EDITOR’S NOTE: This guest editorial appeared in the April 4, 1994, issue of National Review.
If Bill Clinton is nominated again and runs in 1996, and if he loses in the November election, he may look back on February 3, 1994, as the day he lost. The reason: he lifted the trade embargo on Vietnam. This was reneging, fiat-out welshing, on a campaign promise. In his drive to unseat President Bush, he gave his word that he would not lift the trade embargo until and unless there was a full, good-faith accounting for Americans still missing in action.
President Bush took the United States in the direction of lifting the trade embargo against Vietnam–with some help from President Reagan before him. Families of men still missing in Vietnam were furious, especially after President Bush appeared to give them short shrift at a meeting. Candidate Bill Clinton took full advantage. That’s when he made his promise.
February 3 is when he broke that promise.
Politicians break campaign promises all the time. But this time the President’s hand wasn’t forced: he did this on his own initiative, and the initiative of his foreign-policy advisors. (If there is a consistent theme from any Administration to the next, it may be this: Foreign-policy advisors, regardless of prior experience or party affiliation, are almost always wrong.)
In an obvious attempt to blunt criticism, President Clinton actually characterized lifting the embargo as creating the best opportunity to get the true story of what happened to America’s missing.
This was especially ill-advised. Because it was obvious that lifting the embargo wasn’t designed to resolve doubts about the fate of the missing. It was designed to make money. It was a trade initiative, plain and simple. The people least likely to mistake it for anything else were the families of America’s missing.
North Vietnam saw itself as victorious in the war, and sees itself as victorious once again. When this reporter was in Hanoi a few months back, with retired U.S. General Norman Schwarzkopf, the headlines were: “U.S. Will Cave on Trade Embargo.” A confident Vietnamese official told me, when I asked about that, “We had more determination and patience than America did during the fighting, and we have more about this. Yes, America will cave–and soon.” He smiled.
When I asked why he was so confident, he smiled again. “Money,” he replied. ‘”Your businessmen want the money. And money moves America.”
This reporter left the room. I’ll admit it: I was mad.
Today, that seems a long, long time ago.
Today, the deal is done. Vietnam gets what it wants. And the headlines in Hanoi were: “U.S. Caves on Trade Embargo.” And so it goes.
But before it goes any further, it is worth noting that there has not been a full, good-faith accounting for Americans still missing in action from the war. It is also worth at least footnoting that Vietnam is still ruled by an old-line, hard-line Marxist-Leninist dictatorial regime. Vietnam is not a democratic state. It has taken on some of the coloration of capitalism, but very little of the democratic heart.
This reporter wonders: Did it occur to President Clinton that night, February 3, to go to the Wall?
It’s only a short walk from the White House to the Wall, the Vietnam Memorial, where 58,000 American names are carved in a garden of stone.
Only the President can answer whether he has kept faith with those who gave their full measure of valor in a cause their country and its leaders told them was important. Those Americans may have gone to the wrong war, but they went for the right reason. And so did those who are still officially listed as missing.
It might have meant nothing, but then again it might have meant something if the President had underscored that he and the nation understood the service rendered by those Americans–on February 3, of all days.