WASHINGTON -- Twenty years after the searing spectacle of Americans fleeing their own embassy in Saigon in overloaded helicopters, President Clinton is scheduled today to announce that the United States is normalizing relations with Vietnam.
The impending move was applauded by some of the nation's most decorated veterans of the Vietnam War, including Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican who spent 5 1/2 years imprisoned in North Vietnam.
"It is a time for healing," Mr. McCain said.
The senator plans to attend today's White House ceremony, lending support to Mr. Clinton, who avoided military service during the war and who has never enjoyed unqualified support from veterans groups as a result.
But many others, including other prominent Vietnam veterans and former POWs, as well as leaders of the Vietnamese-American community, insist that Mr. Clinton's step is premature. They cite two main reasons: Vietnam's record on human rights and lingering doubts that Hanoi has provided all the help it can to account for America's war dead and missing.
"I think it's been our judgment that there's been considerable progress in achieving the fullest possible accounting for POWs and MIAs," said White House spokesman Mike McCurry. "One argument in favor of closer relations with Vietnam is to continue that progress."
Administration officials clearly want Americans to focus on other aspects of U.S.-Vietnamese relations.
Specifically, State Department officials argue that Vietnam might prove to be a strategically important ally to the United States as a kind of counterweight to China, Vietnam's historic enemy.
Commerce Department officials have touted Vietnam's potential as a trading partner and haven for U.S. investments as it modernizes its nation of 73 million people.
But the MIA issue remains paramount for some critics.
Sen. Bob Smith, a New Hampshire Republican, contends that Vietnam continues to withhold records on the war that would provide crucial information on the fate of American servicemen -- and the location of their remains.
"It's truth that heals, not time," he said, "and we do not have the truth."
Some members of Congress question Mr. Clinton's timing to grant diplomatic relations. The president has made no speeches on the subject. Nor has he been available to answer questions about it.
Moreover, the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia, which literally had a seat in the Oval Office when this subject came up in the Reagan and Bush administrations, was not solicited for its views -- and discovered only from reporters of the planned announcement.
"That's a disgrace," said Orson Swindle, a cellmate of John McCain's when both were POWs. "It just seems the Clinton administration enjoys sticking it to this group."
Critics also say the United States should not turn a blind eye to human rights abuses in Vietnam, a Communist state that brooks little dissent, forced family members of those who sided with the United States into "re-education" camps and has incarcerated religious leaders.
"It's a rotten and repressive government," said Bud Day, a Florida lawyer who also spent time with Mr. McCain as a POW in North Vietnam.
Mr. Day and Mr. Swindle argue that the example of China can more properly be seen as a reason for not recognizing Vietnam. Mr. Clinton granted most-favored-nation trading status to China while expressing hope that as a result the United States would have more leverage regarding human rights.
That has not proved to be the case, however.
"It turns out it's too late after you grant MFN," Mr. Swindle said. "We're talking about rescinding it now, but that won't happen. We have business ties in China that are staggering -- in the billions -- and those corporations won't let it go down the drain. The time to use that leverage is before, not after."
Added Mr. Day: "I keep hearing all these wonderful things are going to happen if we recognize Vietnam. But how? It's a . . . rinky-dink, third-rate country with a per-capita annual income of something like $100 a year. Where's this great market for American stuff?"
A year ago, Vietnamese officials reportedly arrested hundreds of prominent Buddhists. Just a month ago, according to activists who monitor human rights in Vietnam, a former Communist official, Do Trung Hieu, who fought the French and the Americans, was arrested for writing an open letter in which he advocated abandoning communism.
"Like most of the Vietnamese-Americans in the United States, I believe the decision to recognize the government [in Hanoi] now would be an unfortunate one," said Duc Ngo, a California member of the Paris-based Free Vietnam Alliance. "We would lose the leverage to push for democratic changes in Vietnam."
A group of Republican congressmen who hold the same view gathered outside the Capitol yesterday to express their misgivings.
"Mr. President, have enough integrity to stick by your own guidelines before we return to normalcy," Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett of Maryland said, referring to Mr. Clinton's pledge for a "full" accounting of MIAs before granting normalization.
Rep. Benjamin A. Gilman of New York, chairman of the House International Relations Committee, warned that Congress might not approve funds to open an embassy in Vietnam.
And Rep. Robert K. Dornan, a conservative from California, lambasted not only the government in Hanoi, but also Mr. Clinton.
"This is a disgrace to get back relations with the war criminals," he said. "This is the ultimate for Clinton, the triple draft dodger, to come full circle. You bet a fight is on."