IN his first Inaugural address, former President Richard Nixon offered a veiled policy initiative toward communist China when he proclaimed: "We seek an open world - open to ideas, open to the exchange of goods and people - a world in which no people, great or small, will live in angry isolation."
Today, his words are appropriate to usher in a historic new era in United States-Vietnam relations. The time has come for President Clinton to normalize relations and send an ambassador to Vietnam.
I have traveled twice to Vietnam. In 1967-68, I served in Vietnam as a US Army lieutenant. In 1988, I returned as a US senator on a dramatic and emotional journey. The remains of 27 of my fallen comrades were returned to US authorities during my visit.
Since 1978, US policy toward Vietnam has remained constant: Normalization shall not occur until peace and autonomy are established in Cambodia and the US has obtained the fullest possible accounting of the more than 2,200 Americans listed as prisoners of war or missing in action (POW/MIAs).
I do not question our dual policy objectives on Cambodia and POW/MIAs. However, since my 1988 visit, I have questioned the effectiveness of continuing the use of US trade and diplomatic embargoes to achieve these ends. The policy of isolation has long reached a point of diminishing returns for America's strategic, humanitarian, and international trade interests. A new chapter in US-Vietnam relations should be written, one of regular official contacts, increased tourism, and growing economic and humanitar ian cooperation.
Much has changed in Vietnam since 1988. The Soviet Union's collapse has cut off the Vietnamese from more than a billion dollars in annual foreign aid. This, combined with the impact of the US trade embargo, has compelled Vietnam to privatize and seek capital from foreign sources.
To his credit, President Bush cautiously chipped away at the policy of isolation. In October 1991, the US and Vietnam joined in a 17-nation peace settlement for Cambodia. Since 1987, Vietnam has returned hundreds of remains of US MIAs. Hanoi also has cooperated to allow greater access to records and archives and short-notice investigations of alleged live POW sightings. Progress on this front has not been steady and smooth, in part because Vietnam has not always dealt with us in a straightforward manner.
Yet, despite the possible recurrence of Vietnamese insincerity, enough progress has been achieved in key areas to warrant considering new policy directions.
Mr. Bush recognized the difficulty of reversing 13 years of isolation with the stroke of a pen. This is particularly true given the emotional feelings many Americans have toward Vietnam. For that reason, Bush extended to Vietnam limited concessions, including humanitarian aid, direct communications, and US commercial sales for basic human needs. Last December, Bush allowed US businesses to open offices and sign contracts in Vietnam, but no real agreements can be implemented until the trade embargo is lif ted.
The US is on the doorstep of normalization. The sole issue for Mr. Clinton is timing: When should economic and diplomatic normalization occur? I believe the time should be now. For all practical purposes, Vietnam no longer is economically isolated. Taiwan, Hong Kong, Australia, the Netherlands, Britain, France and Japan already have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the Vietnamese economy. Japan is Vietnam's leading trade partner, with $1.2 billion total volume in 1992.
Meanwhile, US businesses remain tied to the remnants of an outdated policy. The continued absence of American investment affords more time for Japan and other nations to expand their economic ties with Vietnam. As a result, America's present and future ability to influence Vietnam's economic, political, and humanitarian development will decline with each passing day.
Our progress in Cambodia and our gains with POW/MIA identification must not be lost. Abandoning the policy of isolation would not be an abandonment of either objective. Instead, it is time the US exercised new leverage by being an active economic partner, not a potential one. We stand a better chance to further our gains on the POW/MIA issue with a strong American presence in Vietnam: from an ambassador, businessmen, increased tourism, and our Peace Corps to those Americans who want better answers on the
status of loved ones who did not return from Vietnam. This kind of US presence would apply leverage that would yield positive results on the POW/MIA issue, as well as regional peace and human rights.