The Vietnam War and Agent Orange are millennials’ problem too

The Vietnam war, also known as the Second Indochina War, took place in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos from November 1 1955 to April 30 1975.  If you were born in the 1980s, or later, your understanding of the Vietnam War may be relegated to your school history books, a classic film like Apocalypse Now, or simply something you hear those who grew up in the 1950s-1970s refer to with complex emotions. If you’re what is considered a millennial, like myself, Vietnam can be seen as a country the United States went to war with, lost to (although your United States history book may not frame it this way), and seemingly no longer has relations or ties with.

Nothing could be further from the truth. For just as the pasts of Vietnam and the United States are greatly intertwined, so is the present moment for both countries, and undoubtedly their future for a variety of reasons.

One thing that binds the two countries is the haunting legacy and continued ramifications of the effects of Agent Orange. The effect this tragedy has had on the people of Vietnam, and also the people of the United States, is not something that is over and done with.  Rather, it should be seen as an ongoing struggle, as activists fight for full recognition of its atrocities, and for the United States to acknowledge its true responsibility in the matter. It is a fight that many young people should know about, but unfortunately do not. After a 10 day trip to Vietnam, and a meeting with the Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange, it was made clear to this millennial that more people of my generation need to be made aware of this haunting history and the continuing struggle.  (story continues after video)

The History of the War

The war was fought between North Vietnam and South Vietnam. North Vietnam was supported by the Soviet Union and China, while South Vietnam was supported by the United States, Philippines, and other countries that did not agree with North Vietnam’s communist leanings.  

The North Vietnamese were led by the Vietnamese communist revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh. Ho Chi Minh was the president of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) from 1945-1969. Ho Chi Minh was on the forefront in the fight for Vietnam’s independence from colonial powers such as France and Japanese occupiers since 1919.

North Vietnam was fighting for a reunification of South and North Vietnam. The United States by 1954 was providing funding to the French in their attempt to put Vietnam back under French colonial rule. Once the French were defeated the United States undermined the mass elections to be held in Vietnam for fear that it would result in the rule of the Ho Chi Minh led Vietnam Communists Party under a unified government. From 1956 to 1960 the United States put in place and funded a Southern Vietnam dictator, Ngo Dinh Diem.

The United States became involved in the war between the different sides of Vietnam primarily from fear of what was then called the Domino Theory.  It is a theory that if one country is taken over by communism the nearby nations will be taken over one after another as well. The United States government feared that if Vietnam was allowed to be unified under the Vietnamese communist party it would not only influence other countries, but result in hostilities of those countries towards the United States. This could result in the hinderance on United States trade and other global business endeavors.

The Introduction of Agent Orange: Operation Ranch Hand

The war began in 1955 but in 1961 the United States, then under the presidency of John F. Kennedy, authorized the start of Operation Ranch Hand. This was part of the U.S military’s herbicidal warfare program. Agent Orange was the primary chemical used in this operation.  It was a powerful mixture of chemical defoliants to eliminate forest cover for North Vietnamese troops, as well as crops that might be used to feed them. The U.S. program of defoliation sprayed more than 19 million gallons of herbicides over 4.5 million acres of land in Vietnam from 1961 to 1972. During this process, crops and water sources used by the non-combatant peasant population of South Vietnam were also affected.

By 1969 it became widely known that the 2,4,5-T component of Agent Orange was contaminated with dioxin. Dioxin is a highly toxic chemical that can cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, interfere with hormones and also cause cancer.  

In April 1970, the U.S. government restricted use of 2,4,5-T, and therefore Agent Orange, in both Vietnam and the U.S. Under Operation “Pacer IVY” in 1970 the remaining barrels of Agent Orange were re-barreled and removed. 8.6 million liters of Agent Orange were destroyed by an incinerator ship in September 1977, in “Operation Pacer Ho.”

Yet, while the U.S. government was able to pack up and incinerate the unused liters of Agent Orange the damage was already done.  The continuing effects and ramifications of Operation Ranch Hand are still greatly felt today.

The fight for justice- A fourth generation at risk

According to the Vietnamese government, 4 million of its citizens were exposed to Agent Orange, and as many as 3 million have suffered illnesses or defects (including cleft palate, mental disabilities, hernias, cancers, etc) because of it- including the children of people who were exposed. The Vietnamese Red Cross has estimated that as many as one million people in Vietnam now have disabilities or other health problems associated with Agent Orange based on local studies.

