06.23.15

Senator Patrick Leahy Remarks for Center for Strategic and International Studies Addressing the Legacy of Agent Orange in Vietnam

Thank you, John .  Thank you for inviting me here. 

I also want to recognize Charles Bailey.  Had it not been for Charles and his extraordinary work on Agent Orange at the Ford Foundation and since then, we would not be here today.  That is no exaggeration.

Le Ke Son has also been a leader on the Vietnamese side, and I appreciate and thank him for everything he has done on this issue.

I first became involved on issues of people with disabilities in Vietnam when George H.W. Bush was president. 

At that time our focus was on victims of unexploded landmines and bombs, and the Leahy War Victims Fund became the first U.S. aid to the people of Vietnam after the war. 

That was back in 1989, and since then the Leahy Fund has helped thousands of Vietnamese war victims who lost legs and arms regain their mobility and their independence – with artificial limbs, wheelchairs, and vocational training.  

The U.S. government has also provided millions of dollars to help clear unexploded ordnance from Vietnam.  It is one of the cruel legacies of war that the soldiers withdraw, the guns fall silent, but civilians – often children – continue to die from landmines, shells, and bombs years later.

Both of these programs have not only benefitted the Vietnamese people, they have played a key role in the process of normalizing relations with Vietnam. 

Over the past 25 years that these programs have been ongoing there were many other U.S. efforts to improve relations with the Vietnamese people and their government – from the Fulbright and International Visitors programs to combating HIV/AIDS to maritime security cooperation with the Vietnamese Navy.

Each of these initiatives has helped transform our engagement with Vietnam since 1995 – when President Clinton reestablished diplomatic relations.  And they have furthered our strategic interests in East Asia.

But despite this progress, one issue remained a subject of great resentment, and that was Agent Orange.

I recall vividly when Vietnamese officials who expressed appreciation for our support for UXO programs and other areas of cooperation, would bring up Agent Orange.  The whole tenor of the conversation would change. 

They would insist that the United States should take care of the victims of Agent Orange, whom they numbered in the millions, and clean up the areas that were contaminated with dioxin. 

They always brought it up, and they were not shy about expressing their anger about it.

Frankly, it was hard to argue with them.  If Agent Orange contaminated with dioxin were sprayed today over inhabited areas and rice fields as it was in Vietnam back then, it would likely be considered a war crime.  I felt that instead of turning our backs on the problem we had a moral obligation to do something about it. 

But there were two big obstacles:  

            First, the U.S. government refused to accept any responsibility, fearing that to do so would encourage thousands or even millions of legal claims by Vietnamese citizens for reparations. 

            Second, the Vietnamese government argued that seemingly anyone in Vietnam who suffered a birth defect was a victim of Agent Orange, and that large areas of the country remained contaminated.

Two things got us over those hurdles:  

            First, Charles Bailey at the Ford Foundation funded a survey that showed the contamination was limited to a relatively few dioxin “hot spots” at former U.S. military bases.  That drastically reduced the size of the area to be cleaned up.  

            Second, the U.S. government began providing compensation to American veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange, and who were suffering from serious illnesses. 

At about the same time, a U.S. court dismissed a case brought on behalf of Vietnamese citizens who claimed damages for exposure to Agent Orange.

Although the causal connection between the dioxin in Agent Orange and specific diseases has not been proven, the double standard of our approach to U.S. veterans versus Vietnamese citizens was obvious. 

Agent Orange disability payments to U.S. veterans of the Vietnam War are in the billions of dollars.  And just last week the government agreed to provide disability benefits to U.S. Air Force reservists and active duty soldiers exposed to Agent Orange residue on airplanes used in the war.

My goal, to put it simply, was to turn Agent Orange from a source of antagonism and resentment into another example of the U.S. and Vietnamese governments working together to address one of the most difficult and emotional legacies of the war. 

Over the past 7 years, the Congress has provided $105 million to clean up the Da Nang Airport, formerly a U.S. military base, and another $30 million for health-disability programs focused on likely Agent Orange victims. 

Last year I joined Vietnam’s Vice Minister of Defense and the U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam in activating the heaters to destroy the dioxin in the first 45,000 cubic meters of contaminated soil at Da Nang. 

My wife Marcelle and I also visited a family living nearby, whose children suffer from severe physical and psychological impairment. 

And we visited a local hospital where those children and others suffering from disabilities received wheel chairs and hearing aids from the U.S. government. 

We have come a long way.  We have further to go.  A survey of the Bien Hoa Airport is underway, and it is expected to show more extensive dioxin contamination than Da Nang. 

I have urged the Department of Defense to help pay the cost of this effort.  They share responsibility for the contamination, and it is in their interest to work with their Vietnamese military counterparts to address it.

USAID is also expanding the health-disability program to $21 million over 5 years in up to 8 provinces that were heavily sprayed, or that are inhabited today by people who were exposed to Agent Orange in those heavily sprayed provinces during the war. 

Finally, the legislation specifies that the funds should prioritize individuals who suffer from “severe mobility impairment and/or cognitive or developmental disabilities”.  We have limited funds, and we want them to be used to help those who are the most severely disabled.

Since 1995 the United States and Vietnam have successfully resolved a series of challenges, and our relations have grown stronger, broader, and more confident. 

President George W. Bush, President Obama, and Secretaries of State Clinton and Kerry have made clear that the United States and Vietnam are partners in addressing the dioxin issue. 

We have learned a great deal about how social services can help children and adults with disabilities, and ways to boost their families, who carry the greatest burden of daily care and responsibility.

No one can lift these burdens entirely.  But we can transfer knowledge and training that helps to build local systems of care, mobility, and community engagement that ease the struggle. We want to help the Vietnamese be better able to provide for their own people.  

The Vietnam War was a terrible tragedy for the people of both countries – for the veterans, for their families, and for millions of others who were harmed – directly or indirectly. 

Often overlooked are the millions of U.S. cluster munitions in Laos that continue to kill and maim civilians 40 years later. They are another legacy of the Vietnam War, and we are providing funds to get rid of them.

Too many years went by before we began to address these painful legacies, but I think we can all feel some satisfaction that the United States and Vietnam are finally doing so together. 

It is the right thing to do, and it has made – and I believe will continue to make – a big difference in the progress our countries make on many other issues. 

At a time when China is actively seeking to extend its sphere of influence and the United States has begun its own “rebalance towards Asia”, these Vietnam War legacy programs have taken on added significance.   

Vietnam is becoming an increasingly important partner of the United States in a region that is undergoing sweeping changes.

Vietnam’s highest ranking government official, the Secretary General of the Communist Party, is due to meet with President Obama, myself, and other Members of Congress in two weeks.  Such a visit would have been unthinkable not very long ago.

The Chairman of the National Assembly is planning to visit here in September.   

There is talk of President Obama possibly visiting Vietnam later this year.

And we are seeing how the next generation of Vietnamese, who embrace any opportunity to become versed in regional and global issues, are eager to take on positions of greater responsibility. 

It was obvious to me, when I spoke with students at the law school in Hanoi last year, that Vietnam and the United States are on a trajectory that will only bring us closer together – in all areas in which we have interests, from trade, to security, to civil and political rights.

That is good for both countries. 

It is remarkable how a tiny program we started 25 years ago to help a few people walk again, turned out to be the catalyst for tackling one of the most difficult legacies of the war and, in the process, building a whole new relationship between two former enemies. 

Thank you again for inviting me. 

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