Phan Van Khai's visit is the first of its kind since the end of the Vietnam War.
WASHINGTON -- Thirty years after the end of a war that divided the United States and ravaged his own country, Vietnamese Prime Minister Phan Van Khai on Tuesday made a first-of-its-kind visit to the White House and won promises from President Bush to bolster economic and military ties between the former enemies.
With hundreds of Vietnam War veterans and pro-democracy protesters rallying outside the White House gates, Bush announced plans to visit Vietnam next year and support Vietnam's admission to the World Trade Organization, a big victory for Khai.
"This event, in itself, shows that Vietnam-U.S. relations have in fact entered a new stage of development," said Khai, the highest-ranking Vietnamese official to visit the White House since the end of the war in 1975. "I'm fully confident that my visit to America this time will help uplift the relationship between our two countries to a new height."
Disagreements remain. In a private meeting, Bush pushed Khai to do more to promote human rights and religious freedom in a country accused of stifling dissenting voices and people of faith, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. At a joint appearance with Bush, Khai attributed the differences to "the different conditions that we have, the different histories and cultures."
The protesters offered a much harsher assessment of Khai's Vietnam, waving signs saying, "Stop Religious Repression." In a full-page ad that ran in Tuesday's Washington Post, a group named A Call for Democracy accused the ruling government of adhering to an "obsolescent Communist ideology" that smothers freedom.
Bush, in brief remarks to reporters, said the two leaders signed a "landmark agreement that will make it easier for people to worship freely in Vietnam." The president, whose stateside service in the National Guard during the Vietnam War was an issue in the 2004 election, praised Khai for his government's effort to help find the remains of more than 520 U.S. soldiers who were killed in Vietnam and never found.
"It's very comforting to many families here in America to understand that the government is providing information to help close a sad chapter in their lives," Bush said. Since 1988, Vietnam has helped identify the remains of about 500 U.S. service members missing since the war. More than 58,000 Americans died in Vietnam.
The bitter passions once stoked by Vietnam have faded with the years, as presidents and members of Congress have embraced trade and closer military relations. In a morning appearance on NBC's "Today" show, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a prisoner of war for nearly six years, struck an ambivalent note -- praising Vietnam's economic progress but remaining skeptical about Vietnam's treatment of its own people. "They have taken steps," he said, but "we expect progress toward democratic freedom, human rights, elections and all the trappings of democracy."