THE COMMISSION dispatched by Mr. Carter to Hanoi appears to have accomplished its mission of setting the stage for gradual normalization of relations between the United States and its erstwhile foe, Vietnam. That this process could get under way in so relatively short a time after the American collapse and the Communist triumph in Vietnam suggests that the wounds on both sides, though deep, are not so deep as to prevent a reasonably prompt reconciliation. Even while the United States was fighting in Vietnam, of course, many American citizens wished it were not. It was never a popular war in the sense of a full commitment by the people. Mr. Carter took shrewd advantage of this fact by enlisting mostly privated citizens, rather than just administration officials, to serve on the commission sent to Hanoi.
What the United States wants most, or first, from Vietnam is information on the American military men still regarded as missing in action. Such a quest represents a minimal debt owed to the honor of the Americans who were lost. Under ordinary circumstances, the United States would not have to pay, one way or another, for this information. But nothing about Vietnam is ordinary. If it is ghoulish for the Vietnamese to trade on heartbreak, then it can be said that the losses they themselves suffered - losses that they define as an American reponsibility - left them with little else to trade. The United States' political interest in Vietnam lies in seeing it become over time a friend and partner to the other independent states in the region. Relatively few Americans, we surmise, still regard Vietnam as a pawn somehow to be manipulated on the global chessboard.
The Vietnamese government wants, of course, American acceptance of its victory. This is a matter of pride and of assuming its rightful place in international agencies and councils. Even before the President's commission had arrived, Hanoi had made plain its readiness to change its pitch from a demand for "reparations" assistance. Especially because Vietnam is already receiving some forms of humanitarian aid through international channels, we see no reason why diplomats cannot knit the Vietnamese request into a fabric of relations. It would be consistent with the attitude of reconciliation that President Carter has promoted on Vietnam at home.
By Mr. Carter's own human rights standards, Vietnam probably could not qualify for a nickel in aid. The Communist regime there appears to be in a repressive and vindictive stage all too familiar from the experience of other newly established totalitarian regimes. Can aid somehow be used as a human rights lever? The question is drenched with historical irony. Past experience in so using American aid offers scant encouragement. Americans certainly should make clear their hope that the victors in Vietnam will act fairly toward the Vietnamese they defeated. But any substantial improvement will probably have to wait on developments quite beyond the American reach. Practically speaking, that will mean that token direct assistance from Washington. They will have to look to their Communist patrons, to other friendly nations and, as always, to themselves.