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Clinton and Vietnam

IT was a simple, dignified ceremony. Yesterday, what are thought to be the remains of 13 United States servicemen missing in action in Vietnam were flown from Hanoi to Hawaii, where experts will try to identify them.

That the effort to locate MIAs continues should be of some comfort to the families of missing servicemen. These families deserve a full accounting, as do those of an estimated 300,000 Vietnamese MIAs that the US has pledged to help trace.

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Nevertheless, President Clinton was correct to lift the US economic embargo against Vietnam. The decision marks another step in the reconciliation with a former enemy and a realization that while the US still must heal remaining emotional wounds brought by the war, its policy cannot remain captive to them.

This step nearly occurred under President Carter, but got sidetracked over issues of economic aid. At the same time, Vietnam invaded Cambodia in response to border provocations and fought in a brief but costly conflict with China, a country that Mr. Carter's foreign-policy advisers saw as a crucial counterweight to the Soviet Union. During his final months in office, President Bush applauded what he saw as a breakthrough in Vietnam's cooperation in resolving the MIA issue. The door opened for US humanitarian aid to Hanoi, and companies were permitted to conduct feasibility studies and sign contracts with Vietnam. After Mr. Clinton took office, he dropped US opposition to International Monetary Fund and World Bank loans to Vietnam and allowed US companies to participate in projects funded by those loans. Meanwhile, other Asian and European nations had begun to develop economic ties with Hanoi, diluting the embargo's effect.

For MIA families, Clinton's decision could benefit efforts to account for the missing. A liaison office in Hanoi will set up many of the services of an embassy, adding another full-time, in-country point of pressure to continue searches. Moreover, Clinton has two significant carrots in reserve: full diplomatic recognition and most-favored-nation trade status.

For Vietnam, Clinton's decision will likely strengthen movement toward long-term economic and political liberalization, particularly as expatriates return to Vietnam from the United States and elsewhere.

MIA families and many veterans' groups remain unconvinced that Clinton made the correct move; they say he sold out to economic interests. His most effective means for countering the accusation is to continue to pursue the MIA issue vigorously.

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