WASHINGTON — The United States and Vietnam, at war until 1973, have taken small but important steps over the last few weeks to reduce longstanding hostility and pave the way for further cooperation.
The U.S. government is preparing to publish, within the next two weeks, a study clearing the way for American charities and other non-government groups to provide private humanitarian aid to Vietnam. That would mark the first time that the United States, which has repeatedly rejected Vietnam's requests for economic assistance or war reparations, had agreed to encourage humanitarian aid to its former enemy.
Vietnam, for its part, has made it easier for Amerasian children of U.S. servicemen and for some other Vietnamese nationals to emigrate to the United States. In mid-September, the Hanoi regime released more than 6,000 political prisoners, including some generals and senior officials of the U.S.-supported government of South Vietnam.
Moreover, late last month, Vietnam began providing the United States with new kinds of information about American servicemen listed as missing in action in Vietnam. In returning the remains of three U.S. servicemen, Vietnam for the first time began supplying some details of the circumstances of their deaths.
U.S. officials, insisting that the basic American policy toward Vietnam has not changed, say the United States will not upgrade its relations with Vietnam as long as Vietnam maintains an estimated 140,000 troops in neighboring Cambodia.
"We are prepared to move toward normalization of relations with Vietnam only in the context of a settlement of the conflict in Cambodia, which involves the withdrawal of Vietnamese forces from Cambodia," David F. Lambertson, deputy assistant secretary of state, told a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee Sept. 30.
Nevertheless, Lambertson's remarks about relations between the two countries were unusually positive. He characterized Vietnam's actions of the last few weeks as encouraging and promising.
"Recent progress has been significant, and we hope it will continue," he said.
One source who has closely followed the recent developments between the two countries said Vietnam appears to be exploring the possibility of working out a new accommodation with the United States before the Reagan Administration leaves office.
"It's like China deciding to deal with the (Richard M.) Nixon Administration," the source explained. "The idea is that a conservative Republican President has more flexibility than a liberal Democrat because his actions are less subject to attack by conservatives in Congress."
Both Vietnam and the United States could gain certain strategic advantages by improving the climate between them.
Vietnam needs Western aid and technical assistance to improve its impoverished economy. In addition, some analysts say, better relations with the United States might help offset Vietnam's current dependence on the Soviet Union, which supplies more than $2 billion a year in economic and military aid and docks its fleet at what was once the U.S. naval base at Cam Ranh Bay.
For the United States, better ties with Vietnam would make possible a more active role in Indochina at a time of diplomatic initiatives toward a political settlement of the Cambodian conflict.
The current Cambodian government, which supports Vietnam, was installed after Vietnamese troops invaded Cambodia in December, 1978, and ousted the Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge regime. Since then, China has provided funds and support for armed resistance groups inside Cambodia.
Moves by Kremlin?
Over the last year, there have been occasional hints that the Soviet Union, as part of its effort to improve relations with China, might be trying to persuade Vietnam to help work out a settlement between the current Cambodian government and opposing factions.
By improving relations with Vietnam, U.S. policy-makers might head off any possibility, however remote, that Cambodia's future could be determined by developments in Sino-Soviet relations, with the United States excluded from the process.
Talks between Vietnam and the United States about the possibility of upgrading their ties date back to soon after the end of the war.
In 1977, President Jimmy Carter sent a personal emissary, United Auto Workers' President Leonard Woodcock, to Hanoi to seek an accounting of all Americans listed as missing in action in Vietnam and to explore the possibility of normalizing relations.
The talks broke down when Vietnam insisted on U.S. aid for reconstruction in Vietnam, on grounds that President Richard M. Nixon had promised more than $3 billion in postwar aid during the Paris peace talks in 1973. The United States said that because the war was settled not by an accord but by South Vietnam's fall to the North Vietnamese, it was under no obligation to pay this money.