Agent Orange and its effects on Vietnam Download leaflet – By Victoria Brittain Transcript of a talk given to a meeting of Trade Union Friends of Vietnam at Marx Memorial Library on 8 September 2012 When I first went to live and work in Vietnam it was …

Walton Pantland

Agent Orange and its effects on Vietnam
Download leaflet

– By Victoria Brittain

Transcript of a talk given to a meeting of Trade Union Friends of Vietnam at Marx Memorial Library on 8 September 2012

When I first went to live and work in Vietnam it was 1973 – that is 40 years ago. I was a very young and very inexperienced journalist, fired with curiosity by the massive anti-Vietnam demonstrations I had seen while working in Washington and Boston, and by two earlier short visits to Saigon.

The big intellectual influences in my life in the US in the late 1960s were the anti-Vietnam war Greats – Dr Spock, Professor Noam Chomsky, the Catholic Berrigan brothers. I had heard them speak and imbibed their moral vision: the US war was quite simply wrong, and the on-going US ruin of Vietnam must end.

Also, I had met, listened to, and written about, the young US private Ron Ridenhour, who exposed the My Lai massacre and had his story largely ignored or not believed by the major media. I believed him, and I wanted to see Vietnam for myself.

In Saigon the Western journalists’ world was another story, and I was often mocked in the cynical, worldly, almost exclusively male press corps as being “the girl who came to write sob stories about orphanages,” while they wrote about the important stuff – battles and political power struggles.

In fact, my days were spent travelling on the back of my gentle interpreter’s motorcycle, or with him on buses around Saigon. I looked, and learned about dispossession, bombed villages, destroyed families, and broken rural economies. These were the underpinnings of the lives of the people, mostly women and children, who I listened to and wrote about. These American crimes, like the indelible mental picture of what young American soldiers did in My Lai, peopled my imagination.

The other indelible picture in my head was of the child survivor of another appalling event. Phan Thị Kim Phúc was the burning little girl in the iconic Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph taken on June 8, 1972 in Trang Bang by Nick Ut. It shows her running naked with arms outstretched on a road after being severely burned on her back by a South Vietnamese napalm attack. One of my quick earlier visits was as a TV journalist just after this happened. My cameraman once made me be filmed walking down that road talking about her and the mad chaos of south Vietnamese soldiers firing on their own civilian villages…we did not know then that she had survived her very serious burns.

But the Vietnamese child war victims I didn’t write about were those who would later be known as the Agent Orange children. Dr Ngugen Thi Ngoc Phuong, delivered one of them in 1969. “I didn’t know anything about the spraying…I delivered for the first time in my life a severely deformed baby. It had no head or arms.” She said later that it took ten years for people to believe her that such children existed.

When I lived in Saigon I didn’t know if the terrifying stories I vaguely heard rumoured, of monstrous babies who were born not recognisable as babies, were true. I was a young mother living with the happiness of my own small boy, and I was too frightened of the pain I would see in these other mothers to want to search for them. There was more than enough pain for me to report elsewhere without any searching. I will come back to those children.

I didn’t know then anything about these births’ link to defoliation.

I didn’t know then that Olof Palme, Sweden’s Prime Minister and a leader in Europe of opposition to the US war, had called the US herbicide programme “ecocide”, or that distinguished scientists in the US had warned of its unknown consequences.

Three US administrations – Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon – nonetheless signed off on massive destruction of Vietnam’s countryside from the air. Kennedy’s official legacy as a revered US president leaves out his part in starting this programme as he escalated the war. It was Kennedy in 1961 who signed off on the destruction of fields of food crops.

US propaganda was put out across rural areas saying that the Viet Cong made up stories about the bad effects of Agent Orange and no one should believe them. US and Australian soldiers too were repeatedly told there were “no health risks” from it.

In fact, for 10 years before I arrived in Saigon, the US had been raining down on Vietnam these herbicides, which were to destroy the ground cover of their enemies. Over 6 million acres of countryside were sprayed with 72 million litres of poison, of which 51 million were Agent Orange. It rained down, people said later, in a white mist from planes, or was pumped from soldiers’ backpacks to destroy cover around the perimeter of US Army camps

Operation Hades, was the Code name for this defoliant programme to deny cover for the Viet Cong. It is an apt name for all those who knew how lethal what they had sold to the US government was. (They later cynically renamed it as Operation RanchHand.)

The Vietnam War was not the first time defoliants had been used. The British, for instance, used defoliants in Malaya during counter-insurgency operations. ICI supplied the chemicals and according to a Colonial Office report saw it as ‘a lucrative field for experiment’.

