THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
(Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam)
Sunday, November 19, 2000
INTERVIEW OF THE PRESIDENT
BY JOHN KING OF CNN
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
4:30 P.M. (L)
Q Thank you for joining us. We're here in Ho Chi Minh City with
the President of the United States, Bill Clinton, this, the last day of his
landmark trip here to Vietnam.
First, sir, thank you for joining us.
The facts speak for themselves. The first U.S. President to visit
Vietnam since the end of the war, the first ever to set foot in Hanoi, the
Interested in your thoughts. You've called this a new chapter,
turning the page in the relationship. What is it do you think it will
mean, first for the people of Vietnam, and also for the people of the
THE PRESIDENT: Well, of course, I hope it means for the people of
Vietnam continued openness and continued prosperity. This country has made
a lot of progress in the last few years. The economy is diversifying.
It's becoming more open to the rest of the world. Sixty percent of the
people are under 30 years old. Most of them have no memory at all of the
war and they are very much oriented toward the future. They are asking
themselves all kinds of fundamental questions about what the world is like
now, how they're going to relate to it, what their country should be. So I
hope that we have opened a new chapter and I hope it will be good for them
and good for us.
Q Now, obviously, part of the new chapter is a widely expanded
economic relationship. Do you have much confidence it will go beyond that,
at least in the short-term? After your meeting yesterday with the leader of
the Communist Party here, he referred to the United States in a daily
newspaper as imperialists, said that he hoped there would be respect for
the different way of doing things here. You mentioned in your speech,
nationally televised here to university students, the examples of the
United States in the areas of individual freedom, religious freedom,
Do you have much confidence that the government here, as it accepts
and embraces a wider economic relationship with the West will do anything
to bring progress on those other fronts?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think there will be more personal freedoms.
You know I had a roundtable this morning with a lot of young people, and
they were asking themselves these same questions. And I believe that as we
implement this trade agreement, and then Vietnam moves toward membership in
the World Trade Organization, the rule of law will become more important,
openness will become more important, there will be a lot more access to the
Internet and information of all kinds. And so there will be more freedom.
And the question then becomes, when does it become political freedom,
or will the political system try to restrict them more, as has been the
case in one or two other countries? The truthful answer is, we don't know
where it's going. But I think that the trend toward freedom is virtually
irreversible, and these folks are too young, they're too vigorous. And as
you can see in the streets, there is a lot of goodwill toward America here.
There's a lot of interest in our country and how we're dealing with a lot
of the challenges of the new century. So I believe that the trend is
Now, of course, the political leaders will have their debates -- and I
had a nice little debate with the General Secretary of the Communist Party
here about our country, and I stoutly disputed that we were an imperialist
country. We had never had any imperialist designs here. The conflict here
was over what self-determination for the Vietnamese people really meant,
and what freedom and independence really meant.
But we have a chance to continue that debate now in a more peaceful
and more constructive way. And I think the fact that they feel free to
engage us in it and then have publicity about it -- they did, after all,
allow my speech to the country to be televised, which I think is a good
sign. And the people came out in Hanoi and here in Ho Chi Minh City to see
me. So -- and it wasn't me, it was the United States. There's a lot of
interest and support for the United States here. So I think we're on the
Q I want to ask you about some of the remarkable moments on this
trip. If you're sitting back in the United States watching this, we see
this only by the numbers -- nearly 300 sets of remains returned to the
United States during your presidency, the money put into the excavation
efforts. But it is numbers until you have the opportunity to see what you
did yesterday, to actually go out into the field.
THE PRESIDENT: It was overwhelming. It's very important for the
American people to understand that what has made the progress in our
relationship with Vietnam possible over these last eight years has been
their cooperation in our efforts to identify and recover and return home
our MIAs, and to resolve the POW and MIA cases. And we have resolved
hundreds of them. And in the cases where we think someone's remains are
located, like the site we visited -- we believe a plane crashed there 33
years ago; we believe a pilot's remains are there. His two sons came with
me over here. And we watched all those Vietnamese people working with the
American people, up to their hips in mud, digging in the ground and taking
these big chunks of mud over to sifters, and watching other Vietnamese sift
through the mud for any kind of metal object or any cloth object, anything
that would give us a clue to whether this was, in fact, a crash site, and
whether there's something more down there.
