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The Iron Curtain has vanished. The Berlin Wall is down. Now the barriers that have separated the United States and Vietnam are being hastily dismantled.

With the support of the Senate, President Clinton lifted the 19-year-old trade embargo with Vietnam Feb. 3, giving corporate America the green light to dive into a market of 70-plus million people whose access to American goods has been almost nonexistent since the war ended. The Vietnamese, in return, are dressing up their exports and holding their arms open to foreign investors no longer inhibited by the American embargo.Three State Department representatives are now stationed in Hanoi, and Washington and the Vietnamese government have announced the establishment of liaison offices in both countries soon.

The decision to lift the embargo has been labeled as premature by some and long overdue by others. In either case, Americans are being compelled to come to terms with their feelings about Vietnam and the effects of the war.

The war claimed the lives of more than 55,000 Americans fighting in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos and left the home front bitterly divided.

Peace talks in Paris led to the Paris Peace Accord and subsequent withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam in 1973. American soldiers, airmen, Marines and sailors returned home without victory and largely without honor. North Vietnam violated tenets of the peace agreement when it overran South Vietnam in 1975.

An exodus from all of Indochina followed, bringing Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian refugees to the United States - including Utah.

Utah's veterans of the Vietnam War, with their comrades from across the nation, began the lengthy task of regaining their place among segments of society that opposed the war and shunned them along with it. They also sought compensation from a government that was slow to accept responsibility for the war's effects - such as health problems caused by the purportedly harmless defoliant Agent Orange.

And the families of men who never came home continued their struggle with the same government, which, at first, frequently misrepresented the circumstances of battle losses and is still trying to regain its credibility as the search for the missing Americans continues.

Joint Task Force Full Accounting, the American/Vietnamese effort to discover the fate of POWs and MIAs yet unaccounted for, is at the focal point of the embargo controversy.

Veterans organizations like the American Legion believe the embargo was an important bargaining chip in the United States' quest for its missing. The legion maintains the embargo should not have been lifted until MIA and POW issues were satisfactorily resolved.

Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, shared that opinion until he traveled to Hanoi Jan. 8. He said he was convinced that the Vietnamese were on the verge of ending their support for the POW/MIA project unless the embargo was lifted.

"The embargo has lost its magic and was fast becoming a millstone around our necks," Bennett said. "I came home and immediately asked Clinton to lift the embargo."

The Senate's non-binding vote was followed shortly by Clinton's announcement that the embargo would end.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, opposed the change, voting to keep the embargo in place. "I don't believe they've done everything they can to resolve the POW/MIA is sue," he said of the Vietnamese government.

Hatch also labels Vietnam as having one of the worst human rights records in the world. "There is no reason to grant that government legitimacy."

The Hanoi government knows the United States has not unilaterally given away the farm by lifting the embargo. Full diplomatic relations have yet to be discussed, and Vietnamese goods brought to the United States will pay higher tariffs than nations that enjoy "most favored nation" trade status with the United States.

Hanoi has a response to Hatch and economic policies aimed at altering Vietnam's communist government.

"President Clinton's cautiousness implies that he wants to withhold a few trump cards for the forthcoming negotiations," reads an editorial in the May 15 issue of Vietnam News, one of four English-speaking, state-run newspapers circulating in Vietnam. "However, the intention of a few U.S. congressmen and statesmen to link the democracy and human rights issues to the process of normalization is unrealistic."

The editorial goes on to imply the United States' actions in Vietnam will affect its reputation in all of Asia.

John Sommer, executive director of the American Legion's Washington, D.C., office, was in Vietnam last July and plans to return this month. He said he was not allowed to observe field search operations on his first visit and questions the quality of Joint Task Force Full Accounting's work, labeling the task force as the "most politicized military unit in the Army."

"They've got them lobbying members of Congress," he said of the military's influence on congressional delegations visiting Vietnam, such as the one Bennett participated in.

Bennett said the American Legion doesn't want to be convinced the embargo's demise is a good idea because the group holds the position that American honor is being abandoned in the process.

Regardless of whether Clinton's move with the embargo is viewed as taking steps to close an old wound or merely stitches over a lingering infection, groups like the American Legion must now change their approach to the POW/MIA issue.

"Our job is to represent families (of the missing.) It's a travesty the way they've been treated by the government over the years," Sommer said. "We have had to shift our strategy because of the embargo question because now it's not an issue."

Patriotism and dignity aside, economic factors that fueled the decision to lift the embargo cannot be ignored.

First, Hanoi returned 12 sets of remains believed to be Americans four days after Clinton lifted the embargo. The timing showed Hanoi, too, is using the embargo issue as a bargaining chip for improving relations with the United States.

