By Chuck Searcy, 15 February 2021
Last month, completion of dioxin cleanup on a 5,300-square-meter tract of land at Bien Hoa airport marked a significant milestone.
Officials of both the Vietnamese and U.S. governments could derive satisfaction from knowing that the Agent Orange/dioxin legacy of war is now being addressed, after a troubling post-war history of misinformation and controversy, accusations and doubts.
Not just public officials, but veterans and ordinary citizens of both countries can take pride in looking back over the remarkable transformation that has taken place in the past two decades, from early years of mistrust and recrimination to a positive, working partnership between Vietnam and the U.S. today.
That relationship is now built on mutual trust and respect.
A cornerstone of our dramatically improved relationship is a clear, shared commitment between the people of both countries to address the legacies of war, Agent Orange/dioxin, explosive ordnance (EO), and wartime Missing In Action (MIA) personnel from all sides, in an open and honest manner. We now recognize that the humanitarian component of these challenges rises above politics and demands a concerted, selfless effort of all concerned.
How did we come to this point?
Twenty-five years after Vietnam and the U.S. normalized diplomatic relations on July 11,1995, is an appropriate moment to observe and reflect.
I have been a personal witness to this history: first, as a U.S. Army soldier in the war, in 1967-68, then as a veteran who returned to Vietnam in 1995 to try to contribute to the rebuilding, recovery, and reconciliation that was being painfully pursued by the Vietnamese. Working at the Swedish Children’s Hospital and Bach Mai Hospital in Ha Noi to provide orthopedic braces for disabled children, one of the first projects funded by USAID, I learned of the terrible toll in deaths and lifetime disabilities among ordinary people throughout Vietnam as a result of wartime bombs and mines still remaining in the ground.
I was shocked to discover that more than 100,000 Vietnamese had been killed or injured by explosive ordnance since the end of the war in 1975. When I and other Americans discussed this humanitarian tragedy with U.S. Embassy staff and other government officials, there was cautious agreement that this grim challenge needed to be addressed, yes, and it was an area in which the U.S. could provide assistance.
Quietly, there emerged a consensus among U.S. officials that America should take some responsibility for the consequences of the massive bombing that had occurred during the war, which left behind an estimated 800,000 tons of lethal, unexploded munitions that remained a threat to farmers, villagers, school children everywhere.
Peace Trees was the first American non-profit organization to receive approval from officials in Quang Tri Province to clear a small site of explosive ordnance and plant trees there. The door was opened for further cooperation, with the engagement of a German demining organization, SODI, soon to follow, then the British Mines Advisory Group (MAG), Golden West Humanitarian Foundation (GWHF), and other organizations including Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation (VVAF) and Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF) which supported Project RENEW, and international aid organization Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA).
Working together with Vietnamese officials and the Ministry of National Defense, these initiatives cleared a path for growing collaboration and a documented reduction in accidents and injuries caused by explosive ordnance.
The evidence is now clear: In the past three years, in Quang Tri Province, there have been zero accidents, zero injuries, and zero deaths caused by explosive ordnance. That is the result of everyone working together, at the national and the provincial level, Vietnamese and international colleagues arm in arm.
The issue of Agent Orange/dioxin has been more complicated, and more controversial. Unlike the EO issue, which was embraced by many people of good will on all sides, AO/dioxin struck fear among the management and stockholders of U.S. chemical companies which had made the chemical defoliants, who were worried that they would be sued and would face huge financial liabilities. In fact, several court cases which were brought against these companies in the U.S., on behalf of U.S. veterans or Vietnamese plaintiffs, but they were either unsuccessful or partially so.
Yet the U.S. government stubbornly supported these companies in their utter denial of any connection between Agent Orange and birth defects, cancers and other diseases, lifetime disabilities, and other medical and mental limitations despite the evidence. The people of Vietnam knew these conditions existed widely, among their neighbors and extended families. U.S. refusal to acknowledge this problem and to face our responsibility to help the Vietnamese, especially when we were paying more than $10 billion a year in assistance to American veterans affected by Agent Orange, left a bitter taste with the Vietnamese.
