AUSTIN, Texas -- Before joining President Barack Obama on his first trip to Vietnam next month, Secretary of State John Kerry will take a day to reflect on his long and complicated history with the Asian country, first as a soldier and later as a war protester and statesman.
Kerry, who will accompany Obama in May when he becomes the third consecutive U.S. president to visit Vietnam, is headlining a gathering this week of big names assembled to again revisit the Vietnam War at the presidential library of Lyndon B. Johnson in Austin. The summit begins Tuesday and ends just before the 41st anniversary of the fall of Saigon, on April 30.
Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns and news anchor Dan Rather will also attend. Kerry, who fought with distinction in Vietnam before returning home to protest the war, is scheduled to sit down with Burns, who has been filming a 10-part series about the conflict.
"Vietnam is very personal for John Kerry," said Mark Updegrove, director of the LBJ library. "I can't imagine that he won't use this opportunity to talk about his experience not only on both sides of the war, over four decades ago, but also as secretary of state in forging better relations with the very country that he went to war" against.
The event comes a year after the LBJ library brought four of the five living U.S. presidents — all but George H.W. Bush — to Austin to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, which Johnson championed.
Updegrove said that Kissinger, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for negotiating the American military withdrawal from Vietnam, has asked for a candid discussion. Kissinger, now 92, has long had detractors who considered him a war criminal for U.S. actions that included bombings in Cambodia that killed scores of civilians.
Other panelists include former U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey and former Naval commander William McRaven, the former head of U.S. Special Operations Command who directed the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden. Reporter Peter Arnett and photojournalist Nick Ut, who covered the war for The Associated Press, will also discuss the impact that news coverage had on the war.
Going forward, U.S. officials see stronger ties with Vietnam as a linchpin in Obama's Asia policy. Kerry was in Hanoi last fall to celebrate the 20th anniversary of normalized relations between the U.S. and Vietnam. He said at the time that ties would not reach their full potential without improvements in the communist nation's human rights record.