Vietnam War: The Tragic Fallout of the US’s Agent Orange in Contemporary US-Vietnam Relations
The article elaborates on the crucial impacts of Agent Orange, a chemical used by the United States of America during the Vietnam War which not only has health implications but it is a deciding factor in the present US-Vietnam relations.
Image by WikimediaImages from Pixabay
The controversy surrounding the United States' (US) use of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War has factored into today’s Vietnam-US relations. Agent Orange is a defoliant containing a high level of dioxin TCDD, which severely impacts human health. Under Operation Ranch Hand, the US Air Force sprayed millions of gallons of it across South Vietnam, currently the southern part of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (Sills, 2014; Zierler, 2011). After the war ended on April 30, 1975, the footprint of this toxic substance remains evident throughout southern Vietnam today (Giang et al., 2022; Yamashita & Trinh, 2022).
For the US, the war in Vietnam caused disagreements and conflicts among the American public and resolving them was a difficult task (Hyner, 2016; Tinh, 2020). For the Vietnamese, however, the legacies of war were more profound and transgenerational. Vietnamese citizens living in the former war zones today continue to suffer from the long-lasting health impacts of Agent Orange exposure, such as miscarriages, disabilities, and other forms of health disease (Le et al., 2022). Furthermore, the ecosystems and Vietnamese wildlife in the affected areas continue to be degraded by contamination caused by dioxin (Truong & Dihn, 2021).
As this year marks the 57th anniversary of the Vietnam War, this article attempts to highlight the enduring consequences of the war in contemporary Vietnam and to reiterate the importance of ongoing efforts by the US to address the socio-environmental repercussions of Agent Orange. By doing so, it is hoped that this will help to reinforce and restore Vietnam-US relations in the coming years.
Agent Orange and the Vietnam War: the beginning of long decades of suffering
The Vietnam War was one of the most catastrophic conflicts in modern history, lasting from 1955 to 1975. Following North Vietnam’s guerrilla warfare against the South in 1954, the US was immensely involved in the war, backing the South Vietnamese forces against the North. To achieve its military goals, US forces employed a fused mix of tactics, including the use of Agent Orange.
Referred to as American chemical warfare, the US weaponization of herbicides in the war was conducted by the US Air Force under the code-name Operation Ranch Hand. Having been approved by former President John F. Kennedy in 1961, the US military sprayed Agent Orange across far-reaching swathes of the Vietnamese farmlands and forests, aiming at destroying the enemy’s ambush sites and clearing dense vegetation around the US bases (Wilcox, 2011). According to Stellman and Stellman (2018), approximately 366 kilograms of pure dioxin were sprayed, and up to 4.8 million civilians were exposed to the toxic substance.
Source: Glass, A. (2019, January 18). [a picture of a U.S. Air Force C-123 sprayed herbicides on dense forests]. POLITICO. https://www.politico.com/story/2019/01/18/us-launches-operation-ranch-hand-jan-18-1962-1102346
Consequently, this highly dioxin-concentrated substance destroyed large swathes of forests, crops, and agricultural lands and contaminated lakes and rivers across Vietnam’s countryside (Dung, 2022; Truong & Dihn, 2021). This also had adverse impacts on human health, with millions of Vietnamese and US veterans suffering from exposure to Agent Orange (Stellman & Stellman, 2018). Moreover, it is evident that around one-third of Vietnamese villagers were displaced from their lands during the US’ attempt to rid support for the resistance movement (Hyner, 2016).
This herbicide warfare was suspended in April 1970, though President Richard Nixon’s administration had already received research about the deleterious effects of Agent Orange on human health, only taking action after they were compelled to disclose it. (Zierler, 2011). As the following section will elaborate, the multifaceted consequences of Agent Orange remain persistent in Vietnam today.
Vietnam’s hidden wounds: The lingering socio-environmental effects of Agent Orange in today’s Vietnam
Decades after the end of the Vietnam War, American chemical warfare has left millions of Vietnamese and US veterans with ramifications on their health and continues to have a ripple effect on the environment in the affected areas to this day. Hynes (2016) highlighted the cause of the persistent contamination of Agent Orange across the South of Vietnam, noting that the extremely virulent Agent Orange dioxin strain known as TCDD remains present in the environment of Vietnam. Dioxin, which is washed into nearby ponds during tropical rainstorms, has a half-life of 100 years in pond sediment (p. 118).
