An unprecedented meeting in Hanoi, Vietnam, March 28-29, proved that wounds from the Vietnam War are still open and bleeding three decades after that conflict supposedly ended. It was the first International Conference of Victims of Agent Orange, and it attracted people from more than a dozen countries who are suffering the aftereffects of their exposure to Agent Orange, dioxin, and other toxic agents sprayed recklessly on Vietnam during the 10-year war.
The conference was sponsored by the Vietnam Association of Victims of Agent Orange (VAVAO).
David Cline, president of Veterans for Peace (VFP), led a delegation of five U.S. Vietnam veterans, including several who have suffered cancer and other dioxin-related illnesses or birth defects in their offspring which they blame on their exposure to Agent Orange. Cline told the World he is not an Agent Orange victim, but has struggled to recover from three wounds he sustained as a combat infantryman in Vietnam for which he received three Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star.
Still a burning issue
“This conference showed us that Agent Orange is not just a ‘blast from the past,’” Cline said in a phone interview. “A huge number of children in Vietnam are suffering birth defects and deformities from their parents’ exposure to Agent Orange and other chemical agents. The Vietnamese are asking: ‘How many generations will be facing these birth defects?’”
Cline denounced successive administrations in Washington for arrogantly rejecting any responsibility for this catastrophe inflicted on the Vietnamese people. When the U.S. and Vietnam established diplomatic relations, he said, “the promises made in the Paris Peace Agreement of extensive postwar aid were nullified. There would be no more legal claims against each other. But the people in Vietnam are still suffering. We want relief for all veterans, all victims of Agent Orange. There is a certain level of responsibility that our nation owes that nation.”
In his speech to the conference, Cline said the premature death from cancer of fellow Vietnam vets first alerted him that they had been exposed to some deadly toxins in Vietnam.
U.S. companies, gov’t liable
“While the chemical companies had responsibility and should be held liable, the primary responsibility lies with the U.S. government which ordered the continued use of these poisons” after they were known to be toxic, he told the conference. “Our demand has always been testing, treatment and compensation for Agent Orange victims” by the U.S. government.
Progress was made with passage of the Agent Orange Act in 1991 admitting that these chemicals cause a long list of diseases, he continued.
“Today the Bush administration has led our country and the world into another invasion and occupation, this time in Iraq, and is now using depleted uranium that will in time poison U.S. troops and Iraqi citizens,” Cline said. “They have also used white phosphorus bombs against whole cities like Fallujah. It is time for humanity to demand an end to these weapons as part of our efforts to abolish war.”
Both at the conference itself and in a tour of Vietnam after the conference, the U.S. delegation witnessed firsthand the vast human tragedy, meeting deformed children struggling to develop and live a normal life.
For Cline, it was a “homecoming,” in that the tour took them to Cu Chi, a town near Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) where he was deployed during the war and where thousands of children now are suffering from exposure to Agent Orange.
“Sometimes I thought to myself it would be merciful if they were to die because the deformities are so disabling,” he said. “But they have a whole movement going to help these children and their families live as close to a normal life as possible”
VAVOA is waging a struggle both inside Vietnam and internationally to obtain the resources needed to carry on this fight, including a lawsuit filed in the United States against the chemical companies that produced Agent Orange and dioxin.
VFP has fully backed VAVOA, sponsoring a 10-city tour of the U.S. last fall in which Vietnamese Agent Orange victims spoke to many thousands about their struggle. VFP’s web site features a VAVOA petition addressed to the president of the United States demanding that both he and the chemical corporations named in the lawsuit, including Dow Chemical and Monsanto, “accept their responsibilities for the damage caused by their actions and products” and “pay full compensation to the victims.”
So far nearly 700,000 people in the U.S. have signed the petition and more than 12 million Vietnamese have signed.
Reaching across generations
Another delegate to the Hanoi conference was Joan Duffy, who served as a U.S. Air Force nurse in Vietnam during the years 1969-70.
“I turned against the war while I was serving there,” she told the World in a phone interview from her home in Santa Fe, N.M. “Three months after I arrived, I looked around and asked myself, ‘What are we doing here?’ They [U.S. personnel] sprayed the perimeter of the base where I was deployed with dioxin twice a week to ward off infiltrators.”
In recent years Duffy has fought breast and ovarian cancer and her grandson was born with a bowel disorder that nearly took his life, a condition known to be linked to dioxin exposure.
“The legal presumption is that if you were anywhere in Vietnam, you were exposed to dioxin,” she said. “It has a half-life of between 50 and 100 years, and it is estimated that 3 million Vietnamese, mostly children, are ‘profoundly affected’ by exposure to these toxins.”
Cold shoulder from judge
Judge Jack Weinstein threw the VAVOA lawsuit out, rejecting their argument that Agent Orange was a weapon subject to the Geneva Conventions and their use against civilians was a war crime. Weinstein held that Agent Orange did not target people in Vietnam but was instead a “defoliant” aimed at Vietnam’s jungle.
“My rebuttal to that is that it wasn’t used simply to defoliate,” Duffy said. “It was a weapon to destroy food supplies. I don’t care what the intent was, the result is that it turned out to be a weapon. It violated so many international laws. With weapons, you try to limit their effect to combatants. But Agent Orange and dioxin affected millions of noncombatants during the war and continues to affect them today. This is a war crime.
“Agent Orange and dioxin are weapons of mass destruction,” she said. “What would you call a weapon used to starve people? If it quacks like a duck and waddles like a duck, it’s a damn duck!”
Duffy said she was deeply impressed by the superb organization of the conference held at the Ministry of Defense in Vietnam’s capital and by the stature of the participants, who included Vietnamese and international scientific experts on toxic chemical agents, a member of Parliament from New Zealand and top legal and medical experts in the field. It was covered extensively by the world media, although virtually ignored by the U.S. news media.
‘We must take responsibility’
During the conference they traveled to Friendship Village, built by the late George Mizo, a Vietnam veteran, to shelter hundreds of child victims of Agent Orange and dioxin.
“To see these children in person changes your life forever,” Duffy said. “They are so afflicted by such bizarre mutations. Yet the Vietnamese are doing a very good job of educating those who can be educated and stimulating children who are profoundly retarded.”
The experience, she said, strengthened her resolve to take action when she returned home. “Let’s hope we can make a difference in this year’s elections. Without a change in our nation’s political direction, I fear we are lost. Bush’s poll ratings go down, down. I just hope all those people who are angry and disillusioned get out and vote.”
Another delegate to the Hanoi conference was Dan Shea of Portland, Ore. He believes that his exposure to Agent Orange during his tour of duty in Vietnam cost him his son’s life.
“I tried to put the Vietnam War on the back shelf when I returned home, but my first child was born with a severe congenital heart defect,” Shea told the World. When his son reached age 3, heart surgery was performed. One day in 1981, he went into convulsions and fell into a coma.
“He died in my arms,” Shea said. “The war has a way of coming back to bite you. I never applied for any VA benefits. I didn’t want to have anything to do with them. I decided to devote the rest of my life to the search for peace and justice.”
Shea continued: “Going back to Vietnam was a healing process for me. I told the conference about the death of my child. People came up to me with tears in their eyes to say how sorry they were for my loss. And I was thinking about all the children they have lost. We need to take responsibility for what we did in Vietnam.”
Tim Wheeler (firstname.lastname@example.org) is national political correspondent for the People’s Weekly World.