News / Asia

War Legacy Haunts Vietnam, US Relations

US and Vietnamese officials press start button for Agent Orange clean up project in Da Nang, April 19, 2014. (Marianne Brown/VOA)
US and Vietnamese officials press start button for Agent Orange clean up project in Da Nang, April 19, 2014. (Marianne Brown/VOA)
Marianne Brown

Government officials from the U.S. and Vietnam attended a ceremony Saturday marking the next stage in the cleanup process of one of the Vietnam War's deadliest legacies - Agent Orange.

The herbicide was sprayed by the U.S. military as a defoliant to destroy jungle cover for communist troops. Its highly toxic byproduct, dioxin, has been linked to diseases such as diabetes, cancer and birth defects.

The $84 million project, officially launched in 2012, aims to clean up contaminated soil by cooking it at high temperatures.

On Saturday, a group of visiting U.S. senators and congressmen crowded together at one of 28 so-called dioxin “hotspots” in the country, the former U.S. air base at Da Nang, in central Vietnam, where Agent Orange was stored. They hit a giant start button to initiate the clean up.

Part of the water treatment system at the dioxin remediation site at U.S. airbase in Da Nang, April 19, 2014. (Marianne Brown/VOA)Part of the water treatment system at the dioxin remediation site at U.S. airbase in Da Nang, April 19, 2014. (Marianne Brown/VOA)
Part of the water treatment system at the dioxin remediation site at U.S. airbase in Da Nang, April 19, 2014. (Marianne Brown/VOA)
Part of the water treatment system at the dioxin remediation site at U.S. airbase in Da Nang, April 19, 2014. (Marianne Brown/VOA)

"We built a containment structure roughly the size of a football field and filled it with 45,000 cubic meters of dioxin-contaminated soil," said U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam David Shear.

"Beginning today the contaminated soil will be heated to extremely high temperatures to destroy dioxin. After approximately four months the soil will be tested to confirm that the project cleanup goals have been achieved," he said.

Healing the wounds of war has been an important issue for the two countries since diplomatic relations were normalized nearly two decades ago. The cleanup has become a symbol of progress and cooperation between the two governments.

According to U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy, who led the congressional delegation, the project has four goals.

"[The first is] to eliminate the danger from dioxin to people living here. Second, to show that for so many years, the U.S. didn’t ignore this problem, we returned to take care of it. Third, our two countries can work together on an issue that for more than three decades was an obstacle for better relations. Fourth, [we want] to improve services for people with disabilities regardless of the cause, including what may have been caused by Agent Orange," Leahy said.

An environmental assessment is now being carried out at another former air base, Bien Hoa.

US avoids liability

While the U.S. continues to pump money into funding the Agent Orange cleanup and helping people with disabilities in Vietnam, Washington has never admitted liability for health problems caused by dioxin.

"America is trying to avoid all the one-to-one compensation cases by arguing the scientific basis is not clear, you have no basis, you don’t know what the genetics of the people were to begin with. That’s what a good defense lawyer would do," according to Carl Thayer, a professor at Australia's University of New South Wales.

In 2004 a group of Vietnamese took the chemical companies that produced Agent Orange to court in the U.S., but a federal judge dismissed the case on the grounds that use of the defoliant did not violate international law at the time.

The U.S. also helps in programs aimed at dealing with unexploded ordnance (UXO) and landmine contamination in Vietnam.

But neither the United States nor Vietnam has signed the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty - Vietnam citing national security concerns, especially border security.

One expert who works in the field of UXO clearance - who did not want to be named - said this is because Vietnam is reluctant to clear mines on its border with China.

While the cleanup project has prompted many to reflect on the wounds of war, Vietnam's Vice Minister of National Defense Nguyen Chi Vinh said it is an opportunity to look to the future.

He said he believed the success of the Agent Orange project lies not in the fixing of past issues, but in opening a new road for the future.

"President Obama and President Sang inaugurated the new U.S.-Vietnam comprehensive partnership last summer. I can think of no better example for our growing friendship than this project," said Ambassador Shear.

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Comment Sorting
by: KJW 79 from: USA
April 24, 2014 8:10 PM
Wow. This Vietcong that posted should be taught about the war and what the north did. We Americans went and fought to give you freedom and now I see you just spit on is for that NO RELATIONS with the North. If the north was as nice an proper as they claim they would admit their own responsibility I the war as admit they were wrong and give the country it's freedom. I guess we should've just nuked the while north and been done with it. Well hindsight is 20/20. As for agent orange, it effected many Americans when they came home and still does to this day and will continue to effect that family line for generations. But just like every other communist and socialist state you don't care and just eat to poke at TRUE freedom fighters. AMERICANS ARE THE WORLDS LAST LINE OF DEFENSE AGAINST THE EVIL IN THIS WORLD. So if I were you, is pray that we would come back and finally give you TRUE freedom.

by: Ed Perhay from: USA
April 23, 2014 3:24 AM
Please do not be swept away with this picture op. None of the Vietnam Veterans who lost friends and their families want to see a loving relationship evolve here again. The North will always be the North. They have had decades to convince the world they can be nation committed to their people and the world. Actions speak louder than words here. They have done nothing to convince anyone they have changed from the 60's. Sorry I'm not going to be in denial. The war did happen and many Americans and other around the world still suffer its results. If you wanted to spend more money on Vietnam you should have done it when American lives were at risk..

by: NMQ from: Viet Nam
April 20, 2014 11:26 AM
CJD-Comparing the USA with Canada? What a joke. There's no contest in terms of the death and destruction that your country has caused in Viet Nam and many other countries about the world. Are you a nationalist or just plain ignorant of Amerika's history? Do you know how many Vietnamese died at the hands of your country's military and that of its allies and its client state?
In Response

by: Ian from: USA
April 20, 2014 1:02 PM
This article is good in provide the information of how the two countries approaching new friendship after many year of distance.
Before regurgitate the one sided propaganda acquiring from living under the communist of how bad America & its allies are in the war in Vietnam . I beg you to read more & search for the truth that at the time there was a struggle between the two political systems in the world (The free world & the communist bloc) In that war the communist bloc used Vietnam as a frontier & encourage North Vietnam to overrun South Vietnam (disregard & violate the Paris peace accord)
Also do stop the habit of assigning the dead toll in Vietnam war to one side ( America & its allied) as if there were no death of civilians , atrocities & destructions committed by the communist north Vietnam.
Don't be blind to the fact of your own Ho chi Minh had hundred thousands of Vietnamese killed under the disguise of land reform (this is just one example of how conveniently one can be forgetful of one owns crime) Type the phrase "Land reform in Vietnam" in Wikipedia, and read it and think for yourself .

by: Jonathan huang from: Canada
April 19, 2014 12:12 PM
Using chemical weapons is against the international law. The perpetrator must be trailed by the international war crime court!
Evil America!
In Response

by: CJD from: USA
April 19, 2014 3:27 PM
Jonathan, yes chemical weapon use is against international law. So is genocide. Not sure how the international war crime court is going to trail them??? Evil is world wide. Just take a look at Canada; Hate much?

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