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Vietnam - U.S. cooperation in national defense and resolving “Legacy of the Vietnam War” since 1995

(LLCT) - After 20 years of normalized relations, Vietnam and the U.S. have become “friends” and, since 2013, comprehensive partners. Despite the deliberate rate of development, this bilateral cooperation has made firm steps and has been expanded and prospered in many aspects, including cooperation in national defense resources and remediation of the effects of the Vietnam War.

1. Vietnam - U.S. cooperation in national defense

July 1995 marked an important milestone in the Vietnam–U.S. relationship: President Bill Clinton announced the normalization of diplomatic ties after 20 years of interruption since the end of the Vietnam War. This event opened a new chapter in the relations between the two countries.

- The 1995-2005 period

Defense relations between Vietnam and the U.S. were officially initiated in November 1996. Immediately after the bilateral exchange of Ambassadors (May 1997), The United States Embassy established the Defense Attaché Office (DAO). DAO served as a pioneer in shaping strong bilateral ties between the U.S. and Vietnam based on friendship, mutual respect, honesty and common commitments towards ensuring a peaceful, sustainable and safe Asia - Pacific. Initially, cooperative activities between the two countries focused mostly on the program of resolving the “legacy” of the Vietnam War, particularly “Prisoners of War”/ “Missing in Action” (POW/MIA) and consequences of Agent Orange in multilateral conferences and seminars with the TITLE 10 budget of the U.S. Pacific Command.

Bilateral defense relations began with the U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs visit to Vietnam in March 1997 and the presence of the first Vietnamese Defense Attaché in Washington. After that, from the 30th of September to the 2nd of October 1998, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Nguyen Manh Cam paid a visit to the Pentagon and Deputy Minister of National Defense Tran Hanh visited the United States in the same month. In April 1999, a group of students from the United States Air Force Academy made a first visit to Vietnam, initiating a training course on demining with U.S. military engineers. At the same time, Vietnam sent the first officers to courses at the Asia - Pacific Center for Security Studies (APCSS). Bilateral defense cooperation has made significant achievements since the end of the Vietnam War, emblemized by Head of the Pentagon William Cohen’s first visit to Vietnam in March 2000. During this visit, the two sides discussed MIA soldiers and cooperative activities of bilateral defense. 

President Bill Clinton’s visit to Vietnam in November 2000 created further impetus for cooperative activities in demining, legalized high-ranking discussions and issues related to the legacy of war between the two countries. Since 2003, U.S. Navy warships have been allowed to make annual port visits to Vietnam(1). Based on these initial steps, from the 9th to the 12th of November 2003, Vietnamese Minister of National Defense Pham Van Tra visited the U.S. 28 years after the end of the Vietnam War, marking the complete normalization of relations between the two military forces(2). During the talks, Minister Pham Van Tra and his U.S. counterpart Donald Rumsfeld agreed to hold meetings and talks between Defense ministers every three years on an alternating basis.

- The 2005-2015 period

Vietnam - U.S. cooperation, in national defense made important steps forward, which was marked by the cooperation agreement signed by the two countries in 2005 via the Institute for Military Education and Training (IMET). Accordingly, the U.S. allowed non-lethal military devices sales to Vietnam two years later and Vietnamese officers were allowed to study English in the U.S.(3). Based on IMET’s statistics, the total budget for this training program, from 2005 to 2012, came to $2.232 million(4). Moreover, bilateral defense dialogues began in 2005, chaired by the United States Pacific Command(5). On the 29th of December 2006, the George W. Bush administration announced the lifting of the arms sales ban for Vietnam. As such, U.S. companies were permitted to export certain National Defense articles and National Defense services and import similar articles from Vietnam to the U.S. market. They also received licences for manufacturing non-lethal weapons provided to Vietnam’s companies(6). This event was a turning point in the bilateral relationship, creating cooperative opportunities in the defense industry.

In June 2008, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung made an official high-ranking visit to the U.S. During the visit, the two sides reached an agreement on holding annual high-level dialogues on security and strategic issues at the deputy minister/assistant secretary level. The first Political, Security, and Defense Dialogue was held in Washington in October 2008.

