In 1975, peace finally arrived in Vietnam. A long and bloody war came to an end, but not for all. Still today, thousands of Vietnamese, American and allied soldiers – and their families – suffer from Agent Orange exposure. The deadliest toxic ever invented by man.
”It was a coincidence which gave me the idea to write a letter to the President of the United States. I googled him one day and stumbled on a public letter, which he had written to his daughters during his election campaign. He said that he had entered politics to make the world a better place for his daughters – actually all daughters on this earth.
So I thought I would tell him: “I am right here in Vietnam. We are a lot of daughters who could use your help.”
Hoan never got a reply from the White House.
“I don’t mind. I know he is very busy”, Hoan says with another burst of shy laughter, tapping the table with the fingers of her one hand which she was born with some 20 years ago in Da Lat.
Hoan is one of more than 400.000 Vietnamese, who have been officially registered as 2nd generation Agent Orange Victims in Vietnam. Agent Orange was a dioxin contaminated defoliant used massively by the US Army and Airforce during the war in Vietnam.
Approximately 72 million liters of Agent Orange were sprayed over Southern and Central Vietnam in the years 1962-1971. The exposure to Agent Orange is widely believed to have caused a continued disaster for thousands of Vietnamese as well as US and Allied soldiers, who fought in the contaminated areas.
In the US alone more than 40.000 Vietnam veterans claim that they and their families are victims of dioxin related diseases. Dioxin, or 2,3,7,8 Tetrachlorodbenzodioxin, is thought to be the strongest ever synthetic poison, so far developed.
For more than 50 years, scientific researchers have suspected that dioxin may cause a broad range of cancers, other very serious diseases and birth defects. Since 1978, dioxin contaminated pesticides have been banned in the US, but in previous years they have been used extensively around the globe for agricultural as well as military purposes.
In Vietnam they were used by the US forces in an unprecedented scale and with the strongest concentrations ever. This went on for years in spite of strong concerns, voiced by the scientists who had developed the pesticides for use on a much more limited scale.
The never ending story
Agent Orange was also the reason that this observer came to Vietnam as a young journalist more than 30 years ago. Other reporters from all over the world have filed thousands of stories in the past 4 or 5 decades about Agent Orange. Even though the faces of the victims are different, the stories are the same. To me this is the most scary part: It just goes on and on. Most recently the Danish anthropologist Tine Gammeltoft published the book ‘Haunting Images’, the disturbing result of a major study among pregnant Vietnamese women and the nationwide fear of having children with birth defects due to exposure to Agent Orange.
In 2010, I set out to get a wider picture of the disastrous consequences of Agent Orange in Vietnam. What you are reading here is the outcome of 5 years of visits all over Vietnam to cities and villages, which are still affected. The information in this blog also draws on several hundred reports and assessments by others. (If you google ‘Agent Orange’ you will get a very good idea of the enormous amount of information.)
Here come the voices of the victims, as I heard them.
We return to Hoan at her hospital ward in Ho Chi Minh City, former Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam until 30 April 1975.
Hoan always seem to be more than happy to receive visitors at her ward in the Tu Do hospital.
“Please come up with me to see our room. It is much better now than the last time you came to see me.” Hoan leads the way up the stairs to the 3rd floor with an impressive speed.
Her only hand takes a strong grip on the rail and her two leg stumps does the rest of the job pushing her body upwards as fast as we can climb the stairs on our legs.
“I never use the elevator. I try to do a lot exercise to stay healthy. My dream is to become a doctor like my foster mother,” Hoan says.
She is sharing the room with 11 other victims, some of them appears to be just a few years old. Here and there, a twisted arm or leg sticks out through the bed rails looking like branches on a naked tree. Some faces are heavily disfigured, several of the patients are obviously severely retarded.
The victims are not very different from the ones I met more than 30 years ago, when I first came to meet Hoan’s foster mother, the legendary Dr. Nguyen Thi Ngoc Phuong.
In those days the Tu Do Hospital was a rundown 3rd world institutition of the worst kind, with extremely poor facilities.
