MICHIGAN business leaders were set to visit Vietnam this week as part of the first US state trade mission to the one-time adversary since the end of the Vietnam War.
But at the last minute, Gov. John Engler (R) pulled the plug on the high-profile visit. The reason: US-Vietnam ties are not thawing as fast as many had expected.
The trip, sponsored by the Michigan Department of Commerce, had been planned when President Clinton had hinted that he might lift the 20-year-old trade embargo of Vietnam. State business leaders jumped at the chance to hawk their wares in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) and Hanoi.
``This was a natural for us,'' says Art Ellis, director of the state Chamber of Commerce. ``We need to be more aggressive in the global marketplace, and Vietnam represented a tremendous new market. We wanted to be the first.''
Five of the state's major manufacturers - among them the Ford Motor Company and the Amway Corporation - were scheduled to meet with Vietnamese business and government leaders over four days. ``We understand there is a booming market in Vietnam, and we wanted to go there ourselves and check it out,'' says George Herrera, director of international sales for Masco, a manufacturing firm.
The trip became untenable, however, when Mr. Clinton decided to keep the US embargo of Vietnam in place. Even before that occurred, the Michigan trade mission had run into a windmill of controversy. The state chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) launched a campaign to persuade Governor Engler to withdraw state support for the mission.
``I don't think Governor Engler ever intended to go into Communist Vietnam,'' says Jack McManus, chapter president of the VVA. ``We're completely opposed to any normalization of relations until we have a full and complete accounting of POWs and MIAs of the Vietnam War.''
The campaign worked as intended. After the governor pulled state support for the trade mission, several companies announced they planned to make the trip on their own. But after feeling the heat from VVA's 7,800 Michigan members, all five companies pulled out.
``We trade with Germany and Japan, and eventually we will trade with Vietnam,'' Masco's Herrera says. ``But just not right now.''
The trade mission was controversial not only among veterans but also among the Vietnamese refugees living in the Wolverine State. ``Vietnamese here are a deeply divided community, and still have great distrust of Hanoi,'' said one prominent refugee who would only speak on condition of anonymity.
But this refugee, a former member of the South Vietnam government, says that ultimately the United States will follow the lead of other nations, such as Japan, Thailand, and Korea, and lift the embargo. ``I think it is time for us to look beyond the war,'' he says. ``If we don't, Vietnam will become an economic satellite of China or Japan, replacing one form of oppression with another.''