When the Obama administration came into power, the bilateral defense relations stepped up with many symbolic interactions to strengthen defense consultations. In April 2009, Vietnam’s National Defense leaders visited USS John D. Stennis (CVN-74), an aircraft carrier operating in the East Sea. In December 2009, Defense Minister Phung Quang Thanh made an official visit to the U.S. The U.S. media stated that this visit had an important significance to continue to strengthen the bilateral defense relations in the context of complicated global and regional situations(7). Minister Phung Quang Thanh visited the U.S. Pacific Navy Command in Hawaii en route to Washington. During the meeting with his U.S. counterpart Donald Rumsfeld, Minister Thanh asked the U.S. to lift the embargo on Vietnam for lethal weapons.

At the 15th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relations (1995-2010), the two countries held joint military activities, opening a new phase in military-to-military cooperation with the first non-war cooperative training program in Da Nang and a one-week joint navy exercise in the East Sea. In August 2010, Vietnam and the U.S. held a dialogue on defense policy at the deputy minister/assistant secretary level for the first time. This open and frank dialogue was the result of the agreement between U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and his Vietnamese counterpart Phung Quang Thanh in order to establish a high-level forum for exchanging strategic viewpoints on bilateral, regional and global security and defense issues of mutual concern. The dialogue represented a historic step in defense relations between the two countries, based on mutual trust, understanding and respect for independence and sovereignty. Aside from discussions on the legacies of war, involving such matters as missing soldiers, unexploded ordinances and Agent Orange, the high-ranking military officials also discussed ways to cooperate more efficiently in humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, save and rescue, international peace keeping activities, and maritime security(8).

During the second Defense Policy Dialogue held in Washington in September 2011, the two sides signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on Advancing Bilateral Defense Cooperation. The MOU set five priority areas for cooperation: regular high-level policy dialogues, maritime security, search and rescue, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and peacekeeping(9). In August 2012, Leon Panetta was the first U.S. Secretary of Defense to pay a visit to Cam Ranh Bay since the end of the Vietnam War. During the visit, Secretary Panetta proposed establishing an Office of Defense Cooperation in the U.S. Embassy to expedite defense cooperation. Vietnam’s National Defense Minister Phung Quang Thanh reiterated Vietnam’s long-standing request that the U.S. lift the embargo on lethal weapons for Vietnam. Also in 2012, Vietnam sent observers to the largest navy exercise in the world for the first time, the Rim of the Pacific Exercise - RIMPAC-2012.

The U.S. visit by Vietnam’s President Truong Tan Sang in July 2013 further boosted bilateral defense cooperation; Vietnam and the U.S. issued a joint statement “opening a new stage in the bilateral relationship” by establishing a “comprehensive partnership”. Based on this agreement, in October 2014, the Washington administration announced a partial lift of its ban on lethal weapon sales to Vietnam in order to pave the way for commercial defense cooperation. This was “a historic move that came nearly 40 years after the end of the Vietnam War, a very important gesture that gave momentum to future cooperation efforts and may help Vietnam defend itself amid the situational developments in the East Sea”(10). Before that, during the visit to Vietnam by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in December 2013, the U.S. committed to provide Vietnam with $18 million as part of $32.5 million in total to Southeast Asian countries to enhance their capacity for law enforcement at sea, starting with the training and provisioning of five patrol vessels, contributing to increase maritime security capabilities.

The year 2015 witnessed a step in the national defense cooperation efforts towards a deeper connection between the two countries and the region. This was marked by the event of the MOU on United Nations Peacekeeping Cooperation signed between Vietnam’s Ministry of National Defense and U.S. Department of Defense on the 7th of July 2015 in Washington. The main content of the MOU was the enhancement of bilateral defense cooperation in areas related to United Nations peacekeeping, such as promotion of exchanges; sharing of experience and skills on United Nations missions; capacity enhancement for individuals and units in pre-deployment training; technical equipment support for United Nations peacekeeping forces; and disbursement of assistance packages for building Vietnam’s peacekeeping center and enhancing English capacity. With the signing of this MOU, the bilateral defense cooperation efforts have been promoted to a new level of importance, with the two countries more committed to overcoming consequences of armed conflicts for peace and stability as responsible members of the United Nations.

