Walter Isaacson, The Aspen Institute


Walter Isaacson is the president and CEO of the Aspen Institute, a nonpartisan educational and policy studies institute based in Washington, DC. He has been the chairman and CEO of CNN and the editor of TIME magazine. He is the author of Steve Jobs (2011), Einstein: His Life and Universe (2007), Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (2003), and Kissinger: A Biography (1992), and coauthor of The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made (1986).

He is the chairman of the board of Teach for America, which recruits recent college graduates to teach in underserved communities in the United States. He was appointed by President Barack Obama and confirmed by the U.S. Senate to serve as the chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, and other international broadcasts of the United States, a position he held until 2012. He is vice-chair of Partners for a New Beginning, a public-private group tasked with forging ties between the United States and the Muslim world.  He is also on the board of United Airlines, Tulane University, and the Overseers of Harvard University.  From 2005-2007, after Hurricane Katrina, he was the vice-chair of the Louisiana Recovery Authority.

Isaacson with a young woman and her father in Bien Hoa.

The Aspen Institute serves as the U.S. secretariat to the U.S.-Vietnam Dialogue Group on Agent Orange/Dioxin. Mr. Isaacson is co-chair of this group, which seeks an enduring solution to the environmental and health effects associated with wartime use by the United States of defoliants contaminated with dioxin.  The Dialogue Group has promoted projects to contain the risk of further contamination from dioxin “hot spots” throughout Vietnam, to restore damaged land, and to improve services for people with disabilities and their families.  The Dialogue Group encourages funding from the U.S. and Vietnamese  governments — and from other sources — to take these projects and similar ideas to scale.

Isaacson was inspired to address the issue of Agent Orange in Vietnam after a visit sponsored by the Ford Foundation in 2007. Reflecting on the trip, he wrote:

“A practical and sensible resolution is possible. The U.S. should help immediately to contain and then clean up the contaminated sites. After all, we made the mess. …As for the health concerns, there is no need to pin precise blame or liability. They can be addressed as a humanitarian issue …. [T]here is a need for rehabilitation centers, health clinics, family counseling, and education for the afflicted children who cannot go to regular schools.”

In 2010, the Dialogue Group released a Declaration and Plan of Action to address the toxic legacy of Agent Orange and other herbicides in Vietnam. In this document, the group called upon the U.S. and Vietnamese governments to join with other governments, foundations, businesses, and nonprofits in a partnership to clean up dioxin “hot spots” in Vietnam, and to expand humanitarian services for people with disabilities in that country.

On the future of U.S.-Vietnam relations regarding the legacy of Agent Orange, Isaacson states:

“Out of both a sense of duty and a spirit of decency, U.S. government aid programs and private philanthropies should step forward to settle this last remaining dispute from the Vietnam War… Only then will America finally have closed the last chapter of the Vietnam War and turned its former adversary into a solid strategically.”

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