The ramifications of Agent Orange are not just felt in Vietnam. According to the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, 2.4 million U.S. military personnel are believed to have been exposed to the chemical. In 1979 a class action lawsuit was filed on behalf of the 2.4 million veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange during their service in Vietnam. In 1985, in an out-of-court settlement, seven large chemical companies that manufactured Agent Orange agreed to pay $180 million in compensation to the veterans or their next of kin. This amount grew to $330 million, yet the fund was closed in 1997 after having given payment to only 52,000 American veterans and their families. The payments the families and veterans received being an average of only $3800.

And the effects are not only harming those that were alive during the time of the war. According to Nguyen Van Rinh, the president of the Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange, a fourth generation of young people, since the war, are being affected by the deadly toxin, as they still inhabit areas where the chemical was sprayed. “Victims of Agent Orange go as young as 3-5 years of age,” Nguyen explained to People’s World. “Many are in poverty and deal with many birth difficulties.”

Nguyen Van Rinh’s organization is part of an ongoing lawsuit against 37 U.S. companies (Dow Chemical and Monsanto Corporation were the primary manufacturers of Agent Orange) that participated in Operation Ranch Hand. The lawsuit was first filed in a New York federal court. The judge threw out the lawsuit claiming there was no legal basis for the victims’ claims.  Nguyen says that his association represents the more than three million Vietnamese victims. He explained that while the court refuses to acknowledge the lawsuit, (first filed in 2004), their association and other supporters will remain persistent. Nguyen cites the unfulfilled Paris Peace Accords, signed by then president Richard Nixon, in which President Nixon agreed to pay Vietnam $3.25 billion for reconstruction aid. “It has been forty years since the agreement was signed by Nixon and the United States has yet to comply,” Nguyen Van Rinh stated.

Here in the United States, the Victims of Agent Orange Relief Act of 2015 was introduced into Congress this past June, and is awaiting enactment. If enacted it would provide “medical, rehabilitative and social service compensation to the Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange, remediation of dioxin-contaminated “hot spots” and medical services for the children of U. S. Vietnam veterans and Vietnamese-Americans who have been born with the same diseases and deformities.” Yet, it should be noted, two similar bills were introduced in Congress in both 2011 and 2013, and neither were enacted.

A road forward- a need to join the fight

Although the grassroots organization the Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange runs various community programs throughout the country to support the victims of Agent Orange, it should not have to hold the full weight of the burden that this haunting legacy of chemical warfare has left behind.  Nor should the U.S. veterans and their families, still feeling the ramifications of their exposure to dioxin while serving in Vietnam, be left to deal with the health consequences alone.  The U.S. government, Dow Chemical , Monsanto Corporation, and the other 35 companies that made Agent Orange need to be held fully accountable for the damage their actions have inflicted.

Money alone won’t reverse the human and ecological casualties Agent Orange has dealt, but financial reparations would be a step in dealing with a dark part of history. Agent Orange’s impact is not only a footnote in high school textbooks, but a very real legacy that will not only affect millennials but the generation after us. We need to pressure Congress to finally enact the Victims of Agent Orange Relief Act of 2015, to fully compensate the U.S. veterans of the war, and make good on its initial agreement with Vietnam in the Paris Peace Accords of 1975. Not only this, but we need to fight for the United States to stop whitewashing the history of this war, Agent Orange, and the victims- both past, present, and possibly future as science has yet to determine how far the effects of this toxin can go. In an age of ever advancing technology and communications it is our duty to spread the word about these campaigns and struggles.

As Nguyen Van Rinh pointed out in our meeting, “It is very important that the young people know about the affects of Agent Orange, both in Vietnam and in the United States. For half of a century the Vietnamese people have been suffering from Agent Orange [created] by U.S. imperialism. This devastation is not in the past.”

You can get involved by making a call to Congress to put the pressure on for the Victims of Agent Orange Relief Act of 2015-2016 to be enacted. Visit here for more details.

Photo: Nguyen Thi Kieu Nhung sits inside her family home next to the Danang airbase in Danang, Vietnam on May 21, 2007.  |  David Guttenfelder/AP   


Chauncey K. Robinson
Chauncey K. Robinson

Chauncey K. Robinson is an award winning journalist and film critic. Born and raised in Newark, New Jersey, she has a strong love for storytelling and history. She believes narrative greatly influences the way we see the world, which is why she's all about dissecting and analyzing stories and culture to help inform and empower the people.