It is not often that a newspaper article makes me cry. The extraordinarily moving "Vietnam: My Enemy, My Brother," by Frederick Downs Jr. {Outlook, Jan. 31}, made me do just that. Mr. Downs' physical courage is obvious from the battlefield citations contained in The Post's identifying notes. How much spiritual courage it must have taken for him to share with his readers the emotional pain and change of heart he experienced upon returning to Vietnam 20 years after bloody events that changed his life irrevocably.

My oldest brother was a Marine pilot who fought through the entire Second World War, was recalled to active duty in 1950 and was then killed in Korea in 1951. Seven years later, I received my first assignment as a junior Foreign Service officer -- to Korea. My first reaction was one of disbelief and anger. How many American lives were lost, and to what end? After two years there, however, I came to hold for the Korean people a respect that only grows stronger over time.

Our experience in Korea, although different from what happened in Vietnam, also bears some important similarities. If we didn't lose the war on the peninsula, neither did we win it. Our Korean War veterans returned to an apathetic nation, if not the open hostility encountered by so many coming back from Vietnam. (There is still no Korean War memorial to match the devastatingly powerful tribute to Vietnam's dead.) But in the meantime, South Korea has become one of our principal trading partners and plays an increasingly productive regional role.

Mr. Downs has performed an important service. He does not call for approval of those in power in Vietnam. He does call for release of the generosity and decency that are among our country's greatest attributes. It would be a fitting and humane gesture on behalf of those Americans who gave their lives in Vietnam -- or pieces of their bodies and human spirit -- if we could help to rebuild the damaged lives of Vietnam's survivors. Among them are not only former enemies but many who fought with us as well. Such a step might encourage the process of healing and reconciliation that eventually must follow war's destruction.

WILLIAM WATTS

Washington

I read with some interest the piece by Frederick Downs Jr. I applaud Mr. Downs' trip to Hanoi, and I think it's wonderful he has the humanity to return to Vietnam to aid his former enemies. But I must say that I strongly disagree with many, if not most, of his observations. The attempt to describe the Vietnamese as poor, peace-loving people who have spent their entire lives "fighting for {their} country's freedom from foreign domination" doesn't bear up under the most cursory examination.

Surely Mr. Downs has not forgotten certain basic historical facts. To wit:

1.North Vietnam was the aggressor in the conflict. It invaded South Vietnam, not vice versa, and it was this aggression that triggered our involvement along with that of SEATO countries.

2.After their victory in South Vietnam, the North Vietnamese expanded their horizons and sent 140,000 troops into Cambodia in 1975. Those troops are still there.

3.In 1978, they sent another 40,000 troops into Laos. Those troops are still there.

4.Recently, we have heard reports of border skirmishes along the Thai-Cambodian border. Would you care to venture a guess at the nationality of the troops on the Cambodian side of the border?

Are the actions of the Vietnamese over the last 25 years the actions of a peace-loving country? I think not. And Mr. Downs' contention that the United States owes Vietnam economic assistance would be laughable if it weren't so perverse.

BART McLENDON

Dallas