Killing Me Softly: How Agent Orange Murders Vietnam's Children


The US war on Vietnam has been the subject of controversy. The unprovoked invasion of Vietnam after assisting the French in an attempt to preserve their frustrated effort to defend colonialism, the installation of a dictator in the southern part of a fraudulently partitioned country and the use of cluster bombs, napalm and other weapons make fascinating intellectual debate. The debate, however, takes on a more somber mood when the victims of the war continue to march on the world stage to remind us that for millions the war did not end in 1975. A stark example of this is the enormity of those casualties from the use of Agent Orange.

The use of Agent Orange during the Vietnam war violated a number of international conventions and related agreements. With full knowledge of its implications, its inhumane consequences and its insidious effects, the US government used the deadly poison dioxin. It was a desperate attempt by Washington in collusion with US corporations to harm enemy combatants, innocent civilians and the cause of Vietnamese liberation.

The real experts on Agent Orange are the victims, and a clear understanding of the issue may be seen through their eyes. A few of them live in an isolated mountain hamlet, not visited by many outsiders.

Nguyen Thi Thach lives in Que Lam hamlet, Que Son District, Quang Nam Province. She was five years old when the war ended. The man she eventually married about 15 years ago was 12 when the war ended. He was from Dien Ban, near My Son in Quang Nam Province. Their memories of the war were childhood memories, shrouded in the innocence of childhood and the fear, confusion and chaos of adults attempting to cope with war.

Thach and her husband hoped for a prosperous and peaceful future. He worked in the gold mine at Phuoc Son, with no knowledge of the massive quantities of Agent Orange sprayed there. He drank the water and labored in the soil. The spraying over their communities was not an issue that they understood. Their focus was making a living, sharing a relationship and creating a family. In 1992, their first child, Thang, was born, followed in 1997 by their son Tung. He suffered severe developmental disabilities. In 2000, their daughter Vy was born. She was severely disabled and failed to develop physically. Tung and Vy spent their days and nights lying next to each other, unable to develop normally, gain weight or communicate with others. As any caring mother, Thach sensed their pain and discomfort.

Five years ago, Thach’s husband died in a traffic accident. Since his family was unwilling to assist Thach and her three children, she returned to rural Que Lam Hamlet, where her sick, elderly mother lived on the banks of the Song Thu Bon river. Thach gathered firewood to support her children, lived in a small shack and desperately tried to provide food and clothing for her children. Thang soon stopped going to school in order to care for her disabled brother and sister while her mother worked.

Thach heard of the work being done both to provide some aid to Agent Orange disabled children and their families and of the opportunity to tell people in the US about it. I received her letter in May 2004:

…My name is Nguyen Thi Thach and I was born in 1970. I am living in Que Lam, Que Son, Quang Nam. I was born and raised up in the area where the US troops had dumped lots of chemicals. We were not aware of the effects of these deadly chemicals. So we continued to eat and drink all of the contaminated vegetables and water. Since then, I have begun having diarrhea, headaches, dizziness, ulcerous skin and arthritis. My parent was also affected by AO and he passed away at early age. I married in 1991. My first daughter, Nguyen Thi Thang, was born in 1992. She is a normal and healthy kid. My second son, Nguyen Son Tung, was born in 1997. His head is very soft, he has seizures all the time, and his muscles are atrophying. He cannot recognize anyone or anything. My third child, Nguyen Thi Vy, was born on July 10, 2000. She is experiencing the same symptoms as her brother. My family life is very difficult now. My hope is that my letter will be read by humanitarian organizations and caring individuals. Prof. Hermann, please forward my letter to the companies that produced Agent Orange. Tell them that they must assume the responsibilities for what they have caused to my family and millions of other Vietnamese families. Thank you.

Little Vy died in January 2005. Neighbors made a coffin and buried her tiny, emaciated body near the small, dilapidated shack that served as the family home. Thach reported that Tung seemed to respond in small ways when he would lie next to his little sister at night. These ended when Vy died and were replaced by slight, plaintive moans. Almost unnoticed seizures began, followed by recurrent bleeding from his ears and frequent fevers. The family had little food, no cooking pans and no blankets for the cold mountain nights. The wind would blow through the holes in the walls of their one-room house, and the rain would turn the dirt floor to mud, as Thach and her young daughter desperately tried to help themselves and Tung survive.  Tung was taken recently to a hospital in Tam Ky because of his increased hemorrhaging and a growing severity of his seizures. He was diagnosed with a brain tumor. The Danang/Quang Nam Fund, a small US non governmental organization (NGO), had provided repairs for their home, food, clothing and some money to allow the mother to care for Tung while Thang returned to school. The three of them traveled to the hospital in Tam Ky. The NGO assisted with medical care.

