Vietnam embargo is ended

February 04, 1994|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton dropped a 19-year trade embargo against Vietnam yesterday in a major step toward reconciliation with the United States' old Cold War nemesis.

The action, sought by U.S. companies eager for trade and investment ties with the poor but resource-rich Southeast Asian nation, moved the United States closer to normal relations with Vietnam. Already, banks, law firms, cigarette companies and other businesses have obtained licenses to open offices in Vietnam. Now, each nation will set up a liaison office in the other.

The nation's largest veterans groups strongly oppose Mr. Clinton's decision -- and its leaders told him so in a 2 p.m. meeting at the Oval Office yesterday.

But Mr. Clinton, whose youthful draft avoidance and anti-war protest still haunt him politically, is cushioned in his decision by a growing bipartisan momentum in Congress to move on from the Indochina conflict.

The president insisted yesterday that his decision had nothing to do with trade, even though he has made expansion of commerce with Asia a foreign policy priority.

Instead, he said, it was guided by strides made in accounting for American servicemen still missing in Southeast Asia and the belief that lifting the embargo would be the best way to ensure continued cooperation from Vietnam on that issue.

Mr. Clinton also said it was the consensus of military advisers and other experts that the United States "would lose leverage [with Vietnam] if there were no forward movement" in ties between the two countries.

The president cited "significant, tangible progress" in several areas: recovery and return of remains, resolution of discrepancy cases involving servicemen who were last seen alive, cooperation from Vietnam and Laos in conducting searches along their border, and release of Vietnamese documents.

But families of those still missing, the staunchest holdouts against lifting the embargo, condemned the decision, arguing that Vietnam would cooperate only if continued pressure were applied.

"He's clearly broken his promise," said a bitter Ann Mills Griffiths, executive director of the National League of Families of Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia. Her group boycotted a meeting at which Mr. Clinton explained the decision.

"We felt the decision was wrong -- and told him so," John Sommer, executive director of the American Legion, added after meeting with the president yesterday.

Mr. Sommer insisted that his group's sole concerns are Vietnam's record regarding MIAs and POWs as well as human rights, but other veterans suggested that the past is not entirely behind the president, who avoided the draft during Vietnam, evaded questions about it during his presidential campaign and was jeered by some when he visited the Vietnam Memorial last year.

But Jack Powell, the central Florida director of the Paralyzed Veterans of America -- wounded severely in Vietnam in 1970 -- said: "I understand the organizations are opposing it, but I'm not. I think it's logical. It's time to get on with life."

John Y. Averella, president of Baltimore's Vietnam Veterans of America chapter, and Maryland VFW Commander Joseph W. Nassar of Cheverly both took issue with Mr. Clinton's move last night.

Mr. Averella said the chapter members voted last Thursday night to continue opposing the lifting of the trade embargo and were urging congressional representatives to oppose it as well.

Mr. Nassar said the Veterans of Foreign Wars passed a resolution at last summer's national convention in Dallas that the embargo not be lifted until Vietnam has cooperated on the POW-MIA issue, and sent a letter to Mr. Clinton recently to reinforce that view.

The embargo was imposed on North Vietnam in 1964, in the early days of a war that claimed 51,000 American lives and bitterly divided the United States. It was expanded to cover the whole country in 1975 after Saigon fell and Vietnam was unified under Communist rule.

Mr. Clinton announced his decision in the Roosevelt Room, where he was joined by top aides and Sen. John F. Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat and decorated Vietnam War veteran who headed a Senate inquiry into the MIA issue last year.

In recent weeks, supporters of lifting the embargo inside and outside the government have bent over backward to make the decision politically less risky for the president.

The most important step was last week's strong 62-38 Senate vote, in a nonbinding resolution co-sponsored by Mr. Kerry, favoring an end to the embargo. It was also supported by Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam, and Sen. Robert Kerrey of Nebraska, a former Democratic presidential contender who lost part of a leg in the conflict.

Another was the well-publicized conclusion of high-level U.S. military officials that Vietnam was cooperating in the search for records and remains and that a lifting of the embargo would likely encourage more cooperation.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.