What was new in Vietnam was the use of toxic chemicals.

What Operation Hades did was turn jungle canopy into toxic graveyards, and mangrove forests into moonscapes. In the pristine A Luoi valley, a wildlife paradise of tigers, elephants, panthers, sun bears, deer and monkeys, was lost forever.

Deadly dioxin was mixed into the commercial herbicides. Crop lands were targeted as well as forest. And only decades later did people know that the dioxin had entered the water systems, seeped deep into the ground, and ultimately entered the food chain.

US soldiers who served in Vietnam during those years from 1961 to 1970, before the programme was finally halted because of controversy, went to Vietnam as fit young men. Back home afterwards and dispersed across North America, many of them soon began to get ill in mysterious ways, some turning into weak old men while still in their 30s.

Visits to doctors, hospitals, and the Veterans’ Administration usually ended with them being diagnosed as malingering, or psychologically unstable. “The problem is in your head,” some were told. Their treatment in VA hospitals was a litany of “abuse, neglect, incompetence, arrogance, faulty diagnosis, altered records and ordinary stupidity,” one researcher noted. How they felt was somehow their fault. Many of them too had children with serious abnormalities, or who were stillborn. Each family was initially alone with their private tragedy.

It was only later that the carcinogenic and other effects began to emerge as a systematic pattern, not only among US ex-soldiers, but also among Australia’s and New Zealand’s former soldiers.

It took years of research among their peers by men like Jim Wares in Australia, Ron DeBoer and Bobby Sutton in the US, to reveal the pattern of these soldiers’ common experiences. They discovered not only the similarities in the crippling illnesses, but also – what was even more devastating – the similarities in deformities some of their children were born with.

For years they struggled with uncomprehending doctors who had no idea what they were talking about when they asked about the effects of Agent Orange. It was in the end these individual former soldiers and a handful of determined lawyers who linked their illnesses and their children’s birth defects to the Dioxin in Agent Orange.

These Western service men, who served a 12 months tour of duty, 13 for Marines, suffered from disabling cancers, skin disorders and liver disorders, loss of concentration and energy. Their wives found themselves carers, or young widows.

It took until 1984 to get a class action case into court on behalf of the veterans. In an out-of-court settlement in May 1984 the manufacturers wore forced to pay $180 million in damages for exposure to Agent Orange. Monsanto as the key defendant was forced by the presiding judge to contribute 45.5% of the total pay-out. Much of this – $13m – was eaten up in legal fees. Totally disabled veterans found they were paid $12,000, widows $3,000. Disabled children got nothing

No one can measure or compare pain. But the most gruesome legacy caused by spraying Vietnam with dioxin-contaminated Agent Orange was and is, without question, that born by the Vietnamese themselves.

Their day in court against the chemical companies did not come until 2004, when millions of Vietnamese were parties to the second class-action against the chemical companies. Judge Weinstein (who sat in both cases) found against them in a book length judgment. The judge found that supplying Agent Orange was not a war crime, and that the causal link between the exposure and the health problems was not clear.

In fact Vietnam’s own former soldiers, and peasants who had been sprayed with the white mist of Dioxin, suffered everything the Western ex-soldiers did, many times over. Few if any Western soldiers had had that soaking, though some were contaminated by blowback of the spray they were delivering. Most were affected from swimming in or drinking from, contaminated rivers and pools, or eating contaminated food during their year of military duty.  For the Vietnamese, it was, and is, years and decades of contamination.

Many people have written about the locked room of Tu Du Obstetrical and Gynaecological Hospital in Saigon with its rows of formaldehyde-filled jars containing terribly deformed foetuses, a grotesque illustration of this US war crime.

But as many as 500,000 child victims of Agent Orange survived in Vietnam. Some live today in special Friendship villages, some supported by individual former US soldiers who have done what their leaders have failed to do. Visitors report finding these centres as extraordinary places where happiness is miraculously created by skillful, loving, carers, as well as by the children and young people themselves.

I’ll mention just three examples here: Two children, Viet and Duc were born joined together as one body. It took a pioneering 14 hour operation to separate the two children. One report gave details of a baby girl born in south Vietnam. She had one body, two heads, two hearts, two spines, one set of lungs and a single liver. According to staff at Ho Chi Minh City children’s hospital she is healthy and doing well.

But not every family has even this chance of institutional supported living. The level of poverty in rural Vietnam is very high. Many parents in rural areas struggle to work for survival while caring full-time for completely dependent children – some of whom have become dependent adults. One set of parents have cared for 31 years for their terribly weak and twisted son – he has never left his small house in Chu Chi.