The doctors spoke of brain surgery but finally concluded that Tung’s severe disabilities and fragile condition precluded such an operation. They traveled back to their mountain hamlet to continue their daily struggle, to share their love for each other and to await the certainty of Tung joining his sister Vy. After the NGO gave the mother some money before they had left Tam Ky for the journey home, Thach asked her daughter if she would like to have new clothes, a first for the child. Thang began to cry. Her mother asked her why she was crying when offered new clothes. Thang said, “I don’t want you to use my brother’s medicine money for my clothes.” The child had mistakenly thought the money was intended for Tung’s drugs.

Thach’s family is one among millions. Read the 4,000 letters from Vietnamese families affected by Agent Orange at One mother states, “We have continued to cry orange tears since the war.” Confronted by insurmountable disabilities, unable to join in the economic progress of their nation, prevented from what seems an inevitable consequence of the invaders’ willingness to win at any cost, many ascribe their situation to be a result of fate. Many harbor no hatred for the US, but rather believe that fate caused exposure to these deadly chemicals.

The courage and heroism of the victims and their families cannot be emphasized enough. Each day is filled with a lack of hope, reminders in many cases that their family ancestry will end with their death, a struggle providing the necessities of life and an acceptance of their plight. There are many more people in Vietnam and across the globe each day, however, who are beginning to be involved in replacing tears with smiles and hopelessness with hope.

While Agent Orange is named after the orange stripe on the 55-gallon metal drums in which it was shipped, there were also other herbicides used during the war. This insidious rainbow of colors included Agent White, Agent Green, Agent Purple and Agent Pink, each based on a different compound containing the deadly poison dioxin. First authorized by President Kennedy, the US military sprayed them in Vietnam from 1962 to 1971. The Saigon regime continued to use the toxins supplied by the US until the end of the war in 1975. The term Agent Orange came to be a generic reference for all such herbicides. These were sprayed for general defoliation, grassy plant control, rice destruction, crop destruction and forest defoliation.

The effects of the chemicals, however, were no mystery to Washington. In a classified report submitted to Secretary Derwinski of the Department of Veterans Affairs on May 5, 1990, Admiral E.R. Zumwalt Jr., who was acting as a special assistant to the secretary concluded that the US corporations that manufactured Agent Orange not only knew that the herbicide was dangerous but actually falsified their research in an attempt to show that the chemical was less dangerous than they knew it was. He notes in the report:

Dow Chemical, a manufacturer of Agent Orange, was aware as early as 1964 that TCDD was a byproduct of the manufacturing process. According to Dow’s then medical director, Dr. Benjamin Holder, extreme exposure to dioxins could result in “general organ toxicity” as well as “psychopathological” and “other systemic” problems.

The report states Dow knew of the threat to humans posed by Agent Orange years before the US military build up in Vietnam. It also notes that US government agencies conducted research on Agent Orange in such a skewed manner as to make it appear harmless. The Zumwalt report notes “dioxin is regarded as one of the most toxic chemicals known to man.”

During the war, many people understood some of the dangers and protested the use of Agent Orange. Congressman Robert W. Kastenmeier urged discontinuing the use of herbicides in Vietnam, a demand echoed by an editorial in the Washington Post. In 1967, Dr. Arthur W. Galston, often referred to as the man who discovered dioxin in 1943, joined with other scientists to plead with Washington not to use Agent Orange in Vietnam. The Federation of American Scientists, members of the National Academy of Sciences, 17 Nobel laureates, the Rand Corporation and others urged terminating this form of chemical warfare. In fact, in 1969, United Nations Resolution No. 2603-A declared that the use of chemical agents in a manner used by the US in Vietnam was a violation of the 1925 Geneva Protocol, a war crime. The UN General Assembly passed this resolution by a vote of 80 to 3.

After Lyndon Johnson assumed the presidency, he ordered an increase in the use of herbicides. In 1968, Dr. Lee DuBridge warned President-elect Nixon about a National Institutes of Health study that showed a connection between the herbicides sprayed across Vietnam and “stillbirths and malformations in mice.” Yet by 1970, 200,000 gallons a month of Agent Orange were being used. “Defense Secretary Melvin Laird considered curtailing the use of such herbicides,” says historian C.B. Currey, “but General Creighton Abrams, commander in Vietnam, and his boss, Admiral John S. McCain, Jr., Commander-in-Chief, Pacific, as well as Admiral Thomas H. Moorer, acting Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reaffirmed the necessity for its use.”

