The US began dispersing aerial herbicides over South Vietnam on 10 August 1961. The spraying of Agent Orange, as the herbicides became known, continued for ten years and is the most intractable legacy of the Vietnam War.
While cooperation on identifying the remains of American soldiers and removing unexploded ordnance started before normalisation of relations in 1995, only in 2006 did Washington, D.C., begin acknowledging responsibility for Agent Orange. It was public-private cooperation that helped break the deadlock and unlock US assistance. Addressing the Agent Orange issue can further advance US-Vietnam bilateral relations and should be a priority for the US.
Following the 2006 visit of US president George W. Bush to Vietnam, the two countries issued a joint statement in which the US officially recognised the need to address Agent Orange’s consequences. Six months later, the US Congress approved the first funding for dioxin remediation in Vietnam. As of 2021, the amount reached $381.4 million, with 75% for environmental clean-up and 25% for disability assistance.
The US state department tasked the US Agency for International Development (USAID) with administering the appropriated funds. USAID collaborated with Vietnamese authorities in environmental remediation of dioxin contamination at Da Nang Airport, which was completed in 2017. Cleanup efforts are underway at the Bien Hoa Air Base, the principal remaining dioxin hotspot.
Separate funds for health and disability programs were appropriated in 2011, starting at $3 million but with increased financial support from the US in subsequent years. In 2019, USAID and Vietnam’s Ministry of Defence signed a five-year memorandum earmarking $65 million to assist people with disabilities. The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 provided $14.5 million toward this goal, channeling American assistance to Vietnamese with severe disabilities in ten heavily sprayed provinces.
A network of transnational actors, led in part by the Ford Foundation, was key to these developments.
In 1994, the Vietnamese government agreed to a Canadian proposal to search for residual dioxin in sprayed areas and assigned the work to the 10-80 Committee in the Ministry of Health. Funded by the Canadian government, the 10-80 Committee and Hatfield Consultants conducted the first comprehensive, long-term research on dioxin residues in Vietnam.
The study confirmed dioxin remained in the soil at a former US base, finding its way up the food chain and into people who returned to the area, providing the first empirical evidence of a continuing threat to public health by residual dioxins. These findings gave rise to the ‘dioxin hotspot hypothesis’ stating that former US bases were the most likely contaminated sites.
However, the Canadian government declined further funding and the US and Vietnam stalled in an attempt at a joint epidemiological study. Instead, in 2002 the Ford Foundation offered the 10-80 Committee a grant to test the dioxin hotspot hypothesis on all 2,735 former US bases in Vietnam. The 10-80 Committee-Hatfield 2006 report demonstrated that dioxin contamination was concentrated at three former bases in Phu Cat, Da Nang and Bien Hoa. This identified the scope of the environmental hazards and focused US-Vietnam discussions on remediation.
Hanoi had invited the Ford Foundation to Vietnam a decade earlier and Ford became a grant-maker in several important fields. Still, Charles Bailey, the Ford Foundation representative in Vietnam, soon realised progress on Agent Orange was paramount.
From 2000 to 2011, Ford approved nearly 100 grants worth $17 million to Vietnamese ministries and research centers, UN agencies and Vietnamese, Vietnamese-American and other US NGOs for pilot programmes. These helped develop best practices of direct assistance to Agent Orange victims, locate dioxin hotspots, launch cleanup projects and continuously raise the issue in the US. Ford’s initiatives and the work of their partners rekindled interest in some US leaders, encouraging them to channel money to USAID for use in Vietnam.
The US had a “moral obligation to do something about [The Agent Orange legacy]”
In 2007, Ford helped establish a track-2 channel, the US-Vietnam Dialogue Group on Agent Orange/Dioxin. Ford Foundation president Susan Berresford convened the group, which comprised eminent citizens, scientists, victims’ supporters and policymakers from both countries. In 2010, the group published its ten-year comprehensive plan of action. The plan set goals and detailed the required steps on disability assistance and cleanup, calling for $300 million from the US and other donors. By 2019, US assistance surpassed that benchmark and many of the goals were being achieved.
This story in Vietnam is told mainly as a government matter, but philanthropies such as the Ford Foundation can play a role in such circumstances. When government-to-government cooperation was at an impasse, Ford acted as a facilitator and trust-builder. It had the freedom, resources and courage to help solve the problem.
Still, support from US leaders was critical. The most prominent advocate has been senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, who used evidence from the 10-80 Committee-Hatfield dioxin hotspot studies to push for US involvement in environmental remediation and aid to Agent Orange victims. His seniority in the Senate led him to spearhead these initiatives and in 2015 he said the US had “a moral obligation to do something about [the Agent Orange legacy].”
Tim Rieser, Leahy’s foreign policy advisor, and Michael W. Marine, US ambassador to Vietnam from 2004 to 2007, led the effort to arrange funding on the ground. Having witnessed firsthand the damages of Agent Orange in Vietnam and talked to Vietnamese representatives, they were determined to bring about joint US-Vietnam actions in mitigating consequences of dioxin and helping impacted Vietnamese.
Without such leadership, US assistance to Agent Orange victims would not have been possible.
Bailey worked closely with vice foreign minister Le Van Bang and his colleagues, Dr Le Ke Son, head of the Vietnam government’s coordinating committee on Agent Orange, as well as Rieser, Marine, subsequent US ambassadors and the Dialogue Group to ensure continuing progress.
At the launch of the Vietnamese Wartime Accounting Initiative in July, deputy minister of defense and senior lieutenant general Hoang Xuan Chien thanked the Ford Foundation, while president Nguyen Xuan Phuc expressed appreciation for the “practical support from philanthropists at home and abroad” in his letter to Vietnam’s Agent Orange victims on Agent Orange Awareness Day.
Problems remain, as USAID-sponsored activities remain limited and do not reach all potential victims inside or outside priority provinces. Many victims and advocates are bitter that the US government recognises dioxin-related illnesses suffered by US war veterans but not among Vietnamese.
A recent lawsuit against former Agent Orange producers in the US is a reminder of the critical need to pay greater attention to victims’ needs and concerns. Furthermore, the Agent Orange legacy in Laos and Cambodia remains unaddressed. The lessons from US-Vietnam cooperation in this regard could inform future US efforts in helping these two countries mitigate dioxin consequences. Overcoming sensitivities will not be easy, but while the same was true two decades ago, Hanoi and Washington, D.C., now have even greater incentives to remove barriers to closer bilateral relations. A victim-centred approach requiring US direct assistance to the victims and recognition of their plight will not only address the Agent Orange issue and promote justice for the victims, but can also increase confidence and cooperation between Vietnam and the US.
Charles Bailey headed the Ford Foundation in Vietnam from 1997 to 2007 and directed the Agent Orange programmes at the Ford Foundation and the Aspen Institute until 2014. He is the author, with Le Ke Son, of “From Enemies to Partners: Vietnam, the US, and Agent Orange.”
Phan Xuan Dung is a Young Leader with the Pacific Forum. He obtained a master’s degree in Asian Studies from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and a bachelor’s degree in International Relations from Tokyo International University in Japan.
This article was originally published by Pacific Forum and can be found here.