VIETNAM. — Vietnam. -- Twenty-five years ago, America tried to build the "McNamara Wall" across the middle of this country. The idea was to block the Ho Chi Minh Trail just south of the DMZ by setting up a string of forts.
The nightly television news made their names famous: Khe Sanh, Con Thien, Camp Carroll, the Rockpile.
There isn't much of them left now -- a few dilapidated bunkers and some scattered shell casings. But you can visit the sites, as I did this week with a former Marine captain, one of the many American soldiers who had manned these forts in the late 1960s.
Our Vietnamese guide turned out to be a former soldier himself. In 1968, he had come down the Ho Chi Minh Trail as a young private in the North Vietnamese Army. As we drove through the area, he showed us how the NVA troops and supply columns had simply gone around the forts.
The former Marine captain had realized at the time how futile the forts were. The McNamara Wall, he said, was a perfect example of American strategic thinking in the war. It rested on a total misunderstanding of Vietnam.
Today, American policy towards this country remains perversely misguided. Alone among major nations, we refuse to normalize diplomatic relations. We also persist -- again alone -- with the trade embargo which we have kept in effect since 1964.
Both policies were originally designed to "isolate" this Communist country. Today they only isolate American businesses from one of the most promising and rapidly growing economies in Asia.
In 1986, Vietnam's Communist government abruptly altered course. It ditched its Soviet-style economic planning, abandoned collectivized agriculture, switched to free-market economics, encouraged capitalism and adopted some of the most open foreign investment laws in the developing world.
The new policies have worked. Vietnam's economy has leaped ahead. Annual real growth rates have exceeded 8 percent.
Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) vibrate with commercial enterprise. Televisions and stereos cram the shops. The sound of new construction begins at dawn and goes on until after dark. Thousands of motor bikes jam the streets.
We spent 12 days here as a part of a delegation of Americans organized by the Baltimore-based American Center for International Leadershp. Everywhere we saw this country's greatest asset -- its fiercely ambitious, hard-working, disciplined, well-educated and inexpensive labor force.
Many multinational companies are betting that this nation of 70 million people will achieve the kind of sustained high-growth economic expansion that has transformed Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea, Indonesia and Thailand.
In the last year, eight international banks have opened branches in Hanoi. A Taiwanese firm is building a $200 million cement factory in Haiphong. BMW will begin assembling cars here next year. Oil companies are prospecting in the South China Sea. The European Economic Community has just signed a trade agreement. The Japanese are everywhere.
The biggest opportunities lie in building the country's infrastructure. It takes three hours to drive the potholed 60 miles of single-lane road from Hanoi to the port at Haiphong. The
country's decrepit transportation system, bridges, ports, electric power facilities, sanitation systems and telecommunications networks all need massive modernization.
The necessary capital is pouring into the country. Japan and France have just refunded Vietnam's debt to the International Monetary Fund. The refinancing allows the World Bank to invest here. It will put in $350 million this year. The Asian Development Bank will add another $250 million. A consortium of Asian and European nations plans $400 million more. As investments increase, the projects will grow.
American businesses, however, cannot participate in any of these opportunities. The embargo precludes them. A delegation American business leaders led by David Rockfeller has recommended that we end it. But the tragic past still dominates the present.
A lot of American soldiers died in Vietnam. Their families and friends grieve for them. For some, the agony persists because their loved ones remain unaccounted for. The United States left behind 2,265 soldiers missing in action.
Of course, the need to account for these men is an urgent priority for our government and our people. But the issue now unjustifiably controls American policy toward Vietnam.
In a lengthy briefing here, the US-MIA/POW Task Force reviewed the exhustive efforts to find out exactly what happened to each American MIA. Searches, excavations and research have reduced to 80 the number of missing American servicemen whose fates are still unknown. But no evidence whatever suggests that any of them are alive.
Task Force members state unequivocally that the Vietnamese government has provided complete cooperation and assistance to the identification effort. Therefore, no further justification exists for the stalemate in America's relations with this country.
Our policy, however, is held hostage to the tragic war which ended 20 years ago but which still haunts us. It surely haunts the Vietnamese too. In 12 days traveling around the country, we saw hundreds of Vietnamese military cemeteries. Every village has one. Row after row of silent tombstones. Three million dead. These people have their own MIAs -- 300,000 of them.
Yet we saw almost no evidence of any continuing hostility or bitterness toward Americans. Hotel clerks, shopkeepers, people on the street, children -- everyone seemed glad to see us in their country.
Just south of the old DMZ, two former soldiers walked over the scarred ground together and discussed the battles. Each of them had lost comrades in the fighting here. But the Marine and the NVA soldier had both put the war behind them. It's time for the rest of us to do the same.
Tim Baker's column appears on alternate Mondays.