There is no date when this nation's war in Vietnam began. It escalated during the 1960s from a few advisers to a massive engagement. Some would say March 8, 1965, when U.S. combatants arrived in unit strength. Similarly there is no date for the war's end, which evolved starting with the cease-fire agreement of Jan. 27, 1973. Many will say it ended -- emotionally -- on Feb. 3, 1994, when President Clinton announced an end to the economic boycott of Vietnam and an agreement to establish liaison offices in Hanoi and Washington.
But that is arbitrary symbolism, too. What was announced is only one step in the evolution of a policy. The U.S. already had a Missing in Action office in Hanoi, staffed by 20 Americans including three Foreign Service officers. Now it will have a formal liaison office, but not an embassy or diplomatic recognition. American businesses already were allowed to have offices in Vietnam, and now may do business from them.
The end of the trade embargo, however, does not give Vietnam most-favored-nation status. So imports from Vietnam will remain minimal, and exports to it may as well. Diplomatic recognition and normal trading status remain in abeyance, to test Hanoi's good faith in providing information on the missing in action, and to assuage Americans who believe this step was wrong.
It is a policy of gradualism that the Carter administration started to make in the 1970s and backed away from -- for fear of offending China! President Clinton is not the best president to make this change because he went to extraordinary lengths as a young man to avoid service in the Vietnam war. This was considered by the voters in 1992 not to be decisive, but is still held against Mr. Clinton by many Americans and complicates his standing with those who served or lost loved ones.
But his is the right policy, and so is an active diplomacy that will pursue the next two steps. In terms of war and forgiveness, the United States was quicker to make friends with its vanquished World War II foes, Germany and Japan, and its Cold War adversaries, China and the former Soviet Union. But it is even slower with North Korea, with which this country has almost no dialogue in the four decades since the cease-fire between them.
For Americans to do business with Vietnam is now legal and proper. How much business there is to be done remains to be seen.