July 13, 2015

Sen. Whitehouse Recognizes Twenty Years of Normalized Vietnam-US Relations

Mr. President, I am here to recognize a historic milestone: the 20th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relations between the United States and Vietnam. This occasion has some personal significance for me and my family. My father served as Deputy Ambassador to Vietnam; in effect, the chief operating officer of that conflict. I lived with him in that country for several months during the Vietnam war. If he were alive today, he would be proud of the work both countries have done to reconcile our past.

It took immense courage on both sides to look beyond the scars of that war and envision a future in which our two countries could become partners and friends. No one embodies this courage more than our friend John McCain, who played a major role in establishing diplomatic relations between our two countries, and Secretary of State John Kerry, then a Senator, who was his Democratic partner.

Given Senator McCain‘s experience as a prisoner in Vietnam, his subsequent efforts to strengthen the peace and forgiveness between our two Nations are an enduring inspiration, the power of which I was privileged to see firsthand when I traveled with Senator McCain to Hanoi in 2012 and 2014.

Senator McCain said 20 years ago, “I believe it is my duty to encourage this country to build from the losses and the hopes of our tragic war in Vietnam a better peace for both the American and the Vietnamese people.”

Today, the American and the Vietnamese people can be proud of the progress made to forge a lasting peace and friendship. Two years ago, President Obama and Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang launched the U.S.-Vietnam Comprehensive Partnership, opening a new phase of bilateral relations between our nations based on mutual respect and common interests. I met recently with Nguyen Phu Trong, the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Vietnam to discuss our shared interests and opportunities for closer collaboration on a range of issues, including regional stability, economic cooperation, and the lingering human and environmental consequences of that war.

I had the honor of meeting with General Secretary Trong while traveling to Vietnam with Senator McCain last summer. I am pleased he has made this historic visit to the United States. I am hopeful Vietnam will bring our interests and values into closer alignment, particularly on human rights, the rights of civil society, transparency, and good governance issues.

To that end, I look forward to working together to achieve closer ties. As the United States and Vietnam continue to deepen our relationship, we should continue to address the legacies of that war, particularly the health effects and environmental contamination associated with Agent Orange and other herbicides. Here at home, we take our commitment to caring for our veterans very seriously. Although the war has ended, many American veterans and their families still battle a range of health problems and serious diseases associated with their service in Vietnam.

We must ensure that veterans get the care they need to combat the long-term health problems related to exposure to Agent Orange. Those contamination and health problems are also serious in Vietnam. I am grateful for Senator Leahy‘s leadership on the Appropriations Committee, which has enabled the United States to pursue remediation projects to clean up the dioxin contamination at Da Nang International Airport and other hot spots and to support related health and disability programs.

I urge all of us that we continue to support these initiatives which strengthen our bilateral relationship. Considerable work remains. According to initial assessments of Bien Hoa Air Base, the contamination there is more severe and cleanup is expected to be more complex and costly than at Da Nang. In addition, health-related problems and disabilities persist in areas sprayed with Agent Orange or otherwise contaminated by dioxin.

In 2008, actor, advocate, and long-time friend Dick Hughes brought this issue closely to my attention and he has shared with me compelling stories about Vietnamese families who have been affected by diseases and disabilities related to Agent Orange exposure. Some of the suffering ascribed to Agent Orange has been harrowing and heartbreaking. Dick has years of experience working on humanitarian issues in Vietnam and is a compelling witness to that suffering.

We first met when I was a teenager in Saigon and Dick had established a program called the Shoeshine Boys Project, to care for homeless children who had been orphaned or left alone during the war. He brought them together and sent them on the streets with shoeshine boxes as a way of making a living and finding something they could do and provided them care and a home when they came home at nightfall.

Over 8 years, that project helped thousands of children in cities all across Vietnam. Dick attributes the success of that project to close partnerships forged with local communities and the project’s management by Vietnamese citizens. When Dick returned to the United States, he continued to advocate for postwar humanitarian causes and he started a foundation to raise awareness about the effects of Agent Orange on the Vietnamese population. Dick remains a trusted friend and tireless advocate to the Vietnamese people.

As our two countries work together on a new and more engaged future, we should expand our efforts to improve the health and well-being of the Vietnamese people. We can learn from Dick’s experience about the power of partnership and the value of local leadership, and together we can continue to repair the damage–physical, psychological, and political–of the path we share.

I yield the floor.