THE final battle of the Vietnam War may at last be coming to an end.
For more than 20 years - ever since that iconic last helicopter rose from the US embassy roof in Saigon - America has been struggling with itself over Indochina, mired in a mix of guilt, humiliation, and anger at the causes of its greatest military defeat.
In American culture the word "Vietnam" has seldom stood for an actual country. It has been instead a place of dark imagination, where soldiers forever creep through the jungle, surrounded by numberless, faceless enemies. It has meant a place of national overreaching, of good intentions gone awry.
Now it falls to President Clinton to mark a major turning point in this national inner strife, by restoring official diplomatic relations with Vietnam. In doing so, he pairs himself in history with one of his idols, John F. Kennedy, under whose presidency the US troop buildup in Vietnam began.
It is a move that contains grave political risks for Clinton, given his youthful opposition to the Vietnam War. Some conservatives bitterly oppose normalization, saying that Vietnam has not done enough to account for the fate of those still counted Missing in Action (MIA).
But Clinton officials say it is time, as a nation, to move on. "I think it's been our judgment that there's been considerable progress in achieving the fullest possible accounting for POWs and MIAs," White House press secretary Mike McCurry said July 10.
"One argument in favor of closer relations with Vietnam is to continue that progress."
Through the lens of history
To put the exchange of embassies with Vietnam in a broader context, consider the example of US-German relations. Twenty years after the end of World War II, in 1965, what was then West Germany had become a close and valued US ally. Twenty-two years after US-Vietnamese Paris Peace accords, by contrast, Washington and Hanoi are barely acquaintances.
Part of the reason for this difference, of course, is that the US won World War II. It could afford to be magnanimous - and a defeated West Germany was by that time firmly democratic and capitalist.
But there were geostrategic reasons for the difference as well. The rise of the Soviet threat quickly pushed US and West Germany together. US policy toward Vietnam has been driven by no such large calculation of interest.
"America had been obsessed by Vietnam, but in the long run it was for us only a small corner of a world..." noted former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in his memoirs.
Thus, for 20 years, as far as the US has been concerned, its relationship with Vietnam has been high profile in public concern, but unimportant in a strategic sense. That has allowed US-Vietnam policy to be driven by emotion, by symbolism, and by the need for catharsis.
"There is a deep, emotional volatility in the American public attitude toward 'Vietnam,' the symbol of an American defeat, that easily becomes conflated with Vietnam, a country which is trying to adjust to the post-cold-war world just like the United States," writes Pomona College professor David Elliott in an Aspen Institute report on the US and Vietnam.
Ever since it took office, the Clinton administration has been edging toward closer US-Vietnam ties, always moving slowly, aware of the political dangers. Last year, the administration lifted two decades of restrictions on US trade with Vietnam, clearly preparing the way for eventual recognition.
Always, the administration has tried to move in concert with prominent Republicans who back closer relations with Vietnam - among them Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a former prisoner of war who was tortured during his incarceration.
But establishing diplomatic relations does not mean that the US is recognizing Vietnam as a friend. Hanoi is a dictatorship that still allows its citizens too few human rights, in Washington's view. But diplomatic recognition is in fact a very low threshold for a country to reach.
"Having an exchange of ambassadors means you have a means of communicating with that country. It doesn't reflect a positive view of that country's politics," says Irene Wu, Vietnam analyst for the US-ASEAN Council, a group of businesses that deals with the six nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Recognized within own region
Ms. Wu points out that Vietnam itself is joining ASEAN later this month. That means Hanoi has acquired a measure of legitimacy within its own region. It also forced Clinton's hand, in a way. The US itself has good relations with ASEAN and would be placed in an awkward diplomatic position if it continued to refuse to recognize an ASEAN member country.
Recognition probably does not mean that Vietnam will disappear as a domestic US issue overnight. As US businesses move heavily into a Vietnam where they see a bright economic future, they will push for ever-closer ties, with each step likely to engender its own debate. "The next thing will be, 'should we give Vietnamese products most-favored-nation tariff treatment,'" asks Charles Morrison, program director at the East-West Center in Hawaii.
And the MIA issue is likely to remain a powerful one for millions of Americans. "I'm sick and tired of honorable people going over to Hanoi to toast and heal the wounds of war. They're toasting with war criminals," GOP presidential candidate Rep. Bob Dornan of California said on July 10.