Foreign policy experts discussed the impact of the Vietnam War on relations between the United States and Vietnam, as well as the war’s multigenerational health consequences, at a Thursday panel held at Harvard Kennedy School.
The panel, hosted by the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, included Tim Rieser, a senior foreign policy aid to former Vermont senator Patrick J. Leahy; Hai T. Nguyen, director of the Global Vietnam Wars Studies Initiative at the Ash Center; and Kim Korinek, a sociologist who directs the Asia Center and a project on health and aging in Vietnam War survivors at the University of Utah.
Rieser opened the talk by recounting his experiences as a young adult during the time of the war.
“I was very lucky my number was high enough that I wasn’t at risk of being drafted,” he said, referencing the 1969 draft lotteries. “But the war had a huge impact on our lives, whether you were sent to Vietnam, or enlisted in the military or in some other capacity, or just observing and witnessing what was happening every day.”
During his time working for Leahy, Rieser helped establish the Leahy War Victims Fund, which was founded in 1989 and began providing aid to Vietnam in 1991. The program offers financial and technical assistance to people with disabilities, especially those whose disabilities resulted from anti-personnel landmines, unexploded ordnances, and other repercussions of conflict.
“It was not controversial. It wasn’t political,” Rieser said. “It was really humanitarian. It was a way that we could show that we weren’t just going to turn our back forever.”
Rieser said his work involved introducing reciprocity into efforts to identify the remains of people who were killed in the Vietnam War.
“We also recognize that the Vietnamese had for years, decades, helped us locate the remains of U.S. servicemen and women who were missing,” Rieser said.
Now, he said, the U.S. is providing access to advanced DNA analysis technology — as well as archival information and artifacts brought back by U.S. soldiers — to help the Vietnamese government locate and identify the hundreds of thousands of people who were killed in the war.
Nguyen discussed his research involving the analysis of documents from the war captured by U.S. forces and the South Vietnamese army.
“The primary sources are valuable and vast, but we have to organize, categorize and index captured documents and other resources to create an advanced digital archive so that future historians can study the war,” he said.
Korinek said conversations about the Vietnam War have long been one-sided, and researchers have neglected studying the war’s impacts on Vietnamese people. Many Americans, she said, regard the war as “essentially an American drama, due to the dehumanizing image of the enemy created by the U.S. military.”
Starting in 2018, with funding from the National Institutes of Health, Korinek began a study “to examine the enduring effects of wartime experiences on Vietnam War survivors.”
Korinek has also worked to connect students at the University of Utah and Fulbright University Vietnam to study the effects of the war.
“War’s imprints on biology transcend sides and interconnect participants,” she said. “There is here a foundation for reconciliation in learning, educating, and treating enduring wounds.”
Correction: April 27, 2023
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Global Vietnam Wars Studies Initiative utilized documents captured by the CIA. In fact, these documents were captured by U.S. and South Vietnamese military forces.