The United States appears to be hardening its stance toward Vietnam by disapproving for the first time in the postwar period a license for a shipment of humanitarian aid to that hard-pressed country.
At issue: the State Department's blocking of a relatively small shipment of wheat flour. But some nongovernment agencies concerned with aiding Vietnam consider it a symbol of a broader, tougher, US approach to Vietnam and its occupation of Cambodia.
Vietnam is going through a period of severe economic hardship that has resulted in a degree of malnutrition among Vietnamese children unknown even during the war years. At the same time, in violation of widespread international censure, Vietnam is occupying neighboring Cambodia. While obviously not wholly responsible for Vietnam's food problems, this occupation has clearly added to them.
The US government has decided to reject an application from the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) to ship 250 tons of wheat flour from Kansas to Vietnam. Mennonite representatives say that this is the first time the government has rejected such a request in recent years. They say, for example, that in 1975, they sent medicines, soap, clothing, and water pumps, as well as wheat flour, to Vietnam.
State Department officials say the US has allowed some aid to be sent to Vietnam, through private organizations, in order to maintain a channel of communications with the Vietnamese and to send them "signals" as to the direction being taken by American policymakers. They say that the request to ship wheat flour is being rejected because of Cambodia.
In a letter to the MCC, the State Department stated that while the US recognizes the hardship being suffered by the Vietnamese people, it believes the Vietnamese government could alleviate that hardship by "ending its diversion of resources from economic development to military conquest."
The MCC's executive secretary for Asia, Bert C. Lobe, said the Mennonites were appealing the government's decision to disapprove the wheat flour shipment. The MCC, he said, does not support the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia. But it takes the position that there is much more to Vietnam's current economic hardship than the strains resulting from Vietnamese actions in Cambodia.
Lobe noted that drought in late 1979 and early 1980 was followed by typhoons and floods that caused heavy destruction to the rice crop in northern and central Vietnam.
"We feel strongly that one of our basic freedoms is to decide who we want to help, regardless of ideology," said Lobe in a telephone interview from his office in Akron, Pa. "We have consistently taken the position that our assistance does not mean support for a particular ideology or political system."
Is is US policy to deny all exports to Vietnam except "noncommercial shipments to meet emergency needs.
Lobe did say, however, that after a recent visit to Cambodia he came to the conclusion that most Cambodians, despite their traditional rivalries and animosity toward the Vietnamese, would prefer Vietnamese occupation to the return of the hated Pol Pot regime. Ex-Premier Pol Pot and his government were driven out of Phnom Penh during the invasion of 1978.
State Department officials say that the US is not alone in disapproving food shipments to Vietnam. They note that the European Community (EC) has turned down a Vietnamese request for food aid.
State Department officials say that the rejection of the proposed wheat flour shipment is not part of a new Reagan administration policy but results instead from a review that began some months before the Carter adminstration came to an end. Until then, one official said, the State Department had "drifted along ad hoc, case by case."
Officials decided to produce clearer criteria to deal with such cases, and those criteria led to the decision now in question. The official said that under the newly formulated criteria, medicine of an elementary nature would generlly qualify for shipmen t to Vietnam.