WASHINGTON — THE stage is being set in Congress for one last showdown over one of the most divisive issues in recent American history: the Vietnam War.
An upcoming resolution backed by most of the Senate's Vietnam War veterans will urge President Clinton to move quickly to normalize relations with the Communist government of Vietnam. Ties were broken after North Vietnam conquered South Vietnam in 1975.
But normalization is opposed by many Republican lawmakers, some veterans groups, and families of missing Americans who insist that Vietnam should not be accorded full recognition until the Hanoi government does more to account for 2,200 United States soldiers, sailors, and airmen still reported missing in Southeast Asia.
At issue is a question of tactics: whether the carrot of granting recognition or the stick of withholding it will be the more effective means of resolving the matter of the missing Americans once and for all.
A question of timing
The debate in Congress will resonate at the White House, where Mr. Clinton is weighing a recommendation from Secretary of State Warren Christopher to recognize Vietnam before the end of the year and before the onset of the 1996 presidential election season.
"The president's political advisers in the White House would feel a lot more comfortable if the Senate voted for it," says a congressional source, referring to the resolution to be introduced as early as next week by two decorated Vietnam veterans, Sens. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts and John McCain (R) of Arizona.
The issue will be given added salience in October, when Vietnamese President Le Duc Anh visits New York to participate in 50th anniversary ceremonies at the United Nations. If he also travels to Washington, he would be the most senior Vietnamese official to meet with US officials here in 20 years.
White House officials have said in the past that the US would not recognize Vietnam until after the 1996 election, but Clinton has been under strong pressure from within his administration, and from outside it, to put normalization on a fast track.
The move is championed by Winston Lord, assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs, who last month traveled to Hanoi to obtain more information on the Americans still missing from the Vietnam War.
Another strong advocate within the administration is Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, because many US business concerns are eager to exploit economic opportunities in Vietnam that have been limited by the absence of full diplomatic ties between Washington and Hanoi.
The issue of normalization is freighted with political risks for Clinton, whose stock is low with many conservatives and veterans groups because he sidestepped military service in Vietnam.
On May 18 two of his principal critics, Sen. Robert Smith (R) of New Hampshire, who fought in Vietnam, and Senate majority leader Bob Dole (R) of Kansas, who was decorated in World War II, sponsored a preemptive resolution designed to slow the move towards full recognition.
The Smith-Dole measure would ban funds for establishing diplomatic relations and most-favored-nation (MFN) trading status with Vietnam until Clinton certifies that Vietnam is being "fully cooperative and forthcoming" in accounting for the missing servicemen.
The extension of full diplomatic relations would consummate a process that began last year when the administration lifted a trade embargo against Vietnam. In February, the two nations opened liaison offices in each others' capitals.
When relations are normalized the US is likely to grant MFN status to Vietnam, opening the door to credits from the Export-Import Bank and investment guarantees from the Overseas Private Investment Corporation that US firms need to compete on an equal basis in Vietnam with foreign firms.
A resolution proposed by Senators Kerry and McCain last year to end the economic embargo on Vietnam was approved in the Senate 62 to 38. It provided political cover for Clinton who later lifted the ban, with minimal resulting public outcry.
Congressional sources say a resolution to normalize relations could also pass in the Senate. But support for normalization may be thinner in the House, where a version of the Smith-Dole resolution has now been introduced. Without a clear congressional mandate, the sources say, Clinton may be tempted to postpone the issue of normalization until after next year's elections.
Hanoi's help is key
Besides domestic politics, Hanoi's cooperation on the issue of missing Americans will bear on whether Clinton decides to go forward.
In July of 1993, Clinton imposed strict standards of accountability, demanding, among other things, unilateral efforts by Vietnam to locate and return the remains of missing US servicemen.
US officials say 187 pages of information provided to Mr. Lord and other US officials last month in Vietnam are evidence of Vietnam's good-faith efforts to cooperate. But critics are unconvinced.
"The documents signal that Vietnam is being more forthcoming," says Ann Mills Griffiths, executive director of the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia.
"But unless Hanoi demonstrates a sustained pattern of cooperation, the US should not normalize relations."
"We support the president's criteria and anyone who informs him that his own criteria have been met have not been straightforward."
A total of 58,000 Americans died in the war.
Successive Democratic and Republican administrations justified it as essential to containing the spread of communism.
The war effort collapsed when North Vietnamese troops overran South Vietnam, forcing the last Americans there to evacuate.