Forty years later – today – scientists have found Dioxin in food and water, and in fatty tissue and blood samples taken near old US bases. In Bien Hoa in Danang 1,000 times the permissible level of dioxin was found 35 years after the last mission. Dioxin lasts on the surface between 9 and 25 years, deep down in the earth it lasts for an estimated 25 to 100 years. Noone really knows how long.

Operation Hades is without doubt a war crime of historic and unique proportions – and one that no one can predict when its continuing results might end.

The dismissive reactions to it of those in power are instructive for all of us today. Bhopal and Falluja are just two names from the nearer past that echo with the culpability of powerful US companies, and the US military, and the devastation of countless lives of innocent people. Like Agent Orange’s victims these are ones that are not confined to one generation.

We outsiders can not allow ourselves to forget them, and to fail to work for help for them.

Vietnamese are special people – gentle, disciplined, as Mr Loc my interpreter taught me daily. They won a war against a super-power, but had their country ruined for generations to come.

One marker of their special human quality is the lack of anger noted by all those who have visited and written about these tragic families. It was noted too as they interviewed the government officials who have worked with so little echo over the years to get American aid for the victims. Dr Le Ke Son, the senior Vietnamese official responsible for the government’s programmes related to Agent Orange and other chemicals used the war, points mildly beyond the stone-walled debates over why people are disabled: “One way or another they are victims and suffered from the legacy of war. We should do something for them.”

Last month, after the shaming decades of research carried out in the US at a glacial pace, and no admissions of guilt, or compensation, for suffering on a great scale, the US began its first clean-up of just one old US base. It is a four year project costing $43m. (We might note this figure against the $3 Billion the US gives in military assistance annually to Israel – another destroyer of livelihoods.)

The US also has just one $11.4m programme to help people with disabilities in Vietnam. But, it is not explicitly linked to Agent Orange. The weasel words of the US formulation are, “assistance regardless of cause.” This is a shaming refusal of responsibility – both by the US government and military leaders, and the chemical companies.

Dow Chemical even still maintains that, “the very substantial body of human evidence on Agent Orange establishes that veterans’ illnesses are not caused by Agent Orange.”

I think these people were trained with the infamous Goebbels quote: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” But Goebbels was wrong in this case – everyone knows who is responsible for Agent Orange, and knows why they will not admit it.

The powerful coalition of those responsible counted on us all forgetting – today is a modest marker that we have not forgotten these very wounded people and those who care for them.

I want to end with another little personal story of what Vietnam has meant to me, long after I left there to live in Africa. In the years when Angola was under constant siege from the forces of apartheid South Africa, and Unita supported by a huge clandestine US programme, I used to visit remote besieged cities. Invariably I would find myself in the evenings with my Angolan hosts meeting Vietnamese doctors or teachers. These were usually couples who, like so many Cuban civilians, had left their own country where the US imposed war had been won, to help another country going through a war from the same provenance.

I saw these Vietnamese in remote dusty hospitals where drugs were scarce and dozens of sick peasants dozed and died on the verandah floor – scenes which defeated most foreign volunteer doctors. I saw them too in schools with few books and fewer desks or chairs. These were not environments where teaching was anything but a hope that perhaps a handful of gifted children might emerge who could be sent on to a school more likely to offer real possibilities for a different future for a child.

The Vietnamese doctors, nurses and teachers were always a bulwark against despair. They always had their same grave smiles as they modestly went about their impossible tasks for the Angolans they had chosen to help.

That same personal selflessness in making moral choices is what makes everyone involved in the struggle for justice for the Agent Orange victims, part of an inspiring fraternity.

Noam Chomsky kindly pointed me to the American author Fred Wilcox – the leading writer on Agent Orange and chronicler of the perfidy of the US chemical companies, the US judiciary, the military, and successive governments. Wilcox brings home with a wealth of detail the failure to take the responsibility for the US blighting of the lives of men, women and children at home and across the world. His two great books, “Waiting for an Army to Die,” and “Scorched Earth,” are a historical resource of huge importance, and the unanswerable response to the lies of the powerful.

And my friend John Pilger has been tireless too in never letting the subject disappear in his journalism.

My thanks to Len Aldiss for setting up this meeting and visit, and to the British trade unionists who have made this important solidarity visit happen, and in particular to Keith Sonnet for inviting me to speak today.


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Walton Pantland

South African trade unionist living in Glasgow. Loves whisky, wine, running and the great outdoors. Walton did an MA in Industrial Relations at Ruskin, Oxford, and is interested in how trade unions use new technology to organise.

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