Resisting Agent Orange

Against the Current, No. 149, November/December 2010

Michael Uhl

FOLLOWING AN EARLY April round of visits in private residences and care facilities with children suffering from a range of debilitating birth anomalies, classified by the Vietnamese government as “victims of agent orange,” a delegation of six American veterans sponsored by Veterans for Peace (VFP) was received in Hanoi by Nguyen Tan Dung, the Prime Minister of Vietnam.

Mr. Dung used the occasion to insist that, with hostilities between our two countries now nearly 40 years behind us, the United States government must finally “take responsibility for the aftermath” of the Vietnam War.

More than two million Vietnamese people were killed, millions were wounded and more than 300,000 are still missing,” Dung said, adding that “three million Vietnamese were exposed to toxic chemicals sprayed by the U.S. military, and that people continue to be injured or killed weekly by bombs and mines left behind after the war.”

Agent Orange, the most infamous of the chemical defoliants dropped by the ton on Vietnam from U.S. aircraft, wiped out forests, poisoning villages and thousands of U.S. troops who later spent years fighting for recognition of their illnesses.

Dung’s crisp accounting of this grim “legacy” of the American War retains still, in the scope of its carnage and devastation, the power to chill the soul, not least of one former soldier who unwittingly found himself among the forces of destruction.

Dung expressed his hope that the VFP delegation, through its affiliated project, the Vietnam Agent Orange Responsibility and Relief Campaign (VAORRC), would continue to disseminate information about the aftermath of the war to the people and government of the United States. Dung asked for accelerated cooperation on the part of the United States in providing assistance to Vietnamese victims of agent orange “to help them overcome the difficulties they face.”

Responding for the American veterans, Paul Cox, who’d spent 18 months in Vietnam as a combat Marine, affirmed that the delegation’s intimate contact with victims and their families during our 10-day tour had intensified our understanding of their pain and suffering, and deeply committed us to obtain justice on their behalf.

Toward that end, Cox announced, VAORRC will soon introduce a bill in the United States Congress seeking a broad legislative remedy to extend care and medical aid to all veterans and civilians exposed to Agent Orange, and related-compounds, during the Vietnam War, and to underwrite the cost of clean-up in areas of Vietnam where high levels of the herbicide’s highly toxic contaminant, dioxin, persist in the environment.

The Long View

The directness of Mr. Dung’s remarks prompted one veteran to ask a staff member of the delegations’ host organization, Vietnam Agent Orange Victims Association (VAVA), whether such explicit public language on Mr. Dung’s part represented a shift in Vietnam’s position on demanding what might be seen as reparations for the staggering and persistent destruction caused by the U.S. invasion and decade-long occupation of southern Vietnam? And why only now, 40 years after the final spraying mission was flown in January 1971, was Vietnam making such an insistent push to resolve the Agent Orange aftermath?

The response was unanticipated, but ultimately not surprising. The VAVA staff member, a former colonel in the North Vietnamese army, noted simply that, in the past, every time the Vietnamese sat down with their U.S. counterparts to map out postwar relations, the Americans let it be known that, if Vietnam put Agent Orange on the table, the session would be terminated.

Given that Vietnam’s short-term needs in the years immediately following reunification in 1975 were most urgently to reform the country’s dysfunctional command economy — especially after the collapse of the USSR and the Eastern Bloc — and to convince the United States to dismantle its crippling economic embargo, moral restitution linked to what our host characterized as “the most horrific war of the twentieth century” had to take a rear seat to the issues surrounding immediate survival.

As to the suggestion implying that a “policy shift” would put long-repressed “moral outrage” back into the center of historical judgment on the Vietnam War, our host revealed how vividly the memory of the U.S. establishment’s perfidious disregard for fair play remains in the mind of at least one old revolutionary. The former colonel’s response was measured, devoid of obvious emotion, perhaps typical of someone schooled in a political culture where taking the long view should never be confused with abandoning the objective.

Dung’s words, he said, did not represent a policy shift, but were “a matter of emphasis” defined by context, presumably the presence of former soldiers of the enemy’s armed forces converted to reliable allies, and fully in agreement with the Prime Minister’s message. “In a diplomatic setting,” the colonel added, “we would be more polite.”

And then came the colonel’s stunning explanation that Dung’s words traced a continuity in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam’s policy toward Washington dating from the Paris Peace Accords of January 1973. At the time, Richard Nixon, in a secret letter to then-Premier Pham Van Dong, promised Vietnam $3.3 billion “to contribute to healing the wounds of war and to postwar reconstruction of the DRV.”

Ever since, in one form or another, Vietnam has never ceased to demand that the United States live up to that unfulfilled promise, and to acknowledge its responsibility for the war. A generous resolution of the Agent Orange issue would go a long way toward marking “paid” to that outstanding debt.

The other members of the VFP/VAORRC Agent Orange delegation were Paul Cox, who also represented Vietnam Veterans Against the War and Swords to Ploughshares, Susan Schnall, Ken Mayers, Mike Ferner, and Geoff Millard, Board Chair of IVAW.

ATC 149, November-December 2010