A hopeless battle
Dr. Phuong was fighting what seemed to be a hopeless battle to save her patients. Many of them were young women brought in from the countryside with strangely abnormal foetus, developing in their uterus, often along with malevolent tumours killing the mother and the baby.
Some of the babies made it into this world. One of them, Hoang Kim from Tay Ninh, I have never been able to erase from my memory. Born without eyes, tears of pain from a kidney disorder were running from her empty eye sockets. Her screams haunted me for years.
Dr. Phuong and her colleagues did not have much to offer except words of comfort to the young patients, most of them sharing beds. The privilege of a solitary bed was reserved for those, who had violent spasms of pain or only a short time left to live.
We walked with Dr. Phuong in a stench of fear and death in wards with no aircondition and not a wind to clear up the air in there. She was like an Asian replica of Florence Nightingale walking from bed to bed, now and then stopping at length, quietly caressing the hand of a crying patient.
Next, she showed us her collection of ‘evidence’: Dozens of foetus in big jars with the most unbelievable malformations. Small monsters swimming in yellowish fluid. An unbearable sight of the kind which stays with you forever.
More than 30 years later, the Tu Do hospital has been completely renovated. The wards are air-conditioned, the beds and equipment are relatively new, and the medicine supply has improved greatly. But the suffering seems to be the same as before.
The impossible dream
Hoan is an exception to the general misery of the Agent Orange victims in Vietnam.
She seems to accept her predicament, never uttering a word of complaint. She is full of energy and as lively as any young Vietnamese woman with that thirst for knowledge, which is so common among the new generation of Vietnamese.
”I am studying English very hard. I have really used the dictionary, you brought me the last time. When I am done with my BA in English, I will apply for the medical university,” Hoan says, her eyes sparkling with anticipation of a dream to come true.
Later the same afternoon I am sitting in her foster mother’s living room.
“Hoan will never become a doctor. Her health is not good at all, and with her handicaps no hospital would ever accept her, if she did manage to complete medical school,” Dr. Phuong states drily.
Now in her seventies, dr. Phuong has retired from the hospital, and she does look like a grandmother in her sofa with a stuffed tiger, for her own grandchildren to play with on their visits. But Dr. Phuong is in fact very busy this afternoon, preparing her testimony at a congressional hearing in Washington DC.
She bears no resentment against Americans.
”We have many American friends these days. Doctors, veterans and their relatives, congress men and NGO activists. They support us a lot. I see no reason to blame the Americans. The responsibility for this disaster lies with a few senior decision makers, and most of them are gone a long time ago,”Phuong says.
Her words prompt the big WHY – what on earth made the US unleash this nightmare for generations to come – even victimising the American GI’s, who fought in Vietnam?
The answer lies in the early days of John F. Kennedy’s presidency.
Kennedy: Tell me how to win this war
It is 1961, and the situation is going from bad to worse in Vietnam. Increasingly alarming reports about Communist progress have reached the White House. The US protegé, South Vietnam’s autocratic President Diem has not achieved much besides turning his government into a family affair.
Diem’s basic disadvantage is being a devout catholic with ties to the former French colonial regime. He has no chance of getting popular support in a country, where 95% of the population are buddhist with a strong element of nationalism. Diem is seen as a puppet of foreign powers with ulterior motives.
Diem’s brother Nhu is in charge of the entire security apparatus, and he uses it without hesitance in suppressing any kind of opposition to Diem’s rule. His wife ‘Madame Nhu’ acts as Vietnam’s First Lady to support the unmarried President.
When Buddhist monks start burning themselves in the streets of Saigon, Madame Nhu is interviewed by US networks stating on camera that she does not care about ‘these monks barbecuing themselves’.
As suppression in the South becomes even harder, the opposition spreads far beyond Diem’s communist foes.
Kennedy has also seen reports from his advisors on the ground about the poor morale in the South Vietnamese army. Many officers appear to be notoriously corrupt, and their subordinates seem to be a very poor match for the determined Viet Cong guerrillas.
Some CIA analysts on the ground in Vietnam express their concern that South Vietnam might collapse. Kennedy needs to know what it takes to win the war in Vietnam and puts together a team of special advisors, headed by his brother Robert F. Kennedy and the highly regarded general, Maxwell Taylor, who is also the President’s top military advisor.
