How long does it take for enemies to become allies, and allies to become enemies?

On July 3 in Hanoi, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton celebrated the 20th anniversary of that country’s Fulbright exchange program, which has involved 8,000 American and Vietnamese students, scholars, educators and businesspeople.

Reading her talk reminded me of a day 42 years ago when I flew over the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos in the back of a two-seater forward air control plane. The pilot, a U.S. Air Force officer flying out of uniform in an unacknowledged operation, was trying to find North Vietnamese or Viet Cong troops or their base camps and target them for the Royal Lao Air Force planes that were circling in the area.

I was there as an investigator for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, sent by its chairman, Arkansas Democratic Sen. J.W. Fulbright, to get on-the-scene facts about what was going on.

Fulbright wanted to get a true picture of the war out to the American people, in this case the secret U.S. role in Laos along with other unpublicized activities related to the war. For example, we had an agreement with the South Korean government that gave higher salaries to its troops in Vietnam than U.S. soldiers received. But that detail had not been made public.

Richard Nixon was president, the war was going badly, and fighting would go on for nearly five more years. In the end, more than 58,000 U.S. service members died, and the losses among Vietnamese soldiers and civilians and Laotians were many times that.

The Fulbright hearings on the Vietnam War played a role in getting the public to understand the issues involved and eventually led to public pressure to end U.S. combat operations in that country.

In Hanoi on July 3, Clinton talked about another side of the late senator’s impact on U.S. foreign policy. She talked of the Fulbright Exchange Program that “helps Americans to visit other countries to learn and form lasting bonds, and we want people from other countries to do the same in the United States.”

Fulbright, she said, “believed so strongly that what was most important was breaking down the walls of misunderstanding and mistrust.” It doesn’t mean “we will agree on everything, because no two people, let alone two nations, agree on everything,” she said.

It also doesn’t mean that the past is forgotten.

In her meeting with Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh, Clinton said she discussed “legacy issues such as Agent Orange.” The U.S. sprayed the herbicide on more than one-third of rural South Vietnam to clear forests and croplands to deny hiding places to Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops.

Now, both the U.S. and private groups are working to deal with the diseases that have emerged among people directly or indirectly exposed to the dioxin. The Vietnam Red Cross estimates some 3 million Vietnamese children and adults “have suffered adverse health effects, congenital and developmental defects,” according to a 2010 Aspen Institute study.

The Vietnam War also hung over talks Wednesday in Vientiane, Laos, where Clinton told the U.S. Embassy staff “the past is always with us.”

In Laos, the U.S. has provided nearly $59 million since 1995 to help move more than a million cluster munitions. An estimated 80 million cluster munitions are scattered across the country and “continue to kill or injure about a hundred people a year,” she said.

In a meeting with Laos Deputy Prime Minister/Foreign Minister Thongloun Sisoulith, she praised Laotian government efforts to reintegrate families from the Hmong tribe who, because they supported the U.S. effort in Vietnam, had to flee to Thailand. She also said the U.S. would continue to provide humanitarian aid to Hmong families, and to communities located near where the Hmong live who suffered during the war.

There is another side to our Laotian and Vietnamese relations. The U.S.-Laos discussions dealt in part with the importance of unity among members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations on pressing regional issues, as well as the forthcoming entry of Laos into the World Trade Organization.

The Fulbright program may make a difference in those areas, too.

In Hanoi, Clinton traced some of the Fulbright program’s impact, saying “alumni are already major figures in Vietnamese policies,” including deputy prime ministers and the foreign minister.

Today, she said, “there are more than 15,000 Vietnamese students in the United States, and I believe this generation of students and scholars is well positioned to make great contributions to Vietnam’s future.”

In reflecting on history’s trajectory and Clinton’s remarks, a cautionary note arises.

During the 1960s, when Washington and Tehran were allies, the Iranian student population in the United States was about 12,000 — among the largest in the country.

Today, “if you are an Iranian citizen, you are not eligible for the Fulbright program, unfortunately,” reads the State Department website.

It’s a binational program based on a formal country-to-country agreement, and since there are no diplomatic relations, the exchange program does not operate in Iran.

Instead, military threats are being exchanged.

It probably would take longer than 20 years to see Iran as an ally if we attack to halt Tehran’s nuclear program. The aftermath would be a mess, particularly as we attempt to withdraw from Afghanistan and deal with Iraq as well as Syria at the same time that we try to get our own finances stabilized and our government in working order.

How long does it take for enemies to become allies, and allies to become enemies? How long, indeed.

Walter Pincus covers military and defense issues for The Washington Post and writes the Fine Print column.

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