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Agent Orange: Legacy of the American War in Vietnam

The Paris Peace Accords were signed on January 27, 1973, making possible a re-united Vietnam. Patricia Hynes reports and observations from March 2014 trip to Vietnam to investigate the plight of 3rd generation Agent Orange-dioxin victims, dioxin contaminated sites, and ecological restoration in order to inform Americans of the on-going legacy of the “American War” in Vietnam and our responsibility and opportunities for undoing this legacy.

During the ten years (1961-1971) of aerial chemical warfare in Vietnam, U.S. warplanes sprayed more than twenty million gallons of herbicide defoliants, among them the Agent Orange knowingly contaminated with the exceedingly toxic dioxin.,Traprock Center for Peace and Justice

The Paris Peace Accords were signed on January 27, 1973, making possible a re-united Vietnam. The peace accords ended eight years of the American War (as it is known to the Vietnamese) and two prior decades of covert warfare against this small, agrarian Asian country. For much of the American public, the war was a bitterly divisive issue to put behind them. With no good ending, why dwell on or learn from or lose sleep over Vietnam, unless you had lost a loved one or were a veteran haunted by its violence.

Why were we there? The political zeitgeist that spawned the Vietnam War was the threat of Communist China at Vietnam's northern border and fear of the "domino effect," that is, the progressive fall of one Asian country after another to Communism in their wars of independence from Western colonial powers. President Eisenhower also exhorted that the consequences of losing vital tin, tungsten and rubber and America's strategic position in Asia from a Communist Vietnam were incalculable to the West. In his memoirs Eisenhower acknowledged that 80 percent of the Vietnamese would likely have voted for North Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh, foremost a nationalist and also a Communist, if the general countrywide election called for by the 1954 Geneva Conference, following French defeat by the Vietnamese, had been held. The election was stymied, however, by the United States, which backed, financed and armed the corrupt South Vietnamese autocrat, Ngo Dinh Diem. And thus were sown the toxic seeds of the American war in Vietnam.

In the Paris peace negotiations President Nixon agreed to pay Vietnam $3.25 billion for reconstruction aid, an agreement he put in writing.  He was impeached before this agreement was honored. The following two post-war presidents-Ford and Carter-refused to enforce it; and subsequently Congress annulled the agreement.  Our government then set out to punish and starve Vietnam, working to hinder their entry into the United Nation, initiating an economic and trade embargo and blocking aid from international agencies, until 2000.  Some have labeled this period of penalizing the country that defeated us, the second American War in Vietnam.

In March of 2014, I traveled through Vietnam from Hanoi to Da Nang in central Vietnam to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). The purpose of my journey was to investigate the plight of third and fourth generation Agent Orange-dioxin victims, the fate of dioxin-contaminated sites, the extent of ecological restoration needed, and what is being done to overcome the legacy of the 12 million gallons of Agent Orange our military sprayed on upland forests, coastal mangroves and villages from 1961-1971. I visited models of community-based care for Agent Orange victims that rival our best ones for handicapped children, staffed by people who spoke of the children as their family.  I found that those working to rid Agent Orange from the Vietnam environment harbor no antipathy to American citizens, while they clamor for justice from the United States government to pay for the health and environmental costs from our 10 years of chemical warfare.

Map of Agent Orange Spraying

Were President Nixon's 1973 peace negotiations' pledge of $3.25 billion for reconstruction honored in today's dollars, the inflation adjusted pledge of $17 billion would support the costs of health, housing and educational services for Agent Orange victims; of ecological restoration of forests and mangroves; and of the remediation of remaining dioxin hotspots.

More than a dozen "Peace Villages," some with organic gardens, orchards, and animals, have been built for children and, in some cases, for Vietnamese veterans who have severe mental and/or physical challenges.  Here residents receive rehabilitative care and physical therapy and those able to learn are prepared for higher education or taught vocational skills, such as sewing, flower-making, fabricating incense sticks, etc.  Hundreds more Peace Villages are needed for the estimated thousands of multigenerational victims.

The Peace Villages are organized and built by the Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange (VAVA) with funds from the Vietnam government and international supporters. Many staff and administrators are retired Vietnamese war veterans; and some staff are themselves physically handicapped from their parents' exposure to Agent Orange. Some pioneers in this effort to undo the ongoing harm of the Vietnam War and to heal their own spiritual wounds of war are American veterans, who raise funds for the Peace Villages, volunteer their services, and bring other American veterans to visit the peace villages, in the spirit of reconciliation.

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When I asked about their striking commitment to the Peace Villages, the retired Vietnamese veterans spoke of having lost so many friends in the war that, having lived, they want to give back to war victims. One former general likened his iron-willed commitment to his country's 2000 year-old history of success against invaders and colonizers: "we beat the Chinese, we beat the French, we beat the Americans, now I want to beat Agent Orange." A young university student working in the VAVA Ho Chi Minh City office, said quietly, "Look at me," pointing to his head shaped like a light bulb. "I hope my passion will contribute to other Agent Orange victims' happiness and freedom." A medical doctor responsible for rehabilitative care of children at the Tu Du Hospital Peace Village responded: "my life is bound to the Agent Orange babies and I am passionate about their right to be treated humanely. "

Like many US visitors to Vietnam before me, I found a people who are forward-looking and forgiving; a poor country (rendered more so by the 25-year US trade embargo) doggedly lifting itself out of poverty; and a country determined not to leave their victims of Agent Orange behind.  Perhaps most telling of their spirit is the response of a Vietnamese veteran when asked by US veteran James Zumwalt, why Vietnamese are not bitter towards Americans. "We Vietnamese have small bodies," the vet replied. "If we fill them with hate, there is no room for love."  A well of wisdom from which we Americans could draw.

[H. Patricia Hynes is an environmental engineer and former Professor of Environmental Health at Boston University School of Public Health. Currently she directs the Vietnam Peace Village Project in the Traprock Center for Peace and Justice.]

Results of Agent Orange Spraying

  •     Up to ¼ South Vietnam: 17th parallel; supply routes for VC; mangrove forests of Mekong Delta; inland forests north and northwest of Saigon.
  •     Perimeters of US military bases by helicopters, trucks and hand.
  •     Hundreds of thousands of gallons emptied from planes into forests, rivers and drinking water reservoirs.
  •     1964: 5000 American scientists protested “chemical warfare.”
  •     1971: birth defects in US animal studies – spraying ceased.

What Did US Government Know?

“When we initiated the herbicide program in the 1960s, we were aware of the potential for damage due to dioxin contamination in the herbicide. We were even aware that the military formulation had a higher dioxin concentration than the civilian version due to the lower cost and speed of manufacture. However, because the material was to be used on the enemy, none of us were overly concerned. We never considered a scenario in which our own personnel would become contaminated with the herbicide.”
–Dr. James Clary, Chemical Weapons Branch, US Air Force

credit: Traprock Center for Peace and Justice