It has been 16 years since the last Marine helicopter lifted off the rooftop of the U.S. Embassy in Vietnam. If all goes according to plan, American diplomats will be back within two years.
After making a policy U-turn just before the Persian Gulf crisis erupted last summer, Washington and Hanoi have made steady, purposeful strides toward unfreezing relations and establishing diplomatic ties.
A four-phase "road map," as it is popularly called inside the Washington Beltway, is now on the table, proposed to Vietnam six weeks ago. It calls for Hanoi to use its influence over the Cambodian government installed by Vietnamese forces in January 1979, after they invaded Cambodia and stopped the killing fields of Pol Pot's regime.
The road map would have Vietnam persuade Cambodia to sign a U.N.-sponsored peace plan and for Hanoi to accelerate its cooperation on resolving the fate of U.S. servicemen still listed as missing in action (MIA) from the Vietnam War.
Each progressive step toward peace and resolving MIA cases would be reciprocated by Washington. The U.S.-led denial of loans through the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, for example, would be lifted, giving Hanoi access to desperately needed funds to modernize roads, communication and other infrastructure ravaged by decades of war and ill-advised economic policy.
Meanwhile, a U.N. peacekeeping force would be placed in Cambodia, and U.N. representatives would help administer Cambodia until free, democratic elections are held to seat a new government in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh.
Vietnam and Cambodia have not rejected the road map but indicated that they want some details changed, a U.S. official said.
Formal diplomatic recognition would not signify U.S. approval of Hanoi's deeds or policies, no more than it does with other communist nations. It would simply acknowledge that the government controls and represents the territory that it claims.
Other developments lend themselves to the timeliness:
* The Soviet military presence in Vietnam has dropped sharply. Moscow's relations with China and the United States have warmed, reducing the need for the Soviet Union to maintain costly military contingents in Asia. Moreover, Moscow has accused Hanoi of squandering billions of dollars of Soviet aid, and assistance has fallen.
* The U.S.-led economic embargo on Vietnam is no longer working. Japan and other non-Communist Southeast Asian nations are conducting trade worth hundreds of millions of dollars with Vietnam. U.S. corporations are being denied a chance at Vietnam's offshore oil or opportunities in tourism and in mining of valuable minerals, such as tungsten.
* Vietnamese "boat people" continue to flee the homeland's poverty, increasing the humanitarian burden on Asian nations and international relief agencies. Economic development could stem the exodus of Vietnam's population -- more than half of which was not even born when war ended in 1975. Amerasians -- children fathered by American servicemen -- and Vietnamese formerly employed by the United States and now held in detention camps also could be helped.
This is the second attempt at normalized U.S.-Vietnamese relations. The first thaw began under President Carter. Vietnam even prepared a U.S. Embassy site -- a green mansion surrounded by gnarled trees at 21 Hai Ba Trung Street in Hanoi.
But the rapprochement was aborted when Vietnam insisted on payment of war "reparations" and by Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia. With the Vietnamese ouster of the genocidal Pol Pot regime, Cambodia became linked to any U.S. formula for dealing with Vietnam and diplomatic relations went into the deep freeze.
Washington suddenly reversed its policy last July, less than two weeks before Iraq invaded Kuwait, when Secretary of State James A. Baker III announced an end to U.S. diplomatic recognition of the Cambodian resistance coalition and the beginning of direct talks with Vietnam about a Cambodian settlement.
Mr. Baker's announcement was prompted by belated recognition that Pol Pot's communist Khmer Rouge -- part of the rebel coalition -- was grabbing control of the Cambodian countryside. The Bush administration was forced to distance itself from the Khmer Rouge, who killed an estimated 1 million people while in power for 3 1/2 years before the Vietnamese takeover.
The United States and its allies clearly do not want to see the Khmer Rouge return to power. They believe Pol Pot's followers will have no chance if free, U.N.-sponsored elections are held.
If the "road map" is followed, Washington and Hanoi should have normalized relations within two years, a U.S. official said.
But there's one key question: Even if Hanoi uses all its influence on Phnom Penh, can Vietnam still be held accountable for a breakdown in the components for peace in Cambodia? The components include, for example, disarmament of the Cambodian factions, a tricky move considering all the back-stabbing that has occurred among them for decades.