Binding Up Old Wounds

By Alter, Jonathan; Moreau, Ron | Newsweek, June 26, 1995 | Go to article overview

Binding Up Old Wounds


Alter, Jonathan, Moreau, Ron, Newsweek


IMAGINE IF THE GOVERNMENT OF Vietnam believed that one of its estimated 300,000 missing in action (MIAs) had been mistakenly buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Would the United States allow the Vietnamese to go into Arlington in the middle of the night and dig up old bones? Be serious. Yet Vietnamese officials have allowed American officials to do the equivalent. A joint team of Americans and Vietnamese have dug up Vietnamese military cemeteries as part of a pursuit of the impossible -- a full accounting of the 2,204 American MIAs in Indochina. While they found no GIs in the cemeteries, the overall level of cooperation by the Vietnamese is now extraordinarily high.

Those wanting continued cooperation on the MIA issue should want the United States to normalize diplomatic relations with Vietnam. Last year Bill Clinton lifted a 19-year trade embargo. Since then the record has been clear: warmer contacts mean that Americans get more information about MIAs. One year of friendly cooperation has worked better than 19 years of acting like a sore loser. Yet if the summer passes with no decision on normalization, the onset of the long American election season could mean a delay of nearly two years. That would be bad for U.S.-Vietnam relations--and thus for MIA progress. Clinton knows this, and so may decide soon. And a positive decision on normalization might not turn out to be a total political loss for him. While the publicity would remind the world of his own Vietnam draft avoidance, the president would also look resolute in the face of heavy sound-bite fire.

In the meantime, Americans and Vietnamese are going to unbelievable lengths to solve the MIA puzzle. Any rumor or "sighting"--however obviously phony--is checked out. For weeks, divers have been searching off Vietnam's southeastern coast for the wreckage of two American B-52s. Earlier this year, 14 Americans and 100 Vietnamese filled 4,000 sandbags to dam a stream near the Cambodian border, then excavated 20 tons of mud by hand shovel to unearth the wreckage of an American F-4 fighter. Sometimes searchers find bone fragments; more often they don't. Younger Vietnamese seem sympathetic to all this but a bit perplexed by the American obsession with the war. Their own concerns are economic. English is the language of choice, the dollar the semiofficial currency, and jobs with American companies are coveted because the bosses are reputed to be nicer.

The Vietnamese are still poor, with huge problems of infrastructure and red tape. But they live in Southeast Asia--the world's most dynamic economic region--and are looking to the future. Across the Pacific, at least some Americans still look to the past. Senate Republican Majority Leader add presidential candidate Bob Dole is cosponsoring a bill with New Hampshire Sen. Robert Smith (a Vietnam Veteran with a weakness for believing kooky MIA stories) that would effectively delay normalization for years. But conservative GOP Sen. John McCain, who was imprisoned for five and a half years as a POW in Hanoi, is teaming with fellow Vietnam vet John Kerry to push a Senate resolution backing diplomatic recognition. …

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