WASHINGTON -- On the day President Clinton re-established diplomatic ties to Vietnam, Mario Alemany was still remembering the bodies he left behind 26 years ago as a combat medic.
"There were a lot of people killed, and we just couldn't retrieve them all," said Mr. Alemany, his eyes glassy after seeing the black granite wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial yesterday. "We didn't have time. They're still there."
Two decades after the last American troops left South Vietnam, the United States will formally recognize as a diplomatic partner the Communist nation that defeated the south and unified the country, despite persistent complaints that Vietnam has not done all it can to find the remains of the American dead.
In the East Room of the White House, Mr. Clinton conducted a brief and somewhat somber ceremony. "Today," he said without preamble, "I am announcing the normalization of relations with Vietnam."
He alluded in his remarks to the great differences of opinion that had split the public during the war and long after, with some of the bitterness focused on his own lack of military service.
"This moment offers us the opportunity to bind up our own wounds," Mr. Clinton said. "This step will also help our own country to move forward on an issue that has separated Americans from one another for too long now. Let the future be our destination."
Veterans at the Vietnam memorial yesterday said normalizing relations with their former foe was inevitable -- but perhaps too soon. They remained divided over the wisdom of rewarding Vietnam with recognition while more than 2,200 American troops were still listed as missing.
Some veterans were so shaken they could hardly speak.
"It's a good idea," said Mike Smith, a former Air Force sergeant who served in Vietnam in 1969 and 1970. "It's time for this to be over." But his eyes filled with tears.
Ralph Haynes stood at the top of the ramp leading to the polished black granite inscribed with the names of the 58,000 Americans who lost their lives in the war. He tried to compose himself before descending. There in the granite was the name of one of his best friends from Treadwell High School in Memphis, Tenn. -- Army Lt. Wayne Rushkin.
He was killed in 1967. Yesterday was the first time Mr. Haynes had visited the memorial.
"Normalizing relations is the right thing to do," he said, his voice shaking. "We were enemies for such a long time. That didn't work."
Most Americans seem to agree with him. A national poll released yesterday reported that 61 percent of those surveyed favored establishing normal relations with Vietnam; 29 percent said they were opposed.
Donna Long was among those furious with the decision. Her husband completed two tours of combat in Vietnam and one mission in Laos before he was killed in a car accident in 1979 at age 36. Ms. Long works as a volunteer, staffing a trailer that has become part of a permanent protest near the Vietnam memorial. The trailer is filled with POW-MIA pins and books and bumper stickers. Above the trailer is a black and white POW-MIA flag.
Yesterday, it was flown upside down, a signal of distress.
"This is a betrayal of our missing Americans and their families," said Ms. Long. "Big business wants to go in there and make money. In America, when money talks, human rights walk."
Walter P. McMillan was a Navy ensign stationed in Vietnam in 1965 and 1966. He said Mr. Clinton made the wrong decision.
"I don't think it's a good idea," he said at the memorial. "There are too many unanswered questions and too many missing men. But I guess Uncle Sam can go in there and make some money now. That's what this is all about."
At the White House, Mr. Clinton defended his decision, saying progress on human rights problems in Vietnam and attempts to find missing U.S. servicemen would be helped by formal recognition of Vietnam. His view was disputed by many Vietnamese-Americans, by the nation's largest veterans organizations and by groups representing the MIA families.
Before his announcement, Mr. Clinton met with the MIA families and veteran groups. Participants said the president vowed to speak to the groups first before strengthening economic ties to Vietnam.
"Is that a promise?" asked Ann Griffiths Mills, executive director of the National League of Families.
Mr. Clinton said it was, according to three participants. They said National Security Adviser Anthony Lake then raised his right hand solemnly -- as if swearing an oath.
Mr. Clinton, who once organized anti-war protests and wrote of "loathing" for the military, surrounded himself at the White House yesterday with some of Washington's best-known heroes from the Vietnam War.
Among them: Sen. Bob Kerrey, a Nebraska Democrat and former Navy SEAL who won the Medal of Honor; Sen. Charles S. Robb, a Virginia Democrat who eschewed special treatment from his father-in-law -- President Lyndon B. Johnson -- to lead Marine patrols in Southeast Asia; former POWs Rep. Pete Peterson, a Florida Democrat, and Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican; and Sen. John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat and Navy man who won three Purple Hearts, a Silver Star and a Bronze Star -- before coming home to help organize Vietnam Veterans Against the War.
"I am proud to be joined in this view by distinguished veterans of the Vietnam War," the president said. "A generation ago they had different judgments about the war which divided us so deeply. But today they are of a single mind. They agree that the time has come for America to move forward on Vietnam."
Afterward, those men stood around the White House grounds, talking about the decision. Some used humor. Some praised Mr. Clinton. Others issued simple pleas to end the war, once and for all.
"I support the president in what he did," said Mr. McCain, who was a prisoner for 5 1/2 years. "I believe it required some courage."