HANOI, Vietnam -- Conscious of the symbolism, William Cohen arrived in the Vietnamese capital today as the first U.S. defense secretary to visit since the Vietnam War ended 25 years ago in defeat for America.
''I intend to focus on the future, not on the past,'' Cohen told reporters accompanying him as his Air Force jet approached the Hanoi airport, where he was greeted by a few Vietnamese officers and U.S. Ambassador Pete Peterson.
At a formal welcoming ceremony in a courtyard outside a government guest house, Cohen and Defense Minister Pham Van Tra walked down a red carpet reviewing a color guard as a military band played the American and Vietnamese national anthems.
The two defense chiefs then led their delegations into the guest house and sat across from each other at a conference table.
Afterward Peterson told reporters the talks had been ''very cordial, very comfortable,'' and he described the occasion as a historic step toward achieving truly normal relations between former war enemies.
''You couldn't have imagined this happening four or five years ago -- maybe not even two years ago,'' Peterson said.
Cohen later was driven in a four-wheel drive vehicle to an excavation site, about 20 miles southwest of Hanoi, where U.S. forensics experts are directing a search for aircraft wreckage and human remains where a Navy F-4B Phantom jet is believed to have crashed during the Vietnam War.
Hiking along a dike between vast expanses of rice paddies to reach the dig site, Cohen gazed into a six-foot hole where workers were lifting buckets of mud and passing them along a human chain of dozens of Vietnamese in conical straw hats.
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