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PERSPECTIVE ON VIETNAM : The War Can Finally End Now

January 30, 1994|ALLEN E. GOODMAN | Allen E. Goodman is associate dean of the Georgetown School of Foreign Service. and

When President Clinton ends the U.S. embargo begun in 1964 against North Vietnam, he will have ended the war. The lifting of trade sanctions and eventual diplomatic recognition will allow the United States to deal with Vietnam as a government rather than an enemy.

The President's political advisers, however, are telling him that there are still considerable risks involved in normalizing relations with Vietnam.

A prime concern is the powerful interest group representing the families of American soldiers listed as officially missing in action. This group does not believe that the Vietnamese government can be trusted to work toward the fullest possible accounting of the MIA cases. The search for definitive facts about the 193 "discrepancy cases"--the airmen who were last seen alive when they were captured in North Vietnam but who were neither among the POWs returned at the end of the war nor among those whose remains have been repatriated--has so far determined the fate of all but 73. But MIA groups are convinced that the Vietnamese withheld information and should, by now, have cleared up the remaining cases. Lifting the embargo, the MIA lobby argues, would deprive the families of all leverage over the Vietnamese government.

The riposte is that such leverage no longer exists. Moreover, a permanent and ambassadorial presence in Vietnam will allow for much more substantial progress. With a U.S. Embassy in Hanoi and consulates throughout the country, personnel can be assigned to collect and solicit information about MIAs. Having a long-term presence will enhance the ability to distinguish fact from fiction and disinformation.

As Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen said earlier this month in Bangkok, "A strategy of engagement with Vietnam may be the best way to promote our goal of accounting for POWs and MIAs from the war."

Whatever President Clinton does is not likely to produce immediate answers on the fates of the MIAs. But if he does nothing else toward improving relations with Vietnam, he also risks losing an opening for a genuine breakthrough.

The President is likely to resolve this dilemma by applying the lessons of U.S. diplomatic history. The United States has consistently tended to seek reconciliation with its enemies. The surprise attacks and genocide carried out by Germany and Japan during World War II were of a far greater scale than anything that the Vietnamese carried out. Eighty thousand U.S. soldiers are still officially listed as missing from that war. Yet we have enjoyed the closest of relationships with both former adversaries.

Undoubtedly, some will argue that World War II is different because the United States won. But reconciliation with Vietnam gives us the opportunity to win the peace, which even the Vietnamese recognize they have so far lost.

There is much in normalization with Vietnam that will serve American interests today.

The U.S. goals of creating an Asian-run collective security system and eliminating the threat of conflict within the region will only be enhanced by the integration of Vietnam into the emerging Pacific community. American businesses will also benefit greatly from entering the Vietnamese market now. If they are prevented from doing so by a policy adopted in a different atmosphere and set of circumstances, our companies will lose the ability to compete with Japanese, British, French, Korean, Taiwanese and Australian firms. Moreover, much of what Vietnam needs for its future development could be made in the United States, creating as many as 50,000 new jobs here. By being able to set up manufacturing operations in Vietnam, U.S. firms could also take advantage of a highly skilled work force at wages below what they are paying in other Asian countries.

Domestically, an increasing number of veterans seek ways to visit Vietnam to make their own peace; diplomatic relations can facilitate this process. Many surveys reveal that the majority of those who fought in the war favor normalization of relations and an end to the embargo. Further, by the end of the this decade, 2 million Americans will have Vietnamese ancestry; nearly a quarter of a million are planning to return to Vietnam for the lunar new year. They need the protection and help in restoring family ties that only a full-scale embassy can provide.

Lifting the embargo now will accelerate the integration of Vietnam into the post-Cold War international system based on the principles of free and open markets, human rights and the peaceful settlement of disputes. As a student, Bill Clinton opposed the Vietnam War because he believed such values could not be implanted by force. As President, ironically, he could accomplish the very purposes for which so many fought and which none of his predecessors achieved.

Lifting the embargo will help integrate the nation into the world system and achieve what we fought for 30 years ago.

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