In '87 letter, Perot sought U.S.-Hanoi reconciliation But White House rejected POW move

July 05, 1992|By Patrick E. Tyler | Patrick E. Tyler,New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- As a way to win the repatriation of any U.S. servicemen still held in Southeast Asia, Ross Perot unsuccessfully sought to persuade the Reagan White House to begin limited economic relations with Vietnam and expand diplomatic contacts.

At the time, Washington was taking a harder diplomatic line with Hanoi to try to achieve the same end.

In a report to President Ronald Reagan written April 8, 1987, after Mr. Perot returned from Hanoi, the Texas businessman promoted several ideas, including establishment of a Vietnamese "economic representative" in the Swiss or Swedish embassies, and a reciprocal U.S. business office in Hanoi, a former Reagan aide said.

Mr. Perot also offered to pay for a Vietnamese delegation to the United States to study U.S. industries.

In a list of recommended future actions that accompanied his report, Mr. Perot said he would finance a U.S. tour for Vietnam's primary war hero, Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, as part of an overall plan of "good faith" gestures to Hanoi.

Mr. Perot said in his letter that the moves would be a "small price to pay" if they led to the release of long-missing U.S. prisoners of war.

The recommendations were rejected by Mr. Reagan after administration officials argued that U.S. policy toward Hanoi should stay on course, requiring Vietnam to meet pledges to withdraw from Cambodia and to clear up issues relating to missing U.S. servicemen from the Vietnam War era before the United States considered diplomatic recognition and lifted a long-standing trade embargo.

Commenting on Mr. Perot's actions, a senior spokesman in his undeclared campaign for president said in Dallas yesterday, "The administration had no effective game plan" on Americans missing or still being held prisoner in Southeast Asia.

He added that "Ross Perot was asked to develop one and he did so and delivered it to the administration," which he said was too preoccupied with the Iran-contra scandal "to follow through and implement the plan."

The letter from Mr. Perot to Mr. Reagan is the most illuminating document that has emerged so far from Mr. Perot's short-tenured service to the Reagan White House as an unofficial reviewer of the administration POW-MIA policies.

To a number of Reagan administration officials, Mr. Perot's proposals raised questions about his approach to foreign policy. Members of a committee supervising policy toward Vietnam under the National Security Council criticized the proposals because they granted "concessions without performance," several of them said in recent interviews.

These officials were concerned that Mr. Perot's eagerness to make progress on the POW-MIA issue was being manipulated by Hanoi's leaders, who the officials said were seeking to use it as leverage to bring an end to their diplomatic and economic isolation.

The document also shows that Mr. Perot was seeking to place himself in the role of broker of a new economic relationship between the United States and Hanoi as part of his strategy to secure the release of Americans he believed were still being held.

"They are interested in direct assistance from the private sector, feeling that the private sector knows more about business than the government," he wrote to Mr. Reagan, adding parenthetically, "I believe this is their primary interest in me." A few paragraphs later, he noted, "The Vietnamese have studied me in detail."

At the same time, Mr. Perot said that he had explained to Vietnam's vice premier and foreign minister, Nguyen Co Thach, "that it would not be possible for our two countries to work together until the POW-MIA problem was resolved.

"He accepts this," Mr. Perot added, "but needs shows of good faith on our part."

Reagan administration officials observed that Mr. Thach, the most pro-Western member of Hanoi's politburo, appeared to be using his relationship with Mr. Perot and the promise of economic development through such a relationship in an internal power struggle with hard-liners.

Mr. Thach was forced to retire a year ago.

Richard Childress, a former National Security Council official who was supervising POW-MIA policy at the time, said in a recent interview that Mr. Perot's actions were "directly undermining" administration negotiations. His approach "represents naive acceptance of a strategy of responding to the laundry list of well-known Vietnamese objectives as if it would automatically bring cooperation."

Mr. Childress said that U.S. negotiators who went to Hanoi three months later faced hostility from the disappointed Vietnamese.

Mr. Perot's letter to Mr. Reagan reflects Mr. Perot's blend of sharp criticism of government competence and his enthusiasm for action and government activism, if necessary, in support of a good cause.

In sparse and staccato sentences, Mr. Perot punched out his recommendations and observations, leaving plenty of white space to accentuate his declarative statements.

Mr. Perot, unlike government officials, founded his recommendations on a deep conviction that Americans had been left in Southeast Asia.

A copy of Mr. Perot's letter and a memorandum of his discussion with a senior Vietnamese official were provided to the New York Times by an official who is not involved in any of this year's presidential election campaigns but who believes that Mr. Perot should more fully disclose his dealings with Hanoi.

In earlier interviews, Mr. Perot has referred to the letter numerous times but has declined to make it public.

"If I release the letter, hell, there's no telling what will be the next step," he said in an interview June 3.

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