EARLY DAYS FOR THE U.S. EMBASSY IN VIETNAM
the first permanently assigned U.S. diplomat to return to Vietnam after
the Vietnam War
and President of Runckel & Associates (www.Business-in-Asia.com)
My life has often been linked to Vietnam. In 1969-70, I served in the U.S. Army in Vietnam. It is not something I sought but I found my 19 months there stimulating and found Vietnam to be a beautiful country. I enjoyed the people, the scenery and the food but felt it would be better to see it next time without the military. In 1975 after completing law school and passing the bar exam in Washington State, I again was linked to Vietnam when I served in President Ford's Presidential Clemency Board as Deputy General Counsel. Later in 1975, I returned to other issues concerning Vietnam in my initial work at the U.S. State Department. In the late 70s and early 80s, I was involved in supporting the organizations helping to process and arrange resettlement for Vietnamese boat people during my service at the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok.
In August, 1992 my wife and I were selected to start Vietnamese language training at the Foreign Service Institute in Arlington, Virginia. Again, I didn't seek this but it came to me as life has a way of doing. The idea was that ultimately I would be sent as the initial staff to Hanoi to open up the first U.S. diplomatic office in Vietnam since the closing of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon in 1975. I had also negotiated agreement that my wife also receive language training. For six hours in class and two hours of mandatory study each evening we studied Vietnamese for the next nine months. It was hard work as Vietnamese is not an easy language but it also was a challenge and my wife and I both enjoyed working and learning with our teachers, especially Tran Dai Do who had a long education background in Vietnam and who imbued in us a love of Vietnamese culture and history.
In January, 1994, I was named U.S. Special Negotiator for Vietnam and started to travel to Vietnam regularly to meet with the Vietnamese government about return of U.S. government land, buildings and houses owned prior to 1975; return of U.S. company and individual property seized in Vietnam in 1975 at the fall of the Vietnamese government in the South; diplomatic, consular and other matters. I also started planning for the opening of the new Embassy on these visits.
|On February, 3, 1994, President Clinton
lifted the U.S. Trade Embargo
with Vietnam. I was already staying in Vietnam for major periods
of time at this point. In June, 1994 I was named Deputy Chief of
the US Liaison Office and moved to Hanoi full time with my
family. Although my official title was Deputy Chief, as President
had yet to lift the trade embargo nor had Vietnam or the U.S. signed
the other agreements necessary to be settled prior to establishment of
diplomatic relations, I was the head of the U.S. Department of State
office in Hanoi and remained in this capacity until January 28, 1995
when an agreement was finally signed opening Liaison Offices.
Additionally at this time agreements were signed settling real
government property claims and also settlement of private claims
between the two sides. From this time, I then formally became the
Deputy Chief of the Liaison Office.
Pictures above: Hanoi in 1993.
We also received two properties in Hanoi - one our former Consulate which consisted of a colonial house in rather poor condition and another house that was built later and that had a bunker below it as the Fatherland Front had occupied this property in the time since we left Hanoi in 1954. The other and final property was a large villa that we had never owned but was offered to us as a residence for a future Ambassador. This property had belonged to the Foreign Press Center and was very close to the Central Bank and the Metropole Hotel.
|Both of the properties on the former
Hanoi Consulate property were in
poor condition and were subsequently demolished as were all the
buildings at Le Quy Don. The number of properties owned by the
U.S. government prior to 1975, primarily in the Ho Chi Minh
City(Saigon) area, but also one in Hue, was quite large. The U.S.
government agreed to forego receiving these back as we realized that
vacating them would be very politically explosive to both the
Vietnamese government and to us. The Vietnamese government
ultimately agreed to value these properties by independent assessment
which was done and the cash value of the old properties was considered
against the fair market value of the new properties and the U.S.
government was paid the difference to compensate it for these assets
which could not be returned. Although this sounds simple, getting
to this agreement took a long time and much discussion and
convincing. Although this settlement cost the Vietnamese
government considerably, one only has to look at the fact that in 2009
the U.S. is Vietnam’s largest trading partner and that this trade has
led to outstanding GDP growth and prosperity to conclude that the deal
was equitable on both sides.
