In Vietnam, Bush focuses on future

President sees hints of mended ties amid shadows of war

November 19, 2006|By James Gerstenzang | James Gerstenzang,Los Angeles Times

HANOI, Vietnam -- White House officials from President Bush on down bristle at the idea that the Vietnam War, which ended with the United States' evacuation of its embassy in 1975, bears any parallels with the war in Iraq.

But as Bush and Vietnamese officials have focused on the future during the president's weekend visit here, that bitter past continues to intrude.

Arriving in Hanoi on Friday, the president and first lady Laura Bush were driven by Truc Bach, the lake where in 1967 a young Navy pilot named John McCain was rescued by residents after he bailed out of his A-4 Skyhawk attack aircraft on a bombing run over Hanoi. McCain's rescue led to his 5 1/2 -year imprisonment in the infamous "Hanoi Hilton" jail for prisoners of war.

"He's a friend of ours," Bush said of the man who challenged him for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination. "He suffered a lot as a result of his imprisonment, and yet we passed the place where he was, literally, saved, in one way, by the people pulling him out."

The president's motorcade route yesterday took him within sight of the mausoleum that contains the remains of Ho Chi Minh, the revolutionary leader who ended French colonial rule after World War II and then led North Vietnam against the United States.

Bush also made a brief, low-key visit to a U.S. military office next to the North Korean mission. The small staff investigates sites throughout the country where remains of U.S. troops might be found; more than 1,300 are listed as missing from the 10-year U.S. military operation here. He spent about 15 minutes there and made no public comment.

In reporting on the president's day, his national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, mentioned the visit only as an afterthought.

The Vietnam War remains an emotional touchstone for many older Americans. The administration is focused on another war.

That war, too, continued to intrude: As Hadley spoke, to either side of his podium, two large television screens tuned to CNN showed a documentary displaying one bloodied and mangled body after another. It was about combat medicine in Iraq.

Bush is the second U.S. president to visit Vietnam since the war ended. Bill Clinton was the first, coming here six years ago. His welcome was effusive from young and old on Hanoi's streets.

Clinton worked the crowds as if he were running for office. He visited Vietnam National University, ate lunch among Vietnamese at a diner and held a roundtable discussion with young people about the Information Age.

With the exception of the tour of the U.S. military's POW-MIA office and a scheduled stop this morning at Cua Bac Cathedral to attend a worship service, Bush's comings and goings in an armored Cadillac limousine flown in from Washington, D.C., have been limited to official appointments tied to the annual summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.

Still, Hadley said, "We're in the midst of the Vietnamese people all the time."

Hanoi's crowded streets were cleared of the ubiquitous motor scooters, but pedestrians and vendors remained on sidewalks, unlike in some cities Bush visits where security officials keep nearly everyone off the streets.

Hadley said the president's encounters reflected "the friendliness and openness of the Vietnamese people."

Some distance from the president's course through the city, dissidents sent out word that police took one activist, Pham Hong Son, from his house, held him for seven hours and beat him.

That brought attention to Vietnam's human rights record. Four days before Bush arrived Friday, the U.S. State Department removed Vietnam from a list of nations restricting free religious practice. Had Vietnam received black marks from the government on this front, the president's visit to the cathedral would have come across as defiant.

Bush is visiting Vietnam just after U.S. voters dealt Republicans a striking setback, handing majority control of the House and Senate to Democrats.

It was a topic that came up in Bush's contacts with other leaders, and Hadley said Bush assured them there would be no shift in U.S. foreign policy.

"They are politicians," Hadley said of the Vietnamese officials. And even though Bush operates in a very different political system from theirs, they have faced situations, Hadley said, "like what he is in."

James Gerstenzang writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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