H. Patricia Hynes and Frances Crowe: An environmental debt remains unpaid in Vietnam
NORTHAMPTON — The Paris Peace Accords ending the Vietnam War were signed Jan. 27, 1973, making possible a reunited Vietnam. For much of the American public, the war was a bitterly divisive issue to put behind them. With no good ending, why lose sleep over Vietnam, unless you had lost a child or were a veteran haunted by its violence?
The American war in Vietnam was a doomed industrialized military invasion against a popular, rural-based insurgency seeking independence. In his memoirs, President Dwight D. Eisenhower acknowledged that 80 percent of the Vietnamese would likely have voted for North Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh if the general countrywide election called for by the 1954 Geneva Conference had been held.
But elections were stymied by the United States, which backed the corrupt South Vietnamese dictator Ngo Dinh Diem.
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 southeast Asian country after another in wars of independence to Communism.
But why destroy Vietnam if Red China is our enemy, retorted Curtis Le May, Air Force commander of the firebombing of Japanese cities in World War II. The policy of containing Communism, fused with what historian George Herring describes as “the arrogant presumption that the United States knew best what was right for Vietnam,” corrupted and militarized the foreign policy of five administrations in southeast Asia.
During the 10 years (1961-1971) of chemical warfare in Vietnam, U.S. planes sprayed more than 20 million gallons of defoliants in an operation code-named Ranch Hand to destroy enemy plant cover and crops and to clear vegetation around U.S. bases. Agent Orange, the dioxin-contaminated and exceedingly toxic herbicide, constituted about 61 percent of the herbicides sprayed in the war.
By the end of the war, nearly five million Vietnamese had been exposed to Agent Orange, an exposure which resulted in “400,000 deaths and disabilities and a half-million children born with birth defects,” according to the 2008-2009 President’s Cancer Panel Report.
Agent Orange was so extensively sprayed that all of the two million Americans who served in Vietnam are presumed exposed. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs now associates a multitude of cancers, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, neuropathy, Parkinson’s disease and birth defects with exposure to Agent Orange.
However, it took veteran advocates, their lawyers and concerned scientists decades of confronting inept government health studies to achieve this acknowledgment.
The war persists in the dioxin residues accumulated in the Vietnamese environment and food chain and in the pollution of millions of human bodies, by now transmitted to three generations of Vietnamese.
Despite compelling science on the harm of dioxin exposure, it took until 2007 for the U.S. Congress to appropriate $9 million for cleanup of contaminated sites and health-related activities in Vietnam.
In 2011, the U.S. Agency for International Development joined the Vietnamese government in the first phase of a $32 million dioxin-contaminated soil removal program at a former U.S. air base in Da Nang. “It’s a big step,” said Ngo Quang Xuan, a former Vietnamese ambassador to the United Nations. “But in the eyes of those who suffered the consequences, it’s not enough.”
Not nearly enough, given more than three million victims of chemical poisoning and more than two dozen contaminated sites in need of remediation.
Now, legislation aims to give the Vietnamese and the children and grandchildren of U.S. veterans who are all victims of our chemical war in Vietnam the medical, rehabilitative and social compensation they need.
The bill, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., has 14 co-sponsors in Congress. It is HR 2634, the Victims of Agent Orange Relief Act. Supporters can send a postcard to their members of Congress through the Vietnam Agent Orange Relief and Responsibility Campaign website,
Frances Crowe lives in Northampton. H. Patricia Hynes directs the Traprock Center for Peace and Justice in western Massachusetts.