Source: Hitchens, C. (2007, March 26). [a picture of victims of American chemical warfare]. Vanity Fair. https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2006/08/hitchens200608
Concentrated primarily on women and children, a growing body of studies has demonstrated the apparent correlations between exposure to dioxin in Agent Orange and the following conditions in both Vietnamese citizens and former US veterans who were involved in the war: congenital defects and abnormalities of the reproductive system, muscle malformations, paralysis, mental impairments, various cancers, skin conditions, cardiovascular disease mortality, and hypertension (Giang et al., 2022; Le et al., 2022; Stellman & Stellman, 2018; Tuyet & Johansson, 2001; Yamashita & Trinh, 2022). Having interviewed 30 Vietnamese women who were exposed to Agent Orange, Tuyet and Johansson (2001) found that the women experienced a significant number of miscarriages and premature births. Nearly 70 per cent of their offspring were born with birth defects or acquired disabilities within the first few years of their lives. Recent studies on Vietnamese ethnic minorities by Yamashita and Trinh (2022) found that female residents of high-intensity Agent Orange-sprayed areas are more likely to report a serious impairment in their hearing, mobility, or memory than female residents of unaffected areas. Similarly, Le et al. (2022) demonstrate that exposure to Agent Orange has had a significant impact on the prevalence of illness among Vietnamese civilians, particularly regarding blood pressure and mobility.
Furthermore, the hidden cost of Agent Orange is also evident in the degraded environment across Vietnam’s countryside, often conceptualised as “ecocide”. Having been coined by Yale University’s professor Arthur Galston, this conception has helped delegitimise the initial US claim of not using Agent Orange to harm the Vietnamese during the war (Dung, 2022). Previous studies also identified several environmental repercussions of Agent Orange. Olson and Morton (2019) indicated that the use of Agent Orange has resulted in the contamination of Vietnam’s soil and sediment. Through runoff, erosion and landslides, the spread of dioxin would lead to changes in soil nutrient levels and the landscape's topographical features. As a result of these vegetative changes, forest canopies and grasslands have been exposed, now only supporting a limited number of low-value grasses and invasive trees. Moreover, Truong and Dihn (2021) raised concerns that the use of Agent Orange has had adverse impacts on biodiversity and soil organisms, including earthworms, centipedes, and ants. These effects may result in disturbances to the balance of soil fertility and carbon sequestration processes.
These illustrations have proven that Agent Orange still has lingering effects on the Vietnamese citizens and the ecosystems in Vietnam nowadays. To compensate the victims of the war, the US is presently increasing its efforts to mitigate these socio-environmental repercussions, mainly through financial assistance. This will be discussed in the next part.
Forging a stronger path of Vietnam-US relations in years to come
Over half a century after the Vietnam War ended, mitigating the remnants of the war has been among the top priority for the US and Vietnam. However, it was not until 2007 that the US helped finance Vietnam’s initiatives such as the Vietnam Association of Victims of Agent Orange (VAVA) and “Peace Villages” to compensate for the victims of Agent Orange (Dung, 2022; Hynes, 2016; Tihn, 2020).
To exemplify this, the US has provided financial assistance to Vietnam’s dioxin remediation programmes, including the programs that help Vietnamese with disabilities in the heavily affected areas (Dung, 2022). Similarly, American veterans who were involved in the war raised funds for the Peace Villages not only to remedy their spiritual wounds but also to assist the victims of the war (Hynes, 2016).
Several positive developments in coping with the socio-environmental consequences of Agent Orange are evident nowadays. Finished in 2018, the joint project of cleanup of Da Nang airport, for instance, resulted in the remediation of circa ninety thousand cubic metres of soil and sediments contaminated by dioxins (Tihn, 2020). For the US and Vietnam to strengthen their relations, their continuous synergies in addressing the socio-environmental impacts of Agent Orange are quintessential.
Decades after the Vietnam War ended, Vietnamese citizens living in the former war zones still suffer from the enduring perilous effects of American Agent Orange. These war remnants remain one of the most crucial determinants of Vietnam-US relations. To buttress their concerns, the two nations must continue to collaborate on addressing these Agent Orange legacies. Not only could this endeavour serve as an example for other countries which currently suffer from persistent war legacies but it also emphasises that trust is a pre-requisite for a long-lasting and lively relationship, even between erstwhile adversaries.
This article represents the views of contributors to STEAR's online digital publication and not those of STEAR, which takes no institutional positions.
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