During the war, US soldiers were exposed to Agent Orange. Over 400,000 veterans have since been tested for related health problems. US soldiers typically spent one year in Vietnam, and many were exposed to spraying only once or twice during their tour of duty. Some were exposed more than others, especially those doing the spraying. The US government agreed to pay compensation to veterans with the presumption that Agent Orange contributed to the development of a variety of medical conditions. These veterans receive between $112 and $2,393 each month, depending on the degree of disability. Many others were compensated from a settled lawsuit brought by veterans against the chemical corporations that developed Agent Orange. The US government still refuses, however, to assume any responsibility for the victims of Agent Orange in Vietnam. It even refuses to accept research findings that show a severe problem in Vietnam, resulting from the millions of gallons of dioxin sprayed and dumped on that nation and its people. While US soldiers on the whole were only briefly exposed, millions of Vietnamese never left, eating food from the soil and fish from lakes and river and coping with the enduring effects. Washington’s refusal to admit the contradiction in recognition and denial of responsibility goes beyond insult.

Amid great publicity in 2001, the US government announced the beginning of an era of cooperation in researching the connection between Agent Orange and the millions of disabled in Vietnam. US and Vietnamese scientists prepared to join in a scientific investigation that promised to help children like Tung and their families. After a few years of negotiating protocols and process, the US National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences terminated the research effort in January 2005 before it had begun.

Meanwhile, volunteer US attorneys filed a lawsuit in a US district court on behalf of Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange seeking reparations from the manufacturers. The judge assigned to the case was the same judge who presided over the US veterans’ lawsuit against the manufacturers of Agent Orange, which had ended in favor of the veterans. The judge dismissed the lawsuit that sought assistance for the Vietnamese, saying that he found no evidence linking Agent Orange exposure to disabilities suffered by the Vietnamese.

At present, however, the US government agrees with Dow Chemical and its fellow corporations: either Agent Orange is relatively harmless or the disabilities suffered by the Vietnamese have no connection with Agent Orange. But those suffered by US veterans do. They apparently conclude the people from these two countries belong to different species and respond to dioxin in different ways.

Tung and the other children and their families continue to wait in a desperate attempt to survive until tomorrow. Is this fate or a blatant disregard for human rights and simple justice by the US government and US corporations?

The dangers of dioxin are well known to the scientific community. It is classified, with a special comment about Agent Orange by the World Health Organization, as a major cancer causing substance. A variety of studies show a direct link between health problems and exposure to dioxin and the chemical known as Agent Orange. Some of these studies have been conducted without collaboration among scientists from many nations. It would be useful to bring together these scientists to advocate for increased cooperation by the US government and by the United Nations. International cooperation in the emerging avian flu threat is an example of how such cooperation might proceed.

Past prohibitions by the US government prevented assistance for the disabled in Vietnam. According to Currey, they found themselves facing “obstacles…by various agencies of the US government acting on orders of successive American presidents; Ford, Carter, Reagan, and Bush – they have all obstinately refused to allow direct aid or shipment of goods to Vietnam.” Aid organizations now operate relatively freely. NGO’s and other private sector aid efforts in Vietnam often operate in a focused yet individual approach. While their forms of aid (medical care, education, direct aid, housing, etc.) may be specialized with a concern for assisting with such specialized needs, their aid is usually related to problems experienced by an identified client system. Networking among aid organizations operating in Vietnam, with a view toward assisting Agent Orange victims, might increase both the amount of aid provided to these persons and also broaden the scope of such aid, including an ongoing cooperative approach to aid provision with such organizations as the Vietnam Red Cross, Vietnam Association of Victims of Agent Orange Association and other Vietnamese organizations. This partnership and cooperative networking could provide an improved comprehensive approach to services for Agent Orange victims.

Advocacy for these victims in the US has increased recently. Such efforts should involve politicians and professionals from many fields. Since 2000, the SUNY Brockport Vietnam Program has brought university students into direct contact with Agent Orange victims in Danang and in Quang Nam Province. Their 18 weeks of service to these victims provides not only an educational experience but also an opportunity to lend aid and assistance. In addition, they bring newfound knowledge and commitment back to the US. Vietnamese organizations that work cooperatively with these foreign programs should also urge involvement in helping the victims of Agent Orange.

The US government’s denial of responsibility for the damage done to Vietnam and its people might be framed as a human rights violation – the indiscriminate use of weapons of mass destruction in a manner that injured non-combatants and continues these injuries to this day. Greater involvement by human rights organizations across the globe to pressure the US to remediate the problem is important. Public pressure in the US on the government to admit its responsibility and compensate Vietnamese victims might help end the embarrassment the US experiences as it wages war because of non existing weapons of mass destruction in Iraq while denying the use of chemical warfare in Vietnam.

Vietnam has won the struggle for liberation from foreign imperialism. It now faces the challenge of seeking liberation from the vestiges of imperialism. If history teaches us anything, we know with certainty that the Vietnamese will someday look back at Agent Orange as a painful chapter in its history, but a chapter in which the strength of its people provided ability over disability. Tung and the millions of other little victims of Agent Orange are teachers. They teach us all about perseverance, courage, strength and love.

I thank them for this lesson.