The team produces an extensive catalogue of proposals to turn the events in Vietnam. Among them is a plan to prevent the guerillas from hiding in South Vietnam’s dense tripple canopy forests and at the same time deny them food supply.
Operation Hades turn into Operation Ranchhand
The team highlights how the British successfully uncovered the hide-outs of the communist guerillas in Malaya with an extensive defoliation campaign in the 1950’ies. Pentagon affiliated scientists are already involved in a classified research programme, code named ‘Operation Hades’, a reference to the realm of the dead in Greek mythology.
In late 1961, president Kennedy approves the defoliation programme under the much less controversial code name ‘Operation Ranchhand’. The four targets are a matter of record.
- To defoliate the dense jungle areas where the guerilla bases are believed to be located in Southern and Central Vietnam;
- To defoliate river banks and road sides to reduce the risk of ambush;
- To defoliate the perimeters of the American bases to avoid Viet Cong commando attacks;
- To destroy rice fields and other crops, where ever the farmers are believed to supply the enemy with food.
In Vietnam, the pesticides become known as Agent Orange, simply because the barrels are marked with an orange color code.
According to numerous statements from veterans, Agent Orange was considered a relatively harmless weed killer.
GI’s wearing Agent Orange canisters on their bare backs, spraying without face masks, were a common sight on the base perimeters. Former pilots and ground personel have testified that they did not receive any kind of safety instructions in handling the pesticides.
“We often flew spraying missions at very low altitudes with open windows because of the intolerable heat, becoming totally drenched with the stuff. On the ground you could smell the Ranch Hands from a very long distance,” pilot Charles Hubbs stated to his lawyers in one of the early class action law suits against the producers of Agent Orange, primarily Dow Chemicals and Monsanto.
As the spraying missions accelerated with the war, so did reports about massive environmental destruction and acute poisoning cases in the target areas. At one point, a CBS war correspondent, Dan Rather was asked to look into the controversy.
Rather went to interview Ranch Hand commander Ralph Dresser, who volunteered to take a sip of Agent Orange straight from the barrel.
“I grant you the stuff tastes bad, but it is harmless to humans,” Dresser supposedly said to the baffled journalist.
As the war escalated, the spraying missions further intensified moving beyond Vietnam’s borders into Laos and Cambodia, following the so called Ho Chi Minh Trail – the military supply lines from the North to the South. The level of dioxin was also increased to optimise the efficiency of the spraying.
In 1971, Operation Ranch Hand was finally aborted after almost 20.000 spraying missions in Vietnam. The controversy in the US continued to grow with the increasing number of veterans who attributed very serious health effects to their exposure to Agent Orange.
“I died in Vietnam without knowing it,” former pilot Paul Reutershan said in one of his last interviews before dying from a rare type of liver cancer.
He became a symbol of the US veterans in their struggle to be recognised as victims of Agent Orange. Most recently, in 2014, flight crews that never set foot in Vietnam, also claim to have been exposed at dangerous levels, now claiming support for treatment and compensation for disabilities.
They have been serving for years in the old C-123 planes, which apparently never were cleaned properly after the spraying missions in Vietnam. Blood and tissue tests have reportedly confirmed traces of dioxin in the crews.
The boys from the North
The disastrous consequences of Agent Orange in Vietnam stretch far beyond the sprayed areas in the South. At first, it might be hard to imagine during the idyllic 100 km day trip from Hanoi to Thai Binh province.
It is indeed Postcard Vietnam – a beautiful ride through endless rice fields, complete with pretty farm girls on bicycles, lazy water buffaloes, and expanded fishing nets drying and glowing like gold in the afternoon sun.
Thai Binh and the other Northern provinces were never sprayed during the war, but still the effects of Agent Orange appear to be devastating. Thai Binh is known to be the province which sent most soldiers to fight in the South. Thousands and thousands fought in the contaminated areas for years, many went to war as teenagers on both sides of the war.
While 2-3 million Vietnamese are believed to have been killed in the war, thousands returned to their families. Apparently, Agent Orange travelled home with them.
