ONE of the ironies in the United States's tangled and tragic relations with Vietnam is how unimportant, from a geostrategic standpoint, those relations are today. Vietnam, once the linchpin in the ``domino theory'' that transfixed US strategic thinking for a generation, is now - despite the large Soviet naval base at Cam Ranh Bay - just a backwater for global policymakers in Washington. Yet there are strong humanitarian reasons why the US should progress toward normalized relations with its former enemy.
Although Vietnam has become more forthcoming in locating the remains of Americans killed in the war, there is still room for greater cooperation to account for the US missing in action. Improved relations might speed that endeavor.
Also, with better relations the US could play a bigger role in resolving refugee problems in Vietnam. These include easing the emigration of Vietnamese nationals with ties to the US, such as the Amerasian children of former US servicemen, and protecting the human rights of the ``boat people,'' many of whom now face repatriation from Hong Kong and other saturated destinations.
The announced withdrawal of Hanoi's troops from Cambodia by the end of September removes the major barrier to normalized dealings. The US should respond positively to the pullout by opening a diplomatic interest section in Hanoi and by lifting, at least partially, its trade and investment embargo on Vietnam. Formal recognition should await further evidence that Hanoi is working in good faith toward a comprehensive political settlement in Cambodia; at the same time, recognition should not be held hostage to factionalism and political intrigue in Phnom Penh.
For many Americans and Vietnamese, warmer relations would help heal the wounds of the war. That alone is a good reason to push toward normalization.