WASHINGTON — Imagine this scenario: It is early 1992. President Bush is running for reelection, but his chances of winning have been clouded by a recession at home.
And so, like President Richard M. Nixon in 1972, Bush decides to bolster his political standing with a foreign policy surprise--an emotion-filled journey to an isolated East Asian capital no American President has visited before. For Nixon the destination was Beijing; Bush heads for Hanoi, capital of the nation that stymied the United States in its most recent war.
There are no such plans right now. But in Washington these days, normalization of relations between the United States and Vietnam is no longer unthinkable.
The Democrats have seized the initiative. This month, Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska--Vietnam veteran, Medal of Honor winner, escort of actress Debra Winger and seeming aspirant for national political office--made a well-publicized return to the country where, during his service on a Navy SEAL team 21 years ago, his foot was blown off.
Kerrey's message was one of reconciliation: "Part of what America must do in coming to terms with Vietnam is to come to terms with the Vietnamese people," he said in Hanoi.
During the same week, another prominent Democrat, Rep. Patricia Schroeder of Colorado, led a House Armed Services Committee delegation to Hanoi, where Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach assured her that all Soviet forces will be out of the former U.S. base at Cam Ranh Bay by 1992.
Thach's unspoken hint was that U.S. troops might some day be able to return to Cam Ranh Bay. Floating that possibility serves Vietnam's purposes by increasing the U.S. military interest in normalizing relations with Vietnam. And for U.S. purposes, it helps remind Philippine leaders that the United States could find alternatives to Clark Air Base and Subic Bay Naval Base when their leases run out next year.
Democrats such as Kerrey and Schroeder are responding to several political constituencies. Some American veterans' groups have been pressing to upgrade U.S. relations with Vietnam, which would enable millions of ordinary Americans to return, like Kerrey, to the impoverished country in which they once fought and which they might like to see again. Activists from groups that opposed the Vietnam War similarly urge normalization.
And some American bankers, hotel executives, and other businessmen have been quietly making the rounds in Washington, noting the tourism and other commercial possibilities that might flow from an end to the American trade embargo against Vietnam.
For now, at least, the Bush Administration says it opposes normalization. The official U.S. position is that, before ties are upgraded, Vietnam must help settle the civil war in neighboring Cambodia, whose government was installed by Hanoi after an invasion in late 1978.
White House officials shy away from doing anything that might reward or encourage a government they tend to view with profound mistrust, if not antipathy. Brent Scowcroft, now Bush's national security adviser, was one of President Gerald R. Ford's top White House advisers in 1975, when North Vietnamese troops, despite the Paris peace accords, seized control of South Vietnam.
In fact, however, there appear to be divisions in the government. Many officials at the State and Defense departments favor stronger steps toward normalization. Quite a few foreign-service officers dream of serving in the first official U. S. missions in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City.
One important factor that will influence the debate is U.S. policy toward China. For more than a decade, the United States has joined with China in seeking to isolate Vietnam, China's regional enemy. Some Bush Administration officials appear to favor a gradual change to a different Asia policy--one that would include a gradual easing of ties with Vietnam and a distancing from China.
Because the Democrats themselves are divided on Vietnam, they have not made it a major political issue. Some leading congressional Democrats have urged U.S. initiatives. Others, including Sen. Charles S. Robb of Virginia, have supported the Bush Administration's policy.
Last month, however, Robb--who is the son-in-law of the late President Lyndon B. Johnson and who seeks a leadership role among conservative-to-moderate Democrats--said he would like to see a Cambodian peace settlement by this fall and hinted that he might reconsider his support for the Administration if there is none.
The 12 governments of the European Community have also recently served notice that they may launch their own initiatives toward ending Vietnam's isolation.
Kerrey's return to Vietnam was a sign of the political changes in the air. Next Monday will mark the 15th anniversary of the American departure from Vietnam.
The Americans are on their way back. The timing, politics and diplomacy haven't been worked out. The official U.S. return won't be this year. But it's coming.