Making Our Peace with Vietnam


Havre de Grace. -- Our mothers always told us not to carry a grudge, and that reason is as good or better than the rest of the case the Clinton administration and others are making in support of opening diplomatic relations with Vietnam.

It's said that shaking hands with Hanoi reflects international realities, that it will help the geopolitical balance by strengthening an Asian power not aligned with China and that it will open a new market to American business. Those assertions are made by wise and worldly people, and they may well all be true.

But it's plain playground wisdom that grudges are ultimately more damaging to those who hold them than to those at whom they're directed. This is true of five-year-olds, and of nations as well. In the matter of Vietnam, perhaps the time has come to look ahead instead of behind.

It was 20 years ago that our sometime ally South Vietnam, in whose defense we had spent so much money and blood, died at the age of 21. In retrospect, it's remarkable with what equanimity we accepted its demise. There was no effort to assign blame, only a sort of national sigh of relief. In the elections of 1976, the fate of Vietnam was not even an issue.

After 1975, we here in this country enjoyed the benefits of peace. The anti-war protesters went away. The troops came home, and the prisoners of war were released -- most of them, anyway. For a while we put it all behind us. It was as though a boil had been lanced.

But the peace that descended on Vietnam turned out to be not such a fine thing after all. It was shocking in its brutality, even to those who opposed the war. Vietnamese who had fought beside us fled the country, if they could. The conquerors dealt harshly with those who couldn't or wouldn't flee.

This came as no surprise to the public at large, although it did appear to startle certain policy-makers who had assumed that the totalitarian reputation of the North Vietnamese regime was a figment of the right wing's imagination.

At a Washington convocation 10 years after the Paris peace accords that let the United States out of the war, James Webb, the decorated Marine officer who later served as secretary of the Navy, clearly described the relationship between the Vietnamese communists and those they ruled.

"What really motivated the peasantry was fear," he said. "If I had to describe the communist policy in the areas I operated in, it was, 'We want you to like us, and if you don't like us, we will kill you.' And they did." These are the people with whom we're now going to exchange ambassadors.

Many Americans are appalled at the idea of establishing normal diplomatic relationships with such a murderous regime, especially as the evidence is so compelling that it held onto some American prisoners as bargaining pieces long after the Paris accords -- and then presumably disposed of them in secret when it became apparent that they were a potential embarrassment and an obstacle to diplomatic recognition.

But there's much to be said in support of the Clinton decision, politically difficult as it may have been.

Most Vietnamese living today were born or grew up after the war. The regime continues to thaw gradually as its wartime leaders age and internal pressures for liberalization grow. And the increased openness to the rest of the world that normal diplomatic relations bring will inevitably encourage democracy.

At the same time, these developments will also pave the way for the eventual release of what are likely to be some horrifying truths. One day, Americans are going to find out, unofficially at first, what happened to some of those servicemen missing in Vietnam who remain unaccounted for.

When that news arrives, there may be enormous political repercussions. At the very least, the reputations of those who arranged the 1973 peace accords are likely to undergo some searching revision. But even so, there's surely more to be gained by looking ahead with hope than by looking back in anger.

In 1991, speaking in Honolulu on the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, George Bush observed that after World War II was over "we helped our enemies give birth to democracies. We reached out . . . We made our enemies our friends, and we healed their wounds. And in the process, we lifted ourselves up."

It's easier to do that sort of thing after winning a war, maybe, but 20 years after a war that wasn't won it's equally important to make a similar effort.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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