Legacy of U.S. chemical warfare in Vietnam

John M Cox coxj at email.unc.edu
Tue Mar 18 11:52:10 MST 2003


VIETNAM: the terrible legacy of US weapons of mass destruction
BY MICHAEL KARADJIS

HANOI - "Several times, a large area was coated white. After a couple of
days
the leaves in the forest and the gardens turned yellow and fell off." This
is
how 50-year-old Nguyen Van Loc describes his first vision of a US chemical
attack on his village in the central Vietnamese province of Quang Tri
during the
US war against Vietnam.

For Loc, this vision lives on today not as an unpleasant memory but as
daily
devastation. His two surviving sons, aged nine and 13, were both born with
severe physical deformities and impaired intellects. His eldest son has
already
died.

They are among the estimated 1 million surviving victims of the longest
and most
horrific chemical war in history, launched by the United States against
the
people of southern Vietnam, which Washington claimed to be "saving from
communism", between 1961 and 1975.

The US dropped 72 million litres of the deadly defoliant Agent Orange on
the
south Vietnamese countryside to destroy forests, mangroves and crops. The
aim
was to crush the peasant resistance fighters of the National Liberation
Front,
who took cover in the forest, and to destroy the crops of the villagers
who
supported the resistance fighters.

The legacy of Washington's use of weapons of mass destruction lives on in
children and grandchildren. The deadly chemical dioxin present in the
defoliants
is passed on through blood and breast milk, while the water and soil of
significant parts of southern Vietnam remain contaminated, spreading
cancer and
other deadly diseases to local residents.

The majority of victims are helpless to look after themselves. Mere
survival is
an enormous, often unsuccessful, struggle. Most victim families are poor,
living
by working the fields. Often older relatives are needed to guide the
children's
every movement, as both parents must work. As the children grow up, they
are
unable to help in the fields.

US `still researching' effects

While the US is gearing up to spend billions of dollars to lay waste to
Iraq
with its latest weapons of mass destruction - under the guise of
safeguarding
the world from Iraq's mythical WMD - it has refused to provide a cent to
help
its Indochinese victims.

Officially, the US is "still researching" whether the chemical weapons it
used
in Vietnam are responsible for the enormous plague of cancers, other
deadly
diseases and horrific birth deformities present on a massive scale in the
regions most affected by them.

One study found that levels of dioxin in fatty tissues among people living
in
affected southern regions ranged between 14.7 and 103 parts per trillion,
compared to 0.6 among those in northern Vietnam. Another found that 5% of
Vietnamese veterans who had been active in heavily affected areas fathered
children with birth defects, compared to only 1% among veterans who had
remained
in the north.

Such "circumstantial" evidence is not enough for the US, which demands
"sound
scientific" evidence - which it has done nothing to help gather.

Testing is enormously expensive for Vietnam - to test a single tissue or
soil
sample costs around US$1000, and testing just one area would require
hundreds or
thousands of samples.

Despite a decade of rapid economic growth and poverty reduction which the
United
Nations Development Program sees as leading the developing world, Vietnam
remains a very poor country, due to 50 years of war, foreign invasion and
embargo. $1000 for one test is about 100 times the monthly pension the
government provides disabled veterans.

Yet following $200 million in research in the US, and campaigning by US
veterans' organisations, Washington agreed to compensation for thousands
of US
vets. They have qualified for diseases such as cancers, sarcomas, skin
diseases,
Hodgkin's disease and others. Up to $2000 a month can be awarded. Most US
vets
served for a year in Vietnam, while Vietnamese veterans and villagers were
fully
exposed for 10 years to Washington's chemical warfare.

At a recent meeting in Hanoi to launch a campaign to aid victims,
long-time
Vietnam resident Lady Borton of the American Friends' Service Committee
lashed
out at this double standard: "The US initiative to require `proof' that
Vietnamese are victims of Agent Orange dioxin poisoning is an outrage.
It's
racist. It's time consuming, expensive and wasteful. We already know
toxins
cause cancer. We already know toxins cause birth defects. While the US
shuns
this moral, humanitarian issue, there are families in need."

Borton described her first exposure to the horrors of US chemical warfare,
when
she visited a hospital in Ho Chi Minh City in 1983 and "saw the specimen
room
lined floor to ceiling, wall to wall with glass crocks, each containing a
molar
foetus or a full-term baby with alarming birth defects. The mothers had
all come
from sprayed areas."

A few years ago, the US periodical Mother Jones, after being refused an
interview with the US embassy in Hanoi, submitted eight written questions.
The
embassy issued "a terse, two-sentence response saying merely that the
United
States believes the Agent Orange issue should be addressed on a scientific
basis". The US ambassador, Pete Peterson, was widely seen among liberal
expatriate circles and some NGOs as some kind of "friend of Vietnam",
rather
than the stooge for imperial malevolence this response reveals him to be.

