(Guest expert article by Charles R. Bailey) As we mark Earth Day this Sunday, we remember the first Earth Day in 1970. That year saw another landmark event: President Nixon brought to an end to the spraying of Agent Orange in Vietnam. That spraying had gone on for a decade. Its aim was to defoliate forests and destroy food crops in order to deny cover and sustenance to opposition forces. The Agent Orange and some of the other herbicides were contaminated with dioxin, a highly toxic substance.
The legacy of Agent Orange/dioxin continues to impact our veterans and the Vietnamese. Since 1991, scientists at the United States Institute of Medicine have shown dioxin to be a risk factor in a growing number of illnesses and birth defects, and their research is corroborated by the work of Vietnamese scientists.
Not everyone who was in the sprayed areas in Vietnam was exposed to dioxin nor is it possible to definitively enumerate the individuals who were exposed. For these reasons, it is impossible to determine the actual numbers of Agent Orange victims in Vietnam. Nevertheless, at the population level we see the consequences of dioxin for the Vietnamese in terms of ill health, shortened lives and birth defects. Some 10 percent to 15 percent of all Vietnamese with disabilities are Agent Orange victims. They are primarily living with mobility impairments and mental disabilities rather than hearing, vision and speech problems. Their disabilities affect them severely.
Between 1975, when the Vietnam War ended, and 2006, Agent Orange was an extremely sensitive and controversial subject. Official views were polarized, information was scant, disagreement was rife, and suspicions on both sides ran high. In consequence, there were few resources to address the issue, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and other donors kept well clear of the subject.
Events in 2006 proved a turning point: New attention was brought to Agent Orange by the American press in advance of President George W. Bush’s visit to Vietnam for the annual meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). Bush’s joint statement with Vietnam’s President Nguyen Minh Triet, acknowledged for the first time the dioxin legacy of the war. The U.S. Embassy and the Ford Foundation in Hanoi swiftly followed up. Since 2007, key Vietnamese and American officials and nongovernment players in both countries have helped move the issue of Agent Orange in Vietnam to a subject of active cooperation between the governments of Vietnam and the United States.
As of today, under the leadership of Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Congress has appropriated a total of $231.2 million to begin to address Agent Orange in Vietnam. The funds are split between assistance for people with severe disabilities in the most heavily sprayed areas and clean up of dioxin residues at two former American airbases. The Da Nang Airport is now free of dioxin, and tens of thousands of Vietnamese with disabilities have received help. Most importantly, the two governments now have a practical partnership. The extreme sensitivity of this subject is a thing of the past. The funds and follow up that provoked and leveraged the American government response after all these years came in large part from the Ford Foundation, which provided $17.1 million between 2000 and 2011.
Trust and cooperation between former enemies are often rebuilt and fortified through the work the parties do to remediate the terrible aftermath of war. Postwar measures will never be able to erase deep scars, restore personal losses or make up for great hardship. However, if they are undertaken in good spirit and with vigor and sincerity, they can unite people on a forward path of mutual respect and friendship. Both Vietnam and the United States want to move forward in this way together.
The end of the disaster of Agent Orange/dioxin is within the reach of people of goodwill on both sides—both those in government and in civilian life. This end will be achieved through joint effort, compromise and agreement on solutions and end points. Given the positive record of collaboration and partnership since 2007, it would be foolish, and indeed disgraceful, not to carry through to the completion of the task.
Some commentators on the U.S. side ask: When will it be done? Given the size and the complexity of the Agent Orange/dioxin legacy and the Vietnamese concern about it, it is an understandable question. There is no simple answer, nor one that will satisfy each and every person.
The best solution is to figure out now what a vigorous and substantial commitment would be that could dramatically alter the life circumstances of many affected individuals and families. If that sum is properly expended and the partnership remains strong, perhaps the end will then be achieved or in sight. The clean up of the remaining dioxin at the Bien Hoa airbase will take a decade, and U.S. health/disabilities assistance should continue during that time. It is very difficult to estimate the costs. But if the U.S. spends $100 million each year for the next ten years—half for Bien Hoa and half for health/disabilities assistance—significant progress will be made.
For more information see https://www.aspeninstitute.org/programs/agent-orange-in-vietnam-program/
Former Ford Foundation executive Dr. Charles Bailey has spent most of his forty-year career working tirelessly to unite the U.S. and Vietnam on the Agent Orange issue, to dissolve the disconnect on this issue and to spark a sharp focus on it. Extraordinary advances have been made as a result of his work, but there is still a decade’s worth of work to be done. Dr. Bailey continues to bring attention to this crisis via his new book, From Enemies to Partners: Vietnam, the U.S. and Agent Orange (Feb. 28, 2018, G. Anton Publishing), which he co-authored with Vietnam-based activist Dr. Le Ke Son.