Vietnam has been restructuring a dismal economy that saw widespread rationing and shortages six years ago. The reforms, called "noi moi," are, in some respects, to Vietnam what glasnost was to the Soviet Union.

Since noi moi, Vietnam has gone from being short on food to claiming to be the world's third largest exporter of rice. More liberal economic policies have helped prepare Vietnam for the burgeoning interchange with the West.

The standard wage for a store clerk in Hanoi is only $20 per month, but the streets are filled with motor bikes and shops are packed with appliances and electronics from countries like Japan that have been taking advantage of the Vietnamese market during the American embargo.

The Vietnamese are craving American goods, which were featured in Vietnam for the first time since the war at Hanoi's Vietnam '94 International Trade Fair in April.

American business consultant Marianne McLaren, who lives and works in Hanoi, gave the trade fair mixed reviews because exhibitors brought display samples but had nothing on hand to sell, she said. "There were people there with money, but there was nothing to buy."

McLaren said American companies began setting up shop in Vietnam long before the embargo was lifted. Businesses established offices and garnered lists of customers who were waiting to sign contracts. Then they beat a path to Congress and said, "Look at the business we're losing."

Bennett cited Boeing as an example of an American business that played the embargo gamble without success.

Vietnam Airlines has Boeing jets in its fleet but does not own them outright. They had to be leased from the French because of the embargo. The airline also operates French-built Airbus jets.

"They signed a letter of intent with Boeing" last year, Bennett said. "They assumed the embargo was going to be lifted. And when it wasn't, they extended the letter of intent to September because American diplomats were saying President Clinton would probably act (on the embargo) in September.

"Then in November (the Vietnamese) went and bought a bunch of French A-300s. So naturally the Boeing people are not pleased that the embargo didn't get lifted until February."

"The American Legion says that we are trading American honor for cheap labor in Asia so that we can import low-priced goods in the United States and undercut American manufacturers. Boeing doesn't see it that way, obviously," Bennett said.

Commerce Secretary Ron Brown was in Salt Lake City the day after the embargo was lifted. "Most of our export growth is going to be from emerging countries. That is going to be good for the whole country, and Utah will be part of that," he said at a press conference that day.

It seems that whenever Washington and Vietnam are mentioned together, credibility has historically hung in the balance. Ironically, the same controversy followed Brown to Salt Lake City but may have ended here. Brown had been accused of taking a bribe from a Vietnamese businessman, purportedly to persuade Clinton to loosen the trade restrictions against Vietnam. The Justice Department announced the day of his arrival in Utah it had cleared him of the accusation.


Additional Information

Series tells how U.S., Vietnam are coming to terms

"Vietnam: Coming to terms" is a unique exploration of how, some 20 years later, Americans and Vietnamese are dealing with the legacy of an unpopular and unwinnable war that changed not only America but also the world. But beyond that, it is an in-depth look at a country, once daily front-page news, that is emerging from 20 years of anonymity and taking its place in a growing Asian culture.

The multifaceted presentation will continue daily in the Deseret News through Friday.

- Monday: In 1992, the U.S. military stepped up efforts to find the remains of those Americans lost in battle. But some veterans groups say the military's efforts are misguided.

- Tuesday: Following traditional capitalistic paths, American and other free-market nations are finding great business potential in Vietnam. This once war-torn country is finding its place in the Asian economic food chain.

- Wednesday: Foreign invasion, not just what Americans call the Vietnam War, has shaped the history of this nation, but its traditional culture flourishes amid a new "American war" culture.

- Thursday: Post-war atrocities and the hope for a new life convinced thousands of Southeast Asian refugees that the perils of the high seas and unknown fortunes of foreign lands were but a small risk compared to life as they knew it. Many of those refugees, of course, have built new lives in Utah.

- Friday: Movies, for better or worse, have no doubt shaped our opinions of Vietnam. Deseret News movie critic Chris Hicks, himself a Vietnam veteran, explores their effect. Meanwhile, Steve Fidel asks why Vietnam veterans, with poignant images of the war still fresh in their minds, are returning to that foreign land.


More on Vietnam

-Travel: Vietnam as a tourist destination ? It's better than you might think. See today's Deseret News Travel Section.

-Memorials: Washington's Vietnam Veterans Memorial is one of the city's most popular. Many states have their own memorials. What kinds of war memorials does one find in Vietnam? See today's Deseret News Viewpoint, Page A13.

-Radio: Monday at 10 a.m., staff writer Steve Fidel will talk about his Vietnam experience on KSL Radio, 1160.