High Time for Responsibility
A trip to Vietnam reveals the ongoing damage
by Agent Orange and the price of US evasion
by Tod Ensign
Toward Freedom magazine,October/November 2001
The role of the US in the destruction of Vietnam will never
completely fade from the memory of those who lived through that
horrible period. One reason is that the health effects of the
herbicide Agent Orange-ten million gallons were dumped on southern
Vietnam to destroy vegetation - continues to plague many US veterans
and their offspring. Yet, for the Vietnamese people, the toxic
legacy of this deadly chemical will endure even longer-for generations
to come. GIs were exposed for a year or less, but most Vietnamese
have lived in contaminated areas for their entire lives.
During the war, "Agent Orange" was military slang
for a 50-50 mixture of two herbicides, 2,4,D and 2,4,5,T. Both
had been used in US as weed killers. The latter compound contained
trace quantities of TCDD dioxin, the most toxic synthetic chemical
known to science. Studies have linked dioxin to cancer, immune
system damage, and congenital birth defects.
Since the war ended in 1975, among US policy makers, Democrat
and Republican alike, it has been an article of faith that the
US should acknowledge no responsibility whatsoever for the enormous
damage done by what was arguably an illegal weapon. Even after
diplomatic relations were restored in 1994, followed by some normalization
of trade relations, this position remained unchanged.
Despite hawkish rhetoric by politicians of both parties about
the need to honor our nation's brave warriors, a refusal to assist
any research efforts into the long term effects of Agent Orange
in Vietnam has harmed both US combat veterans and the Vietnamese.
For example, the Vietnamese estimate that about 50,000 children
born with deformities or paralysis since the war are victims of
their parents' exposure to the toxic defoliant. Due to a lack
of funding, however, a comprehensive study of this population
hasn't been possible.
Only months ago, symbolically enough on July 4th, US and Vietnamese
scientists meeting in Ha Noi announced an agreement to conduct
two new research projects on the health effects of Agent Orange
and its contaminant, TDCC dioxin. The US delegation was headed
by Dr. Christopher Portier, deputy chief of the National Institute
of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS); the Vietnamese were
led by Dr. Nguyen Ngoc Sinh, who heads his country's National
The first project will be an international symposium, to be
held in Vietnam during April, 2002. Scientists from several countries
will discuss dioxin research published in recent years and the
need for additional research. Another project, a joint effort
by US and Vietnamese scientists, will detect and measure dioxin
residue in both humans and the soil of Vietnam. They also plan
to conduct research into dioxin "hot spots" that have
been located in Vietnam.
Independent researchers, environmentalists, and veteran advocates
from around the world have responded to this new spirit of cooperation
with varying degrees of suspicion and skepticism. On the mild
side was Dr. Neil Pierce, a scientist from New Zealand who serves
as chair of the Stockholm-based Vietnam Environmental Conference.
He issued a statement on August 6. "We welcome the initiative
of the two governments," he declared, "but the focus
appears to be much more narrow than what we have in mind [for
our conference]. "
Others were less diplomatic. For example, Professor Emeritus
Ed Herman of the University of Pennsylvania (co-author with Noam
Chomsky of several books on US foreign policy) stated bluntly
in the same press release: "There is no reason to believe
that the US government's foot dragging on this issue will not
continue to shape [their] agenda-if the symposium is ever held."
He and others, such as noted British environmentalist Dr. Alastair
W.M. Hay, have stressed the importance of pressing forward with
plans to hold a large international conference on Vietnam's environmental
issues next June in Sweden.
In Hay's view, "The problems which Vietnam still [faces]
include the effects of Agent Orange, but go far beyond this. There
was the [US-directed] food denial program which employed other
herbicides, Agents Blue and White. There was the displacement
of people, huge refugee movements, as well as unexploded munitions
and mines still being cleared. Each of these issues has both an
environmental and health impact."
Organizers for the Swedish conference have also promised to
place the important issue of responsibility for post-war cleanup
on the agenda for their meeting. Professor Hay pointed to an ironic
precedent: Iraq is being required to pay reparations to Kuwait
out of its oil revenue. "Our conference can help identify
the wars cost to Vietnam," he argued. "If nations were
[compelled] to pay for some of the damage they cause, they might
be more circumspect in what they do."
During a trip to Vietnam in May 2001, I met with two leaders
of Vietnam's Agent Orange movement, Prof. Le Cao Dai, MD, and
Prof. Nguyen Trong Nhan. A respected elder spokesman, Dr. Dai
served as a combat surgeon under US bombs in field hospitals along
the Ho Chi Minh Trail for many years. He's a co-founder of Vietnam's
10-80 Committee (the name is based on the date it was founded).
So far, the group has organized two international conferences
in Vietnam at which scientists and activists from various countries
have discussed the impact of Agent Orange on the country's people
and environment. Professor Nhan, who is president of Vietnam's
Red Cross Society, recently brought the committee under the umbrella
of' his organization.
The two men presented me with a copy of their new book, Agent
Orange in the Vietnam War, published by the Red Cross Society.
After a brief history of the US defoliation program, sarcastically
dubbed "Operation Ranch Hand," the book provides a detailed
summary of research documenting the increase of cancer, birth
defects, infant mortality, and neural, skin, and digestive disorders
that have been reported in spray areas. It also describes the
harmful effects of defoliation on the Vietnamese land, crops,
and animals, both domestic and wild. For example, a pernicious
weed, called "American Grass" by the Vietnamese, has
grown up in many defoliated areas, making it very difficult to
return the land to productive agriculture use. The text concludes
with a plea for international funds to conduct research and ameliorate
During our conversation, I sensed a shift away from challenging
the US government to take responsibility for the damage caused
by its herbicides. Instead, both men emphasized their fundraising
on behalf of the Red Cross Society's efforts, aimed at providing
at least some rehabilitation assistance to Agent Orange victims.
Neither doctor mentioned either the high level US-Vietnamese
talks which produced the agreement announced a few weeks later,
or the proposed international conference on Vietnam's environmental
problems. Had they told me about the talks, I probably would have
asked what assurances they received that the US government can
be trusted after so many years of denial and deceit.
Prof. Nhan did mention that he planned to attend the International
Red Cross convention, held in June in Charlotte, NC. In response,
I suggested that he link up there with US veterans and other activists
who would support a call for US funding of reconstruction and
research efforts in Vietnam. His last words were a polite "goodbye."
After so many years of frustration in futile efforts to hold
the US government accountable for at least some of the carnage
it visited on Vietnam, I can understand why Vietnam's leadership
may have decided to "turn the other cheek" on this issue.
But I'm pessimistic that US leaders will ever accept even a portion
of the moral and financial responsibility the US obviously bears
for this dark chapter in history. In any case, it's obvious that
only vast sums of money-which only Washington can afford-will
effectively mitigate the human and environmental damage caused
in Vietnam by Agent Orange.
Tod Ensign is the director of Citizen Soldier, a NYC based
GI/veterans rights advocacy organization founded in 1969.