In the last decade, the US has taken the first steps to repairing the damage to the land of Vietnam, if not to the inhabitants.

While at least recognizing that Agent Orange has affected the health of American veterans and their offspring, our government has consistently stated—much to the frustration of the Vietnamese—that there is no scientific evidence linking Agent Orange to adverse health effects found in Vietnam. As a practical matter, it cannot easily do otherwise. The cost, the danger of setting a precedent for the United States Government, the almost total absence of precedents elsewhere, and the effective silence of international and domestic law on this issue all work against it.

 

Is That Why They Call It “War?”

In some sense, of course, damaging your enemy is what war is all about. If we find ourselves forced to compensate every country for wartime damage inflicted by our armed forces, who knows where that could lead? What claims may come due in Iraq and Afghanistan if we compensate Vietnam for the Agent Orange tragedy?

The only close precedent is the recent willingness of Japan to clean up its unexploded World War II chemical weapons from Chinese soil, a turnabout on Japan’s part driven not by any change of heart but a recognition of growing Chinese power. As with Agent Orange, the situation involves weaponry a step beyond what the global community seems to accept as intrinsic to modern warfare, and so might be considered an exception to the practice of not compensating an enemy, rather than a new rule. Indeed, it has been proposed that the US simply declare that any help in resolving the Agent Orange issue sets no precedent for the future. And it has also been suggested that we can and should avoid the whole issue of responsibility (with Vietnam smart enough not to insist on it), but simply address the continuing problem of the dioxin hot spots. However, it has also been noted that the issue of compensation for illnesses and disabilities might surface once the hot spots are remediated.

In any event, somewhat similar to the case of Japan and China, the US has recognized its former enemy’s growing value as a strategic asset. Meanwhile, the US does seem to feel that the issue of MIAs/POWs has been adequately addressed by Vietnam, while the latter has now won most trade benefits it had sought—two issues that had preoccupied the parties for many years. And so movement has begun.

 

Step by Step

The US and Vietnamese governments have come a long way in the past several years towards working together to address the long term impacts of Agent Orange, though the issue still remains politically sensitive. Today, American and Vietnamese government agencies meet annually as part of the Joint Advisory Committee on Agent Orange to discuss areas of cooperation regarding the environmental and health effects of Agent Orange/dioxin. Since 2007, the US Congress has allocated a total of $170 million for the “remediation of dioxin hot spots in Vietnam and to support public health programs in the surrounding communities.”  The allocations have steadily increased over the past 7 years with $37 million allocated for the 2016 fical year. This included $7 million for "health/disability programs in areas sprayed with Agent Orange or otherwise contaminated by dioxin, to address the mobility, psycho-social, vocational, and other needs of persons with severe upper and lower body mobility impairment and/or cognitive or developmental disabilities." 

Most of the US funding to date has been used to address the dioxin contamination at the Da Nang airbase.  The US and Vietnamese governments are in the process of remediating the dioxin contaminated soil using an In-Pile Thermal Desorption process that will reduce the dioxin contamination to levels less than 150 ppt.  The total cost of remediating Da Nang is estimated to be around $110 million.

 

“Clean up after yourself. It’s a lesson we learn early in life. Now, more than 30 years after the US pulled out of Vietnam, the time has come to follow that rule.”
– Walter Isaacson, TIME, 2007.

While progress on the issue may seem slow to some, it is important to remember where things have come in the 39 years since the end of the war and 43 years since the last plane sprayed herbicides. Following the end of the war, the US imposed a diplomatic and economic embargo on Vietnam, only fully normalizing relations in 1995. During the normalization of relations process and the early years of US-Vietnam relations, the Agent Orange issue remained in the background, not only for the US government but for the Vietnamese government as well, as other issues within the developing relationship had precedence. In the late 1990s, Vietnamese citizens began to press their own government to provide assistance to those believe to be affected by Agent Orange, and the Vietnamese government officials began to raise this issue in bi-lateral meetings with US government officials.

Throughout the late 1990s and 2000s, incremental progress was made towards getting the two sides to openly discuss this issue. The Vietnamese insisted that the US also needed to address the humanitarian needs of those they believed to be ill or disabled due to Agent Orange and the US insisted that they must first have scientific proof of dioxins impact on human health. Nonetheless, the US began to recognize that ignoring this issue was threatening relations with Vietnam, a country that was increasingly becoming a valued economic partner as well as an important strategic partner in Southeast Asia. In 2002, US Ambassador Burkhart called Agent Orange the "last significant ghost" of the Vietnam War.

