The Victory We Refuse to Accept

TRUDY RUBIN

July 16, 1993|By TRUDY RUBIN

HANOI — Hanoi. -- It takes only a few days in the Vietnamese capital to realize something startling.

The United States won its war with Vietnam. We just refuse to accept the victory.

Let me start at the beginning. I never expected to love Hanoi. I anticipated a gray, forbidding, poverty-struck place with the BTC Hanoi Hilton (the notorious Hoa Lo prison for U.S. POWs) at its center.

Well, the Hanoi Hilton with its high walls and handful of barred windows is still there, looking deserted, but Hanoi is a charming provincial capital filled with faded yellow French colonial-style buildings built amid parks and lakes. Energetic entrepreneurs keep commerce bustling.

Moreover, Americans are the most popular people in town. And everything we said we were fighting for in Vietnam is coming true.

As I recall, our Vietnam War was all about preventing a domino-like communist takeover of Asia by Moscow or Beijing.

These days, the Russians are gone from Hanoi and leading Vietnamese economists complain bitterly about the years Vietnam lost by imitating Soviet Marxism. The Vietnamese are just barely normalizing relations with the Chinese with whom they fought a 1979 border war. (The United States discovered only belatedly that Vietnam and China were historic enemies.)

No one talks about communism anymore, although queues still form to see Ho Chi Minh's wispy-bearded countenance and waxy body in his Soviet-style mausoleum. He is still revered, Vietnamese acquaintances told me, not because he was a Marxist but because he freed his country from French and U.S. domination.

Free-market economic reform is now the buzzword in Vietnam and hordes of Western businessmen hustle into Hanoi, where tiny shops selling televisions, washing machines, clothes and small electrical appliances line every street.

And every Vietnamese one meets in Hanoi from high government officials to street vendors to intellectuals who spent years in the ''tiger cage'' prisons run by the United States' South Vietnamese allies tells a visitor how much they want the Americans to return. And to invest.

A typical example: I visited the Hanoi military museum, where a Soviet MIG fighter sits triumphantly in the courtyard atop the ruins of a downed B-52, and relics of captured U.S. pilots are displayed inside.

But a little office by the main door sports a sign proclaiming in English ''Vietnam Veterans Tourist Agency.'' Inside, retired North Vietnamese Army Col. Le Thanh Van described the tours he runs for U.S. vets who want to return to the battlefields. He said, ''After war we need to shake hands.''

L That is also the message at the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry.

''Our efforts at the moment are aimed at making the U.S. government understand that the U.S. has an important and fundamental interest in Vietnam and the region,'' said Nguyen Xuan Phong, the acting director of the Foreign Ministry's North American Department. Say what? ''The U.S. government must . . . try to overcome the emotions left by the war.''

Mr. Phong's concerns, as he hinted very delicately, are that the world's only remaining superpower should take an active role in Southeast Asia to provide a military balance to China and an economic balance to Japan.

When we discussed regional stability, I asked whether he envisioned U.S. ships calling once more at Cam Ranh Bay. ''I don't exclude that,'' he answered.

He also made no bones about his hope that the United States will stop blocking the international loans that Vietnam desperately needs to revamp its crumbled infrastructure.

So far, no luck. Diplomatic relations between Hanoi and Washington have not been restored nor has our trade embargo been lifted. The sticking point is whether Vietnam is sufficiently helpful in providing information on U.S. servicemen still missing from the Vietnam War.

Vietnamese cooperation on MIAs has increased dramatically over the past two years, but President Clinton has been reluctant to act on Vietnam for fear he might provoke new attacks on his Vietnam War record. (Top Clinton advisers do want the United States to drop its curb on loans.)

Prospects for better relations were also sidetracked by a mystery document discovered recently in Russian archives that alleges Vietnam held far more U.S. prisoners than it ever admitted. (If they existed, presumably they were executed.) Vietnamese officials insist that the document is a fraud; MIA families cry foul.

But top U.S. military officials in Hanoi and Honolulu who are involved in investigating MIA cases believe, to a man, that lifting the embargo would help, not hinder, the effort to solve MIA mysteries. They would not object to Mr. Clinton's upgrading relations with Hanoi.

Nor would U.S. businessmen, who have been champing at the bit as Taiwanese, Koreans and Japanese snap up valuable investment opportunities in Vietnam, which many believe is poised to become another Southeast Asian ''tiger.''

''Three years ago, but for the embargo, Americans would have been the primary investment partner here,'' said James Rockwell, an U.S. pioneer in Hanoi who manages the VATICO investment firm there. ''Vietnamese like our business style, think our technology is the best in the world. The sentiment toward Americans is humbling, almost embarrassing.''

In other words, the war is over and the goals Americans thought they were fighting for have been achieved. Vietnam has let the wounds heal; so should we. It's time for both sides to move on.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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