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Senate Urges End to Hanoi Embargo : Vietnam: After two days of heated debate, lawmakers recommend 62-38 that Clinton drop sanctions imposed as a result of the war. Veteran, MIA groups object.

January 28, 1994|MICHAEL ROSS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The Senate, responding to appeals to help heal the last wounds of the Vietnam War, voted overwhelmingly Thursday to recommend that President Clinton lift the trade embargo enforced against Vietnam for nearly 20 years.

The 62-38 vote concluded an impassioned two-day debate, in which one side pleaded for normal relations with Vietnam while the other urged the Administration to wait until the Vietnamese government has accounted more fully for U.S. servicemen missing in Southeast Asia since the war.

Although the resolution is not binding, it calls on the President to end the embargo "as expeditiously" as possible.

In recent weeks, the White House has signaled that the President is approaching a decision on whether to lift the embargo. But White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers said after Thursday's vote that while Clinton welcomed the "Senate's sentiment" on the issue, he had made no final decision.

She said that the President wants to be certain first that the Vietnamese are being fully cooperative on the POW-MIA issue.

The embargo was imposed against North Vietnam in 1964 and extended to cover all of Vietnam after the fall of the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese government on April 30, 1975.

It has prohibited all trade with Vietnam since the end of the war but has been relaxed slightly in recent months to permit some businesses to make initial forays there. The President has sole authority to lift it by executive order.

Supporters of the Senate recommendation, who included some of the most decorated Vietnam War veterans in Congress, clearly hoped that the vote would help alleviate some of the political vulnerability that Clinton faces over the highly sensitive issue. He has had less maneuverability on the matter than some other presidents might have had, because he avoided the draft during the war and never served in the armed forces--and has been harshly criticized on both counts.

The Senate action Thursday was met with dismay by veterans organizations and groups representing the relatives of American servicemen still listed as missing in Southeast Asia.

Noting that the vote fell, coincidentally, on the anniversary of the treaty that ended U.S. involvement in the war, the National League of Families accused the senators of capitulating to pressures from business groups seeking opportunities to trade with Vietnam and to invest in the nation's reconstruction.

"Today, (on) the 21st anniversary of the Paris Accords . . . 62 U.S. senators handed Vietnam a major victory and may have irretrievably destroyed answers for POW-MIA families on the fate of their relatives in the bargain," the league said in a statement.

"We are very disappointed," added John Sommer, executive director of the Washington office of the American Legion. "Once the embargo is lifted, Vietnam will have no reason to continue to cooperate" in the effort to account for missing servicemen, he said.

Advocates of normal relations between the United States and Vietnam rejected those sentiments, however, arguing in sometimes bitter debate on the Senate floor that Hanoi has made significant progress in accounting for the missing servicemen. Furthermore, they said, the best way to resolve the remaining cases is to improve ties with Vietnam and establish a larger American presence there.

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"If we don't proceed forward we can lose the ability to get the answers we are getting today," said Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), a Vietnam War veteran who served as chairman of a yearlong Senate investigation into the POW-MIA issue.

"If you want to serve the families, you will vote to lift the embargo. If you want to put the war behind us . . . and protect the interests of this nation, you will vote to lift the embargo," he added.

Official records still list more than 2,200 servicemen as missing in Southeast Asia, but U.S. officials said that the actual number of unresolved cases actually now totals no more than a few dozen.

Most family and veterans groups have maintained, however, that the total is much higher and includes POWs who were alive at the end of the war but never released by Vietnam.

Their champion in the Senate debate, Sen. Robert C. Smith (R-N.H.), argued that Vietnam continues to withhold information in its possession about the fate of the missing men and that the embargo remains "the only bargaining chip we have to negotiate for their return."

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Most lawmakers, however, were clearly influenced by the fact that some of the Senate's most honored Vietnam veterans were among those arguing the most passionately for an end to the embargo.

"I don't often discuss my past experiences in the Vietnam War," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who spent six years as a POW in Vietnam. "But every name I knew has been accounted for," he added.

Also supporting the recommendation were Vietnam veterans Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.), a Congressional Medal of Honor winner who lost part of his leg in the war; Sen. Larry Pressler (R-S.D.), and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa).

Two who served in Vietnam voted no: Sen. Hank Brown (R-Colo.) and Smith.

A senior Administration official said the Senate vote had helped to "lay the groundwork" for a decision to lift the embargo by providing the necessary political cover if Clinton decides to go ahead.

Supporting the recommendation, which was attached to a $12-billion foreign aid authorization bill, were 20 Republicans and 42 Democrats, including California's Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer.

Times staff writer David Lauter contributed to this report.

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