It was profoundly moving to me. And it is that good-faith effort that
they have made with us -- and, by the way, we've made with them. They have
300,000 cases still unresolved. And I brought over about 350,000 pages of
documents; we have another million pages of documents we can give them so
they can do their own resolution of these cases. That's what's made
possible this whole focus on the future and the commercial relations and
the educational and health care efforts, all the other things we're doing.
Q What were your personal thoughts? You're standing there holding
pieces of the aircraft, a label from a part of the aircraft, your daughter
standing next to you, crying. It didn't look like you were terribly far
from that yourself. And you're with these two big, grown men who last saw
their father when I believe they were six and eight. What goes through
your mind at a moment like that?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, first, I was glad we were doing it. I think it
made me very proud to be an American and proud that we had made these
efforts and made this progress. I was very grateful for the cooperation
we've received from the Vietnamese government -- and the individual
villages. You know, there were just people out there, stomping around in
the mud, trying to find some trace of those boys' father. And I think, for
me, it symbolized what was best about our country and what was possible in
terms of the reconciliation of people who have been so bitterly divided
such a long time ago.
It's not done yet, you know. We still have a lot of work to do to
work through all these cases. I still hope and believe that there should
be more freedom within Vietnam, and recognition of the courage of the
people who fought in the South Vietnamese Army, as well as for the Viet
Cong and the North Vietnamese. And I hope and believe that the American
Vietnamese community -- over a million strong -- can make an even greater
Now, today we were at that port and we talked about a big
pharmaceutical facility owned by two Vietnamese American women, sisters and
their presence here in the country. But there are a lot more things that
the Vietnamese have to give. But again, to go back to your question,
everything begins with what we saw yesterday, the attempt to identify and
bring home the remains of everybody who's still here. It was an
overwhelming moment. But it should make every American proud.
Q Thank you. We need to take a quick break. But we'll be back in
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, in just a moment to continue our interview with
the President of the United States.
* * *
Q I want to ask you a little bit about your personal thoughts and
how -- your personal journey here -- and your thoughts on it. As a young
man, you opposed the war, once wrote that you despised it. Yet, as
President, with the support of Vietnam veterans, you have led the effort,
first to lift the trade embargo, then to normalize relations.
As you come here, how do you think this visit will be viewed back in
the United States, not just among the veterans' community, but especially
among the Vietnam veterans' community, and your own personal thoughts on
sort of bridging your youth with your role now in trying to create this new
THE PRESIDENT: Well, let me answer the two questions separately.
First of all, I hope the veterans' community will view it with pride,
because nothing that we have done in the last eight years would have been
possible without the support of the Vietnam veterans in the Congress and in
the various veterans' organizations.
Senator John Kerry, Senator Bob Kerrey, Senator John McCain, Senator
Chuck Robb; Pete Peterson, our Ambassador, who was a POW for six-and-a-half
years. The first three years, his wife didn't even know he was alive. He
never saw his third child until the boy was six years old. Pete was in
Congress for a lot of this period before I named him to be the Ambassador.
So I would think that the veterans' community would be very proud of this.
And also, I will reiterate, none of this would have happened if it
hadn't been for the cooperation of the Vietnamese with our attempts to
resolve our outstanding POW and MIA cases. There's never been anything
like it in the entire history of warfare, where two countries worked this
hard, this long, invested this kind of money and effort to resolve the
POW-MIA issues. So I would think, for most of our people who understand
that, the central role of the American veterans in the Congress and the
country had, this would be a source of great pride.
For me, personally, it was interesting -- my overwhelming feeling when
I first got here was thinking about the boys I grew up with who died in
Vietnam, four of my high school classmates. And I asked Pete Peterson,
when he came back, how long it took him to get beyond thinking about how it
was before. And he said, well, about an hour, he said. Then he had to
deal with the challenges of being Ambassador and he went on with life.
And that's kind of what happened to me. I was the -- I had a few
moments there where I felt -- I was thinking about the personal tragedies
that I had been in contact with when I was a boy. And then the moment
intervened and we went on with the future.
Q Do you think the country is at peace with this now? Even some
Democrats late in the presidential campaign this past year tried to raise
questions about Governor Bush's service. Do you think the country is
ready, and should this trip maybe be the final impetus for the country to
THE PRESIDENT: I hope it will be. I hope it will be. Because the
war divided the Vietnamese from the Americans, but it also divided the
Vietnamese one from another -- and still does -- which is why, as I said, I
went out of my way to praise the heroism of the South Vietnamese soldiers,
too, and the importance of the Vietnamese Americans who supported the
position we had in Vietnam so long ago and have done so well because of
So we need to heal the rift within the Vietnamese community, and it
divided Americans one from another. And I hope that the last eight years
and the journey we've made together in moving forward with Vietnam has
helped to put an end to that. My sense is that it did, that we're -- that
at least the rifts are nowhere near what they were eight years ago, not to
mention 10 or 20 years ago.
