Michael F. Martin
Specialist in Asian Affairs
Since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, there has been a gradual warming of bilateral relations between the United States and Vietnam, culminating in the appointment of the first U.S. ambassador to Vietnam in 1996 and the granting of permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) to Vietnam in 2007. Over the last three decades, many—but not all—of the major issues causing tension between the two nations have been resolved.
One major legacy of the Vietnam War that remains unresolved is the damage that Agent Orange, and its accompanying dioxin, have done to the people and the environment of Vietnam. For the last 35 years, this issue has generally been pushed to the background of bilateral discussions by other issues considered more important by the United States and/or Vietnam. With most of those issues presently resolved, the issue of Agent Orange/dioxin has emerged as a regular topic in bilateral discussions.
According to various estimates, the U.S. military sprayed approximately 11 million-12 million gallons of Agent Orange over nearly 10% of then-South Vietnam between 1961 and 1971. One scientific study estimated that between 2.1 million and 4.8 million Vietnamese were directly exposed to Agent Orange. Vietnamese advocacy groups claim that there are over 3 million Vietnamese suffering from serious health problems caused by exposure to the dioxin in Agent Orange.
In the last few years, the people of Vietnam have become increasingly concerned about the issue of Agent Orange. Various non-government organizations are placing more pressure on the Vietnamese government to remove the dioxin from the environment and provide better care to the people exposed to Agent Orange. Some government ministries are comparatively sympathetic to the public concern about Agent Orange, but other ministries are apprehensive that highlighting the dangers of dioxin could have undesired consequences for bilateral relations with the United States or for Vietnam’s economy.
The Vietnamese government has long sought U.S. assistance. Although the United States has provided scientific and technical support in the past, it has repeatedly denied any legal liability to provide assistance. It has questioned Vietnam’s assertions about the extent of the environmental and health problems attributed to Agent Orange and dioxin. As a result, there was a growing possibility of friction between the two governments over the issue of Agent Orange.
Recently, the United States has shown a greater willingness to fund remediation activities in Vietnam. Since 2007, Congress has appropriated $43.4 million for dioxin removal and related health care activities in Da Nang. However, the Vietnamese government and people would like to see the United States do more to provide help for victims of Agent Orange.
This report examines various estimates of the effects of Agent Orange on Vietnam’s people and environment, the history of U.S. policy on the issue, the current cleanup efforts in Vietnam, the various forms of assistance—including U.S. assistance—provided to people with medical conditions associated with dioxin exposure, and the implications for bilateral relations. It concludes with a brief discussion of possible congressional responses to the issue.
Date of Report: July 25, 2011
Number of Pages: 40
Order Number: RL34761
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