Issues & Insights Vol. 21 SR 3, pp. 24-35
Authors of this volume participated in the inaugural U.S.-Vietnam Next-Generation Leaders Initiative. With backgrounds in academia, public policy, military and industry, the cohort brings rich insights on the past, present, and future of the U.S.-Vietnam relationship. Between October 2020 and April 2021, cohort members engaged with senior experts and practitioners as they developed research papers addressing various aspects of the bilateral relationship.
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From Cold War enemies to partners, the United States and Vietnam have come a long way in restoring and fostering bilateral relations since normalization in 1995. However, the path toward rapprochement was not easy. It was an arduous process for those involved, ridden with a myriad of sensitive subjects, among which were the environmental and health consequences of the Agent Orange herbicide used by U.S. forces during the Vietnam War. Even after re-establishing formal diplomatic relations, the two countries failed to reach a common ground on the issue. During the stalemate, in 2002, the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam called Agent Orange the “one significant ghost” of the war that hindered complete reconciliation. Not until 2007 did the United States and Vietnam finally agree to jointly address this war legacy.
This paper unpacks the U.S.’ response to the Agent Orange fallout, an overlooked or less emphasized aspect of the warming U.S.-Vietnam bilateral ties that carries significant symbolic, political, legal, and humanitarian implications. The paper answers the following questions: What are the harmful effects of this chemical substance? Who are the victims of Agent Orange in Vietnam? How is Washington assisting Hanoi with mitigation efforts? How should U.S. assistance be con- ceptualized, and what is the rationale for the current approach? Why did the United States change tack after so many years of intransigence? Most importantly, what do the victims need and what more can the United States do to promote reconciliation with the Vietnamese whose lives have been debilitated by the toxic herbicide?
After providing an overview of the Agent Orange legacy in Vietnam, this paper elucidates the research’s theoretical underpinnings, which revolve around the concept of reparative justice. Subsequently, the paper examines the material and symbolic component of U.S. policies toward the issue of Agent Orange in Vietnam. Regarding material redress, there is no direct compensation or reparations. Instead, the U.S. Congress provides annual funds for environmental remediation projects and health programs to assist persons with disabilities living in areas sprayed with the herbicide. In terms of symbolic justice, Washington has not accepted culpability for the use of toxic defoliants. U.S. leaders avoid drawing causation between Agent Orange and the health effects seen in Vietnam but implicitly acknowledge this through their statements and actions. This ex-gratia approach allows Washington to evade the domestic political costs while securing strategic gains through improved bilateral relations with the Southeast Asian country. The paper argues that initiatives by a transnational network of victims’ supporters, including NGOs and American state actors, helped end the deadlock in bilateral negotiations and prompted American assistance. In the final section, the paper explores the perspective of Vietnamese Agent Orange victims and offers some policy recommendations for the United States. The paper underlines the need for a more victim-centered response, which will build long-term trust and confidence between the two countries and promote a more genuine relationship between the United States and the victims.
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Phan Xuan Dung is a MSc student in Asian Studies and a student research assistant at RSIS, NTU. His research interests include Vietnam’s foreign policy, Vietnam’s relations with great and middle powers, international relations of Asia-Pacific, and maritime security in the Indo-Pacific.
Photo: American flags and Vietnamese flags at the VIP Terminal of the airport in Hanoi, Vietnam, on November 11, 2017. Source: State Department Photo/ Public Domain