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Enemies to Partners
By Alan Batten (reviewer)
From Enemies to Partners, Vietnam, the US and Agent Orange
By Le Ke Son and Charles R. Bailey
(G. Anton Publishing LLC, 2017)
Agent Orange is one of the two great legacies of the Vietnam War that continues to kill or sicken Vietnamese, the other being unexploded ordnances. Between 1961 and 1970, 19.5 million gallons of Agent Orange and other herbicides were sprayed over 10,160 square miles of what was then South Vietnam. Agent Orange is essentially a mixture of 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T, which are potent herbicides affecting broad-leaved plants (dicots). Neither chemical is supposed to be toxic to animals. The real danger to people comes from dioxins that are present as contaminants in 2,4,5-T.
Dioxins are one of the most potent toxins known to man, with contamination on the order of a few parts per TRILLION capable of causing severe health and reproductive problems. To meet the high demand for Agent Orange by the US military, the chemical companies developed faster ways of producing it.
Unfortunately, these faster ways produced substantially more dioxin contaminants than the older, slower production methods. The chemical companies were well aware (as were high-level government officials who oversaw buying the stuff) that dioxins are extremely dangerous, but the tainted products were willingly sold by the chemical companies and willingly purchased by the military anyway.
Son and Bailey's book lays out in clear detail the history and current status of Agent Orange/dioxin in Vietnam, and what the United States and Vietnam are both, separately and together, doing about it. Their book also provides a road map for what is still needed.
Extensive testing of soils and waters in the sprayed areas in Vietnam reveal that very little dioxin remains in those areas (levels are far below US and Vietnamese standards requiring remediation). An exception is in an area near Kon Tum. Dioxins are stable to most chemicals, but break down in the presence of sunlight. Presumably, the dioxins in the sprayed areas have been broken down by sunlight (or have been washed deep into sediments or out to sea). Soils at three former US bases (Phu Cat, Da Nang airport, and Bien Hoa), where Agent Orange was stored and handled, remain seriously contaminated with dioxins. This has been a serious issue since runoff from these areas has contaminated nearby bodies of water that local Vietnamese depend on for food. At Phu Cat, the contaminated soil has been pushed into a holding area isolated from the water table and is no longer a threat to the local population. At Da Nang airport, the US provided major funding for eliminating the dioxins in contaminated soils by heating it to the point that dioxins break down. This massive project was completed successfully in 2018, reducing dioxin levels far below environmental standards. Bien Hoa is by far the largest contaminated area. The US has committed money toward cleaning it up and preliminary work has been started. Indications are that the US will continue to support this effort through completion.
American veterans had a long, hard road getting official recognition that exposure to dioxins lead to severe health problems. Now, the Veterans Administration recognizes at least 17 diseases and conditions to be associated with exposure to Agent Orange when they occur in Vietnam veterans. Vietnam also lists 17 diseases and conditions, 14 of which are also on the US list. There is no way to know accurately how many Vietnamese (not to mention Laotians and Cambodians) were exposed to Agent Orange, but it amounted to at least several million during the war. The 2009 Vietnam census estimated that there were 6.1 million disabled Vietnamese. Approximately 10% to 15% (600,000 to 900,000) of them meet criteria associating their disabilities with exposure to Agent Orange/dioxin, either directly or indirectly through an ancestor who was exposed. The Vietnamese have institutions in place to support families of the victims, but at a minimal level and mostly in population centers. In recent years, USAID has made substantial contributions to Vietnamese agencies supporting victims, as have private charities.
The United States has never admitted responsibility for Agent Orange/dioxin contamination in Vietnam, or for the victims of that contamination. It is afraid of the potential financial and diplomatic repercussions of such an admission, and, frankly, I don't believe it wants to face the shame that such an admission would imply. However, the US does respond to humanitarian concerns, especially if it can take credit for being a good guy without having to admit that it caused the problems in the first place.
The Vietnamese have been very persistent in making it clear that some resolution of the Agent Orange problem is necessary for relations between the two countries to improve. The Ford Foundation has been an important player, contributing critical diplomacy and seed money. American veterans organizations provided moral leadership and led the way in contributing money (drops in the bucket, but important) in support of Vietnamese Agent Orange victims. They helped publicize the issue by bringing Agent Orange victims to America to testify before Congress and speak to Americans. Senator Pat Leahy of Vermont has provided leadership in Congress and has worked tirelessly to get money appropriated to Vietnam to address war legacy issues.
This book is an excellent summary of the current state of the complex Agent Orange issue in Vietnam and contains plenty of ammunition for educating the American public and Congress about the importance of mitigating our legacy of death and destruction there.
Alan Batten was with the 34th Engineering Battalion at Phu Loi in 1968-69.