Vietnamese Premier Pham Van Dong, 80, met with the Time Newstour in Hanoi’s French colonial-style Chu Tich Phu presidential palace. Dressed formally in a black, high-collared suit that accentuated his bronze features and high-combed silver hair, Pham took questions for more than an hour in a large, red- carpeted receiving hall, under a huge bust of his mentor, Ho Chi Minh. Throughout the session, Pham lived up to his reputation for haughty intractability, flashing anger at some questions, receiving others with a scornful laugh. He also showed an intransigent commitment to maintaining his country’s doctrinaire Marxist course.
Yet 10 1/2 years after its Communist revolution, Viet Nam finds itself in desperate need of Western trade and economic aid. Perhaps for that reason, the Hanoi government has begun a series of conciliatory moves. Among them are increasingly specific hints that a negotiated end may be possible to Viet Nam’s military occupation of Kampuchea, formerly Cambodia. Additionally, a top official says that this month Hanoi will begin to disinter the remains of U.S. servicemen listed as missing in action since the Viet Nam War. Despite such concessions, however, Pham’s country faces an array of diplomatic problems, including China’s continuing hostility and U.S. unease over the Soviet naval presence at Cam Ranh Bay. Excerpts from the interview:
Q. If Viet Nam leaves Kampuchea and the MIA problem is resolved, could relations with the U.S. be restored?
A. From the bottom of our hearts we stress our desire to have good relations with the U.S. I have to tell you that the potential appeared as early as 1945. That was a lost, golden chance. Then, later, there were chances to establish relations between the two countries, but again they were chances that you missed. For our part, we are willing. On your part, it is up to you. We think that good relations with the U.S. are not only in our own interests but in the interests of the U.S. as well.
Q. Would one of the advantages of closer U.S. ties be a reduced dependence on the Soviet Union?
A. Why should you be concerned about that? This is our own affair, and you have been told that this does not constitute an obstacle. You may think that I am joking. No, I am serious.
Q. If you were a U.S. President, what would you tell your people to help heal the wounds between our two countries?
A. Viet Nam has left tragic wounds on the U.S. But the U.S. half destroyed Viet Nam. The Americans came to this land when they were not invited. The Americans did here something that cannot be tolerated by people of conscience. That is why I would say that the Americans are morally and materially responsible for Viet Nam. People of conscience are always responsible.
But it is we who moved first to heal the wounds, and the U.S. should do something to that end too. Trade, investment and education are all areas we are interested in. There may be others as well. We consider national economic development our prime task today. We are prepared to develop economic relations with all the countries of the world. The door is open. Why don’t you come in?
Q. But if you were an American leader, how would you feel about the Soviet presence in Cam Ranh Bay?
A. If I were in the White House, I would take this as something normal.
Q. Your system is based on the Soviet Union’s, yet most of the countries around you are not socialist, and they have advanced economically much faster than Viet Nam. Are you not willing to reconsider your socialist model?
A. We have chosen the path, the best path to advance. I would like to bet you that by the year 2000, you will see it. It will be even more visible by the year 2200. For us, meeting the needs of the people is the most important task. We have but to mobilize the people, energy and brains to carry this out.
I’d like to share a story with you. A girl of ten approached me recently and handed me a bunch of flowers. I asked her, “What do you want to do when you are an adult?” She said, “I want to be a cosmonaut.” That is how our children are. The Vietnamese children have great prospects before them. They will certainly do better than what we have done. And when they are adults, they will have better relations with American children than we have had. (Laughs heartily.)
Q. Under what circumstances will your presence in Kampuchea be ended?
A. We have stated our political position very explicitly. In the near future, the Kampuchean issue will be resolved. A political solution will take place. If you wait, this will come one day. It may come earlier than expected.
Q. Must a settlement in Kampuchea be preceded by a dissolution of the Khmer Rouge (the Communist element of anti-Vietnamese resistance)?
A. We have never said so, but in reality it will happen that way because the Kampuchean people themselves will sweep away the remnants of (former Khmer Rouge Leader) Pol Pot. Then the Kampuchean people will no longer need us, and we will no longer need to stay in Kampuchea.
Q. Is Viet Nam conducting secret talks with the People’s Republic of China aimed at improving relations?
A. We would like to resume talks with China because normalization of relations is beneficial to both countries. But I have to tell you that as of this day, China has not shown any goodwill.
Q. What do you consider to be the single greatest danger that your country faces?
A. I don’t think there is any hazard or danger that makes us overanxious. We are prepared to deal with any possibility or eventuality. Our history has proved this.