The Enduring Legacy of Agent Orange in Vietnam

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February 21, 2015 • Features, Fringe, Print • Views: 4769

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By Zoe Rubin

This year, The New York Times’ annual “52 Places to Go” feature spotlighted Da Nang, Vietnam. Once a “coastal gateway,” the paper argued, the central Vietnamese city had become a “destination in its own right.” A recent airport expansion, the Times noted, had spurred luxury resort developments. Now contemporary travelers could take advantage of Dragon Air’s new direct flight from Hong Kong to try Da Nang’s bahn mi sandwiches and delight in its long sandy beaches.

But those who fly into Da Nang International Airport may be struck by a very different kind of vista. Next to the runway stands a vast edifice of corrugated steel streaked with rust, about eight meters in height and a hundred meters in length. This temporary building, known as a “containment structure,” encloses more than 73,000 cubic meters of soil contaminated by Agent Orange, a herbicide and defoliant laden with the carcinogen dioxin. During the Vietnam War, the United States military conducted a mass aerial spraying campaign in the effort to root out the Viet Cong, destroying more than 5 million acres of forests and crops. In the process, an estimated 4.5 million Vietnamese and hundreds of thousands of American soldiers were exposed to the toxin.

“The operation was the longest and largest [of its kind] in the world, not just in Vietnam,” said Dr. Le Ke Son, who directed the government’s programs related to Agent Orange at the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment (MONRE). “We’re talking about more than 80 million liters of herbicides sprayed throughout the south of Vietnam.”

Da Nang’s airport was then a critical U.S. military base, where massive drums of the chemical were stored, their orange stripes giving “Agent Orange” its eponymous name. But over time, the toxic defoliant seeped into the surrounding land, creating what officials call a “dioxin hotspot.” There are twenty-eight such hotspots throughout the country.

Efforts are now under way to gather all of Da Nang’s contaminated soil and sediment in the containment structure and denature it with extreme heat, so that future generations will not be exposed to the toxin. U.S. public statements have heralded the remediation project as a symbol of the extraordinary evolution of U.S.-Vietnam bilateral relationship in recent months.

“We’re moving beyond those legacy war issues and toward a new relationship,” Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, declared when he visited Da Nang last August.

But progress to address the extent of environmental and health-related consequences of the aerial spraying campaign remains mixed, and scant political will in the U.S. exists for the financial and symbolic steps many deem necessary. In the Paris Peace Accords of 1973, the Nixon administration promised to provide $ 3 billion to address war legacy issues and to provide for the post-war reconstruction of Vietnam. As 1973 moves further and further into the historical past, is time running out for those whose lives have been poisoned by Agent Orange and its consequences?

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The War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City takes an unabashedly heavy-handed approach to condemning the U.S.’s actions in Vietnam. Originally named the American War Crimes Museum, the site hews to the North Vietnamese line, depicting the Viet Cong as a stoic band of freedom fighters pursued by a barbaric enemy who preyed upon the civilian population at large. The exhibit devoted to Agent Orange is particularly unnerving. An entire wall shows pictures of disabled Vietnamese whose parents or grandparents were presumably exposed to Agent Orange. The camera zooms in on their severe physical deformities—bandied legs, dwarfish statures, enlarged heads, and missing limbs. One caption notes the man depicted above possesses the intelligence of a young child; another describes how the parents of the boy pictured must keep him permanently in a cage to prevent him from chewing on himself. On an adjacent wall, a display contains jars of still-born fetuses submerged in formaldehyde. The accompanying black banner reads, “Agent Orange, Dioxin Kills.”

Such accusatory discourse is emblematic of the longstanding differences between Vietnam and the U.S. over how to address the consequences, both direct and indirect, of Agent Orange. Though the two countries normalized relations in 1995 the subject remained fraught with tensions, and diplomatic talks did not start until about four years later. “This is so sensitive an issue that both sides could not even agree on the venue of the first dialogue,” said Ambassador Ha Huy Thong, the vice chair of the Vietnamese National Assembly’s Foreign Affairs Committee. As growing scientific evidence pointed to a strong correlation between dioxin and cancer, birth defects, and other disabilities, U.S. officials remained on the defensive, questioning the veracity of Vietnamese claims. “The U.S. always asserted that this was not a poison, only a chemical,” recalled Nguyen The Luc, one of the vice-presidents of the Vietnamese Association of Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin (VAVA).