One of the signs that a more constructive dialogue on the Agent Orange issue had developed was the text of the joint President George W. Bush-Prime Minister Nguyen Minh Triet statement in November 2006. In the statement, Prime Minister Triet thanked Americans for their increased development assistance, and urged the US to continue their assistance to people with disabilities. This was followed by Vietnam and the US agreeing “that further joint efforts to address the environmental contamination near former dioxin storage sites would make a valuable contribution to the continued development of their bilateral relationship.” While not addressing the issue of disabilities, the statement by the leaders of each nation publically acknowledged that dioxin contamination was a bilateral issue of concern to both nations.

This joint statement helped pave the way for Senator Leahy’s office to request in the May 2007 Iraq Spending bill that $3 million be allocated for “remediation of dioxin hot spots in Vietnam and to support public health programs in the surrounding communities.” Senator Leahy followed this with two additional allocations of $3 million each in the 2009 and 2010 fiscal years. The US Embassy requested funding for the Da Nang hotspot work in their FY2011 budget, a sign that the US now sees Agent Orange as one of the three war related humanitarian issues for the US in addition to recovering the US Missing in Action and clearing unexploded ordnance and supporting care for UXO victims, at least in regards to addressing the issue of dioxin hotspots on former US military bases. Funding allocated by congress for alleviating dioxin hotspots in Vietnam has increased over time with $15 million requested in 2011 and 2012, $20 million in 2013 and $22 million on 2014.

Whereas progress is being made on the dioxin hotspot front, the issue of the human health impacts of Agent Orange/dioxin continues to be an area that the US government is less willing to address. The official position of the State Department as expressed by Deputy Assistant Secretary Scott Marciel at a congressional hearing in May 2008 is that “the United States does not recognize any legal liability for damages alleged to be related to Agent Orange. We continue to stress that the discussion of the effects of Agent Orange needs to be based on credible scientific research that meets international standards.” 

However, even on this front, there is slow progress being made due to the congressional allocation initiated from Senator Leahy’s office that opened the door for funding for ‘related health activities” in communities near the dioxin hotspots. There has been a steady increase in the congressional allocations for the health side of the issue with $5 million for FY2012 as well as for FY2013 and $7 million for FY2014, $7.5 million in 2015 and $7 million in 2016. The language in the Appropriations Committee report has become more and more specific recommending for FY2016 that the funding provided supports programs "in areas sprayed with Agent Orange or otherwise contaminated by dioxinto address the mobility, psycho-social, vocational, and other needs of persons with severe upper and lower body mobility impairment and/or cognitive or developmental disabilities."

As of 2015, $12 million has been awarded in grants to support people with disabilities in the Da Nang area. The first project awarded $3 million to three US NGOs to provide vocational training, rehabilitation services and other support to children and youths with disabilities. The second project, the Disability Support Program, is aimed at developing a case management system to provide services to people with disabilities in the Da Nang area.  In addtion, the US Center for Disease Control is working with the Vietnamese Ministry of Health to develop a pilot birth defects registry program in Vietnam. 

In June 2014, USAID announced an Annual Program Statement requesting proposals for up to $21 million in grants over the next five years for programs to provide services to people with disabilities in Vietnam. Included for the first time is a focus on “areas of the country that historically were heavily sprayed with Agent Orange, in an attempt to address the priorities of some stakeholders”. This will expand programs to the target provinces of Dong Nai, Tay Ninh, Binh Phuoc, Binh Dinh, Quang Nam, Thua Thien Hue, and Thai Binh. Six projects have been funded so far by this funding including grants to Vietnam Assistance to the Handicapped, Handicap International, Action the Communicty Development Center (ACDC), Disability Reserch and Capacity Devepment, Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation and VietHealth .

And so, by the end of 2009, the US Ambassador to Vietnam was referring to Agent Orange as a “complex problem,” with the US and Vietnam committed to “working together to find new and innovative solutions.” The issue is now openly discussed in bilateral meetings, and whereas there are still differences in perspective of the on-going impacts of Agent Orange and what the priorities are for addressing the issue, there is recognition by the US that this “last ghost” is one that the US must address in order to fully normalize relations with Vietnam.

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