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VIETNAM THINKS PEACE AS IT REMEMBERS WAR

Bit players in the 1975 communist takeover in Saigon will have reconciliation on their minds when Vietnam celebrates the 20th anniversary of the drama April 30.

Communist soldiers involved in the victory have risen in rank and found influential positions in reunified Vietnam.Growing numbers of "overseas Vietnamese," who fled to the United States, Australia, Canada, or France as communist forces advanced, are returning to see relatives or do business.

U.S. veterans of the war are also coming back to the country run by their former enemies.

But full reconciliation between Hanoi and Washington has proved harder. And, in recent interviews, some bit players in the drama 20 years ago had fence-mending on their minds.

Economist Nguyen Xuan Oanh had two brief spells as acting prime minister of South Vietnam in 1964-67 and spent months in detention after 1975. But he later became an adviser to the communist government in Hanoi.

One of the few men to have worked at senior level under both regimes, he says Vietnam is experiencing its best period since the war under market-oriented reforms launched in 1986.

Diplomatic relations between Hanoi and Washington could come as early as this year, he believes.

"I expect that if things go well, it should be perhaps late this year, maybe a Christmas gift, maybe next year," he said in an interview in his office in Ho Chi Minh City.

Southern Vietnamese were pleased their living standards had improved, Oanh said.

"To most Vietnamese people here in the south, a new page has been turned, it's a new chapter, and everybody's very happy about it," he said. "Good business, good living . . . ."

Oanh, 73, blames Henry Kissinger, the late U.S. president Richard Nixon's national security adviser and later secretary of state, for the long U.S. economic embargo against Hanoi, lifted only last year by President Clinton.

"By holding back the embargo ... he has done a lot of harm, not only to Vietnam but also to the United States' government," Oanh said.

Two other bit players in 1975 have risen to senior army positions in Hanoi. Asked how they felt now about the United States, they gave the official line that it's time for reconciliation.

"I think it is time we should heal the wounds of war step by step," said Army Col. Pham Xuan The, then a North Vietnam Army infantry captain, who says he received the surrender of South Vietnam's last president, Duong Van ("Big") Minh.

"American imperialists were our enemy in the past. But the war is over," he added.

The, now a military corps commander, says Minh and soldiers of the former Saigon regime now in exile should be allowed back to Vietnam provided they toe the communist line.

"If they now show repentance, they can return as ordinary people to build a socialist Vietnam together with us under the present situation," he said.

There has been little sign that former Saigon regime leaders exiled in the United States want to come back. Hanoi rejected a call for reconciliation by South Vietnam's ex-president Nguyen Van Thieu in 1993.

Senior Lt. Col. Bui Quang Than, a senior armored corps officer, is another bit player who will savor April 30 with special pride.

"I was the first to raise the flag on the roof of Independence Palace," he said.

Then a second lieutenant in charge of a North Vietnamese army tank company, he was in the first tank to smash through the gates of the presidential palace in Saigon. He ran up the communists' red flag with a yellow star, now the national flag, on the building's roof 45 minutes later.

U.S. veteran Chuck Searcy has come back to Vietnam to renovate and equip a clinic in Hanoi which will help Vietnamese children with weak or deformed limbs.

Searcy, 50, from Athens, Ga., was in military intelligence in Saigon in 1967-68 and now represents the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation (VVAF) in Hanoi.

"There is an inherent political agenda . . . in trying to foster the right political climate," he said of reconciliation projects. He feels veterans can be "facilitators or matchmakers."

The U.S. government's aid agency is providing 75 percent of the clinic project's budget of several hundred thousand dollars over the next two years, and another U.S. agency is helping to fund a program to train young Vietnamese business executives.

It amounts to the biggest U.S. aid commitment to Vietnam since the war, Searcy says.