Vets Remembered, Accounted For

As Americans paid their Veterans Day tributes, they also learned of executions in Russia

TWO events this week, held at opposite ends of the grassy mall linking the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial, tell a touching story of remembrance and reconciliation.

Near one end, in the shadow of the memorial, families, friends, and the curious gathered to pay tribute to American soldiers lost and missing in Vietnam.

The black granite slab, bearing nearly 60,000 names, was dedicated a decade ago this week. It is America's version of Jerusalem's Wailing Wall, one Washington pundit notes, a place of pride but also of soul-searching.

Through the week every name on "the Wall," as it has come to be known, was read aloud.

By the end of Veterans Day, thousands of sober visitors, led by President Bush and Vice-President-elect Albert Gore Jr., had filed by, clearly moved by the valor and sacrifice of America's most unpopular war.

As the Vietnam War was being remembered at one end of the mall, one of the last acts of a historic reconciliation between the adversaries who caused it was being played out at the other. Soviet general testifies

In a remarkable scene on Capitol Hill a decorated Vietnam veteran (John Kerry, now a Democratic senator from Massachusetts) took testimony from a former Soviet general (Dimitry Volkogonov, now co-chairman of a joint US-Russia commission searching for American POWs and MIAs) about Americans missing from World War II and the Korean War.

The Russian brought bad news but also candor.

Americans were held in prison camps after World War II and some were "summarily executed," he read from a letter sent by Russian president Boris Yeltsin. Some have voluntarily remained in Russia. None, he said he believes, are still forcibly detained.

"In our times everything is open in our country, so I believe we would definitely have heard if there was even one case of an American still being held alive against his will in our country," General Volkogonov told the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs.

Volkogonov said there was only a "distant possibility" that any American POWs were moved to the Soviet Union from Korea or Vietnam.

The disclosure peels away a little of the mystery that surrounds the fate of the thousands of soldiers unaccounted for from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and various cold war incidents. It removes one of the last vestiges of a cold war epoch whose dangers and tensions already seem a distant memory.

The diminishing salience of the Vietnam era was underscored during the recent presidential campaign.

Despite repeated attempts, President Bush was never able to galvanize public outrage over Gov. Bill Clinton's moves to avoid the Vietnam War draft.

But even as he was attempting to do so, Mr. Bush was proceeding with steps designed to restore Vietnam to a position of respectability in the international community.

United States relations with communist Vietnam were broken after it swallowed South Vietnam, in violation of the 1972 peace accords ending the Vietnam War. Vietnam embargo broken

Five Asian nations, including Korea and Taiwan, have broken a 1975 trade embargo against Vietnam, opening the door to trade and investments that critics say will only perpetuate the country's communist regime. Japan followed suit last week, adding to the concerns of US businessmen that they are being excluded from a potentially lucrative market.

In a bid to speed reconciliation with the US, Vietnam late last month released 4,000 photographs designed to answer questions about what became of some of the 2,260 US servicemen who are still unaccounted for since the end of the war.

Ironically, Vietnam may come back to haunt Bill Clinton, even as he assumes the first post-cold-war presidency.

Early on he may have to decide which is more important: business opportunities in one of the world's last communist dictatorships that will help resuscitate a weak US economy; or the principle of democracy, which can only be buttressed by keeping Vietnam - and its markets - at arm's length until political reforms are made. The unenviable choice is between pragmatism and principle.

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