Hanoi's October Surprise

October 31, 1992

Americans can rejoice that President Bush is "convinced that we can begin writing the last chapter of the Vietnam war."

This is likely to lead to closing the book on Americans missing in action from the Indochinese war. It can also lead to increased American trade with Vietnam, both to hasten its liberation from communism and to give American firms a fair shot at the market. And, finally, it opens the way to diplomatic relations, which should help the Cambodian settlement bring peace at last to Southeast Asia.

Mr. Bush was reacting to the 4,000 photographs and documents from Vietnam's wartime archive that his emissary, retired Gen. John Vessey, brought back from a hasty visit to Hanoi. General Vessey emphasized that he has been promised access to the entire archive. Vietnam is following the "road map" to normalization that the Bush administration announced last year.

Is General Vessey's breakthrough the "October surprise" of politicians' dreams, the power of the incumbency before the election? If so, it is surprising that Mr. Bush went cautiously on to "stress that it is only a beginning, but it is a significant beginning." Presumably, he is leaving the final act of normalization to the next presidential term.

But this may well be an October surprise in the intent of both parties. Hanoi is alarmed at President Bush's prospect of losing the election. It is Mr. Bush whom its rulers know. However soft on Communists Mr. Bush tries to portray Bill Clinton, Mr. Clinton is an unknown to the real Communists, who were starting to get somewhere with Mr. Bush. That may explain their willingness to let General Vessey bring home the archive.

U.S.-Vietnamese cooperation was already clearing MIA cases. U.S. Army Lt. Col. Jack Donovan heads an office in Hanoi that pursues every lead, and is dispatching a group of 63 Americans to pursue tips on 60 to 70 cases. So far, such field investigations have found villagers reporting murders and deaths from exposure some 20 to 30 years ago. Many prisoners shot down in Vietnam never made it to the official prisoner of war camps. Washington lists 1,657 servicemen unaccounted for in Vietnam, 2,265 in all Indochina. Colonel Donovan wanted access to the Vietnamese archive, and last weekend General Vessey obtained it.

The Bush administration last May lifted two parts of the trade embargo that was imposed in 1964 on North Vietnam and in 1975 on all Vietnam. It allows telecommunications links, a boon to AT&T. And it allows commercial sales of medicine and projects by nonprofit organizations. That responds to Hanoi's good faith last year. Something more is called for now.

If this is the vaunted October Surprise, Mr. Bush ought to make the most of it. And Mr. Clinton ought to applaud.

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