In the years after the war Vietnamese doctors noted a dramatic increase in rare cancers and other serious ailments among the returning soldiers. Then came an equally dramatic increase in miscarriages and uncanny birth defects. As of today, more than 5.000 Agent Orange victims are registered in Thai Binh. Similar numbers are claimed in Nam Dinh, Thai Nguyen and Hai Duong provinces.
In a Thai Binh village, we encounter Hang (35), datter of a veteran from the war in the South. She is severely retarded and suffers from chloracne, an extremely painful skin disease, which makes her legs look like open wounds from her feet to the hip. Chloracne is a rare condition, but also very common among US veterans from the war.
Hang’s family keeps her in small shed most of the time next to their house.
“The neighbours do not like to see her. They see her as an omen of bad luck, they seem to be afraid that her sufferings can be passed on to them,” Hang´s mother says with tears running during most of the interview.
A few kilometers away, we encounter Gam (33).
She is lying on the ground growling like an animal – retarded, blind and very dirty.
“Don’t come to close to her. She can be very agressive. She does not understand human language. We never let her in the house anymore. My husband is very week and afraid of her,” Gam’s mother says.
In the following days we meet the same kind of misery – disease, loneliness, poverty and very little support from the local community.
The time bomb in Da Nang
A visit to Da Nang in central Vietnam is no less disturbing.
Da Nang was home to the biggest US airbase during the war. Enormous amounts of Agent Orange were stored here for the spraying missions. Thousands of used barrels were left rusting here, with the remaining contents seaping into the ground.
In present day, environmental experts from Canadian Hatfield Consultants have documented dioxin levels of 365.000 ppt (parts per trillion) – 365 times the safety level in the US. This time bomb has been there next to a densely populated area for at least four decades.
After 10 years of preliminary investigations followed by negotiations between the US and Vietnam, a project has been initiated to remove 200.000 m3 of contaminated soil with an estimated cost of more than USD 40 million.
Hatfield consultants have also identified two other heavily contaminated areas, which served as supply bases for the Ranch Hand missions: The former Bien Hoa air base (262 times over the safety limit) and the former Phu Cat base (266 over the safety limit). In addition, some 20 other, presumably less serious ’dioxin hotspots’ await further investigation, if funding can be obtained.
So far, the US government has only granted funds to clean up the former base in Da Nang. It is labelled an environment project, and compensation to victims is not included.
According to the local chapter of VAVA (the national association for Agent Orange victims) the dioxin contamination is taking its toll. They suggest we visit Toan (18) and his younger brother, Tan.
The walls in their one room house are decorated with fading family photos and school achievement certificates, obtained by the two boys, before they became too weak to follow classes properly in the local school. Both of them suffer from an irreversible detoriation of their bone structures, which emerged a few years ago.
The youngest brother is the weakest one, now barely able to brush his teeth by himself. Toan’s mom tells us about her son’s hopeless dream to become a graphics designer.
Every morning she carries him out to her motorbike and brings him to school.
“He cannot sit for long, so they allow him to lie down during the lessons. The teachers have asked me, why I keep bringing him there. It’s what keeps him alive,” Toan’s mother says.
In another house we meet a little boy, Nhan, sitting on the floor. He looks like he is in his first year, but we are told that he is 10 years old. A picture of a clone is on the family altar – his dead twin sister.
A few hours later, we visit Trinh, severely retarded and clutching a barbie doll with strangely deformed hands, with the looks of animal claws. Her mom is distracted several times during the interview trying to take care of Trinh’s younger brother, paralysed from birth and continuously suffering from painful spasms.
Next, we are with Phung and her paralysed, retarded daughters, 18 and 15 years of age.
“What will happen to them, when my husband and I are gone. Who will take care of them,” Phung asks.
Her husband tells us that she has developed a severe depression over the years from exhaustion and fear of the future.
The poorest of the poor
There are more stories to tell – of even deeper misery – in the Central Highlands of Vietnam among the marginalised ethnic minorities. The Hmong’s, the Bana’s, the Flower Thais and the Black Thais all have one thing in common: For centuries they have been at odds with the Kinhs, the vast majority of Vietnam’s population.
