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Why We Are in Vietnam

A former bomber pilot and POW gives a new answer to the question-mark book title of 30 years ago: "Why Are We in Vietnam?"

He is Douglas (Pete) Peterson, the US's first postwar ambassador to Vietnam, and he wants to bridge "a river of pain that runs between our countries." He hopes the example of one with his grim Vietnam history will help others move from hostility to healing. A good reason to be "in Vietnam" again.

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Some in Congress opposed naming an ambassador now on grounds that Vietnam has not given adequate answers about missing Americans. Some opposed it while political fund-raising from foreign and other sources remains under investigation.

But in Hanoi Mr. Peterson will be well placed to pursue questions about the missing, as well as to aid reconstruction, control of drug trafficking, and trade relations. And he should have support from most of Congress, including the Vietnam generation of which he was a part as a Democratic representative from Florida.

Among the vets are Peterson's GOP ex-POW counterpart, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, and former presidential candidate Sen. Bob Kerrey (D) of Nebraska, wounded in the war. At the 15th anniversary of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial - the wall with names of 58,196 dead and missing - Mr. Kerrey spoke of the body healing quicker than the heart. He saw the final step toward healing in Pete Peterson's taking up his ambassadorial post.

After any war the first ambassador to a former enemy has a reconciling function. James B. Conant exercised it when he left the presidency of Harvard University to be the first US envoy to Germany after World War II. As for military men bearing olive branches, Gen. Douglas MacArthur was named President Truman's viceroy of Japan before the US had a postwar ambassador there. He defied advocates of punishing the nation he had defeated; he said he wanted to bring solace and hope.

But then, with Americans united in an unambiguous cause, there was not the post-Vietnam need for reconciliation within the US also. Many Vietnam vets returned to less than heroes' welcomes. Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts, a veteran himself, rightly observed, "The warriors were confused with the war, and that should never have happened."

Now there is unstated symbolism as a nonveteran and early opponent of the war, President Clinton, appoints a veteran to the Hanoi post. It underscores Ambassador Peterson's wish to hear people say "Vietnam" without always adding the word "war."

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