The US embassy's science and technology officer, Mike Eiland, stated that
"Agent
Orange is not at the top of our list", and suggested the periodical
instead
write a piece on US-Vietnam trade talks or the US soldiers "missing in
action",
of whom there remain a couple of thousand. The 300,000 Vietnamese MIAs
were,
until recently, completely ignored by the US.

Unexploded ordinance
"A 40-year-old man died and his wife were seriously injured in a warhead
explosion on October 1 in the central highlands of Gia Lai... Four
children were
seriously maimed in a B40 warhead explosion on September 21 in the central
coastal province of Nha Trang... A 28-year-old woman died and her husband
was
seriously maimed in a fragmentation bomb explosion on August 26 in the
central
province of Binh Thuan."

Perhaps the war is still raging? In fact, these reports are from 2002, a
mere
sprinkling of what is reported in the Vietnamese media every week.

Chemical warfare was only part of the war, during which the US also
dropped 15
million tonnes of bombs, three times that dropped in all theatres of World
War
II.

The legacy of these bombs and chemicals are three million people killed,
25
million bomb craters and the destruction of 2.2 million hectares of forest
and
half the country's mangroves.

An estimated 250,000 to 750,000 tonnes of ordinance is still lying around
the
Vietnamese countryside, much of it unexploded, alongside countless
millions of
land mines, covering 5-10% of the Vietnam's land area. Since the war ended
in
1975, 84,000 people have been killed by the US war legacy, often farmers
working
their fields.

The horrifically bombed central province of Quang Tri was the borderland
between
Communist-ruled North Vietnam and capitalist-ruled South Vietnam. Millions
of
unexploded bombs and mines cover 40% of Quang Tri's land area, severely
limiting
agricultural production in this dirt-poor region where per capita income
is
$217, half the national average. Three percent of all children in the
province
have been disabled by exploding ordinance.

Estimates of the number of disabled people in Vietnam range up to 7
million
people - 9% of the population. Three million are in dire need of
orthopaedic
surgery and artificial limbs. They are not all war victims, but the
inordinately
high numbers reflect the war legacy.

Until recently, the US ignored this legacy as whole-heartedly as its
chemical
devastation. Following US President Bill Clinton's visit to Vietnam in
2000, a
minuscule $3.5 million has been provided by Washington for the removal of
unexploded US bombs. This is less than the amount funded by the US Vietnam
Veterans Memorial Fund in 2001, drawn from donations and sympathetic war
veterans themselves, to merely carry out a survey of the problem. The VVMF
is
also funding a project to raise awareness of the dangers, and to help
disabled
victims with simple work skills training.

During the recent US war on Afghanistan, much was made of the destruction
of the
giant Buddha statues by the reactionary Taliban regime. While this was
rightly
condemned, US outrage was supreme hypocrisy.

During a 1972 offensive to reconquer Quang Tri, which had been liberated
by the
NLF, the US launched a monstrous attack on the historic palace in the town
centre, killing 10,000 defenders and completely destroying the monument -
and
much of the city. Similar numbers were killed when the US reconquered Hue
during
the NLF's 1968 Tet offensive, and a similar level of devastation was
wreaked on
the medieval citadel of the city, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

A little further south of Hue stand the ancient ruins of the
pre-Vietnamese Cham
civilisation in My Son, which has likewise received UNESCO heritage
status. This
temple complex, the Cham equivalent of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, was the
centre of
a 1000-year civilisation lasting from the 3rd to the 14th centuries.
Dozens of
the majestic towers were bombed into rubble by the US war machine.

The `Dien Bien Phu of the sky'
Recently, people in Hanoi commemorated 30 years since one of their darkest
moments, the infamous Christmas bombing campaign conducted by the US in
December
1972, in order to force the Vietnamese to sign a peace treaty that would
leave
intact Washington's puppet regime in Saigon.

For 12 days and nights, 1000 fighter-bombers and 200 B-52 heavy bombers
dropped
40,000 tonnes of bombs on Hanoi, killing 2368 civilians, destroying 5480
buildings, including houses, factories, schools, hospitals and railway
stations.

The Bach Mai hospital, Vietnam's biggest, was bombed, and the main
building
collapsed, killing medical staff and patients. On December 26, 1972, the
densely
populated Kham Thien street was carpet bombed, killing 287 people and
injuring
an equal number, completely destroying everything in the street.

While these events further revealed the barbarity of US imperialism and
drove
even larger numbers of horrified American civilians into the streets in
protest,
the incredible Vietnamese fightback was less visible....


full: http://www.greenleft.org.au - March 12 issue

John Cox
Chapel Hill, NC

"Read History and see
The headlong flight of invincible armies.
Wherever you look
Impregnable strongholds collapse and
Even if the Armada was innumerable as it left port
The returning ships
Could be numbered." Bertolt Brecht


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