2. Vietnam - U.S. cooperation in solving the “legacy” of the Vietnam War

- Agent Orange/ dioxin

One of the “legacies” of the Vietnam War that the two countries continue to cooperate in solving after 20 years of normalization of diplomatic relations is the damage caused by Agent Orange/dioxin. According to some estimates, the U.S. military sprayed approximately 11-12 million gallons of Agent Orange over the battlefields of Vietnam between 1961 and 1971. Another scientific study estimated that 5 million Vietnamese people (over 3 generations) were infected with this poison(11).

In the past, this issue was not highly valued during negotiations. When the bilateral relationship was normalized, this was an important content and the frequent subject of bilateral negations as well as a concern for members of the U.S. Congress. During Defense Secretary William Cohen’s visit to Hanoi in March 2000, apart from discussions about MIA soldiers, he committed to stronger cooperation with Vietnam on the Agent Orange issue. Later, during President Bill Clinton’s visit to Vietnam in November 2000, the two sides agreed to establish a joint research center on the effects of Agent Orange/dioxin. Based on the results of this historic visit, the first Vietnam - U.S. scientific conference on Agent Orange/dioxin was held in Hanoi with the participation of hundreds of researchers from the two countries in March of 2002. The two sides signed a MOU on joint scientific research on human health and the environmental effects of Agent Orange/dioxin as well as the establishment of a Joint Advisory Commission (JAC) to supervise cooperative activities.

During the term of President George Bush, the U.S. paid more attention to the issue of Agent Orange victims as well as overcoming environmental consequences of the war in Vietnam. During Vietnam President Nguyen Minh Triet’s visit to the U.S. in June 2007, the two sides made an agreement to strengthen the cooperative activities in many areas, particularly in supporting victims of Agent Orange/dioxin and the environmental cleanup of contaminated areas. President George Bush affirmed, “The United States and Vietnam agreed to make further efforts to clean up the environment in areas where the U.S. army was stationed and nearby areas in the Southern battlefield. This is a valuable contribution to the development of bilateral relations”(12).

In fact, the U.S. committed to providing more funds for the overcoming of Agent Orange/dioxin effects. In May 2007, the U.S. Congress appropriated nearly $3 million for the cleanup of dioxin and the provision of related healthcare services in an ex-military base in Da Nang (used as a distribution center for Agent Orange in the Vietnam War)(13). Through the U.S. Agency for International Development and War Victim Fund, the U.S. continued to provide necessary financial support for Vietnamese people whose disabilities were caused by unexploded ordinances(14). This received a lot of support and agreement from many Congress members. In April 2008, Senator John McCain said in regard to the Agent Orange/dioxin issue, “I believe it remains an irritant, and perhaps more than that, for some of the people in Vietnam. I think we must continue to address the issue both in compensation for the victims as well as cleanup of areas that are clearly contaminated”(15).

Thus, in September of 2008, the third meeting of JAC was conducted in Hanoi(16) to focus on bilateral efforts in resolving the environmental issues in Vietnam. During the meeting, JAC agreed to establish two forces with respective missions: the first on environmental issues and the second on health issues. Accordingly, in December 2008, an amount of $3 million was spent on these activities (half of the amount was budgeted for environmental containment and remediation planning at the Da Nang airport). From 2009 to 2011, the total budget for resolving the effects of Agent Orange/dioxin allocated by the U.S. Congress increased significantly.

According to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), in June 2012 USAID allocated $8.34 million to CDM Smith Company in cooperation with Vietnam’s Ministry of National Defense to complete the contract on management and supervision of pollution treatment projects in Da Nang. The remarks by U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam David B. Shear on the environmental remediation of dioxin contamination at the Da Nang Airport project launch ceremony included a commitment to tireless efforts in healing the wounds of the Vietnam War: “We have worked together closely over many years in a spirit of mutual respect and cooperation. Dioxin in the soil here is a legacy of the painful past that we have gone through, but the project launched today is a sign of the hopeful future we are building together. Our two countries are moving the soil and taking the first steps to bury legacies of the past”(17).

