Embracing a peaceful epilogue to America’s only lost war, President Clinton plans to announce today that the United States has decided to re-establish full diplomatic ties with Vietnam.
The future U.S. ambassador will be the first to return to Vietnam since Graham Martin left the former U.S. Embassy in Saigon by helicopter in April 1975 with an American flag tucked under his arm.
The decision to recognize the Socialist Republic of Vietnam comes as Congress is returning to work from a holiday recess and before the Senate could debate competing resolutions about whether the United States should formally recognize its former enemy.
Influential POW-MIA groups, which have condemned Clinton’s decision, are to receive a special briefing before today’s announcement. There still are 1,619 Americans listed as missing in action in Vietnam.
“We still think it’s a bad idea,” said Phil Budahn, a spokesman for the American Legion, whose 3.1-million-member group is the country’s largest veterans organization. “We’re convinced that diplomatic relations are the sole lever that we have to pry information from Vietnam about the whereabouts of missing Americans.
“The agony of the families is not over.”
The Clinton administration is hoping that full diplomatic relations will help American businesses tap into a growing and potentially lucrative market and make it easier to travel between the two nations.
Because a U.S. liaison office is operating in Vietnam now, some officials said today’s announcement carries more symbolic and historic value than practical effect.
But Irwin Jay Robinson, founder and former president of the Vietnam-American Chamber of Commerce, said Clinton’s decision is certain to enhance economic ties between the two nations.
“I think the short-term impact will be more favorable than people expect,” he said. “There are lots of American companies who will not want to go into a foreign country that is not recognized by the U.S. government. It’s primarily symbolic, but I think it will have come cathartic effect on American businesses that have been holding back.”
Clinton, whose avoidance of the Vietnam War draft became a focal point of his 1992 presidential bid, is certain to draw political heat for today’s decision. But he has powerful allies to blunt the political fallout.
The administration of former President George Bush began the process of reconciliation, and some Vietnam veterans in the Senate now support normalization, notably John McCain, R-Ariz., and John Kerry, D-Mass.
“It is profoundly in the interests of the people who fought with us, the people that I went over and others went over to try to fight for democracy and for their future to have us involved,” Kerry told NBC News over the weekend. “And we should be there with the American flag in Hanoi, in Ho Chi Minh City, expressing our interests with respect to the future democratization, human rights and other issues.”
Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., and Sen. Robert Smith, R-N.H., are backing legislation that would bar funding for a new U.S. Embassy in Vietnam, but a non-binding resolution to support normalization is expected to pass.
Rep. Robert Dornan, a Republican from California who, like Dole, is campaigning for the GOP presidential nomination, said “this is the ultimate for Clinton, the triple draft dodger, to come full circle. He did give aid and comfort to the enemy … and he gives aid and comfort to the enemy now.”
Unlike a year ago, when Clinton waited until the Senate voted 62-38 to support his move to lift a 19-yearold trade embargo against Vietnam, the president this time is moving ahead of Congress.
“George Bush talked about ending the Vietnam Syndrome, but this really does put an end to this period of postwar alienation,” said John McAuliff, founder and executive director of the U.S.-Indochina Reconciliation Project. “It’s a presidential decision, and I think the Congress, appropriately, is not going to interfere with that.
“I find it very hard to believe that anyone who is going to vote against him because of this decision wasn’t already going to vote against him anyway.”
The 2.1 million-member Veterans of Foreign Wars said it backs Clinton’s decision if it will lead to fuller accounting of missing servicemen.
“We’re not opposed to normalization, and we could even support it provided it furthers the process of fullest possible accounting,” said Bob Currieo, executive director of the VFW, whose membership includes 600,000 Vietnam War veterans. “And we hope that it will and see no reason why it won’t.”
The United States is spending about $100 million a year in efforts to account for Americans listed as missing from the war.
xxxx CEREMONY TODAY Clinton is expected to be flanked today by decorated veterans of the war as he formally recognizes Vietnam at a White House ceremony.