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.
“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.
The Vietnamese air force, troops and civilians went into action with Russian-supplied surface-to-air missiles, anti-aircraft guns and MiG-21 fighter planes. Technological dwarfs compared to the high-tech savagery coming from the sky, determination nevertheless paid off.
The legendary General Vo Nguyen Giap, who had led the defeat of French colonialism at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, made a stirring speech calling on the people to “Give the US Air Force a `Dien Bien Phu' right over Hanoi".
And that's what happened. The defenders shot down 81 US warplanes, including 34 B-52s, until then considered invulnerable.
Far from viewing the January 1973 Paris accords as a disastrous compromise imposed on them by the 1972 Christmas bombing campaign, the Vietnamese saw it then, and see it now, as a victory imposed on the US by their resistance. Whatever the text of the accords, the withdrawal of US forces from their country meant a fatal weakening of the puppet regime in Saigon.
Without massive on-the-ground US military backing, the Saigon regime was completely unable to stand up to the resistance movement's offensive in 1975. It took only eight weeks from the launching of that offensive in Vietnam's central highlands to the final victory of the NLF and the Vietnam People's Army on April 30, 1975.
On signing the Paris accords, the US agreed to provide $3.5 billion in reparations — more than $35 billion in today's inflated dollars. It hasn't even come through with a penny.
For years, Western “experts" lamented the economic woes of Vietnam under Communist leadership, and have heralded the economy's rapid growth since the introduction of the “free market” in 1989. Yet few of these “experts" noticed that war and embargo only ended in 1989 — the 1990s were Vietnam's first decade of peace since 1940.
It is incalculable what could be done if such an entirely justifiable, and probably underestimated, reparations bill had been paid. Even a small amount of it could bring about a tremendous difference to the lives of those suffering from US chemical warfare.
“Tran Minh Nguyet sits immobile, her stunted legs hidden by a long shirt", according to Vietnam News. “Her young brother is lost in his own world, oblivious of what is going on around him." When Dr Nhan from the Hue Medical School, which raises funds from foreign donations, brought her a wheelchair, “her face turned radiant. `Now I can help my father', she says. Like other children with disabilities, she wants desperately to feel useful."
A simple wheelchair may not seem much, but providing wheelchairs for hundreds of thousands of injured people is well beyond the Vietnamese government's means. It does what it can — various treatment and rehabilitation programs, ``peace villages'' for many affected children to help them adapt, some interest-free loans, orphanages and US$7 a month for each affected person.
The US, however, has its priorities elsewhere — wreaking devastation on a country already reduced to food rationing by a 12-year-old trade blockade.
If it seems inexplicable to many people why the US would be gearing up to murder hundreds of thousands more people in Iraq, then perhaps a desperate desire to reverse the long-term restrictions on its global power caused by the defeat the Vietnamese workers and peasants inflicted on it in 1975 is part of the answer.
[Donations to aid Vietnam's Agent Orange victims can be made to the National Fund for Vietnamese Children, 35 Tran Phu Street, Hanoi, Vietnam; email:
From Green Left Weekly, March 12, 2003