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LET'S HEAL WOUNDS WITH VIETNAM

Twenty years have passed since the war in Vietnam came to a bitter end.

Now the time has come to complete the process of healing some of the wounds inflicted by that nasty conflict, wounds that have lingered far longer than they should have.Part of the healing was accomplished last January and February when the United States and Vietnam opened liaison offices - below the embassy level - in each other's capitals.

But the process won't be complete until the two countries establish full diplomatic and economic relations, a step Hanoi has been seeking for years but Washington still resists.

The U.S. resistance centers on President Clinton's insistence that Hanoi do everything it can to account for the 2,207 Americans still listed as missing in action in Vietnam.

But the families of the missing troops need to get over the illusion that their loved ones are still being held captive by a vengeful Vietnam or that Hanoi is intentionally withholding their remains as a bargaining ploy.

Instead, the cruel reality is that virtually all wars leave many of the combatants unaccounted for. Moreover, Hanoi keeps finding the remains of Americans killed in the war and turning them over to the U.S. military - and it does so without asking or getting any concessions in return.

Only this week Sen. John McCain of Arizona was present in Hanoi when the Vietnamese handed over 10 plain wooden boxes holding what are believed to be the remains of Americans killed in the war.

After witnessing this poignant episode, McCain reiterated his long-standing suggestion that Washington establish full diplomatic relations with Hanoi without further delay. What a moving appeal, coming as it does from a former Navy pilot who spent six years in North Vietnamese prisons during the war.

In a different act of conscience, former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara wrote in a book issued this week that he regretted his central role in the Vietnam conflict, termed the U.S. role a mistake and thought America should have pulled out of it as early as 1963.

One need not go as far as McNamara did this week in order to favor full normalization of relations between Washington and Hanoi as an act of enlightened self-interest on the part of the United States.

Hanoi, after all, is no longer a tool of the Soviet Union if it ever was. Nor is Vietnam the threat to its Asian neighbors that it once was. Moreover, accompanying full diplomatic relations with full economic relations would create jobs for Americans by giving U.S. firms an unobstructed crack at the market of 70 million consumers in Vietnam.

Surely other Americans can be as forgiving and sensible as Sen. McCain. Surely a United States that healed old wounds with such former foes as Japan and Germany can now do the same thing with Vietnam.