HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- What with Bosnia, Whitewater, Hillaricare and all the other current Washington titillations, the old question of whether large numbers of American servicemen were abandoned by their country in Vietnam has drifted from the front pages.
The national press generally considers the story about as interesting as yesterday's cornflakes, and the government, it appears, is delighted that the press is bored and hopes it remains that way.
Politicians, not wanting to seem insensitive, can't afford to dismiss the Missing In Action/Prisoner of War issue openly. At least a pretense of interest must be maintained. So, to the spouses and children of missing servicemen who persist in raising difficult questions, the government and its opinion-making allies in the media behave politely but patronizingly.
The official demeanor resembles that of Victorian physicians treating women afflicted with the vapors. It mixes genuine sympathy with an infuriating condescension. People who were members of Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the various victims-rights movements in the early days, before their organizations grew into powerful political forces that demand and get respect, remember this daddy-knows-best attitude all too well.
There is a growing sense, though, that the MIA/POW issue is going to have its day. It could be very soon, and will certainly be sooner than the government would like. And when that time comes, the political reverberations will be of sonic-boom dimensions.
The Clinton administration, which is eager to re-establish diplomatic relations with Vietnam, has been fairly goosey about the idea that our future business associates in Hanoi might have kept hundreds of Americans imprisoned for almost 20 years after the Paris Peace Accords were signed in January 1973.
In a way, this is odd, because whatever may have happened occurred on someone else's watch. Even if only for partisan reasons, you'd think the Clintonians would be at least as enthusiastic about exposing a Vietnam MIA scandal as they were about revealing those grisly Cold War radiation experiments. For if the Vietnamese are eventually proved to have behaved monstrously toward American prisoners while the United States averted its eyes, Republican administrations will deserve most of the blame.
Mr. Clinton the draft-dodger was far removed from policy making during the war. But what he probably fears, not without reason, is that any development reinforcing sympathy for Americans who fought in Vietnam, or reminding the world that the Vietnamese regime they fought against was not as saintly as Oliver Stone would have us believe, could be profoundly dangerous to his own future.
If he does have such apprehensions, then he deserves some credit for political courage, as well as for good judgment, in pursuing his opening to Hanoi. In any case, it's a useful step; it's certainly apparent that if we are ever to learn the fate of the 1,200 men who remained unaccounted for after Operation Homecoming in March 1973, we will first have to pry Vietnam fully open to the eyes of the world.
Until that happens, most MIA information out of Vietnam will be filtered, and therefore suspect. The government has a huge stake in playing down the MIA/POW issue; for that reason, as a classified 1986 Defense Intelligence Agency report itself noted, ''there exists a mindset to debunk'' any and every report of live Americans, post-1973, in Vietnam.
According to John Corry, the former New York Times reporter who has followed the MIA issue closely, investigators for Sen. John Kerry's Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs concluded that ''American prisoners of war have been held continuously after Operation Homecoming and remain[ed] in captivity in Vietnam and Laos as late as 1989.''
But this was not the language of the committee's final report, which was vague and inconclusive. Senator Kerry himself, according to Mr. Corry, told one of the investigators that if the assertion quoted above ever leaked, ''you'll wish you'd never been born.''
In 1970, I was in Saigon when U.S. Forces raided the Son Tay prison camp near Hanoi in a brilliantly executed rescue attempt, only to find that the prisoners there had been moved. Right after the raid, recently declassified satellite information shows, the North Vietnamese reinforced the six prison camps where POWs were known to be, and also seven other camps. It now appears there were two separate prison systems for POWs. Why?
Why, also, were the 591 prisoners released by North Vietnam in March 1973 in such good health? To the surprise of U.S. officials, none were maimed, badly burned, or blind. Isn't it possible those POWs whose condition might have caused diplomatic complications were retained, first to bargain with and then, no bargain having been struck, for permanent disposal?
Eventually, answers to these questions will be found; Vietnam will find it impossible to enjoy economic intercourse with the rest of the world and keep the lid on its old secrets, no matter how bloody. And when the truth is known at last, some of the Americans who were most desperate to obtain ''peace'' in the 1970s may have a great deal to answer for.
Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer. His column appears Sundays and Thursdays.