This historic rivalry for land and ressources in Vietnam were exploited by French as well as US intelligence in the wars against the Vietnamese. Ethnic minorities served as very important recruitment pools for the the foreign war effort in Vietnam, and even in peace time there is a strong undercurrent of mutual distrust between the Kinh and the minorities.
The relationship is even more tense between the Kinh’s and the minorities, who converted to catholic church during French colonial rule.
Open ethnic conflicts are rare these days, but the differences manifest themselves in the poverty levels. Just an hours drive from the provincial capital of Kontum province in the Central Highlands, the roads turn into trails. Now, homes are primitive bamboo huts without water or electricity.
In one of the huts, we meet Xe Dang, an old woman who struggles to take care of her blind and retarded daughter.
“You have come with the blessings of God,” she says with a toothless grin, when we hand over a couple of packs with small milk cartons and straws.
In a Bana minority village we are invited to visit Byus (9), who has spent his entire life in bed. He has an enormously swollen head. His aunt are telling their story between sobs.
“Buy’s father has lost his eyesight, and my sister is the only one earning money in the family. She is out now collecting cow dung to sell it to the farmers.”
A propaganda ploy?
When I give lectures on Agent Orange, I am often asked: “Are you sure that you are not just promoting communist propaganda? Can we really believe these numbers? Some doctors have testified in court proceedings that there is no link between Agent Orange and these sick people.”
Surely, the Agent Orange issue has been used by Hanoi on numerous occasions during the decades, when the US were still seen as an enemy. It is also likely that numbers have been vastly exaggerated in politically biased reports – some have claimed the number of Agent Orange victims in Vietnam to be more than 4 million people. And yes, several doctors have testified that no scientifically solid evidence has been provided so far of the link between Agent Orange and the human misery among the exposed.
The American Cancer Society has conducted several studies of claims by US veterans and concluded that the evidence is not there. Several court cases against the US Government and the manufacturers of Agent Orange have been dismissed in the US, Korea and Canada.
Hence, the sadness and frustration, which is reflected on websites like this one: http://www.agentorangequiltoftears.com/
The circumstantial evidence is of enormous proportions, starting with the very early alarm bells, coming from the scientist, professor Arthur W. Galston, who developed the dioxin contaminated pesticides in the first place. He voiced his strong concerns publicly on many occasions, after Operation Ranchhand took off. His warnings were ignored, and eventually he turned against the entire war effort in frustration.
Hundreds of indicative findings by doctors and scientists are pointing in the same direction, as Galston did 50 years ago.
In developed countries, the precautions against dioxin exposure of our own citizens clearly indicate that there are very serious reasons to be alarmed.
Today, it is also apparent that the US government and health authorities share the concerns related to Agent Orange, even though they refrain from stating it directly.
Otherwise, the Defence Department would not have established a limited medical aid programme for Vietnam veterans, who are believed to suffer from exposure to Agent Orange. The US government would not have accepted Agent Orange to be on the agenda at the presidential level in the ongoing dialogue between the US and Vietnam. And the new ambassador to Hanoi, Ted Osius would not have highlighted the US assistance to the clean-up in Da Nang in his message on the Embassy website on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the establishment of normal relations between the two former enemies.
It has taken decades to move the US to officially address just a few of the issues, related to Agent Orange in Vietnam.
In the meantime, concerned US Citizens have stepped in with massive support in Vietnam. Organisations like the Ford Foundation and East Meets West have done a tremendous effort to assist the victims in Vietnam. The Bill and Melinda Gates Fund have financed a state-of-the-art research laboratory in Hanoi. Several US veteran groups are doing successful aid projects at the village level.
You can find more info about them here:
Sadly, these initiatives are too limited to be of any real consequence for the thousands of people, still suffering in Vietnam. If you visit the villages in Thai Binh, Hai Duong, Nam Dinh, Kontum or elsewhere in Vietnam, it will surely break your heart.
As a northern veteran, Thang quietly told me:
“I fought for 10 years in the war. When peace came, I destroyed my own family. We have two handicapped children, who cannot take care of themselves. The world is just waiting for us to die.”
Thomas Bo Pedersen,
Hanoi, April 2015.
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