Trade Talks Bring Vietnam to America ; Vietnamese Prime Minister Phan Van Khai Was Welcomed at the White House Tuesday, in the First Visit of Its Kind since 1957

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On his US tour this week, Vietnamese Prime Minister Phan Van Khai has presided over the purchase of four Boeing jetliners. He's shaken the hand of Microsoft chief Bill Gates and conferred with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Tuesday was the visit's topper: He was ushered into the Oval Office for a meeting with President Bush himself.

So, what was the outcome of that war, again?

Thirty years after the end of American involvement in Vietnam, that long-ago conflict remains a divisive factor in US politics.

Vietnam itself isn't Switzerland: It allows little free speech, and religious expression has been severely curtailed. Some Vietnamese refugees in the US have bitterly protested Prime Minister Khai's presence.

But bit by bit, ties of trade and technology - even military training - are bringing once-bitter enemies together. Vietnam's youthful economy needs what the United States has to offer.

"In a sense, the US has kind of won," says Robert Buzzanco, a history professor and Vietnam expert at the University of Houston.

Diplomatic relations between the US and Vietnam were restored in 1995 under President Clinton. Since then, two-way trade has grown to about $6.4 billion a year. To the US, that's not much. But to Vietnam, the US is its top trading partner.

Khai, in fact, is scheduled to ring the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange as part of his visit. What might the Vietnamese revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh make of such capitalistic behavior?

"We have a population of 80 million people, which means a huge market for American businesses," said Khai Tuesday.

At the White House, Khai and Mr. Bush talked about Vietnam's push to join the World Trade Organization, which the US supports. Bush praised the steps of the nominally communist nation toward economic progress, as well as recent promises of expanded religious freedom. He also thanked the Vietnamese for their continued cooperation on efforts to find the remains of US troops who died in the Vietnam War.

"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," said Bush, who announced he'll visit Vietnam next year.

Clearly, US-Vietnamese relations are entering a new era. The last time a high-ranking Vietnamese leader came to the White House, Dwight Eisenhower was president. That was 1957, when South Vietnam's President Ngo Dinh Diem made a US tour.

The changes that made the current rapprochement possible were largely economic ones. The Vietnamese have mostly abandoned the notion of a state-planned economy, replacing it with market-based policies and incentives for foreign investment. Among Vietnamese exports, shrimp and footwear have become common in the US. …