Source: Michael F.Martin (2012), Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange and U.S. - Vietnam Relations,

Congressional Research Service, August 29, 2012, p.10.

Together with environmental clean-up activities, the U.S. also regularly cooperated with the Office of Steering Committee 33 of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (founded in 1999), coordinating Vietnam’s policies and programs on Agent Orange. Through annual meetings of the Joint Advisory Committee, chaired by the U.S. Office and Agency for Environment Protection, the two sides searched for science-based solutions to the complicated environment and health problems related to Agent Orange. In addition, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Atlantic Philanthropies financed a $6 million laboratory that continues to provide Vietnam with high-resolution dioxin analysis capabilities. From 2008 to 2012, three USAID partners - the East Meets West Foundation, Save the Children, and Vietnam Assistance for the Handicapped - provided medical rehabilitation and employment support for 11 thousand people in Da Nang living with disabilities, regardless of cause. More importantly, in an effort to overcome the consequences of the Vietnam War, the U.S. committed to fund $84 million for environment cleanup projects near airports in July 2013, which are expected to be completed in 2016.

Seeking U.S. missing servicemen in the Vietnam War (MIA)

MIA cooperation for humanitarian purposes has gradually erased the distance between the two countries and they continue to move closer. These cooperative efforts are also the glue holding together the affections of thousands of U.S. people to Vietnam and its citizens. It truly is a first bridge to reconnect the Vietnam - U.S. relationship and proof of the maturity of bilateral relations.

MIA cooperation began in the 1980s and was comprehensively promoted since the normalization of diplomatic relations between the two countries. In 1988, the Vietnam - U.S. agreement on MIA was signed. In April 1991, President George

H. Bush announced the “roadmap” for normalization, including further cooperation in locating and returning the remains of approximately 2,200 U.S. soldiers and civilians, still missing at that time. Then, in July 1991, the two sides agreed to open an Office of U.S. Government in Hanoi (MIA Office), which officially came into operation to resolve MIA issues. The U.S. side committed to providing $1 million humanitarian aid for Vietnam, which was transferred at the end of the 1991 fiscal year. Since then, the scale of the search for U.S. soldiers has been expanded efficiently, becoming a joint effort between the two countries’ forces with the participation of thousands of people.

The Bill Clinton administration regarded MIAs as a priority in the relationship with Vietnam. In July 1996, the U.S. National Security Advisor Anthony Lake’s working visit to Vietnam, together with the Vietnamese leaders, considered POW/MIA the first priority in the U.S. - Vietnam relations.

President George Bush stressed that MIA recovery remained an important issue in the relations between the two countries. The visits of President Truong Tan Sang (July 2013) and Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong (July 2015) reaffirmed MIA cooperation was an important factor in overcoming the differences between Vietnam and the U.S.

In efforts to overcome sufferings and losses caused by the Vietnam War, Vietnam has shown willingness to actively cooperate with the U.S. in seeking effective methods of healing. In September 2010, USAID and Vietnam’s Ministry of Labour, Invalids, and Social Affairs agreed to a two-year program under which the U.S. would spend $1 million to help Vietnam locate thousands of Vietnamese soldiers missing from the Vietnam War(18). Since 2011, the two countries have implemented a new operational method - the Vietnam Recovery Team (VRT) model - in which Vietnam takes the lead on site with the assistance of key U.S. personnel and anthropologists. The Oceanographic Research Ships of the U.S. Navy were also allowed to participate in MIA recovery activities in Vietnamese waters.

From 1988 to 2015, Vietnam and the U.S. completed more than 100 joint efforts. Reassembling groups have finished many complex activities with the participation of dozens of specialists and experts on investigation and reassembly. The two sides conducted 4,241 joint investigation missions (including 42 missions at sea), 685 joint excavation missions (including 8 missions at sea), 53 unilateral investigations covering 818 cases and six unilateral excavations, among which eight were in restricted areas, and 61 tri-lateral investigative operations with Laos and Cambodia. The two sides also collected and studied 27,035 pieces of MIA-related information(19). By September 2013, Vietnam returned 945 remains, which helped the U.S. to identify more than 700 individuals. The U.S. side also provided more than 300 files related to nearly 1,000 cases of Vietnamese soldiers missing from the Vietnam War and returned many precious relics to Vietnam.

