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No Hard Feelings?

July 11, 1995

After twenty years of icy American reserve toward the small Southeast Asian country that dealt a humiliating blow to America's image as an invincible world power and that indirectly precipitated large-scale domestic American turmoil, President Clinton has finally established full diplomatic relations with Vietnam. While some applaud the reconciliation as long overdue, others feel betrayed. Is the normalization of relations with Vietnam an inevitable move in light of contemporary economic and political realities? Or is it a cruel belittlement of overwhelming sacrifices made by a great many Americans? A number of articles in The Atlantic Monthlyhave addressed these questions in recent years.

In "Shut Out" (March, 1991) and "No Hard Feelings?" (December, 1988) James Fallows emphasized that the world political configuration in which it made sense for America and Vietnam to be at odds with each other has long since passed. Post-communist contemporary Vietnam poses no threat to America or its interests. Indeed, Vietnam, Fallows argued, should be dealt with like any other third-world country.

If, as Fallows suggested, America's bitter condemnations and strict embargo against Vietnam represent a futile effort to heap significance onto something that does not merit it, then perhaps our unanswered questions about what the Vietnam War meant cannot be satisfactorily answered by today's actions toward Vietnam. Perhaps what is needed is a more inward coming-to-terms. In "The Road to Hill 10" (April, 1985) William Broyles, Jr. undertakes such a journey when he finds the physical reality of today's Vietnam inadequate to the more symbolic meanings that Vietnam has long held for him. Broyles wrote, "those paddies had once meant booby traps and mines and being caught in the open, and that tree line had meant ambush and death. Now the scene was a peaceful Asian landscape, a nice place to have a picnic."

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