Nearly a half-century after the United States became embroiled in Vietnam's civil war, a Vietnamese general told U.S. military officers Thursday that his country is committed to peace and partnership, unyielding in its independence and convinced that big powers should heed history's lessons on the folly of foreign military intervention.
Lt. Gen. Vo Tien Trung, a decorated hero of what the Vietnamese call the "American war," gave what his U.S. hosts termed the first public address on Vietnamese defense policy on American soil since the war, which ended in 1975.
Before an audience of about 200 U.S. military officers and other government officials at the National Defense University, the former North Vietnamese officer discussed the history of many of the conflicts he said had been imposed upon his country in its 4,000-year history.
He presented a detailed sketch of the battle at Dien Bien Phu, which ended France's colonial hold on Indochina in May 1954, just a few months before Trung's birth. But he made no explicit mention of the next phase of his country's struggle _ the war against the United States that caused enormous destruction in Vietnam and huge discord in the U.S.
Remarkably, Trung was just 11 years old when he joined the Vietnamese military in 1966, and a year later he was awarded the first of three "Liberation Feat of Arms Medals," according to a Trung biography distributed by the university. He is now commandant of Vietnam's National Defense Academy and a member of the Communist Party's central committee.
Asked later by a reporter why his presentation skipped any detailed discussion of the war against the U.S., Trung replied through a translator, "Everybody knows about it; I didn't want to waste time."
But during a question-and-answer session with his university audience, Trung had an additional observation about the war. He offered this after saying that as a war hero he thought it best to "close off the past" and focus on the future.
"But my message to Americans," he said through an interpreter, "is that (no matter how) powerful an army, it is not legitimate if you wage a war against another country by invasion. That's my message."
Trung later was going to Capitol Hill to meet with Sen. James Webb, D-Va., who served in Vietnam as a Marine and was awarded the Navy Cross, the Silver Star Medal, two Bronze Star Medals and two Purple Hearts for his actions in combat.
In his remarks at the National Defense University, Trung referred to the war against the Americans only in terms of both countries' postwar efforts at reconciliation. The U.S. and Vietnam established diplomatic relations in 1995. In March 2000, William Cohen became the first U.S. defense secretary to visit Vietnam since the war, and later that year President Bill Clinton visited.
Trung said the Vietnamese armed forces have 450,000 active duty troops, with about 5 million in reserve. He said his country as a matter of policy will not join any military alliances or permit any foreign forces to establish bases in Vietnam.
Robert Burns can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/robertburnsAP