Vietnam - United States relations began at the end of the 20th century. In the 1940s, President Ho Chi Minh, the great leader of Vietnam, continued to sow the seed when the U.S. was the only nation within the Allies to have a Mission to Viet Minh (The League for the Independence of Vietnam). For objective reasons, the seed did not sprout. On the contrary, hostility and antagonism grew when the U.S. waged a war against Vietnam. Overcoming obstacles and rising over the past, with continuous efforts, the two sides have slowly built and consolidated mutual trust to reach the “comprehensive partnership” that exists today. This further affirms the bilateral long-term relationship between the countries as both substantive and effective.


(1) On 19 November 2003, USS Vandergrift warship of Fleet 7 of the U.S. Navy arrived at Vietnam’s port, becoming the first U.S. Navy ship to visit Vietnam since the Vietnam War.

(2) Dang Dinh Quy: “Vietnam - U.S. relations 1995 - 2015: Approaching from the mutual interests”, History Studies, Vol. 7 (471), 2015, p.4.

(3) C.Jordan, M.Stern, W.Lohman: U.S. - Vietnam Defense Relations: Investing in Strategic Alignment, Backgrounder, No. 2707, July 18, 2012, p.6.

(4) Specific statistics: $50,000 in 2005, $49,000 in 2006, $274,000 in 2007, $181,000 in 2008, $191,000 in 2009, $400,000 in 2010, $476,000 in 2011, $611,000 in 2012. See: Murray Hiebert, Phuong Nguyen, Gregory B. Poling (2014), A New Era In U.S. - Vietnam Relations: Deepening Ties Two Decades after Normalization, Center for Strategic & International Studies, Rowman & Littlefield, New York, p.15.

(5) Bilateral Defense Dialogue is one of the three defense related mechanisms held annually by Vietnam and the U.S. These are bilateral Defense Dialogue (chaired by U.S. Pacific Command); Political, Security and Defense Dialogue (chaired by Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and U.S. Department of States since 2008); and Dialogue on Defense Strategy (chaired by Ministry and Department of Defense of the two countries since 2010).

(6) Nguyen Mai: Vietnam - U.S. looking ahead, Tri thuc Publishing House, Hanoi, 2008, p.215.

(7) Mark E. Manyin: U.S. - Vietnam Relations in 2010: Current Issues and Implications for U.S. Policy, Congressional Research Service, August 6, 2010, p.4.

(8) “United States - Vietnam first dialogue on defense policy”, vietnamese.vietnam.usembassy.gov, updated on 17 August 2010.

(9) C. Jordan, M.Stern, W.Lohman (2012), ibid., p.8.

(10) http://www.reuters.com, accessed on 2 October 2014.

(11) Michael F. Martin: Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange and U.S. - Vietnam Relations, Congressional Research Service, August 29, 2012, p.1.

(12) Joint Statement Between the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and the United States of America, Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, November 17, 2006.

(13) Michael F. Martin (2012), ibid., p.2.

(14) According to Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the U.S. financed $40 million for “My Action Program” from 1993 to 1997 and $43 million to support people with disabilities via War Victims Fund from 1989 to 2007, supported $2 million for Agent Orange related projects until 2007.

(15) Bao Van, “Agent Orange Victims Need More Support: McCain,” Thanh Nien News, April 8, 2008.

(16) The first JAC meeting was held in Hanoi in June 2006 in which Vietnam proposed subjects of environmental cleanup, healthcare and treatment for dioxin victims. In August 2007, the second meeting of JAC was once again held in Hanoi. The two sides proposed a “scientific consultant Committee” to provide experts for consultancy of dioxin related programs in Vietnam.

(17) Mark E. Manyin, U.S. - Vietnam Relations in 2014: Current Issues and Implications for U.S. Policy, Congressional Research Service, June 24, 2014, p.25.

(18), (19) http: vov.vn, accessed on 25 September 2013.

Dr. Nguyen Duc Toan

Quy Nhon University




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