would decide soon whether to make the historic trip. Earlier, there had been talk that Clinton would visit Pyongyang at the end of his Asia trip, but the White House scrapped it.
The president will spend three days in Vietnam. He will speak to students at Hanoi National University and his speech will be broadcast live by Vietnam Television. Clinton will visit a rice paddy near Hanoi where searchers are looking for remains at a site where it is believed Air Force Capt. Lawrence G. Evert, of Cody, Wyo., crashed in an F-105 jet on Nov. 8, 1967.
At a briefing Thursday, White House press secretary Jake Siewert said the United States has provided more than 400,000 pages of documentation to help locate Vietnamese and American soldiers missing in action.
"We're prepared to provide more documentation that could help narrow the search for some of those who are missing," Siewert said.
Peterson, in a telephone briefing from Hanoi, told reporters accompanying Clinton that the president would see a communist Vietnam that has achieved significant progress in political reforms, economic conditions and human rights.
En route to Asia, Clinton was asked if the United States owes Vietnam an apology for the war. "No, I don't," he replied.
Picking up on that sentiment, Peterson said, "To be honest with you, I don't think an apology is nearly as important as a constructive engagement."
Clinton has undertaken a cautious re-engagement with Vietnam. He lifted a trade embargo in 1994; the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi opened in 1996. And last July, after four years of negotiations, the United States and Vietnam reached agreement on allowing generally unfettered commerce for the first time since the war.
"We have moved the relationship from pretty awful to pretty good," Peterson said.
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