Q Let's move around the world quickly. In a matter of weeks, you
will hand off to the man who will succeed you, a man as yet unknown -- and
we'll get to that -- the portfolio on some of the most important strategic
relationships in the world. I want to start first with North Korea. You
had, at one point, hoped perhaps to follow Secretary Albright and visit
North Korea as part of this trip; then decided in the end not enough
progress was being made to justify that.
Can you be as specific as possible in saying what it is you're looking
for from the North Koreans in terms of the missile program and any other
steps, and whether you believe it is conceivable that you still might get
there before you leave office?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I haven't made a decision about whether to go,
so I'll answer that first. Specifically what we seek with the missile
program is an end to the long-range missile program and an end to the
exports of missiles. North Korea needs the foreign exchange money. I
understand that they need the funds, and they're very good at making
missiles. But the people who are most likely to buy them are those that
are most likely to misuse them down the road. So that's what we're trying
We also want to ensure the continued vitality of this North-South
dialogue for which President Kim of South Korea won the Nobel Prize, the
Nobel Peace Prize, and he certainly deserved it. We want that to go on.
And we want to have a sense about what the way forward is with regard to
North Korea's relations with us, as well as the South Koreans and the
So it's conceivable that there could still be a trip, but I just
haven't made a decision. The main thing is, I will hand off to my
successor a much better situation than I found, because we, first of all,
had to end North Korea's nuclear program, and that's what we did and worked
on in '93 and '94. And we've been implementing the agreement we made with
them then for the last six years. Now we're working on the missile
program. And it appears that North Korea has made a decision that -- Kim
Jong Il has made a decision to have a more positive and open relationship
with the rest of the world. And I think that's a very good thing. I think
the reconciliation and the family reunifications between North and South
Korea are profoundly important.
Q Russia. You met with President Putin during the APEC meeting in
Brunei. Your successor, I assume, relatively shortly after he takes
office, will receive a proposal from the Russians to go even beyond
anything you and the Russians have discussed. Mr. Putin, because of the
obvious budget constraints in his country, wants to go to roughly a
thousand strategic warheads. Is that in the interests of the United States
national security? And do you see any potential to get to that level, and
also, perhaps as part of that deal, get a compromise on the ABM Treaty that
would allow the missile defense program to go forward?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, first of all, I don't want to say anything that
will compromise my successor's options. I think that's important. Now, I
think it is quite possible that we could agree to go down to fewer missiles
in our nuclear arsenal and theirs. I think that it's important that there
also be fewer warheads. That is, there's a difference between missiles and
warheads. I don't think we ought to go back to highly dangerous,
richly-armed MIRV missiles, multiple warhead missiles.
But what we have to do is to have a target design that we believe is
adequate to protect the United States and that our missile component will
serve. And if we do that, then we could agree with them to reduce the
number of missiles. And I'd hoped that we could get that done even
beforehand. So I'm encouraged by that.
Now, on the missile defense, I think the trick there will be somehow
having the Russians and others with equity interests here believe that we
all have a vested interest in trying to develop enough missile defense to
stop the rogue states and terrorists from piercing the barriers not only of
the United States, but of Russia, China, of any other country that might
want to participate. And there is a way, I think, to get this done, but it
will require a lot of joint research and a lot of trust, and a lot of
understanding about what the problem is and how we're going to develop it.
If the technology existed which would give us high levels of
confidence that one or two or five or ten missiles could be stopped from
coming into the country, it would be hard to justify not putting it up. On
the other hand, the reason I didn't go forward is I think it's very hard to
justify wrecking the existing treaty system which has served us so well for
so long, in effect, gambling that somehow, some day, some way, the
technology will be there. We don't want to do that.
The best way to proceed is to do the research and try to find a way to
bring these other countries in to this. Because, really, if you think
about it, everyone should have an interest in the capacity of a country to
resist the errant missile or the missile that would be fired by a rogue
state or a terrorist. And they can do this together.
