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Reopening the U.S. Embassy in Vietnam: Conflicting Emotions

Secretary of State Warren Christopher arrived in Hanoi, Vietnam in 1995 to reopen the U.S. Embassy just after three weeks of President Bill Clinton announcing the restoration of diplomatic relations with Vietnam. “All of the Americans were emotional,” recalled pioneering State Department official Joan Spero, then serving as Clinton’s Under Secretary for Economic Growth, Energy and the Environment. Spero accompanied Christopher on the trip. The Vietnamese ensured that their itinerary took them past the site of Sen. John McCain’s plane crash and the infamous “Hanoi Hilton.” Despite this messaging, Spero found the Vietnamese less emotional about the visit than the American delegation. “They wanted trade. They wanted investment,” Spero recalled. “I think part of it was that they won the war.” The embassy reopened on August 5, 1995.  Spero was a Columbia University scholar and professor before joining the State Department as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations for Economic and Social Affairs. After a stint at senior corporate positions at American Express, Spero returned to serve as Under Secretary in the first Clinton administration. Joan Spero was interviewed by Mark Tauber in 2016.

Read Joan Spero’s Full Oral History HERE.

“They didn’t have the emotional baggage about us that we had about them.”

Reopening of the American Embassy in Vietnam: “The other thing about Asia that I should mention was Vietnam because we did recognize Vietnam at this time. It was a huge political step for the president. I was with the Secretary of State [Warren Christopher] when we went to open the embassy in Hanoi… For someone who had lived through the 1960s, it was a very moving experience. What was interesting to me is that the Americans were emotional. At the airport when we landed in Hanoi, the Vietnamese handed over MIA remains. They were in small, little boxes; we drove by the spot where John McCain’s plane crashed and passed the Hanoi Hilton where McCain was a prisoner. All of the Americans were emotional. By contrast, the Vietnamese wanted to talk about business. They wanted trade. They wanted investment. I think part of it was that they won the war. They didn’t have the emotional baggage about us that we had about them.

Drafted by: Diana Castillo



BA in International Relations, University of Wisconsin-Madison                                             1962-1966
MA in International Affairs, Columbia University                                                                        1966-1968
PhD in Political Science, Columbia University                                                                               1968-1973
Joined the State Department                                                                                                1980
U.S. Mission to the United Nations – Ambassador for Economic and Social Affairs              1980-1981
Under Secretary of State for Economic, Business, and Agricultural Affairs                             1993-1997