Clinton lays to rest the ghost of Vietnam

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The Independent Online
RUPERT CORNWELL

Washington

Bill Clinton, once a draft-avoider and anti-war protester, now President of the United States, yesterday placed an end to one of the most traumatic chapters in modern American history by granting full diplomatic recognition to Hanoi, 20 years after Saigon fell to the forces of North Vietnam,

"We can now move on," said Mr Clinton in his formal announcement at a White House ceremony. "Whatever divided us, let that belong to the past." Earlier, he had briefed Congressional leaders on a decision which can only summon again memories of a conflict which cost 58,196 US lives and divided America.

Normalisation of relations with Hanoi is the culmination of a process which began with a partial easing of post-war sanctions in 1993 and continued with Washington's lifting of the US trade embargo the following year and agreement by the two countries in February 1995 to set up reciprocal liaison offices in one another's capital.

By then the case for full ties, espoused even by prominent Republicans such as Senator John McCain of Arizona, once a prisoner of the North Vietnamese and who stood at Mr Clinton's shoulder yesterday, had become overwhelming. According to a new poll, a 61:27 per cent majority of Americans agree that bygones should now be bygones. For Mr Clinton the question had become not whether, but when.

Even argument over the fate of more than 2,000 servicemen still unaccounted for in South East Asia - the ostensible reason for the delay in normalisation of ties - had mostly been a metaphor for a country's lingering refusal to acknowledge that it lost a war in which it should never have been involved.

Today, even that pretext has effectively vanished. Since 1988, Hanoi has co-operated in efforts to clear up the POW/MIA issue. The Pentagon reckons that only 50 cases are unresolved - in no previous war have such efforts been made to trace lost combatants.

By acting now, despite the continuing opposition of leading veterans' groups and of several Republican White House candidates, the President hopes to defuse an issue which tormented his 1992 election bid, well before the 1996 campaign moves into top gear.

Revelations of Mr Clinton's manoeuvrings to avoid the Vietnam draft when he was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford in the late 1960s helped bring him to the brink of disaster in the crucial New Hampshire primary three years ago, contributing to the "character question" which dogs him to this day.

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