A strange alliance of 60’s activists, Vietnam veterans, and maverick conservatives is pushing to normalize relations with Hanoi. Among the conservatives, former New York Congressman John LeBoutillier, president for the last six years of a group called Account for POW/MIA’s, may well be the most vocal spokesman.

The conservative case for normalization runs back at least as far as February 1, 1973, when, only days after the signing of the Paris “peace” accords, then-President Nixon sent an important secret communiqué to then-Premier Pham Van Dong of North Vietnam. In it, Nixon promised to “contribute to postwar reconstruction in North Vietnam” roughly $3.25 billion in “grant aid over five years” plus “other forms of aid” falling “in the range of $1 to $1.5 billion depending on food and other commodity needs of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.” The note contained no quid pro quo, but, according to LeBoutillier, in exchange for the Nixon letter “Hanoi handed the United States representative in Paris a list of Americans held in Laos” and in so doing “established an all-important linkage: the release of American POW’s in Laos . . . to the payment of money to Hanoi.” Over the next 60 days, 591 American POW’s returned home from North Vietnam, but suspicions lingered that others, unaccounted for, still remained in Indochina.

The Nixon pledge (which, as its drafter, Henry Kissinger, rightly points out in his memoirs, “presupposed both congressional approval and Hanoi’s living up to the Paris agreement”) was soon buried under an avalanche of events—Watergate and the fall of South Vietnam—and bureaucratic sloth. Then in March 1977 a delegation appointed by Jimmy Carter returned to Hanoi to resume exploratory talks on normalization and concluded, after a three-day visit, that there were no live POW’s being held. The road to improved relations seemed open, but the process broke down again in the fall of 1978 when increasingly warm relations between Hanoi and Moscow were sealed by a twenty-five-year pact of friendship and cooperation. In December 1978, with no little encouragement from the Soviets, the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia to knock out the Chinabacked regime of Pol Pot and China then retaliated with its own incursions into northern Vietnam.

Hardly had the dust settled from the Indochina border wars than Ronald Reagan came into office promising to give the POW/MIA issue “the highest national priority.” But, in what Le Boutillier sees as a drastic downgrading of the issue, it was turned over to Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Armitage and a small band of national-security specialists, including Robert McFarlane and Donald Gregg, who proceeded to set policy singlehandedly. While not actually ruling out the possibility of survivors in Laos, the Reagan White House remained skeptical and in any case refused to link normalization to the recovery of live POW’s, fearing (according to Le-Boutillier) “that if Hanoi and Washington were ever to reach an accord for the return of these prisoners in return for diplomatic normalization, a lifting of the trade embargo, and economic assistance, then Hanoi’s regime would be resuscitated.”



LeBoutillier believes we have much to gain and little to lose by the reversal of such policies, which have carried over into the Bush administration. The next step, he says, is ours, and that means immediate, unconditional recognition of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (as it is now known), the opening of embassies, and the exchange of ambassadors. American aid should then be conditioned upon a full accounting of POW/ MIA’s, the release of political prisoners, the release of Amerasian children for emigration, and the evacuation of Vietnamese forces from Cambodia. (A withdrawal was ordered unilaterally by Vietnam after this book went to press.) As an added bonus, U.S. businessmen could begin investing in Vietnam, and the U.S. military could actually regain the use of the ports of Danang and Cam Ranh Bay, built by us in the first place, as strategic outposts in the Far East.

All this sounds enticing, and suitably bipartisan. With normalization, old antiwar activists could resume their infatuation with Hanoi, while devout interventionists could feel triumphant in the knowledge that a U.S. presence—economic, military, and diplomatic—was balancing Soviet power in a region once deemed indispensable to American security. Vietnam is dirt-poor, underfed, and needs U.S. trade and aid, and Nguyen Van Linh, the new party chief who replaced Truong Chinh in 1986, is, we are told, an economic reformer. He will come to terms.

But will he? Indications are that the regime in Hanoi would welcome an epidemic of East-bloc freedom about as much as Dracula would welcome daybreak. At a plenum of the Central Committee, held in Saigon in August, the General Secretary declared: “The fact that the imperialists—especially the U.S. imperialists—are leaving no stone unturned in an attempt to affect the situation of a number of socialist countries with the aim of driving them into the free world of capitalism is a sufficient proof of their wolfish nature.” Rejecting political pluralism and “bourgeois liberalism,” the meeting’s final communiqué vowed that “the workers of Vietnam will stick in all circumstances to the socialist road and never adopt capitalism.” Le-Boutillier envisions a softening of the regime once high-level contacts are in place, but he merely pecks and pokes at the all-important matter of human rights, speaking here and there of the release of political prisoners, and recalling one worship service he witnessed as a sign of spiritual life. Surely internal freedom consists of more than that. What about freedom of the press? Of assembly? Protests and opposition parties? Authentic elections? These he does not mention. Beyond prescribing normalization, he fails to address the fundamental question of how the Vietnamese people may be free at last, not only from outside interference, but from the tyranny of their own Marxist masters.



What seems to top the agenda for LeBoutillier (and other proponents of normalization) is business contacts, strategic jockeying, and (of course) the matter of POW/MIA’s. No doubt, the U.S. could benefit marginally from trade with Vietnam, but how much aid would be exacted in return for this “privilege”? And of what advantage, in the era of Gorbachev, are more bases on the Asian mainland, except that, for Hanoi, they would bean excellent pretext to charge usurious rents?

LeBoutillier reminds us repeatedly of the Soviet threat to the region, but the Soviets do not appear anxious to pounce on Thailand or the Philippines, the nearest dominoes. And, in any case, chances are that Vietnam would merely take tribute from Sam without sending Ivan home. As we know from the 60’s, when it drew support from both China and Russia without alienating either, Hanoi is very adept at triangles.

As for the more emotional issue of POW/MIA’s, LeBoutillier is not alone in believing that prisoners remain in Indochina, but no credible evidence has turned up in the last decade, no leaks or live POW’s, to prove the existence of a coverup either in Washington or Hanoi. Richard Nixon, in a partially dissenting introduction to this book, writes: “I do not share the author’s optimism that Americans are still alive in Indochina.” After all, by what logic would Hanoi deny their existence?



Still, Hanoi is definitely worried—not about China or the U.S., however, but about accommodation between the superpowers that would make it impossible to play one rival against the other. This may explain the determined and studiously advertised Vietnamese departure from Cambodia, as well as the urgent courtship of sympathetic Americans. Vietnam is a poor country which would like to pick the pockets of the rich without altering ideological hue. To do so, it feels obliged to appeal not to American idealism and love of freedom but to what it believes are America’s baser instincts: avarice and the Open Door.

But that is exactly why, rather than allowing Hanoi to achieve by indirection what it cannot achieve through legitimate channels, we would be wise to tell it, for once, to choose the straightest line between two points—and liberalize now, before we agree to move ahead.

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