The problem was eventually resolved with increasing involvement and public advocacy among a growing group of Americans, including veterans, medical experts, and media.
Of particular note is the role of the Ford Foundation and its Vietnam director at the time, Charles Bailey, who funded important field research, seminars and workshops, and professional studies to answer many questions posed by critics.
It became difficult for the U.S. government to remain on the outside, arguing against this humanitarian initiative, when the consensus was building so strongly that Agent Orange/dioxin was indeed a problem in Vietnam, and there are steps we can take to mitigate the disaster, including cleanup of the “hot spots” (such as Bien Hoa) and direct assistance to suffering families.
The U.S. government eventually came into the picture in a very visible and positive way, providing significant funding for the dioxin cleanup at the Da Nang international airport, and now the Bien Hoa airport cleanup which is underway.
USAID has pledged some $65 million over five years for disability programs in Vietnam, and the recent stimulus bill approved by the U.S. Congress contained $170 million for Vietnam to overcome the consequences of the war.
Meanwhile Vietnam’s 701 Committee on EO and Toxic Chemicals, the national umbrella organization that directs activities related to legacies of war, works closely with NGOs in Quang Tri and other provinces, to share data and other technological information, and the committee cooperates closely with the U.S. Embassy as well.
The collaboration is comprehensive and based on open exchange of information and tools to help both sides eventually bring “closure” to the war legacies that have been a powerful framework – nowadays a positive omen that benefits both governments, and the citizens of both Vietnam and the U.S.
Finally, we need to note a lingering, sad legacy that has also brought both sides together: the issue of Missing in Action (MIA), soldiers from all sides whose remains have not been found and not yet returned to their families or their homelands. When discussions began in the late 1980s, with the U.S. requesting Vietnam’s assistance in locating the sites of plane crashes or other incidents where bodies of U.S. personnel had not been recovered or accounted for, U.S. opponents of normalized relations with Vietnam were confident that this would be a “deal-breaker.” They were sure the Vietnamese, citing national sovereignty and their own 300,000 MIAs, would refuse to cooperate. Normalized relations between the two countries would be impossible. How wrong they were!
Vietnamese officials agreed to permit U.S. military personnel to come and work with Vietnamese teams to search all over the country for remains for U.S. airmen and other personnel, which led to growing respect and friendship between the two sides. Instead of a barrier, this issue had become a bridge of understanding and cooperation.
Today the MIA effort goes on, with shared technologies and methodologies between both sides, including forensic research, and each side assisting the other in its recovery efforts. Twenty-five year ago no one thought this would be possible.
We can thank enlightened government leaders of both countries, students and veterans, ordinary citizens of good will. Many participated in exchange programs hosted by the Foreign Ministry, the Vietnam Union of Friendship Organizations, or the Veterans Association of Vietnam, who refused to accept permanent barriers between our two nations.
Senior Lieutenant General Nguyen Chi Vinh, Deputy Minister of National Defense, and his colleagues have led the Vietnamese side of this collaboration, with leadership to ensure strong collaboration and new capacity-building. Soon-to-depart U.S. Ambassador Daniel Kritenbrink has followed in the steps of his predecessors to bring about greater cooperation and tangible results in our mutual efforts to achieve closure on these legacies of war. A critical contribution over the years has come from U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy whose leadership on the Budget Committee has ensured that funding would be available to meet these challenges.
We can also thank the open and generous spirit of the Vietnamese people, who refuse to carry bitter grudges, who always find ways to accommodate old enemies. As an endearing example to the world, the Vietnamese became friends with Americans again, sharing one aspiration to create a prosperous and peaceful future for all our children – free, at last, from the tragic legacies of war.
Chuck Searcy is a U.S. Army veteran of the American war in Vietnam who has lived and worked in Vietnam since 1995. He is President of Veterans For Peace Chapter 160, and international advisor to Project RENEW in Quang Tri Province.
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