HANOI -- Amid powerful reminders of an unpopular war that bedeviled some of his predecessors, President Bush landed in Vietnam yesterday, embracing the former U.S. enemy as a symbol of progress and insisting that its experience holds an important lesson for the unpopular war in Iraq.
On a day when he greeted Communist leaders beneath a bronze bust of wartime leader Ho Chi Minh and passed the spot where fellow Republican John McCain was pulled from a lake after his warplane was shot down, Bush said it was "amazing" to be in a country that so tormented the U.S. decades ago.
Asked what lessons the war in Vietnam offered for the war in Iraq, Bush's response suggested the need for patience and determination - a nod toward the U.S. decision to abandon Vietnam after a protracted and unsuccessful war there. "We'll succeed unless we quit," Bush said.
As the president settles into Hanoi for a weekend summit focused on the Pacific Rim's economy and the North Korean nuclear threat, his determination to press ahead with the war in Iraq invited inevitable comparisons with the commitment that previous American presidents made to the unpopular fight here in the 1960s and 1970s.
The death toll for Americans in Vietnam, more than 58,000, ran far higher than American casualties in Iraq so far, nearly 2,900. And the fighting that officially started with the arrival of American combat troops in Vietnam in 1965 lasted longer, especially considering that U.S. "advisers" had worked and died there for years before that.
But both cases featured American presidents commanding troops in faraway and costly fights that eventually lost public support back home - and insisting that leaving before the mission was accomplished invited disaster.
"We tend to want there to be instant success in the world, and the task in Iraq is going to take a while," Bush said. Calling the Iraq war a "great struggle," he said: "It's just going to take a long period of time for the ideology that is hopeful, and that is an ideology of freedom, to overcome an ideology of hate."
Bush had never been to Vietnam, having served as a pilot stateside with the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War. He and first lady Laura Bush indicated they were moved by the journey to Hanoi and later Ho Chi Minh City to the south.
As their motorcade moved through Hanoi, they passed Truc Bach lake, into which McCain, then a young Navy pilot and now a Republican senator from Arizona and possible candidate for president, parachuted from his damaged plane. McCain spent more than five years as a prisoner of war here, including a stint in a prison known as the Hanoi Hilton.
Between meetings with the leaders of 21 nations and territories at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, Bush answered questions, including one about his sentiments in courting ties with a former adversary. "We were talking about how amazing it is that we're here in Vietnam," Bush said. "My first reaction is, history has a long march to it, and ... relationships can constantly be altered to the good."
Bush is not the first U.S. president to visit Vietnam since the war. President Bill Clinton traveled here in 2000 after normalizing U.S. relations with the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. That decision earned Clinton a far more enthusiastic reception from the Vietnamese than the subdued greeting Bush received on the streets yesterday.
Since embracing a market economy, Vietnam has spawned one of the fastest-growing economies in Asia, and Bush applauded his hosts at a state banquet after being greeted by President Nguyen Minh Triet at the colonial-era presidential palace.
The U.S. and others have complained of human rights abuses in this nation, and young protesters plan meetings today about democratic reforms in secret for fear of government reprisal. But experts say Vietnam is shedding some of its most repressive tactics.
Last week, it freed a U.S. activist in hopes of clearing the way for consideration in the U.S. Congress of a free-trade bill, the Permanent Normal Trade Relations with Vietnam. The measure was shelved, but the Bush administration says it will continue to push for it.
Mark Silva writes for the Chicago Tribune.