WASHINGTON -- Black POW/MIA flags were flying upside-down near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a sign of distress over President Clinton's decision to establish diplomatic relations with Vietnam. Veterans selling T-shirts and MIA bracelets were already calling it "Black Tuesday."
"It's a betrayal of the Americans who are still missing and their families," said Larry Bice, a Vietnam veteran who represents the Last Firebase, a group of families of veterans who were never accounted for after the war.
While Mr. Bice and some other veterans visiting the memorial expressed bitterness over the president's announcement, others who had served in Vietnam or lost loved ones in the conflict agreed that the time had come to patch up relations with the old enemy.
Two sisters, Thelma Sweet and Mildred Badgley, sobbed at the sight of their brother's name, one of the tens of thousands etched into the black marble memorial.
They spoke vividly of the despair they felt 27 years ago when their 20-year-old brother, Dale Badgley, slowly bled to death from two bullet wounds above his heart in a place called the Plain of Reeds.
Yet, they said, they are ready now to treat Vietnam like any other nation.
"All of these men and women are remembered and mourned, but that does not mean that all these years later we shouldn't renew our relations with Vietnam. [Normalizing] relations doesn't mean that we don't still feel a terrible loss. But it's time for life to go on," said Ms. Sweet, a 40-year-old police dispatcher from Coldwater, Mich., who sat with her sister for a long time in front of their brother's name, talking softly and crying.
The Vietnam Memorial, constructed in 1982, draws more than 2 million visitors annually. Many use paper and crayons to trace the names of loved ones who died, talk quietly about the people they once knew and leave behind flowers and notes.
Yesterday, the discussions at times touched on America's relations now with Vietnam.
The divergent views expressed by the visitors to the memorial echoed the polarity of politicians' opinions on the issue. While some people agreed with the president, others argued ardently that America has no business opening relations with the Communist nation that has failed to account for the Americans who fought in the war.
"The Vietnamese have fought us tooth-and-nail about the missing-in-action issue," said Jim Gourley, 44, a restaurant manager who traveled from Nashville, Tenn., with his two sons to visit the sites in Washington. "I don't really think [the president] should have done it until there was some kind of public apology or big gesture on the part of the Vietnamese. They haven't done anything to say that they want to be our friends."
Mr. Bice and some other veterans at the memorial took issue with the Clinton administration's view that normal relations with Vietnam will provide the United States with increased leverage for solving the remaining missing-in-action cases.
But Jim Vieland, who was looking for the names of some of the men he fought with in Vietnam in 1966 and 1967, said that he hopes that Hanoi will respond to the extension of diplomatic relations by resolving more of the missing-in-action cases.
"It all should come together now," said Mr. Vieland, a resident of Chardon, Ohio.