Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, who as a young US Congress staffer discovered the infamous “tiger cages” at the Saigon regime’s Con Dao island prison, talked with Tuoi Tre before he and three other American senators made a July 6 field trip to Da Nang, a hot-spot for Agent Orange in Vietnam.
Tuoi Tre: We’ve heard that you struggled for Vietnam-US relation normalization before 1995. . . .
Senator Tom Harkin: There were many difficulties over a long period of time. Many Americans didn’t want to establish diplomatic relations with Vietnam because of the previous war, but President Bill Clinton made normalization and establishment of diplomatic ties with Vietnam a priority. Our first ambassador to Vietnam (Pete Peterson) was a former war prisoner in Vietnam. He likes and loves Vietnam and the Vietnamese people very much and exerted great effort for the bilateral relationship.
Many American didn’t want to set up ties with Vietnam but the Ambassador, a former war prisoner, talked positively about Vietnam and it had influence on many people.
Tuoi Tre: Are you going to visit Da Nang because it’s a dioxin hot-spot?
Harkin: That’s my concern. We Americans conducted a chemical war which perhaps didn’t directly aim to humans but it turned out spraying Agent Orange defoliant can cause prolonged effects on people. My colleagues in the Senate have agreed to allocate funds each year to clean up hot-spots in Da Nang, Bien Hoa and Hue. We’re trying to increase that amount.
Tuoi Tre: But besides dioxin hot-spots, we still have 3-4 million AO victims!
Harkin: I know. That will be the next step. I think we will have to do something for victims. We know dioxin persists in the food chain and affects humans. It is a fact that in the US, the Department of Veterans has compensated AO victims who suffer from cancers, blood cancer, Parkinsons, etc., around 15 diseases believed related to their exposure to AO, but not for any cases of disability.
The thing I want to do is to help victims in Vietnam who suffer from AO-related diseases (those recognized in the US) obtain compensation as American victims. The fund for Vietnamese AO victims is now around $3 million a year. We are tryng to raise it to $20-30 million a year. The Ford Foundation is working well in this area.
Tuoi Tre: Our nations established diplomatic ties in July 1995. What do you think about the upcoming 15th anniversary?
Harkin: In the last 15 years, the relationships between the two countries have developed strongly, especially in trade and economic exchange. The US is Vietnam’s top export market. Though there are some issues with fish, shrimp, etc. but I think everything will be fine. We have very good relations now. Many overseas Vietnamese have returned Vietnam to visit their families.
We will go to Da Nang with an American Viet kieu doctor. He was born there but he left Vietnam at the age of one. He will see his uncle in Da Nang the first time. Our next consul general in HCM City will be a Vietnamese-American. I think it is very good. Vietnamese in the US are participating more in business, health and the military services.