WASHINGTON — Washington--Fifteen years after the fall of Berlin in 1945, the United States counted West Germany as its most important ally in NATO. Fifteen years after the surrender ceremonies aboard the U.S.S. Missouri in Tokyo Bay, we were economically, diplomatically and militarily linked to Japan.
But fifteen years after North Vietnamese troops took Saigon, 17 years after U.S. troops ended their active role there, we still have no formal relations with Vietnam.
There are many reasons why, none so difficult that it would block normalization with any major country. The most discussed and most emotional is the popular belief that Vietnam may still intentionally hold American prisoners of war, or that it has stockpiled our servicemen's remains to parcel them out only for U.S. concessions.
But the reason no one talks about is the trait Westerners used to attribute so often to people of the Orient -- the fear of losing face, again. This time it involves not their face, but ours.
Our country has never been so ashamed as when the world watched those last Americans and friendly Vietnamese scrambling onto helicopters to escape the fall of Saigon. We had been defeated before, but not in the age of television. What some call a draw in Korea was actually a victory, in drawing the line against communism.
Korea was our model in Vietnam; we had done it before, we could do it again. But it was a different war, and North Vietnam won because it had the will and we didn't. What happened there and at home created wounds that are still sore.
Talk of normalizing relations with Hanoi, helping Vietnam economically as we have helped other communist countries, still makes politicians wince. We lost face there because we lost the war -- and because the winner was a small power at the margin of our national interest.
Hanoi was cruel to captured Americans and its own countrymen. But Germany and Japan were far crueler, on a scale unmatched in history. Yet we made peace with them. We had defeated them, not vice versa. Besides, they were incipient great powers. We needed them.
Vietnam is more like Cuba, which kicked our shin more than 30 years ago. Castro embarrassed us, so we still have no formal relations with Havana. But there are differences, too:
There is a big, politically loud Cuban exile population, concentrated in one important U.S. state and strongly opposed to better ties with Cuba. But the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese in America are widely scattered, and not nearly so solid in their attitude toward their homeland. And even with Cuba, Washington quietly does diplomatic business via interest sections that work through other friendly embassies.
Not even all the Americans who fought in Vietnam, who suffered or lost friends there, oppose closer links with Hanoi. Sen. John McCain, for example, who was a POW for six years, probably has thought about this issue more than anyone in Washington. Two years ago, he urged stepping toward normalization by opening interest sections. But soon afterward, he backed off.
Last week, Vietnam's foreign minister, Nguyen Co Thach, made the first visit here by a Vietnamese official since 1975, and McCain told him about his reservations. Better relations cannot come without full cooperation by Hanoi in accounting for the 2,300 Americans still listed as missing in Southeast Asia, he said. Vietnamese citizens still held in "education" camps must be freed, the conflict in Cambodia must be settled.
Beyond that, McCain believes, U.S. help for the shaky Vietnamese economy should depend on genuine progress toward internal democracy there.
Minister Thach invited McCain to make a return visit to Vietnam, and the senator may go before the end of the year. The same day, the Vietnamese agreed to new levels of cooperation to clear up the POW/MIA issue. The State Department disclosed that a (( private U.S. humanitarian group will be permitted to set up in Vietnam, and U.S. war veterans will start a new clinic near Hanoi.
That's progress. It seems to support taking small steps one by one, insisting on concession for concession. But the fact that Vietnam is more eager than Washington for relations does not mean relations are a one-way concession. An exchange of interest sections, a consulate in Ho Chi Minh City, an embassy in Hanoi may be incentives to move on to the economic ties that country needs even more.
Americans have no special love for the Hanoi government, but the eventual beneficiary of those ties will be the Vietnamese people -- and for them, millions of us share a feeling that is special indeed.