Another step is taken in ending a tragic affair

ON POLITICS

February 04, 1994|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- Along the Vietnam Memorial wall in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial, tourists flock daily to see the thousands of names of the war's dead and missing enshrined in marble. Here and there, a bouquet of fresh flowers leans against the name of a loved one. Visitors finger other names and silently remember their personal losses and the war America lost amid rancor that for some still exists.

The memories and bitterness are being stirred now with President Clinton's decision to lift the trade embargo against Vietnam, in place since the fall of Saigon in 1975. Opponents argued that it should have been continued as a means of keeping the heat on Vietnam to be more forthcoming on the matter of prisoners of war and Americans missing in action, until that issue is cleared up to their satisfaction.

Proponents, including six of the Senate's eight Vietnam veterans who joined in voting by 62-38 last week to lift the embargo, say it's time to put the bitterness behind and encourage the Vietnamese to be more cooperative on the POW-MIA matter by creating a better business climate with an influx of American capital.

One of them, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, says the U.S. government's efforts to establish the fate of 196 specific individuals for whom answers have been sought have been successful in 123 cases in the last two years, while veterans groups complaining of lack of progress have contributed little information. He says he and the other Vietnam veterans in the Senate will be the first to call for reinstating the embargo if lifting it makes the Vietnamese less cooperative.

But bitterness continues among some. At a booth near the Vietnam wall of names, where a veteran sells war memorabilia for a non-profit organization pressing the search to identify the remaining 2,254 POWs and MIAs, a retired Air Force officer who served four years in Vietnam, Stephen Mock of Lutherville, Md., has just bought a POW-MIA bracelet, and his emotionalism spills out.

"We've been betrayed by politicians and politics," he says. "I could walk into Vietnam now and walk up to a Vietnam soldier and have no hard feelings. He's the same as I am." It is the American politicians, he says, who have let the veterans down, and he is particularly bitter about President Clinton.

"He stood over there at the memorial to be true to these guys," Mock recalls of Clinton's visit early in his presidency. "Now he wants to turn his back on them, now that he's elected and in the limelight."

Asked whether his attitude toward Clinton and lifting the embargo is colored by the fact the president did not serve in Vietnam, actively protested against the war and was accused of dodging the draft to stay out of it, Mock, dressed in military fatigues, backs away. "I'd rather leave that alone," he says.

At the wall, others are less emotional and more forgiving. James Pierson, a 50-year-old teacher of government in Richmond, Va., says of Clinton lifting the embargo: "I have two friends there on the wall. It hits home a lot. I can see it's a sore spot [with Vietnam veterans], but I think it goes with the office. He's the president, even though he wasn't there [in Vietnam]. In the time he's been in office, he's approached a lot of things when others didn't, and I give him a lot of credit. This had to be approached. I guess I'd have to put the other stuff out of my mind."

Richard Oberting, 33, visiting the wall with his wife and two children, says he is against lifting the embargo now. "I have such animosity toward the Vietnamese people, I don't think anything should be done [to help them]." As for Clinton, Oberting says his past attitude toward the Vietnam war shouldn't be a factor. "He's the president, that's his job, even if he didn't serve," he says.

Dale West, 62, of Grand Forks, N.D., a Korean War veteran, says: "I think Vietnam was a mistake in the first place. A lot of these people [listed on the wall] should not have been killed, but that's a long time ago. We're working with a new generation." He points to the vote in the Senate and suggests that Clinton is just going along.

In any event, another step is being taken toward ending one of the saddest chapters in the history of American foreign policy.

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