Spotlight - Vietnam's Missing in Action: April 26, 2022

April 30 is Reunification Day in Vietnam, a national holiday commemorating the capture of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon) in 1975 and the end of the country’s civil war. While most of the people will be celebrating, tens of thousands of families will be reminded that another year has passed without them being able to provide a proper burial for their loved ones who died in the conflict.
An estimated 3 million Vietnamese died during the Vietnam War. Over 300,000 of those killed are still classified as missing in action (MIA). For five decades, the families of Vietnam’s MIAs have dealt with the heartache not knowing where to find the remains of their deceased sons and daughters, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, or fathers and mothers.
The Vietnamese government continues in its search to locate and identify the remains of its MIAs. It has received some support from the U.S. government in DNA identification techniques over the last 40 years, but not as much assistance in locating possible burial locations. In July 2021, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III met with Vietnam’s President Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh, and National Defense Minister Phan Van Giang to discuss, among other topics, a searchable database of U.S. Department of Defense records to help Vietnam select possible burial sites.
The U.S. Congress has appropriated hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up dioxin “hot spots” created by the spraying of over 10 million gallons of Agent Orange and other herbicides over much of southern Vietnam, as well as to provide medical and health assistance to Vietnamese suffering from diseases related to dioxin exposure. In addition, Congress has appropriated tens of millions of dollars to assist Vietnam in removing unexploded ordnance (UXO) and provide medical treatment to people who have been injured by UXO. To date, the U.S. government has provided only a few million dollars to help Vietnam find and identify its MIAs.
Vietnam’s generous offer to help the United States locate and repatriate its MIAs was a critical factor in the restoration of diplomatic relations between the two nations. The U.S. government in recent years has shown a willingness to address two of the three War Legacy issues: Agent Orange/dioxin and UXO. Perhaps it is time the U.S. government step up its efforts regarding Vietnam’s MIAs and provide some of the tens of thousands of Vietnamese families some peace.

Michael F. Martin is an adjunct fellow (non-resident) with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C

Michael Martin
Adjunct Fellow (Non-resident), Southeast Asia Program