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Path to Vietnam pact long, difficult

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Journeys are always a series of steps — and so it is with this one. The signing of a historic trade pact last week between America and Vietnam means simply that the journey to a normal relationship for these former adversaries is nearly at an end.

It has been a long, difficult road.

The war ended 25 years ago. Its scars linger still in the United States and in Vietnam, one of an ever-dwindling number of communist nations. The rapprochement began with the lifting of the U.S. trade embargo six years ago and the restoration of diplomatic relations a year later.

The basic framework for this pact was reached a year ago, but Vietnam balked at signing it then. It did so now because the world is changing, something the leaders of this poor Southeast Asian nation could no longer afford to ignore. If the world's largest communist country, China, can reach a trade pact that will ease that country's entry into the World Trade Organization, what does Vietnam gain by its continued isolation?

The answer is nothing. And so Vietnam at last signed this deal. It is a breakthrough, and the Clinton administration should be commended for its patient and painstaking pursuit of this worthwhile goal.

If this pact is passed by Congress — something that is expected but may not happen until next year — the United States will drop its prohibitive tariffs on Vietnamese goods. Vietnam will do the same for American goods and allow U.S. investment in formerly forbidden areas like telecommunications.

At the Rose Garden signing, Vietnam War veterans who now serve in Congress flanked President Clinton, who called the agreement "one more reminder that former adversaries can come together to find common ground." As they all knew only too well, that sentiment speaks equally to the division between the United States and Vietnam and the rift in American society back then between supporters and opponents of the war.

America still tends to view Vietnam through a one-way lens. When Americans visit, it is to see what remains of us after so many years. But America isn't the only nation that has had to, in Clinton's words, "let go of the past and embrace the future" when it comes to this old wound. So too has Vietnam, which, after all, won the war but lost its future.