Viet Official in Washington in 1st Such Visit Since War

Times Staff Writer

In a gesture that symbolizes the steadily improving climate between the two countries, the United States on Thursday permitted a Vietnamese official to visit Washington for the first time since the Vietnam War.

The Bush Administration lifted the long-enforced travel restrictions imposed on Vietnamese diplomats in New York City to allow Trinh Xuan Lang, Hanoi’s ambassador to the United Nations, to come here. Trinh met with representatives of the State and Defense departments and the National Security Council.

Over the last six weeks, in an apparent effort to clear the way for improved ties with the United States, Vietnam has released what it said are the remains of 63 of the 1,747 Americans still listed as missing in action in Vietnam during the war.

In his inaugural address a week ago, Bush told the nation that the Vietnam War “cleaves us still. But friends, that war began in earnest a quarter-century ago, and surely the statute of limitations has been reached.”


State Department spokesman Charles Redman emphasized Thursday that the only remaining obstacle to normalization of relations between the United States and Vietnam is Vietnam’s continuing military occupation of Cambodia. Vietnam has already pledged to pull all remaining troops out of Cambodia by next year.

After the Vietnam War ended in 1975, the United States made some tentative attempts to establish diplomatic relations with Hanoi. But the administration of President Jimmy Carter halted those efforts in 1978 when Vietnam refused to drop its demands for substantial American financial aid to help the country in its reconstruction.

Betsy Cox, a spokeswoman for the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Action in Southeast Asia, said Thursday night that her organization remains “vehemently opposed” to normalization of relations between the United States and Vietnam at this time.

“Obviously, we do not want to see normalization of relations until there is substantial progress on this issue (of having Vietnam account for missing Americans),” she said. At the same time, she acknowledged that Vietnam’s recent return of 63 sets of remains has demonstrated “more progress than there has been in the past.”

2,383 Listed as Missing

A total of 2,383 Americans are still listed as missing in action from the Indochina War: the 1,747 in Vietnam, 547 in Laos, 83 in Cambodia and six in China.

Last week, less than 24 hours before Ronald Reagan left office, his Administration released a report on the American prisoners of war which said that it may be impossible to recover the remains of some of the missing Americans.

“Achieving the fullest possible accounting in Southeast Asia will still be a long-term process,” the report said. “Crash-site excavations and remains recovery could continue for years.”

Officially, Trinh, the Vietnamese ambassador to the United Nations, was invited to Washington to attend a reception organized by a private nonprofit group called Sightsavers International, which seeks to train foreign eye doctors in surgical techniques. In 1987, the State Department had opened the way for private nonprofit groups to provide humanitarian aid to Vietnam.

The reception was to be hosted by Rep. Stephen J. Solarz (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific. And Redman acknowledged that during his trip to Washington, the Vietnamese ambassador was scheduled to meet with officials of the State and Defense departments and the National Security Council.

“We will . . . take the opportunity of his visit here to raise with him the POW/MIA issue,” the State Department spokesman said. " . . . We want to make sure that the Vietnamese continue to understand our concerns.”

Redman insisted that the invitation “in no way represents a departure from our policy toward normalization of relations” with Vietnam. He said the United States will continue to insist on a Vietnamese withdrawal from Cambodia before restoring normal ties with Hanoi.

Redman said that the United States will not have “a productive, rich relationship (with Vietnam) because of our great concern with this humanitarian issue of the POW/MIAs.”

De-Emphasizing POW Issue

Despite these conditions, State Department officials appeared to be gradually de-emphasizing the importance of the POWs as a stumbling block to improved relations with Vietnam and focusing instead on achieving a political settlement of Cambodia’s future.

The overall U.S. policy toward Cambodia is now said to be based on achieving three objectives.

One is the complete withdrawal of all Vietnamese troops from Cambodia. The second is to prevent any return to power by the Khmer Rouge, who are believed to have been responsible for the deaths of more than a million Cambodians when they ruled the country between 1975 and 1978. The third is to obtain what one official called “true self-determination” for the people of Cambodia.

Vietnam’s efforts to upgrade its ties with the United States are part of a more general effort to end its diplomatic isolation. Last week, a Vietnamese vice foreign minister visited Beijing for talks with Chinese officials in the first visit of its kind since the two countries went to war in 1979.