The Case for Business with Hanoi

February 01, 1994

The time has come to end the U.S. economic boycott of Vietnam, which was imposed on the Communist North in 1964 and the whole country upon the fall of the South in 1975.

On the reason for keeping the embargo -- pressure on Hanoi to disclose facts on Americans missing in action during the Vietnam war -- the balance of argument has swung in favor of ending the embargo. On other issues, ending the boycott is clearly in the U.S. national interest.

The Senate voted, 62-38, across party lines to urge President Clinton to end the boycott. The Senate's constitutional role in foreign affairs is advice and consent; this advice should be taken seriously.

The vote came a few days after Adm. Charles R. Larson, commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific including the search parties in Vietnam, returned from that country saying cooperation with the American search was excellent. More to the point, he said that more Americans investing, traveling and participating in Vietnam would create a network of information to help the search.

Some officials say that Laos is not cooperating as well as Vietnam. Of 2,239 American service personnel listed as missing and still unaccounted for, 1,647 were in Vietnam and 505 in Laos. The discrepancy in cooperation, if confirmed, is not a reason to punish Vietnam.

This issue aside, the question is not whether to punish or reward Vietnam, but whether to give U.S. firms access to an economy that is converting to a free market and seeking foreign involvement. Japanese and Taiwanese capital and professional services are not reticent. World Bank investment is picking up. The regime is still stubbornly Communist. Isolation would keep it so, while a vigorous free economy would force it to change.

The Clinton administration has been deliberately studying this issue, unwilling to get too far ahead of public opinion. The Senate vote, which is purely advisory, shows that the administration is not ahead of the Senate, and probably not ahead of the American people at all, although many kin of missing men are understandably unreconciled. Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam, voted for ending the boycott.

The Republican Ford administration would not deal because Hanoi was holding American prisoners and information about them to ransom (which it later ceased doing). The Democratic Carter administration would not, because it gave priority to normalizing relations with China, which saw Vietnam as a client of its rival, the Soviet Union.

The Republican Reagan and Bush administrations held back for fear Hanoi was withholding information or that too many Americans thought it was. But if that issue is now a reason for ending the boycott, there is no legitimate argument for perpetuating it.

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