US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis (3rd-R) talks to Vietnamese military officials

U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis (3rd-R) visits Bien Hoa airbase, where the U.S. army stored the defoliant Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City, on 17 October 2018. (Photo: KHAM / POOL / AFP)

U.S.-Vietnam Post-War Reconciliation: A Work in Process

Published

Forty-five years after the cessation of the Vietnam War, relations behind Vietnam and the U.S. have improved markedly. But some issues, such as the legacy of Agent Orange and relations with former refugees, require delicate handling.

This year marks the 45th anniversary of the official reunification of North and South Vietnam following the cessation of the Vietnam War. On 2 July 1976, the two formerly separated halves of the country were politically joined as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV). This followed a long Cold War contest for international legitimacy between the Soviet- and Chinese- backed Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) and the United States-backed Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) since 1954. 

From the fall of Saigon in 1975 until the early 1990s, the U.S. maintained an economic embargo on Vietnam and withheld diplomatic recognition of the SRV. Over 1.6 million refugees fled Vietnam, the majority eventually resettling in America. Reconciliation between the U.S. and Vietnam, while seemingly “resolved” following the formal normalisation of bilateral diplomatic relations on 11 July 1995 and the conclusion of the U.S.-Vietnam Bilateral Trade Agreement in 2001, has in actuality been a slow ongoing process. It was only after the U.S. granted Permanent Normal Trade Relations status to Vietnam in December 2006 that Hanoi could accede to the World Trade Organization. Foreign direct investment (FDI) has since surged, contributing to Vietnam’s achievement of a per capita GDP of US$2,715 in 2019, ten times its 1995 level. Many pundits declare that Vietnam’s economic boom has turned its people’s gaze towards the future rather than the past. 

Over the past decade, the reconciliation process between the two governments has also gained stronger momentum, and they have, for the most part, overcome wartime differences. This is partly due to the rapid rise of China and its increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea — which has presented Hanoi with an existential challenge. The situation contributed to a shared perception of an emerging China threat between Vietnam and the U.S. and encouraged them to work together more closely in the strategic defence and economic domains. However, for some, the hard legacies of war and violence between the two countries continue to be contentious.

A longstanding point of contention between Vietnam and the U.S. has been over the issue of Agent Orange (AO). Between 1961 and 1971, the U.S. sprayed over 12 million gallons of dioxin on Indochina, the majority on the territory of its own ally South Vietnam. AO defoliated thick jungles where Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces were hiding. The long-term consequences to public health have been debilitating, including the chemical’s linkage to at least 19 classes of cancer, severe medical conditions and birth defects. Lawsuits by Vietnamese plaintiffs against American companies that manufactured AO were dismissed in the U.S in 2008 and France in 2021

The U.S. position on AO is that there was an insufficient causal link between areas where the dioxin was sprayed and birth defects or other health problems. Funding earmarked for addressing the AO issue went primarily to support scientists studying the issue. In more recent years, however, the U.S. has, without admitting liability, committed to funding dioxin mitigation at hot spots such as former American air bases in Da Nang and Bien Hoa, where barrels of the chemical were dumped or seeped into the ground. For example, cleanup operations at the Da Nang airbase took seven years and cost US$116 million — a cost that is borne by Washington. While there is some social support for families with disabilities, such assistance has been limited and mostly provided by private donors. A small but significant war legacy acknowledgement occurred during a 2018 visit by the U.S. Navy to Da Nang, where service members volunteered at a shelter for children suffering from AO effects.

Reconciliation, in the case of the Vietnam War, has become transnationally complex in scope, extending beyond politics to implicate realms of health, culture, tourism, migration, memory and more.

In the U.S., much of the public has moved on from framing Vietnam as a country where a war was fought decades ago. Tourism to discover the culture and heritage of the country has been on the rise; in 2019, Vietnam was among the top ten destinations for American tourists. Yet, among many former Vietnamese refugees resettled in the U.S., there is still palpable resentment against the communist regime that caused their families to flee. Nostalgia for the former Republic of Vietnam is entangled with many aspects of Vietnamese American cultural production, from fashion and music shows to Black April commemoration events held in diasporic centres like Little Saigon in California and Bellaire outside Houston, Texas. In these towns, the former republican flag of South Vietnam is still popular, even declared in some municipalities as the official “heritage and freedom” flag of the Vietnamese. 

Some Vietnamese American organisations are lobbying against the promotion of economic and political ties between the U.S. and Vietnam on account of human rights abuses in the latter. Such groups have sometimes found sympathetic allies among American veterans that continue to demand a full accounting of prisoner of war/ missing in action (POW/ MIA) issues. The conservatism that has affected ties with Vietnam is changing, however. Vietnamese Americans are debating political differences within their communities, especially in the aftermath of Trump’s presidency, and how to engage the Vietnamese homeland. A vibrant Vietnamese American literary scene is becoming more engaged with writers in Vietnam as they grapple with contested war memories and representations. Vietnamese Americans, as well as veteran GIs, are also volunteering with NGOs to address the AO issue, unexploded ordnance (UXO), and other material war legacies in Vietnam. 

Reconciliation, in the case of the Vietnam War, has become transnationally complex in scope, extending beyond politics to implicate realms of health, culture, tourism, migration, memory and more. Inward reflections on trauma are turning outwards towards sharing and empathy as participants from formerly opposing sides learn to work together. Bilateral relations still have some ways to go. For America’s part, there are some additional ways forward: expanding the scope of health and disabilities programmes to accommodate more AO affected individuals and engaging in direct dialogue with victims. The U.S. should also continue to support the clearance of UXO. 

For Vietnam, trust-building measures to engage former South Vietnamese refugees that are now American citizens can help demonstrate the sincerity of the Communist Party’s olive branch overtures to the diaspora. One of the most promising areas of mutual cooperation has been in the search for MIA remains, which will likely persist as long as there are families who seek answers, but now has expanded with American technological support to include finding not only missing American but also Vietnamese war dead. Forty-six years after the Vietnam War, reconciliation is ongoing and may be doing its most productive work as a journey rather than a destination.

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