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U.S.-Vietnam Ties Snarled in Past History and Hard Feelings

August 28, 1988|David DeVoss | David DeVoss, a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times Magazine, covered the Vietnam War for Time magazine and has made seven trips back since the fall of Saigon.

When Arizona Sen. John McCain recently introduced a congressional resolution calling for diplomatic normalization with the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, it seemed the painful legacy of America's most divisive war might finally be coming to an end.

The fact that McCain--Republican, Vietnam hero, prisoner of war for 5 1/2 years after his A-4 Skyhawk was shot down--favors an exchange of envoys underscores what even some of Hanoi's harshest critics are saying: The time has come for America to consider a bilateral relationship with its old adversary.

Vietnam certainly wants improved relations. Establishing diplomatic ties not only would end America's crippling economic embargo, but also serve as a signal to Western nations and lending institutions that trade and development assistance, in limbo because of Hanoi's continued occupation of Cambodia, can now be resumed.

Because they have so much to gain, Vietnam's leaders are trying to project a new, conciliatory image. Official communiques that once consisted of little more than denunciations of "U.S. imperialism" and "Chinese hegemony" now brim with offers of "peaceful coexistence" and "traditional friendship." Indeed, after years of numbing dialectic, Hanoi over the past several weeks has:

-- Begun withdrawing half of its 120,000 troops from Cambodia, and hinted the remainder could be brought home by early 1990.

-- Voted to excise all unflattering references to the United States from the preamble to its constitution.

-- Hastened the return of dozens of MIA remains and invited U.S. officials to participate in "joint investigative and excavation activities" designed to resolve the controversy.

-- Promised to provide exit visas for all former officials of the defeated Saigon republic who wish to emigrate to the United States.

-- Rescued, entertained and promptly released three U.S. Navy aviators who ditched their malfunctioning cargo plane off the Vietnamese coast.

Waged on several fronts, Vietnam's charm offensive has been conducted with blitzkrieg intensity. Vietnam's non-communist neighbors are delighted with Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach's offer to welcome back the 60,000 Vietnamese boat people living in refugee camps throughout Southeast Asia. Even Communist Party boss Nguyen Van Linh has gotten into the act, urging refugees living abroad to take vacations in Vietnam.

Given Washington's star-crossed relationship with Hanoi, the boomlet of good will almost seemed too good to be true. And, of course, it was. When the Reagan Administration failed to respond with sufficient enthusiasm to the McCain resolution, Thach angrily accused the United States of having a "negative attitude." Then, in a bizarre act of diplomatic hara-kiri worthy of Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega, he withdrew Vietnam's offer to search jointly for unaccounted American servicemen.

This is not the first time the United States and Vietnam have botched a diplomatic breakthrough. In March, 1977, both presidential envoy Leonard Woodcock and Vietnamese Premier Pham Van Dong were eager to establish diplomatic relations; Vietnam offered to search for missing U.S. soldiers. Later, Dong quietly dropped his government's claim to billions in reparations secretly promised by Henry Kissinger in return for "peace with honor." When Hanoi in the autumn of 1978 finally shelved its demand for massive redevelopment aid, it seemed normalization was just around the corner.

Was there a chance Vietnam could become an Asian Yugoslavia? For Jimmy Carter that possibility alone was enough to tip the scale in favor of normalization. In October, 1978, he invited Thach to New York to sign the protocols leading to an exchange of ambassadors.

But history thwarted the peacemakers. Thach's arrival coincided with an intelligence report on Vietnamese troop concentrations along the Cambodian border. News of the planned invasion diminished enthusiasm for normalization. Then Woodcock, who by that time had moved on to Beijing, reported that Deng Xiaoping also was anxious to normalize relations. Washington's choice became clear.

After waiting three weeks, Thach left New York without the agreement and flew to Moscow, where he signed the Vietnam-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation.

Now that Hanoi has begun its promised withdrawal from Cambodia, the main impediment to normalization is the fate of American servicemen still listed as missing in Indochina. Despite continuing rhetoric from the Reagan Administration and the National League of MIA-POW Families, the MIA controversy is an issue kept alive by misleading statistics.

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