Vietnam: In a Legacy of War, a Path to Partnership

6 minutes read time
Under Secretary Thompson meets a survey team, who demonstrate search techniques to unearth unexploded munitions (US Department of State photo)
Under Secretary Thompson meets a survey team, who demonstrate search techniques to unearth unexploded munitions (US Department of State photo)

Vietnam: In a Legacy of War, a Path to Partnership

This week, as we release To Walk the Earth in Safety, the Department’s annual report on U.S. support worldwide for clearing landmines and other explosive remnants of war, it takes me back to one of the most powerful and moving experiences since becoming Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security this year. In August, I traveled to Vietnam’s Quang Tri province, along what had once been the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Vietnam. There, I saw firsthand how survey and clearance projects funded through our Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement in the Department of State’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs are addressing a continuing legacy of the Vietnam War era, saving lives in local communities, and helping contribute toward a new era of partnership between the United States and Vietnam. 

As we flew into Hue and drove through the lush green countryside, I remembered that this year marked the 50th Anniversary of the Tet Offensive ˗ widely recognized as a major turning point in the Vietnam War. As we passed farms and bustling small towns, it was hard to imagine such a peaceful and dynamic place had been the site of some of the fiercest battles of the 20th Century. In support of U.S. troops, the U.S. Air Force dropped thousands of bombs across the region, many of which did not detonate as designed, leaving behind deadly hazards from Unexploded Ordnance (UXO) to this day. 

Since the re-establishment of U.S.-Vietnam diplomatic relations in 1995, the U.S. government has invested more than $117 million in the country for Conventional Weapons Destruction projects. These include survey and clearance operations; risk education programs to warn area residents of potential dangers; survivors’ assistance to help the injured with prosthetics and rehabilitation; and support to Vietnamese authorities with information management and capacity building to help them manage this challenge on their own over the long term. Along with the humanitarian mission of accounting for U.S. and Vietnamese personnel still missing from the war, Conventional Weapons Destruction projects to address the war’s legacy were among key early initiatives that helped set the stage for today’s growing relationship.

Arriving in a small farming village in Trieu Phong, I met with teams from Mines Advisory Group and Norwegian People’s Aid, two of the NGO partners who implement U.S.-funded programs on the ground. Working closely with local authorities, they train teams of local Vietnamese technicians to conduct technical surveys to map out the most likely locations for the old ordnance, taking into account a wide range of factors, including patterns of bomb dispersal as well as changes in geography over the years. These technical survey techniques help to identify specific areas where resources and effort are best spent.

I met two long-time area residents there, who recalled returning to the village after the war in the early 1970s. In those days, the trees and foliage were burned away, they told me, and local villagers would use sticks to sweep the land looking for buried unexploded munitions before returning to the fields.  It was hard and dangerous work, one man said, noting his friend’s prosthetic leg. His friend looked over to his house next door where his grandchildren were chasing ducks and chickens around their yard, “things are much safer now,” he agreed.

Under Secretary Thompson talks with a pair of local residents in a village in Quang Tri province, Vietnam. (U.S. Department of State Photo)

Once technical surveys are completed, operations are handed off to clearance teams, who carefully probe, unearth, and set explosive charges to safely detonate unexploded bombs.  Our NGO partners train and employ local residents to do much of this work, so in addition to the humanitarian benefits of making their own communities safer, the projects also provide significant benefit to the local economy. “I was born and grew up here,” one of the Explosive Ordnance Disposal team members told me. “People suffer from UXO, and that gives us encouragement to clear it.” I was inspired by the courage, skill, dedication, and pride shown by Vietnamese local staff & provincial authorities in this work, and proud that we support this important effort.     

Under Secretary Thomson meets members of an Explosive Ordnance Disposal Team in Quang Tri Province, Vietnam. (Department of State Photo)

I was struck to see how much of a difference these programs make in a local community and how much goodwill they generate. Local government officials I met praised the program, expressing hope that Quang Tri could become impact free as soon as 2025 and evincing optimism that our work there could be a model for others not only in Vietnam, but elsewhere in Southeast Asia, including in Cambodia and Laos where the U.S. also conducts active programs to address unexploded ordnance.  

Last year marked the first year since the war where no civilians in Vietnam were killed by unexploded munitions. But as we see in Europe, where unexploded bombs dating as far back as the First World War are regularly unearthed, it will never be possible to clear every piece of unexploded ordnance in Vietnam. Rather, our objective is to help Vietnam become “impact free,” once all explosives have been safely cleared from areas that pose an immediate threat to people and their access to their homes, water, agricultural land or key infrastructure. As in several post-conflict countries that have reached impact-free status with support from U.S. Conventional Weapons Destruction projects, we are focusing our clearance efforts through technical surveys and by training and hiring local residents, thus improving Vietnam’s own capacity to manage threats from unexploded ordnance.

The United States is the world’s single largest financial supporter of efforts to address humanitarian hazards from unexploded ordnance in post-conflict countries and reduce the availability of excess, loosely-secured, or otherwise at-risk weapons and munitions.  Since 1993, the United States has invested more than $3.2 billion ˗ primarily through the Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement in the Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs ˗ for the securing and safe disposal of explosive remnants of war, as well as excess small arms, light weapons, and munitions in more than 100 countries.  

Our program in Vietnam is testimony to the fact that America continues to contribute on a global scale to worthwhile humanitarian causes, made all the more remarkable in this instance given the difficult history of the U.S.-Vietnam relationship and the promise of a new, dynamic, and positive mutual relationship we are building for the future.

Under Secretary Thompson talks with a team member from MAG International in Quang Tri Province, Vietnam. (US Department of State photo)

About the Author: Andrea Thompson serves as the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security at the U.S. Department of State.

Editor's Note: This entry also appears in the U.S. Department of State's publication on Medium.