What I tried to do was to buy some time so my successor could sit down
with the Russians, with the Chinese, with any others who are parties and
interests -- and our European allies, of course -- and tried to plot out a
future that would leave us safer than we are today. The whole point is to
keep getting safer -- not to do different things, but to have a system
which leads to a safer world.
And we have to consider what the impact of all these things are on the
Indian Subcontinent, where there are nuclear missiles; on the Chinese who
might decide to build -- acquire a lot more missiles or develop them or
not. And so my successor will have time to do all that. And I hope we've
given the next President and our partners the maximum number of options.
Q We need to take another short break, but when we come back, we'll
ask the President about his thoughts on the crisis in the Middle East, as
well as the contested presidential election back home in the United States.
* * *
Q I want to ask you, lastly, before asking you about the domestic
political situation, I want to ask you lastly about the Middle East. You
met separately with Mr. Arafat and Prime Minister Barak before you came on
this trip. It has to be a source of enormous personal frustration to you,
because of all the time you have put into this. Do you have any reasonable
hopes that you can bring the two of them together anytime soon, and that we
will get anywhere beyond perhaps even just calming the violence before you
leave office, and anywhere back toward formal peace negotiations? Is that
completely unrealistic at this time?
THE PRESIDENT: The honest answer is, I don't know, for this reason:
I don't think they can start negotiating again until we can dramatically
reduce the level of violence. It's not clear to me that that's going to
happen right now, although I'm working very hard on it, and we've been
working hard on it since I've been here. And I wouldn't rule it out.
But the tragic thing is that they're not all that far apart on a lot
of these big issues, and that what we have seen is a sober reminder that
the old status quo was not an option. You either have to keep making
things better in the Middle East, or eventually they'll get worse.
Q Is the burden on one side or the other? You came away from
Sharm el-Sheikh cautiously optimistic you would stop the violence, have a
cooling-off period, and then bring them back together. Obviously, they
have not even been able to stop the violence.
THE PRESIDENT: Well, believe it or not, I still think Sharm el-Sheikh
was very much worth doing, because, first of all, the agreement that we
reached there is pretty much what they'd have to do to get the violence
back and set in motion conditions which would lead to a resumption of the
peace talks. And I felt before Sharm el-Sheikh that we were slipping into
a very dangerous situation regionally. And now I think that a lot of the
really responsible actors in the region are also trying to get this thing
But I can't really say more than that it's a troubling difficult and
painful situation, and we've got to find a way to end the violence. You
don't have to end every single instance of it, but there has to be a
dramatic reduction in the violence before the parties can talk again and
make commitments again that could constitute a peace agreement.
Is it possible? Yes, it's possible. It's possible because they're
not that far apart. But they might as well be on the other side of the
globe, as long as all the shooting is going on. So that's what we're
working on, and I hope that a way can be found to bring it to an end.
Q Let me bring your thoughts back home, to the United States. When
you left on this trip, there was a dispute about who the next President
would be. When you made your courtesy call on the Vietnamese President
last night, you had to joke that you were hurrying home to see if the
country had a President-elect. The recount continues, and along with it,
the partisan rhetoric escalates. You have people on the Republican side
speaking for Governor Bush saying the Democrats are trying to steal the
election; Democrats on the other hand, saying that the Republicans are
trying to deny the people a fair count of the vote and shut down democracy.
Is this helpful, in your view? The process is obviously not pretty. Is it
helpful what we're hearing from both sides?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, first of all, I don't know that that's a
particularly useful question, with all respect. You can't, as close as
this is -- now it appears that, when all the votes are counted, that Vice
President Gore will have won a plurality of the popular vote. It appears
that unless he wins Florida, he'll be three votes short in the electoral
college. Therefore, everything is on Florida. And Mr. Bush has the
narrowest of leads out of six million votes, far less than a tenth of a
percent, one-sixth of one-tenth of one percent, or something like that.
Now, in an environment like that, you have to assume that either side
will try to make the best argument they can, because you only have a
whisker of difference. I think the important thing is that there is a
process underway, and it is being shepherded by the parties -- they're both
very well represented by articulate, able people -- and they have recourse
to the courts in Florida, and the Supreme Court seems to have been willing
to be prompt in its decision-making.
So I think the American people should just let it play out, and they
should understand that, with so much at stake, both sides are going to make
the strongest case they can. And the only thing that I hope that all of us
will keep in mind here is that we don't know who won, but we do know that
when people vote, they deserve to have their votes counted, if they can be.
So we ought to just respect the process and respect the fact that the
advocacy will take place and it should take place -- you can't blame either
one of them for making the strongest case they can.
