WASHINGTON - Thirty-five years after the end of the Vietnam War, a joint United
States-Vietnamese panel endorsed a 10-year, US$300 million "plan of action" to
deal with the deadly health and environmental legacy of the US military's
widespread use of Agent Orange during the conflict.
The US government, according to the panel, which included policymakers,
citizens and scientists, should provide most of the assistance, which would be
designed both to clean up more than two dozen sites in southern Vietnam where
contamination was particularly severe and to expand health and related care to
people affected by Agent Orange and other dioxin-based herbicides.
"We are talking about something that is a major legacy of the Vietnam War and a
major irritant in this important relationship," said Walter Isaacson, co-chair
of the bi-national group and
president of the Aspen Institute, which released the plan of action.
"The cleanup of our mess from the Vietnam War will be far less costly than the
Gulf oil spill that BP will have to clean up [in the Gulf of Mexico]," he
The plan, the result of three years of consultations by the Aspen-sponsored and
Ford Foundation-funded US-Vietnam Dialogue Group on Agent Orange/Dioxin, comes
at a key moment in the rapprochement between Washington and Hanoi, which
established full diplomatic relations only in 1995. Bilateral trade has grown
steadily since even before that date, reaching more than $15 billion last year.
The two former enemies have also steadily improved their military ties. For the
first time since the war, a US Navy supply ship underwent extensive repairs at
Cam Ranh Bay, which once served as Washington's most important deep-water port
in what was then South Vietnam, and Pentagon officials have made little secret
of their wish for a comprehensive agreement that would ensure regular access to
But, as noted by Isaacson, the legacy of Agent Orange - and Washington's
failure to provide substantial assistance to Hanoi in dealing with it - has
long been a sore point in bilateral ties, particularly as Washington has been
reluctant to assume responsibility.
Last year, the US Supreme Court ended a five-year court battle by refusing to
hear an appeal by Vietnamese plaintiffs from judgments by lower courts that the
main producers of the chemicals, Dow Chemical and Monsanto, could not be held
liable for birth defects allegedly caused by exposure to Agent Orange.
"Questions of responsibility, awareness and data reliability have for too long
generated bitter controversy and stalled research and remedial action," the
group, which includes private citizens, scientists and policy-makers from both
countries, said in its report. "The time to hesitate is past."
Between 1962 and 1971, when Washington halted their use, the US military
sprayed nearly 76 million liters of Agent Orange and related herbicides across
South Vietnam and in border areas of Cambodia and Laos as part of an effort to
deny Vietcong insurgents and North Vietnamese troops dense jungle cover and
These herbicides destroyed a total of about two million hectares of forest -
roughly the same area as El Salvador - and another 200,000 hectares of
farmland, according to a report released with the plan of action. Moreover,
Agent Orange and related dioxins were sprayed at up to 50 times the
concentration recommended by the manufacturers for killing plants.
Nearly five million Vietnamese living in those areas, as well as some 2.8
million US military personnel deployed there during the war, may have been
exposed to the chemicals that have been linked by the US Institute of Medicine
to various cancers, diabetes, nerve and heart disease and birth defects.
In addition, as a persistent organic pollutant, dioxin is very slow to degrade
in the environment so that its toxic effects can literally last generations.
According to the Red Cross, an estimated three million Vietnamese have suffered
adverse health effects from exposure to Agent Orange and related herbicides,
including some 150,000 children born with serious birth defects, such as spina
While US researchers have been studying the effects of Agent Orange/dioxin in
Vietnam for some 25 years, the two countries convened their first official
scientific conference on the subject only in 2002.
Since 2007, the US Congress has appropriated nine million dollars for
"environmental remediation of dioxin-contaminated sites and related health
activities in Vietnam" of which a little over $4 million has been spent.
Congress is currently considering an additional $12 million in assistance for
fiscal year 2011.
By contrast, the US Veterans Administration last year alone paid out nearly $2
billion to Vietnam veterans whose current ailments are believed to be tied to
exposure to dioxins.
Most US aid to deal with the Agent Orange problem has come from private
sources. The Ford Foundation, the bi-national group's primary funder, has
provided nearly $12 million in grants for environmental restoration and
treatment of Vietnamese victims, as well as for efforts to educate the US
public about the issue.
The plan of action calls for spending $100 million on cleaning up specific
dioxin "hot spots" around southern Vietnam where soil and lakes are most
contaminated and $200 million for expanding health and related services for
individuals with disabilities resulting from exposure.
The most serious contamination is found in airports and former US military
bases where the dioxins were off-loaded, handled and stored.
Soil tests conducted in 2007 by a Canadian firm in and around Da Nang's
airport, which served as Washington's largest air base during the war, found
that dioxin levels there were 300 to 400 times higher than international
Breast milk and blood samples from people who previously lived near the
airport, which is now a major tourist destination, found the highest dioxin
levels ever recorded in Vietnam, more than 100 times international limits,
according to the report.
Asked about the report's recommendations, State Department spokesman Philip
Crowley praised the group's work, adding, "We have great interest in [its]
strategic plan and will look forward to reviewing the details."
Jim Lobe's blog on US foreign policy can be read at http://www.ips.org/blog/jimlobe/.