Families of MIAs gird for final battle of Vietnam

January 24, 1994|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Ann Mills Griffiths occupies a world of grief, bones and records.

For her family and hundreds of others still uncertain about the fate of siblings, children and parents lost and presumed dead in Southeast Asia, the Vietnam War won't be over until they gain what one father calls "a great sense of relief -- the final knowing."

Led by Mrs. Griffiths, the families represent the last obstacle to the inexorable American movement to restore ties with Vietnam and finally consign the war to history.

As momentum builds to lift the 19-year-old trade embargo against Vietnam, the families are gearing up for what could be the last painful confrontation over a war that has haunted American politics for three decades.

The families believe they will never learn what happened to their loved ones unless the U.S. government keeps up the pressure on Vietnam. And Mrs. Griffiths, 52, their chief lobbyist and Washington agitator, will make the decision tougher for President Clinton, whose youthful anti-war protests and draft avoidance have strained his relationship with veterans and the military.

Mrs. Griffiths warns that an executive order lifting the trade embargo would be a "betrayal" of Mr. Clinton's promise to make a full accounting of the missing the test of U.S. relations with Vietnam.

"The U.S. government, and more importantly the families, will be totally reliant on the good will of the Vietnamese government," Mrs. Griffiths says, "and over the years their good will has not been evident."

Her sharp tongue is just one reason she has become a force to be reckoned with as executive director of the 3,900-member National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia.

For the past 15 years, Mrs. Griffiths has waged a relentless battle to get a full accounting of the fate of hundreds of U.S. servicemen. Her brother, Naval Reserve Lt. Cmdr. James B. Mills, is one of the missing.

His color portrait hangs in Mrs. Griffiths' office above the words, "You are not forgotten." Nearby is a rubbing from the Vietnam Memorial bearing his name.

"My brother's case is one of those that points out the difficulties of this issue because [when] there's a complete lack of $l information, there's total uncertainty," Mrs. Griffiths says.

It is because of him and others that she has mastered the morbid details of the search for remains -- records and bones that can finally relieve the distress of these families.

Through her continuous pressure and high-level contacts, the league has achieved a rare position among Washington pressure groups.

Others can command high-level officials at their conventions, as the league does, and a spot at the witness table during congressional hearings.

But Mrs. Griffiths has actually been in the rooms where policy is debated and drafted, traveled to Southeast Asia on official missions, read top-secret intelligence reports and mingled with upper-level State and Defense Department bureaucrats and military officials.

Now she is drawing on her accumulated knowledge to convince the public, if not the Clinton administration, that the Vietnamese are continuing to stonewall and that only maintaining the trade embargo will get results.

Her case boils down to this: If Hanoi were cooperating as the administration claims, it could produce either records or remains of several hundred servicemen who evidence indicates were alive when the war ended.

At a minimum, she says, it could produce records or remains on 84 cases that U.S. officials have identified as the easiest to resolve.

"You hear a lot about healing and reconciliation," she says in a voice raspy from cigarettes and weary from arguing. "That kind of has to be two ways. The leadership of Vietnam knows exactly what's needed."

U.S. officials don't believe Vietnam has any real incentive to stonewall, but the league and its allies fear Hanoi might drag out the process to extract money or other concessions. They note that it took Vietnam decades to repatriate French remains after France withdrew from Indochina in the 1950s.

Clinton's dilemma

But pressure to lift the embargo is building within the Clinton administration and the U.S. business community, which is eager to tap the developing potential of Vietnam. The decision Mr. Clinton faces is mostly political and revolves around a single question: Can a president who avoided serving in Vietnam be the one to renew America's ties there?

"He has a particular problem in this area," says William Clark Jr., a former assistant secretary of state for East Asia who strongly supports the move toward normalization. For Mr. Clinton, he says, "this is uniquely a domestic issue."

The league has played a big role in making it that.

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