The White House announced today that Clinton would tack the Vietnam trip to the end of a scheduled visit to Brunei. Clinton is to attend the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei, on Nov. 15 and 16 and then go to Vietnam.
"The president believes that ... consensus has developed in this country over the last few years that the time was right to move forward with this relationship," White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said today.
Trade, the continued recovery of remains of U.S. servicemen and studies of the effect of the defoliant Agent Orange will likely be on the agenda, Lockhart said.
"But there's just very much symbolic value in the president visiting and going actually to visit the country," the spokesman said.
Two of Clinton's predecessors visited Vietnam, according to the State Department. President Johnson visited U.S. troops at Cam Ranh Bay in October 1966 and December 1967. President Nixon met with South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu in Saigon in July 1969.
Clinton discussed the possibility of a trip last week during a brief meeting with Vietnamese President Tran Duc Long. Both leaders were in New York to attend the U.N. Millennium Summit.
Clinton has long said he would like to visit Vietnam, site of the war that helped define his generation. Vietnam's political isolation and Clinton's personal baggage complicated and delayed that dream.
The Vietnam War cost the lives of 58,000 Americans and approximately 3 million Vietnamese.
Clinton was in college and graduate school during the war years and did not serve in Vietnam. Some of his critics still call him a draft-dodger.
Clinton's choice of Al Gore, a Vietnam War veteran, as his running mate in 1992 was seen then as one attempt to overcome a potential political deficit.
Making the trip after the election would lessen the chance that controversy about Clinton's visit could hog news coverage when Gore, now the Democratic presidential candidate, might need it most.
As president, Clinton has pursued a cautious rapprochement with Vietnam. He lifted the trade embargo against the communist government in 1994, and the next year restored diplomatic relations.
Clinton reopened the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi in 1996 and in 1998 issued his first waiver of a law that bars trade relations with communist nations that deny citizens the right to emigrate.
Earlier this year, Clinton dispatched Defense Secretary William Cohen to Vietnam as the first U.S. secretary of defense to visit since the war ended in April 1975.
Cohen's trip was intended to reinforce the Pentagon's commitment to finding, recovering and returning to their families the remains of 2,000 U.S. servicemen still unaccounted for from the war.
It was also aimed at conveying the Clinton administration's interest in ties between American and Vietnamese armed forces.