WASHINGTON — President Reagan said Friday that normalization of U.S. relations with Vietnam is possible, but only if Hanoi helps resolve questions about the 2,394 American servicemen still unaccounted for from the Indochina war.
"The Vietnamese government has once again raised our hopes for a breakthrough," Reagan told the National League of POW-MIA Families. "We've witnessed promises made in the past by Vietnam that were not carried out, but we're following this offer up aggressively. . . . The governments of Indochina know that resolution of this issue is critical to any future relationship."
Search to Continue
Reagan made his remarks a week after a U.S.-Vietnamese agreement to launch a new effort to solve the cases of 1,758 military personnel who remain officially unaccounted for in Vietnam alone 13 years after the end of the war. The Defense Department considers all of the missing men in Vietnam legally dead, though the Administration says it will continue efforts to search for any who may still be alive.
"If there are living Americans being held against their will, we must bring them home," Reagan said. "Should there be anyone remaining voluntarily, their family deserves to know. And every American who has perished deserves to rest on United States soil. And until our questions are fully answered, we will assume that some of our countrymen are alive."
The United States has never had diplomatic relations with the Communist government in Hanoi, which defeated the U.S.-backed government of South Vietnam in 1975. The Hanoi government has sought normal relations to end its own diplomatic isolation and to further its efforts toward winning U.S. aid for its paralyzed economy.
Two Conditions Placed
The Reagan Administration has posed two conditions to normalizing relations: a withdrawal of Vietnamese troops from neighboring Cambodia and the resolution of the MIA problem. At a round of Cambodian peace talks this week in Indonesia, Vietnam reiterated a promise to withdraw its estimated 120,000 remaining troops from Cambodia by the end of 1990, and earlier than that if there is a political settlement of the long Cambodian conflict.
"Normalization of relations with Hanoi can come only in the context of a political settlement in Cambodia," Reagan said. "Vietnam has recently stated its intention to withdraw its forces from Cambodia, and we would welcome a genuine settlement.
"If they're serious, then it's time to move rapidly to resolve the POW-MIA issue, for the deep pain that this issue brings to the American people will turn against Hanoi if it lingers past a Cambodian settlement. It's in the interests of Hanoi to position itself for a new era and to help bring this to pass."
The President's remarks renewed an explicit linkage between the MIA issue and normalization of relations that some Administration officials had sought to play down.
Only an hour before Reagan's speech, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said: "We have not been willing to link the POW-MIA question with the political question (of relations with Vietnam). We think these are separate matters, and pursue POWs and MIAs on a separate track, regardless of the political situation."
Warning on Leverage
Reagan did warn the Hanoi government against attempting to use the MIA issue as leverage in its bid for normal relations. "We will not weaken in our resolve to resist attempts to use this humanitarian issue for political gain," he said.
The United States and Vietnam agreed in talks last week to mount a new effort to locate the remains of MIAs. The joint search will focus initially on 70 cases in which U.S. officials have information about the probable locations of bodies.
Of the 2,394 Americans still classified as "missing or unaccounted for" in Indochina, about half are listed as killed in action, with bodies unrecovered. Of the others, many are believed to have died in action, others to have died in captivity. The total includes 1,758 in Vietnam, 547 in Laos, 83 in Cambodia and six in China.
Officials acknowledge that there have been hundreds of fragmentary reports of live Americans in Communist territory, either prisoners of war or men who chose to remain after the end of the war. But despite years of investigation, no sighting of an American captive has ever been confirmed.
"Although we have thus far been unable to prove that Americans are still detained against their will, the information available to us precludes ruling out that possibility," Fitzwater said, reading from a prepared statement of policy. "Actions to investigate live sightings have received, and will continue to receive, priority and resources, based on the assumption that at least some Americans are still being held captive."