WASHINGTON - Bill Clinton will visit Vietnam as a final act of his presidency, confronting a painful chapter in the history of the nation and one of the most controversial in his own life.
The politically sensitive trip, planned for mid-November, would come after the election, in part to avoid competing with Vice President Al Gore in the final weeks of his presidential campaign. The Vietnam swing was tacked onto a previously planned trip to the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Brunei on Nov. 15 and 16.
The White House made no effort to hide the symbolic power of the first visit by a U.S. president to Vietnam since the war ended 25 years ago, a war that cost more than 58,000 American lives.
"The president believes that there has been a consensus that has developed in this country over the last few years that the time is right to move forward," White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said yesterday. "But there's very much a symbolic value in the president ... going actually to visit the country."
The meaning of the trip is only enhanced by Clinton's personal torment with Vietnam. The president actively opposed the war and sat out the conflict as a student at Georgetown University, Oxford University and Yale Law School. Charges of draft dodging dogged his 1992 campaign and have flared up every time the administration has moved to change U.S. policy toward Vietnam.
"This is a canard we've been confronting for eight years," snapped National Security Council spokesman P. J. Crowley. "This is not about the president. The country as a whole will all have a chance to think through what has happened in the past."
Not since July 1969, when Richard M. Nixon met with South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu in Saigon, has a U.S. president been to the country. Lyndon B. Johnson reviewed U.S. troops at Cam Ranh Bay in October 1966 and December 1967.
Clinton has mused about a trip to Vietnam for at least a year, but it became a reality last week when he met with Vietnamese President Tran Duc Luong in New York at the United Nations Millennium Summit.
The trip will have a policy agenda. White House aides said Clinton will discuss efforts to account for more than 2,000 U.S. soldiers who remain missing in action, as well as trade issues, political reform and a joint research program into the effects of Agent Orange, a defoliant used by the United States during the war.
Clinton hopes to be accompanied by a substantial delegation from Congress, including a number of Vietnam veterans, and a business contingent. Democratic Sen. Charles S. Robb of Virginia, a Vietnam veteran, has tentatively agreed to go. Two other Senate Democrats who served in Vietnam, John Kerry of Massachusetts and Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, said they hope to accompany the president.
Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican and Congress' most famous Vietnam veteran, did not immediately embrace the president's trip. "I hope he has an appropriate justification," he said. "I'd like to hear his rationale." McCain was invited, but declined to go, a GOP Senate source said.
Though Clinton has considerable personal baggage on the issue, he has made progress in moving the United States and Vietnam beyond the belligerence of the war years and their aftermath. In 1995, the administration normalized diplomatic relations with the country, sending Pete Peterson, former congressman and Vietnam POW, to Hanoi as the first U.S. ambassador since the war. In July, the administration normalized trade relations with Vietnam.
"On the issue of Vietnam, and the policies toward Vietnam, I think he's been very brave," Kerrey said. "He didn't go to Vietnam. It's a vulnerability. Politically, it's the sort of thing you want to avoid. But he figured out what he thought was right and went out and tried to get it done."
But doubts remain about the United States' increasingly cordial relationship toward the Communist nation that was once a bitter enemy.
The Vietnamese government has improved its cooperation with the United States in accounting for missing servicemen, said Bruce Harder, director of national security and foreign affairs for the Veterans of Foreign Wars. But he said he was skeptical of Clinton's motivation in making this trip at this time and that the United States should go no further in bringing the countries together until that accounting is complete.
The timing of the trip's announcement grated on some veterans as well. Today is National POW/MIA Recognition Day.
And then there is the issue of Clinton's own experience during the Vietnam era. It was not only that the president did not go, but the machinations he undertook to avoid service, including efforts to join the Arkansas National Guard, a brief ROTC draft deferment and finally his decision to take his chances with the draft at a time of declining draft calls. He received a high number and was not drafted.
To veterans, the issue remains fresh.
"Those of us who did serve when our country needed us don't feel any kinship to those who turned their heads and looked the other way," said Harder, a Marine who served two tours in Vietnam.
At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Starr McCollum, 55, of Tucson, Ariz., clutched a piece of paper with a rubbing of the name William E. Martin, her Marine fiance who was killed June 3, 1967. "I don't think he should go. Leave it to the next president," she said. "It would be like sending Jane Fonda over."
But other veterans and veterans groups - on Capitol Hill, in the political community and at the wall - were far more sanguine.
Ann Mills Griffiths, executive director of the National League of Families of POW/MIA in Southeast Asia, said the president's trip "could be positive" if Clinton presses the Vietnamese leadership to release more remains of U.S. servicemen and provide records that could aid in searches.
Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska said that in light of the two nations' growing trade and diplomatic ties, it was only appropriate for the president to make the trip.
"It will continue to enhance and improve relations between Vietnam and the U.S.," the war hero said. "So I'm glad he's doing it."
Jan Scruggs, the former Army infantryman in Vietnam who went on to spearhead the creation of the Vietnam Memorial, said he welcomes Clinton's visit. "It can only do good for both nations," he said. "It's a country to which America is tied by history and blood."
Sen. Max Cleland, a Georgia Democrat who lost two legs and an arm in a grenade explosion in Vietnam, said he too was supportive.
"The role of the U.S. is to encourage nations to live peacefully, to normalize relations in terms of trade with each other and with us, to get beyond their history, to get over it," he said. "I think the president going to Vietnam sends a message that it's time for all of us to move beyond our own history."
Cleland, however, was not about to go back to the country that cost him so dearly.
"I don't want to go back to Vietnam," he said. "I've spent enough time there."