During the early 2000s, Nguyen’s advocacy group unsuccessfully challenged Dow Chemical Co., one of the manufacturers of Agent Orange, in a U.S. district court, claiming that the use of the defoliant amounted to a war crime. Their case and subsequent appeals were denied under the “government contractor defense,” which absolved Dow of any liability due to its government contractor status. Whereas a similar court case filed by American veterans in 1979 led to an out-of-court settlement of approximately $180 million, VAVA received no such arrangement.

But a decade ago, American and Vietnamese interlocutors concluded that their formal dialogue on the subject of Agent Orange was getting almost nowhere. Whereas diplomatic progress had been made on issues pertaining to Americans and Vietnamese missing in action, military relations, regional security, and humanitarian affairs, Agent Orange remained a perpetual sticking point. Thus, in 2007 the Ford Foundation spearheaded the establishment of the U.S.-Vietnam Dialogue Group on Agent Orange/Dioxin in the hope that prominent private civilians, scientists, and government officials on both sides, such as Son, Thong, and Walter Isaacson, might be able to find common ground. According to Thong, the informal channel (now led by the Aspen Institute) aims to be a space where both sides can bring up concerns long deemed too sensitive for the tenuous bilateral talks and raise public awareness about their mutual need to address the problem. Son stressed the dialogue group’s emphasis on transparency and mutual trust. “All information has been set on the table,” he said, unlike in previous talks. “I’ll tell the U.S. side and our international partners, some [information] is good—it’s scientific. And some is not so good—it’s not so scientific.”

Due in large part to the efforts of the U.S-Vietnam Dialogue Group, the two countries launched the Da Nang environmental remediation project in August of 2012. “The U.S. Administration has now formally committed itself to whatever it takes to clean up the dioxin at Da Nang,” said Dr. Charles Bailey, who heads the Aspen Institute’s Agent Orange in Vietnam Program, in his annual report that year. But many now fear that addressing other Agent Orange legacy issues may pose a far more thorny challenge.

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Five hundred miles south of Da Nang lies the city of Bien Hoa, located on the outskirts of Saigon. Bien Hoa, Thong repeatedly stressed, is “far more seriously affected by the use of Agent Orange than Da Nang.” According to the Aspen Institute, upwards of 230,000 cubic meters of soil and pond sediments may still be contaminated with dioxin in and around the former U.S. airbase. Thong hopes that the U.S. and Vietnam may be able to launch another joint effort to clean up Bien Hoa akin to the project already underway in Da Nang. Yet, Son remains skeptical about the U.S.’s political capacity to amass such funding for foreign aid. “The U.S. has also been very important,” he conceded, “but your government does not have enough power.”

The public health risk in Bien Hoa is too dire to allow for further time to be spent conducting impact studies and funding assessments at the expense of beginning the actual remediation project. After the American withdrawal, Bien Hoa became an airbase for the Vietnam People’s Air Forces., and until recently, no one knew the extent to which workers on the airbase and nearby residents continued to risk exposure to dioxin contamination each day. When the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the Global Environment Facility commissioned an environmental survey of the Bien Hoa site in 2013, they found dioxin concentrations eight times higher than the recommended level in 16 of the 28 lakes surveyed. By seeping into the local water supply, dioxin affects the local food supply. Each time local families sit down to an afternoon che or pho they risk ingesting the carcinogenic toxin. Contamination on this scale cannot be addressed through private sector-led efforts; only governments can provide the financial backing necessary to ensure further progress.

(Image courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons user Alex).

Zoe Rubin ’16 is a History and Global Affairs major in Timothy Dwight College. Contact her at zoe.rubin@yale.edu. 

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