NEARLY 20 years after the last American troops left Vietnam, that war again haunts the headlines.
Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton's efforts to avoid the draft in 1969 remain a campaign issue, as does Vice President Quayle's conduct during the same period. Meanwhile, a Senate committee this week questioned former Nixon-administration officials about their exertions in behalf of American prisoners of war and missing servicemen at the time of the US military pullout from Southeast Asia in 1973.
Vietnam should never be locked away in a file. Historians and policy analysts should keep on sifting through the debris of that painful episode, both to establish an accurate record and to glean whatever lessons may benefit future policymakers. And those Americans who bore the brunt of the war - the men and women whose names are inscribed on the Vietnam Memorial, the veterans still requiring medical or economic assistance, and the servicemen whose fates have never been adequately accounted for - have an ongoing claim to the nation's attention and caring.
As to Clinton's and Quayle's behavior during the war, the record seems pretty clear. Neither man was a hero; neither deserves any praise for his fancy footwork around his draft board. (Despite what Quayle says about his National Guard service, and Clinton's second thoughts about putting his name back in the lottery, both men's actions hardly differ on the crux of the matter - avoiding combat in Vietnam.) Neither acted illegally or differently from millions of his peers. Their readiness for high office sh ould be assessed on what they have since achieved in public life.
Then there's the Senate probe. Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts deserves credit for his persistence in the cause of American POWs and MIAs. One naturally feels compassion for those men and for their families. It's imperative that the US government continue vigorously to press Hanoi for the fullest possible accounting of the missing men.
Senator Kerry's efforts may not be wholly constructive, however. The POW/MIA issue has sometimes been propped up by the thinnest reeds of evidence. Some people have shamefully and even fraudulently manipulated the issue - and the emotions of the families - for their own purposes. Kerry's efforts may have secondarily abetted such people. The hearings have value as a search for the truth. But the search itself could be overwhelmed by the emotional charge of the issue. This should be guarded against. Though
a decorated veteran, Kerry later became an ardent critic of the war. His hearings have elicited the sensational (though uncorroborated) charge that the Nixon administration knowingly abandoned some POWs held in Vietnam or Laos.
Resolution of the POW/MIA issue must be part of any deal to normalize relations with Vietnam. The difficulty of keeping all aspects of the Vietnam experience in proportion only underlines the war's essential tragedy.