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America’s Forgotten Chemical Warfare

Vietnamese people continue to feel the effects of US chemical warfare: Agent Orange.

Khanh Le

November 2, 2017
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Image from Military.com

When Ken Burn’s documentary of the Vietnam War aired on PBS, Americans were once again reminded of their humiliating defeat. The United States, one of the most powerful countries in the world, lost to Vietnam, a country with few military forces, a large peasant population, and little technology compared to the imperialist giant. The “American War,” as it is known in Viet Nam, took the lives of over four million Vietnamese and 58 thousand Americans.

There are no two sides to this story; the Vietnam War is a story about the U.S. drafting young adults to Vietnam for mass murder. Any narrative that does not center this fact effectively downplays the horror of this war.

This horror continues to be lived out due to the effects of Agent Orange, a toxic chemical that the US dumped on Vietnam, causing deformities and illnesses to this day. The US knew that the chemical was harmful and poisonous when they dumped millions of gallons on the tiny island of Vietnam. They knew while the US was promoting propaganda that said that Agent Orange was not harmful. And yet, the US has never been held responsible for this war crime.

The History

The Vietnam War began when the U.S. government started sending military advisors to Vietnam in 1955. A year earlier, Vietnam had been divided into two countries at 17th parallel after the defeat of the French in the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. In 1958, the U.S. sent its first troops to Da Nang; ironically, this was 100 years after the French had landed in the same spot and had begun its conquest of Vietnam. In the midst of the Cold War, the purpose of U.S. involvement in Vietnam was to “contain the communist threat” in Asia. Also, it was a way for the U.S. to show its power and domination against Soviet Union and China.

This was the first war that was televised for U.S. audiences. People learned daily about the horrific violence and the atrocities committed in Vietnam, such as the My Lai Massacre in 1968 when American troops murdered over 300 women and children. As the horrific images of the war spread, public opposition to the war became stronger. Protests erupted across cities against it. One of the most well-known protests took place at Kent State University, where police killed 4 protesters and injured many others.

For most Americans today, the Vietnam War is only a distant memory or a history-book episode. For the Vietnamese people, however, the war is still very present in their lives. We are still paying the price for the war. The War happened on Vietnamese soil, and everyone was touched by it. More than 40 years later, the effects of the war are felt. Today, children are still killed from stepping on unexploded ordnance.

Another lasting effect of the war that is often overlooked in discussions of Vietnam is the ongoing health crisis caused by Agent Orange. Despite the mass murder inflicted through the use of this chemical, the US has never been held accountable. To this day, babies are born with deformities due to the genetic damage resulting from exposure to Agent Orange.

Agent Orange

Between 1962 and 1972, the United States sprayed more than 19 million gallons of chemical herbicides on Vietnamese soil. Out of those 19 million gallons, 11.2 million gallons were Agent Orange; the rest was Agent White and Agent Blue. Almost 73% of Agent Orange was used for defoliation, 12% for crop destruction, 2% on enemy supply routes and communication lines, and 6% on base perimeters. (1)

The United States government knew that Agent Orange was dangerous and likely fatal when it decided to spray millions of gallons of chemicals on the soil and the people of Vietnam. In March 8, 1949, an accident occurred at the Dow Chemical Companies in West Virginia when workers were in the process of manufacturing trichlorophenol, a main ingredient of Agent Orange. There was an increase in the pressure of a valve causing it to break, and the trichlorophenol residues were splattered on the wall. The workers who cleaned the residues off the walls complained of health problems. Most of them were sent to the hospital for examination. The hospital found that the poison caused skin rashes on the workers. In 1952, after the accident, Monsanto Chemical Co. and other chemical companies informed United States officials that “2, 4, 5, -T [main ingredient of Agent Orange] was contaminated by a toxic substance.” (2)

In 1963, just one year after Operation “Ranch Hand,” the army’s review of toxicity discovered that Agent Orange could increase the risk of chloracne (a skin disorder.) In 1965, the National Cancer Institute conducted an experiment on mice, administering a mixture of phenoxy herbicides 2, 4-D, and 2, 4, 5 T. The result was malformations and stillbirths in the mice. This demonstrates beyond a doubt that the US knew very well what Agent Orange is and what it does. And yet, the American government decided to drop more than 11 million gallons — 86 gallons per square mile — on the tiny island in the Pacific.

In 1966, the United Nations accused the United States of violating the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which limited the use of chemical and biological weapons. In 1967, over five thousand scientists sent a petition to President Lyndon Johnson, asking him to discontinue the use of chemical defoliants in Vietnam. In 1967, a couple of Saigon newspapers of the Republic of Vietnam printed pictures of deformed babies in the Mekong River Delta. In spite of all that, the United States continued to drop leaflets in Vietnamese on areas that were sprayed, stating that the defoliants sprayed were not harmful.