This is not a crisis in the American system of government, because it
will come to an end. It will come to an end in plenty of time for the new
President to take the oath of office. There is a way of resolving these
things. All these cases are in the courts, and as I said, it appears to me
that they're being handled in a fairly prompt way. Some of the decisions
have gone one way, some have gone another way. And we'll just have to see
But I think the American people ought to let this -- it seems to me
the American people are letting this play out in an appropriate way, and
that's what I think should be done.
Q Look around the corner, though. You have considerable experience
in your own right trying to govern in a very difficult environment.
Relations with the Republican Congress not terribly good during most of the
latter half of your administrations. And now you have research being done
on both sides about, well, maybe this will get thrown to the Congress, and
can we disqualify electors. Do you see, A, with the election being so
close, and then, B, with the very difficult fight over who wins, can
whoever gets this job reasonably govern, in your view?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I would make two points. First of all, it is
true that I faced an unusually partisan group of Republicans. But it's
also true that we got a lot done. I mean, I've noticed with some pleasure,
I confess, that students of American history, several of them have come out
in the last few weeks saying that I had kept a higher percentage of my
campaign promises than any President in modern history. And we've gotten a
lot done with this Republican Congress, in spite of all the partisanship in
the last six years.
We got a balanced budget agreement. We got welfare reform. We got
just this year a sweeping measure to -- on debt relief for the world's
poorest nations -- and any number of other things. I don't want to go
through all that, but the point I want to make is that even in a difficult
atmosphere, where the Congress is closely divided, and the President is
elected by a narrow margin, we should not assume that they won't be able to
get something done. If they're willing to work hard, fight for their
positions, and then in the end, make principled compromises, quite a lot
can be done. That's the first thing I want to say.
The second thing is, if you look at American history, it is not
inevitable that the person who wins the White House under these
circumstances will have a deeply divided country. Now, in 1876, when
President Hayes one, he promised to only serve one term. So we don't know
whether he could have been reelected or not, when he lost the popular vote
and won the electoral college.
In 1824, John Quincy Adams won in the House of Representatives when he
lost the popular vote, and he was voted out. Although he came back and had
a wonderful career opposing slavery. But when Thomas Jefferson was forced
to go for many, many ballots into the House of Representatives, he came out
of it as a more unifying figure, with a commitment to be more unifying.
And, in effect, he was so successful that he got two terms, and the
opposition party, the Federalist Party, disappeared. And then two members
of his party, James Madison and James Monroe, succeeded him, and they both
had two terms. And, arguably, that 24-year period was the biggest period
of political stability in the whole history of the republic, until you had
the dominance of the Republicans after the Civil War, and then
Roosevelt-Truman years and the Depression and World War II.
So I think you -- I wouldn't -- I don't think we should have all these
hand-wringing, dire predictions. We've got a system, it's underway, and,
yes, these guys are -- the advocates for either side are under enormous
pressure, and, of course, they're being pretty snippy with each other from
time to time. But, look, you'd expect it. I mean, 100 million people
voted, and there's 1,000 votes, more or less, at stake in Florida.
So everybody ought to just relax, let the process play out. But don't
assume that no matter who wins and no matter what happens, it's going to be
bad for America. It might be quite good, because it might be sobering for
the country to realize we're in a completely new era. Nobody's got a lock
on the truth. We're all trying to understand the future. It's still clear
that about two-thirds of the American people want a dynamic center, that
pulls the people together and moves us forward. And I think we still have
a fair chance to achieve that.
Q We're short on time, indeed, out of time, but just in a sentence
or two, you've been at this eight years and I think you have eight weeks --
what runs through your head when you get up to go to the office every day?
THE PRESIDENT: I want to get everything done I can possibly do while
I'm here. And for the rest, I just feel grateful. America is in much
better shape then it was eight years ago. We got to implement the ideas
and the policies that I ran on in '92 and '96. I didn't do everything I
wanted to do, but the overwhelming majority of things I wanted to do I was
able to accomplish, and I'm grateful that it worked out for the country.
And then a lot of other things came up along the way which were good
for the country. So I'm happy now, and I'm grateful. And, of course, I'm
thrilled about Hillary's election to the Senate. And I just feel enormous
gratitude. But there's still a lot of things I'd like to do, and so I'll
work right up to the end.
Q Mr. President, we thank you very much for your time.
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you.
END 5:00 P.M. (L)