WASHINGTON — AS the United States ready to normalize relations with one-time bitter foe Vietnam? "Hold on there," the Clinton administration says, in essence. "We're not yet moving that fast."
In recent weeks, there have been signs of a thaw between Washington and Hanoi. Most notably, on July 2 President Clinton said the US would no longer block loans to Vietnam from the World Bank and other international institutions.
Three State Department employees are being sent to Hanoi to help study documents relating to US servicemen missing since the Vietnam War. Secretary of State Warren Christopher met Vietnamese Foreign Minister Nguyen Manh Cam in Singapore yesterday. Mr. Christopher is due to hold formal talks with Mr. Cam tomorrow - the highest level US-Vietnamese meeting in years.
But the issue of Vietnam is obviously a sensitive one for the president, given his draft record. Administration officials are now taking a tough line, insisting that there will be no improvement in relations without more progress on the emotional issue of accounting for US prisoners of war and those missing in action.
"That's what's driving our policy in the United States. We need to have assurance from them that we've gotten all the available information on POWs and MIAs," Christopher said at a briefing for reporters prior to his departure last week on a round-the-world trip.
Clinton officials hope that their recent moderate gestures of friendship will encourage the Vietnamese to be even more forthcoming than they have been. But they insist that the normalization timetable remains uncertain.
The US trade embargo against Vietnam expires September 15, and the White House must then decide whether to renew it. Some members of Congress have been urging Mr. Clinton to take the big step of lifting the embargo and getting on with establishing ties with the Hanoi regime.
SEN. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts, who headed an extensive Senate probe into the POW/MIA issue, pointed out last week that Japan and other US allies have already pumped some $2.9 billion in business investments into Vietnam, and that US firms are losing a race in which they can't compete.
"Most importantly, we deny ourselves the opportunity for national healing, which can come only with the recognition that the war is over," Mr. Kerry said.
After years of back-and-forth on the POW issue, the question now is: What kind of progress is the US looking for?
US officials say they want urgent work on the recovery of US servicemens' remains, among other things. Last week, the 24th joint US-Vietnamese search team found remains in central provinces that it said could be missing US servicemen. The 92 "discrepancy cases" are also a priority. These are cases, such as a downed US flier known to be alive after his crash, in which the US thinks that the Vietnamese know more than they are saying.
The US also wants access to all government documents, photographs, survivor interviews, and other paperwork that might shed light on missing individuals. In particular, they are looking for archives from Group 875 of the General Political Department, the part of the Hanoi government that handled prisoners, and Group 559, which dealt with activities along the Ho Chi Minh trail.
Their Vietnamese counterparts say many of these documents were destroyed in the war and that US expectations in this area are unrealistic.
"We cannot know with absolute certainty what specific Vietnamese archives actually exist," said Ed Ross, acting assistant secretary of defense for POW/MIA affairs, at a congressional hearing July 21.
Whatever happens, it will be a long time before normalization leads to truly normal relations between countries that fought such a bitter war. Economic liberalization is proceeding in Hanoi, while political change lags behind, leaving Vietnamese leaders open to criticism on their human-rights record. POW/MIA activists continue to insist that the Vietnamese are not to be trusted.