High Time for Responsibility

A trip to Vietnam reveals the ongoing damage caused
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 Environmental Agency.

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 the suffering.

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.

International War Crimes

Index of Website

Home Page