President Bush touched a nerve among Vietnamese when he invoked the Vietnam War in a speech warning that death and chaos will envelop Iraq if U.S. troops leave too quickly.
People in Vietnam, where opposition to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq is strong, said Thursday that Mr. Bush drew the wrong conclusions from the long, bloody Southeast Asian conflict.
"Doesn't he realize that if the U.S. had stayed in Vietnam longer, they would have killed more people?" said Vu Huy Trieu of Hanoi, a veteran of the communist forces that fought American troops in Vietnam. "Nobody regrets that the Vietnam War wasn't prolonged except Bush."
He said U.S. troops could never have prevailed here. "Does he think the U.S. could have won if they had stayed longer? No way," Trieu said.
Vietnam's official government spokesman offered a more measured response when asked at a regular media briefing to comment on Bush's speech to American veterans Wednesday.
"With regard to the American war in Vietnam, everyone knows that we fought to defend our country and that this was a righteous war of the Vietnamese people," Foreign Ministry spokesman Le Dung said. "And we all know that the war caused tremendous suffering and losses to the Vietnamese people."
Dung said Vietnam hopes that the Iraq conflict will be resolved "very soon, in an orderly way, and that the Iraqi people will do their best to rebuild their country."
Although Vietnam opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Dung stressed that ties between Hanoi and Washington have been growing closer since the former foes normalized relations in 1995, two decades after the war's end.
In his remarks to U.S. veterans at the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Kansas City, Mo., Mr. Bush said.
"One unmistakable legacy of Vietnam is that the price of America's withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like 'boat people,' 're-education camps' and 'killing fields,'" Mr. Bush said.
Many people in Vietnam said Mr. Bush's comparison was ill-considered.
The only way to restore order in Iraq is for the United States to leave, said Trinh Xuan Thang, a university student.
"Bush sent troops to invade Iraq and created all the problems there," Thang said.
If the U.S. withdrew, he said, the violence might escalate in the short term but the situation would eventually stabilize.
"Let the Iraqis determine their fate by themselves," Thang said. "They don't need American troops there."
Ton Nu Thi Ninh, former chairwoman of the National Assembly's committee on foreign affairs, said Mr. Bush was unwise to stir up sensitive memories of the Vietnam War.
"The price we, the Vietnamese people on both sides, paid during the war was due to the fact that the Americans went into Vietnam in the first place," Ninh said.
Mr. Bush's comments drew criticism from politicians and historians who claimed he did not understand the lessons of the Vietnam War or was using the wrong historical lessons to sell our military's continued presence in Iraq.
"It's an untenable position," historian Douglas Brinkley told CBS News White House correspondent Bill Plante "It's divisive. It's not going to sell. You are not going to be able to sell the lessons of Vietnam as, 'We should have stayed a decade longer.'"
Mr. Bush, who has rejected Iraq-Vietnam comparisons in the past, linked the U.S. pullout back then to the rise of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Foreign policy analysts took issue with this argument.
"The president emphasized the violence in the wake of American withdrawal from Vietnam. But this happened because the United States left too late, not too early," said Steven Simon, a Mideast expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. "It was the expansion of the war that opened the door to (Khmer Rouge leader) Pol Pot and the genocide of the Khmer Rouge. The longer you stay, the worse it gets."