July 11, 1995, President Clinton announced agreement on opening
diplomatic relations and on August 5, 1995 Secretary of State Warren
Christopher opened the U.S. Embassy which was in the same building as
the former U.S. Liaison Office, a building that the U.S. Embassy still
occupies. This brings up a question that I am often asked which
is why the U.S. built such an ugly and unrepresentative building for
what became the Embassy. The answer is we didn’t. In 1994
when we were trying to settle all the claims on both sides as to
properties owned by both sides, our biggest challenge was that prior to
1954 when the U.S. left Hanoi, we had owned only the U.S. Consulate
located in the center of the city. This was and is a large
property in relative terms in Hanoi but not suitable in size for what
we knew even then would be a large and growing mission given the
importance of Vietnam and our mutual interests. This assessment
has proven correct as the staffing at the U.S. Embassy is currently
well over 200 and continues to grow. Further, Hanoi in 1994 was a
very different place than it is today. There had been little
building in the years preceding and most buildings in Hanoi were old,
dilapidated and overcrowded. Finding a suitable building to
locate even a business office was a tremendous challenge. Finding
a building that could accommodate up to a 100 people was a near
In 1994, we had no large vacant site suitable for a building to be constructed nor at that time was there much choice in vacant and even occupied buildings as Vietnam was just starting to seriously open its economy. Further many of us felt that it would take the U.S. government so long to build a new Embassy because of security and other reasons and that since neither side would be allowed to finally open diplomatic relations until the U.S. side had a suitable facility (please note that the former Vietnamese Embassy in the U.S. was already judged to be satisfactory and in fact desirable by the government of Vietnam at this point) that this situation required we find some building in Hanoi to allow the U.S. to start operations. This left the U.S. side and especially those who argued for early opening of diplomatic relations with a problem - wait for an adequate U.S. Embassy to be built(which would take 4-5 years, possibly longer) or agree to occupy something we knew was not really satisfactory and would inconvenience the new Embassy and inhibit growth but do it now so that diplomatic relations could be established immediately. This would allow the U.S. and Vietnam to start repairing their relationship now instead of waiting.
I flew recently into Ho Chi Minh City in September 2009. As I flew in on a Delta/Northwest flight I marveled that in 1969 when I served in the U.S. Army in Vietnam I had never thought that Delta nor Northwest would be flying regularly scheduled service into Vietnam nor would it become such a site for U.S. companies to invest and work. In fact, a Northwest/Delta pilot recently remarked the same thing to me. As I looked out on the lights of the city and the surrounding provinces which even at 11 o’clock at night lit up the countryside far outside the city center, I had to compare that to 1969 and even to 1994 when I returned when the countryside and often much of the city was dark and unlit oftentimes from sunset.
Vietnam is a very different place today. Engagement with Vietnam has been good for the U.S. and it has been good for Vietnam. Vietnam today is a vastly more prosperous country. Tens of millions of people have been lifted out of poverty. As I spoke at an Investment and Trade Conference jointly hosted by the U.S. Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City and Binh Duong province (the hottest place for investment in the whole country) to many U.S. and other businesses, I had to reflect that Vietnam and the U.S. have much to join them and that my small part in making that happen has been something that gives me pride and a sense of accomplishment.
About the Author:
Christopher W. Runckel, a former senior US diplomat who served in many counties in Asia, is a graduate of the University of Oregon and Lewis and Clark Law School. He served as Deputy General Counsel of President Gerald Ford’s Presidential Clemency Board. Mr. Runckel is currently the principal and founder of Runckel & Associates, a Portland, Oregon based consulting company that assists businesses expand business opportunities in Asia. (www.business-in-asia.com)
Until April of 1999, Mr. Runckel was Minister-Counselor of the US Embassy in Beijing, China. Mr. Runckel lived and worked in Thailand for over six years. He was the first permanently assigned U.S. diplomat to return to Vietnam after the Vietnam War. In 1997, he was awarded the U.S. Department of States highest award for service, the Distinguished Honor Award, for his contribution to improving U.S.-Vietnam relations. Mr. Runckel is one of only two non-Ambassadors to receive this award in the 200-year history of the U.S. diplomatic service.
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