“In our national memory, Vietnam was a war,” said President Clinton six years ago. “But Vietnam is also a country.”

He spoke these words on Veterans Day, shortly before becoming the first president to travel to Vietnam in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. His trip was billed as an occasion for reconciliation between former enemies.

Now President Bush is making his own trip to the country where some 58,000 U.S. soldiers lost their lives a generation or so ago. If Clinton’s journey was about coming to terms with the past, Bush’s visit, ostensibly to attend the annual APEC meeting, will be about coming to grips with the future.

“I wonder if people at the end of the Vietnam War would ever have thought that at the end of 2006 a president would go there and there would be a market-based economy in a country that was becoming freer,” said Bush recently, according to Newsweek.

Calling Vietnam a “market-based economy” is a stretch. It ranks #142 out of 157 on the Index of Economic Freedom, an annual rating compiled by the Wall Street Journal and the Heritage Foundation. Only countries that systematically suppress markets, such as North Korea, Syria, and Zimbabwe, do worse.

Yet the Vietnamese are making strides. Although one-party rule remains the unfortunate political order of the day, their government has taken steps to decentralize its command-and-control economy. The Vietnamese enjoy more economic freedom today than they did a decade ago.

Ten years from now, they will enjoy even more–if they’re accepted into the World Trade Organization, which is now all but certain. Last week, the WTO’s general council approved its membership. Once the Vietnamese government ratifies the terms of its accession, it will formally sign up. This week’s failure by the U.S. House of Representatives to pass a special trade-relations bill with Vietnam is just a hiccup which almost certainly will be corrected next month. Everything should be accomplished shortly after the New Year.

The benefits of WTO membership are enormous not only for Vietnam, but also for the United States and the rest of the world. Vietnam will gain better access to foreign markets; its WTO partners will face fewer barriers to business in Vietnam. Everybody wins except the protectionists.

One of the main opportunities for Americans will involve investment. So far this year, foreign firms have put more than $6 billion into Vietnam, according to The Economist. That’s an increase of more than 40 percent from a year earlier. Intel recently announced plans to build a $1-billion computer-chip facility that represents that largest single investment that’s ever been made by a foreign-owned company in Vietnam.

This surge of activity is the result, at least in part, from the mere anticipation that Vietnam will join the WTO. When it becomes an actual member, even more investment dollars should flow into the country. Moreover, these investments ought to grow in the coming years because WTO membership will require Vietnam to lower additional barriers over time: Within seven years, Vietnam is expected to reduce its average tariff from 17.4 percent to 13.4 percent; agricultural tariffs will drop from 23.5 percent to 20.9 percent. That means more U.S. ag exports.

There’s still plenty of room for improvement–but the key point is, it’s beginning to happen. Accomplishing this much has required Vietnam’s Communist rulers to rethink their most basic ideological assumptions.

Vietnam clearly wants to follow the Chinese model. That’s good, insofar as it further integrates the global economy. China’s one major drawback, of course, is that it intends to grant its people a measure of economic freedom but virtually no political freedom.

One of the blessings of free trade is that economic freedom nevertheless usually advances political freedom–and there’s some evidence that this may be happening in Vietnam already. Last week, the government in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) handed down light sentences to three Vietnamese Americans whom it had accused of political subversion. They were arrested last year and held without trial for more than 12 months. Before the days of WTO accession, it’s possible to believe that they never again would have seen the light of day. Now they’ll be back in the United States by the end of this year.

The bottom line is that Vietnam was a war and is a country, as Bill Clinton said. Increasingly, we will view it also as an opportunity.

Dean Kleckner, an Iowa farmer, chairs Truth About Trade and Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org)