In ties with Hanoi, time was on Clinton's side

February 04, 1994|By R. W. Apple Jr. | R. W. Apple Jr.,New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- It was Lyndon B. Johnson's war, though the initial commitments were made by John F. Kennedy. The peace, such as it was, was the handiwork of Richard M. Nixon, but that was tainted by the stench of defeat.

Now, irony of ironies, fate has chosen Bill Clinton to lead the nation in consigning the whole sad, ugly ordeal to the dim recesses of memory -- the same Bill Clinton who, like Dan Quayle and many other privileged members of his generation, managed to avoid service in the rice paddies of the Mekong Delta or the jungles of the Central Highlands, on the carriers in the Gulf of Tonkin or the choppers of the 1st Cavalry Division.

Some organizations that represent veterans of the war protested bitterly even before President Clinton announced the lifting of the 19-year embargo yesterday afternoon. No doubt a spirited scrap will ensue.

But many voters, if the polls are to be believed, agree with Mr. Clinton and with the Senate, which voted overwhelmingly last week to end the embargo.

The events of the Vietnam War are as distant from today as the battles of World War I were from those of World War II.

Many who took part in them or witnessed them have retired or died, and new generations have grown up for whom names like Ia Drang and Parrot's Beak seem as remote as Belleau Wood or Iwo Jima.

In a sense, time was Bill Clinton's ally.

Fewer and fewer people cling to the past. And even for many of those who do, as Leo Thorsness, a former Air Force POW, said this week, one day "the passion is gone."

The flag follows trade, it is said, and mutual diplomatic recognition between Hanoi and Washington is not likely to be delayed many years more, though the president specified that it would have to wait upon "a full and final accounting" of America's losses.

Slowly, almost imperceptibly, Vietnam has turned from a tragedy into an opportunity. American businessmen have pushed relentlessly for yesterday's change, having watched their German and British counterparts making large investments there, having pondered the prospects of turning the one-time enemy into the next Thai- or Malay-style success story.

But it took more than that; it took a political strategy.

That was cobbled together largely by Winston Lord, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, who persuaded Hanoi to provide enough answers to the vexed question of prisoners of war and servicemen still missing to enable Mr. Clinton to win the support of important public figures who had the credibility on Vietnam that he did not.

"We really need to have a relationship with these people, not for the past but for the future," said Frank Wisner, a career diplomat, now a senior Defense Department official, who served as a provincial adviser in the Highlands.

"Vietnam is a key actor along the Pacific Rim as we, they, the Chinese and others in the area head into the next century."

A scholar who studied U.S. troops during the war and has studied them since foresaw another benefit.

"Not many people realize it yet," said Charles Moskos of Northwestern University, one of the country's leading military sociologists, "but this will do what the peace treaty never did. More Americans will go to Vietnam. They will see how much the Vietnamese people like Americans, and how many supported the American intervention. That will redound to the credit of the Vietnam veterans and of the serving military today."

If so, the president's action will truly represent the closing of a chapter in U.S. history.

The war and its aftermath helped to shape American public life for three decades.

Even when the shooting stopped, the United States found it agonizingly difficult to follow Lincoln's injunction to "bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and for his orphan."

The anguish of the families of the POWs and the MIAs, the travail of the boat people and the devastation wrought by defoliants on the landscape of Indochina all kept the pain alive in people's minds.

The war forced Johnson into retirement, almost certainly cost Hubert H. Humphrey the presidency, planted the seeds of doubt and discouragement about government in the minds of the electorate and the news media and helped keep the Democrats out of the White House for most of the 1970s and 1980s.

The image of the last CH-46 helicopter lifting off the roof of the U.S. embassy in Saigon on April 30, 1975, burned a hole in the national psyche.

"After that," said the novelist Ward Just, who worked as a war correspondent in Vietnam, "I thought we'd be better off without each other for a while.

"Vietnam had a bad effect on us, and, God knows, we had a terrible effect on Vietnam. Now I think it's time to see whether we can't all behave like grown-ups. I think most people feel that way, actually."

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