The American Half-Century

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The US should help the victims of Agent Orange; but although Vietnam has suffered the poison's unspeakable horrors for fifty-years now, the country must be careful not to sell its soul looking for compensation


Soldiers detect unexploded ordnance (UXO) and defoliant Agent Orange during the launch of the "˜environmental remediation of dioxin contamination' project, in Vietnam's Da Nang City last month

Half a century has gone by since April 10, 1961, the first day Agent Orange began to rain over South Vietnam, and the first day the atrocious consequences of the poison began to manifest for individuals, families, villages, provinces and a whole country. The lives and the dreams of a brighter future for many people, families and communities have since been destroyed, landscapes have been poisoned, and the living conditions of whole regions have been affected.

Vietnam's peaceful development has been dramatically impeded.

Half a century later, the Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange (AO) have seen fifty years of instability, of unexpected, unpredictable and unimaginable harm, the impairment of life, new and incurable diseases, and unbearable handicaps.

Half a century of misfortune for people who had nothing to do with the war, who were punished by a fate they could not understand, and for which they've been denied the closure of being able to name the perpetrator, other than the abstract word "war" or the abstract name "America".

Over these fifty years, those who were responsible for this unique Crime-of-the-Century have succeeded so far in dodging responsibility, repeating over and over again, like the mantra written on a prayer wheel: "There is no evidence."

Sometimes phrases like this one gain an unsubstantiated validity, and can be used with the force of an irrefutable legal clause, only because they are uttered by political, economic or military authorities who assert themselves, even if they are scientifically incorrect. These empty assertions have skewed US public opinion, the press, TV media, and even the courts, for half a century now.

Even the dialogue between Vietnam and the US after the normalization of their diplomatic relations was plagued by the "no evidence" mantra. After the failure of the lawsuit against the producers of AO a suit greatly influenced by statements from the US Administration there has been no attempt at a bilateral agreement on compensation, or the question of guilt or responsibility, probably because it would be hopeless.

The hopes raised by the election of a young Democrat president in the US have been dashed. Maybe it's not his fault maybe he has to struggle against a well-financed and well organized right-wing minority, whose power cannot be eliminated by open letters or international protests.

It seems, at a superficial glimpse, to be the old battle: power against morals. And we live in a world in which power (or interests of various kinds, most often economic ones) seems to be an invincible force. Thus, the quest for justice (or even fairness) seems to be old-fashioned, and this is not only in political arguments, but even in the court room, as we have seen.

But if the concept of justice and common sense is more and more foreign to certain political circles, we have all the more the duty to defend these virtues. And this is not as hopeless as it seems, because these virtues are still abundant in the populations of all countries, including the US.

And here I speak not only of the so-called "everyday people," but also of scientists, writers, philosophers and artists who can become something like the conscience of a nation. In the US, we have seen researchers of international reputation raising their voice against the silence on the physical and ecological catastrophe that haunts the people of Vietnam up to the present day. And recently, a "Dialogue Group" of American/international and Vietnamese researchers (founded in 2007) has published several reports wiping out the old rhetoric of the US-government and the lawyers of Monsanto & Co.

These reports emphasize the responsibility of the American government and the producers of AO, not because the reports "prove" everything, but because they point out that those responsible for Agent Orange have a moral duty to help the Vietnamese victims the same way they have helped American ones.

But the intellectuals of that group have another approach to the issue when they agree to a congressional report brought in by Michael M. Martin suggesting that a long-term plan of assistance to Vietnam could help establish the US as a "soft power" in Asia. The report poses the question: is Vietnam important enough to the US that the American government has to make a real effort in the AO-issue? Morals seem to be acceptable when they can help geo-political aims. But nevertheless this might indeed help the AO victims.

And what about Vietnamese politics? Observers and supporters of the AO-issue in Western Europe sometimes get the impression that the Vietnamese government is caught in a dilemma that explains the situation: the contradiction between aiming for close cooperation with the US on the one hand, and help for AO-victims on the other. Confronting the American side with demands that are not negotiable is not politically wise.

We understand that Vietnam does not want to impede economic development (and with this, its close relations with the US) with the AO-issue. So the government has never officially raised the formal claim for compensation, and this issue has been transferred to VAVA, a non-governmental organization (NGO).

But there are other things that friends and supporters of the AO-victims have to take note of: Len Aldis, in his Op-Ed in this paper suggested that "the people of Ho Chi Minh City should petition the local authorities to close down the offices of Monsanto and Dow Chemical." This was the first time I had heard of the existence of those offices. I knew that the Vietnamese government and the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development are planning to use genetically manipulated plants (GMO) and herbicides in Vietnam, and that therefore representatives of Monsanto and Dow Chemical have already gained a foothold in the form of agreements with Vietnamese authorities.

There is no doubt that this policy has an unpleasant taste in a country where millions of victims of these companies' former activities are suffering. But AO and GMO are different cases. In our country, people are against GMOs because of their harmful consequences on health, on the structure of agriculture, food production and the existence of the small peasantry. This should be the same in Vietnam, and AO is not a point of reference in this case. This new provocation does not involve the foreign policy of the US, but corporations' desires to subordinate the life of peoples and countries in the quest for profit. So the refusal of this collaboration should not harm cooperation with the US.

But some people fear that Monsanto & Co. could offer Vietnam some help (voluntary and without any recognition of responsibility) for the victims of AO if Vietnam introduces GMOs on a large scale. Even if the companies offered millions, they wouldn't miss it. What would the Vietnamese government do?

By Günter Giesenfeld

Günter Giesenfeld is a professor of German Literature and Mass Media at the Philipp University of Marburg. He is also a filmmaker, translator, and president of the Germany-Vietnam Friendship Association. The opinions expressed are his own.

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