WASHINGTON - President Bush opened the Oval Office on Tuesday to the highest-ranking official from communist Vietnam to visit since the end of the war that claimed the lives of more than 58,000 U.S. troops.
Bush said he would visit Vietnam next year.
The president and Prime Minister Phan Van Khai talked about the continuing search for American soldiers' remains to close what Bush called a "sad chapter." But they focused their attention on Vietnam's desire to join the World Trade Organization as well as its human rights record, which some lawmakers say remains tainted.
"The Vietnamese economy is growing quite substantially," said Bush, who announced plans to attend an Asia-Pacific economic summit next year in Hanoi. "We talked about our desire for Vietnam to join the WTO. We talked about security issues and a mutual desire to coordinate in the war on terror."
Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., and 44 other members of Congress sent a letter to Bush urging him to keep pressuring Vietnam to improve its human rights record and noting that last year, for the first time, the State Department designated Vietnam a "country of particular concern" for violating religious freedom.
Human Rights Watch says hundreds of dissidents have been jailed on criminal charges for advocating democratic reforms or using the Internet to disseminate proposals for human rights and religious freedom.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Bush discussed the importance of improving human rights and expanding religious freedom. "Vietnam has taken some steps," McClellan said. "We welcome those steps. There is more to do."
As the two leaders met, several hundred protesters across from the White House demonstrated against conditions in the communist nation.
John Wheeler, who chaired the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund to build the memorial wall in Washington, expressed dismay at the demonstration. "Vietnam is making real progress," said Wheeler, who graduated from West Point and served in the war in 1969 and 1970. "This visit is a historic transition. Vietnam is becoming a friend and even a possible ally."
In addition to Khai, Vietnam's other top leaders include President Tran Duc Luong and Nong Duc Manh, the head of the ruling Communist Party.
Officials with the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation said they were encouraged by Khai's visit and trade and economic developments.
In 1981, the group's founders became the first delegation of Vietnam veterans to visit after the war which took its toll on both nations: nearly 60,000 American dead; nearly 224,000 South Vietnamese killed; 1.1-million communist fighters killed; and nearly 2-million civilians killed.
In the 10 years since diplomatic ties were restored, the United States has become Vietnam's top trading partner. Last year, two-way trade was worth $6.4-billion.
"We have a population of 80-million people, which means a huge market for American businesses," Khai said.