Hanoi is demanding compensation from US manufacturers of the chemical defoliant Agent Orange, as a last resort to help families still suffering traumatic birth defects almost 50 years after the end of the Vietnam war.
From 1961 to 1971, the US dropped more than 75 million liters of Agent Orange and other herbicides over Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in what was then called Operation Ranch Hand, in a scorched-earth policy to strip the terrain of foliage and food supplies in an effort to defeat the Viet Cong.
During the 10 years of this operation, more than 2 million hectares of forest and 200,000 hectares of crops were heavily damaged or destroyed. The US Air Force sprayed about 95% of the chemical using the call sign “Hades,” and the remaining 5% was sprayed by the US Army’s 266th Chemical Platoon.
Dioxins are highly persistent in the environment, seeping into the soil, water supply, and food chain, contaminating fish, molluscs and fowl. As such, although the war has ended, new generations of the Vietnamese population continue to suffer from prolonged effects of the poison through the food supply as well as deformed children from genetic mutations passed on by their parents.
The Vietnam Association of Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin (VAVA) says more than 4.8 million people were exposed to the herbicide and 3 million of them suffered deadly diseases. Washington finally began to help Vietnam with cleanup efforts in 2012, starting with Danang International Airport, which used to be a US airbase that stored Agent Orange.
However, the Vietnamese are not the only ones demanding compensation – American veterans of the Vietnam War suffering from the poison have also sought compensation from the US government.
Almost 30 years ago, then-US senator Tom Daschle sponsored the Agent Orange Act of 1991 to study the linkage between diseases and exposure to dioxin and other chemical compounds in herbicides. In 2015, the Department of Veterans Affairs paid US$24 billion in disability compensation to 1.3 million Vietnam War veterans.
However, Vietnam itself has not received compensation for similar damages. Despite the fact that its government purposely filed its claim against a company (Monsanto) rather than proceeding with a state-to-state filing, in order to preserve the stable bilateral ties between Hanoi and Washington in recent years, the legacy of Agent Orange remains a thorny issue.
It is likewise a thorny issue between Washington and Vientiane, as Laos was also a target of chemical spraying in Operation Ranch Hand. While the US has established programs to address the Agent Orange issue in Vietnam, there have not been similar programs to aid the people of Laos, though when then-US president Barack Obama visited Vientiane in September 2016, Washington did offer aid for the cleanup of unexploded cluster bombs – another legacy of America’s “secret war” in Laos.
As covered in a previous Asia Times article, Laos holds the record for being the “most heavily bombed country per capita” – between 1964 to 1973 the US dropped more than 270 million tiny cluster “bombies” on the country.
Additionally, between 1965 and 1970, the US dropped at least 2 million liters of Agent Orange on southern Laos to defoliate the Ho Chi Minh Trail – the north-to-south supply route enabling North Vietnam to conduct its war in the South – and to deny food supplies to local Lao supporters along the Annamite mountain range.
Although the Vietnam War did not end until 1975, the US stopped using Agent Orange in 1971. Because of growing international opprobrium over the use of “poisonous spray” during the war, the new Richard Nixon administration announced a partial ban on the precursor 2,4,5-T on April 15, 1970, and the Pentagon shortly followed suit by banning all Agent Orange missions in Vietnam.
Today, Operation Ranch Hand and the Vietnam War long gone, but Laos remains a poor country while Vietnam has fared better economically. In Laos, the number of unexploded mines and other ordnance strewn throughout exceeds 80 million, which continue to kill, maim, and tragically keep the country in an impoverished state decades after the war.
Farmers are not able to use fertile land for agriculture nor develop the land for infrastructure, industry, or residential needs, while Vietnam faces similar problems in some parts of its country, with an estimated 350,000 tons of live bombs and mines remaining. It would take 300 years to clear them from the Vietnamese landscape at the current rate.
Thus for many people in these countries, the war is not yet over. And whether Hanoi will finally win compensation from Monsanto or prompt further US assistance to both Laos and Vietnam remains to be seen.
Finally, given that other chemical agents such as CS gas and napalm were very effective in fighting tunnel warfare during the war, and the increasing use of tunnels by jihadists in the Middle East, this may also prompt renewed debate on the balance between ethics and efficacy of chemical warfare in modern anti-terror operations.