A few years later, in 1970, the American Association for the Advancement of Science set up a commission called Herbicide Assessment Commission (HAC) to assess the effects of chemical herbicides on the environment and the population of Vietnam. A HAC team found that Vietnamese babies born with birth defects may have been affected by Agent Orange. Today, research groups such as the Institute of Medicine, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and Epidemiology, and the American Cancer Society have concluded that chemical defoliants including Agent Orange can have an extremely negative impact on the environment (trees and animals that are part of the natural habitat are dying) and that people who were exposed to the defoliants develop skin disorders and cancer at an early age, and give give birth to children with many kinds of defects.

We don’t need all of these organizations to confirm for us the devastating effect of Agent Orange. In Vietnam we see children being born with abnormally large heads and other deformities. Families that live near the areas that were exposed to Agent Orange die from cancer at a rapid pace. Yet, nobody is helping these victims.

A Double Standard

Even the soldiers exposed to relatively small amounts of the chemical during the Vietnam War suffered some of its effects. Upon returning to America, many Vietnam veterans developed various symptoms, including skin rashes, ulcers, difficulty breathing, cancers at an earlier age, and other illnesses.

In 1989, the United States Congress passed the Veterans’ Agent Orange Exposure and Vietnam Service Benefits Act of 1989, which stated that veterans affected by Agent Orange would be eligible for disability compensation and other benefits. It further stated that the benefits would be strictly for “Vietnam veterans suffering from a disease associated with effects of exposure to certain dioxins or other herbicide agents during such service in Vietnam.”

This piece of legislation was passed without any delays, but the Vietnamese people, who continue to suffer from Agent Orange, receive no assistance from the United States government — the government responsible for their suffering. To this day, the U.S. has refused to take responsibility for this horrific act even after the Vietnamese government and U.S. government normalized diplomatic relationship, turning former foe to friend. While Vietnamese government plays nice with the United States, forming trade deals and visiting the Trump White House, Vietnamese people continue to suffer the effects of the war and in particular, Agent Orange.

The Lawsuit

Vietnam cannot sue the U.S. government for the crimes committed against them. However, the Vietnamese as individuals can sue multinational/global corporations. Since Monsanto and Dow Chemicals manufactured the poisonous chemicals, some Vietnamese people decided to take matters into their own hands. On January 30, 2004, the Vietnam Association for the Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin, representing millions of Vietnamese citizens suffering from Agent Orange-related illnesses filed a lawsuit in the United States Federal Brooklyn District Court against Dow and Monsanto.

On March 10, 2005, Judge Jack B. Weinstein dismissed the case, agreeing with the chemical companies who said that there was not sufficient scientific evidence that Agent Orange had an adverse effect on the health of the Vietnamese people. The suit was promptly dismissed without being given a chance to go to trial. Judge Weinstein decided that Agent Orange should not be classified as a poison but as an herbicide. He further stated that the herbicides used in Vietnam were not intended to inflict pain and suffering. Finally, Judge Weinstein deemed that the research that has been done clearly showed that Agent Orange was not linked to the plaintiff’s’ injuries. According to Judge Weinstein, “the plaintiffs’ claims were anecdotal and not backed by sufficient epidemiological evidences.” Therefore he concluded “that supplying the defoliant did not amount to a war crime” (New York Times, 2005).

Millions of Vietnamese have died and suffered from Agent Orange. The United States and Monsanto knew about its effects and yet doused Vietnam with millions of gallons of the poisonous chemical.

William H. Goodman, a lawyer representing the victims, remarked, “He [Judge Weinstein] ruled as a matter of law that what these defendants manufactured was not a poison, whereas even these manufacturers recognized that it was at the time.” The chemical destroyed millions of lives for many generations to come.

The U.S. government and the corporations involved in this must be held accountable for their actions. While Monsanto and Dow Chemicals have moved on to continue to reap massive profits, Vietnam continues to feel the destructive effects of Agent Orange. While from the US, we can watch Ken Burns’ documentary and learn about the Vietnam War as if it was ancient history, in Vietnam the war is still present in everyday life. Our suffering is not over; it will continue for a long time. We deserve justice.

1. Committee on Veterans’ Affair House of Representatives. Oversight Hearing to Receive Testimony on Agent Orange. Hearing before the Subcommittee on Medical Facilities and Benefits of the Committee on Veterans’ Affair House of Representatives. 96th Cong., 2nd session, 1980, 222.

2. The Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange/Dixon v. The Dow Chemical Company, et al, 5, F.381 (2d Cir. 2004)

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