50 years after the US began spraying Agent Orange over Vietnam and 36 years after the end of the war, victims suffer as realpolitik considerations offer faint glimmers of hope
Teacher Nguyen Ngoc Phuong (C), 31, an Agent Orange victim, walks among other victims during a lesson at a hospice in Vietnam's Da Nang City in June. The 50th anniversary of the spraying of Agent Orange in Vietnam underlines the immense magnitude of human suffering and emphasizes the urgency of achieving justice and compensation for Vietnamese victims, activists say.
Nguyen Duc is in the middle of a hectic week.
He has been giving media interviews, attending charity functions and appearing on TV talk shows at a pace that would give a showbiz celebrity pause.
But Duc is no ordinary celebrity. He is under the spotlight as one of the most famous Agent Orange victims, and in the lead up to the 50th anniversary of the day the toxic chemical was first sprayed over southern Vietnam by American forces (August 10, 1961), he has been much sought after by the media.
Duc's story is a dramatic one. He was joined at the leg from birth to his brother Viet, who remained bedridden following their 14-hour separation surgery for almost two decades before he passed away in 2007. Duc has only one leg and moves around on crutches.
But he considers himself one of the most fortunate victims.
He is married and living in a home made possible by international donations and the salary he earns as a computer technician. He is a doting father of a pair of twins (a boy and a girl, born courtesy IUI intra-uterine insemination) who will celebrate their second birthday this October.
"Many babies, children, and young people are living lives of quiet suffering. The agony of Agent Orange is etched upon the bodies of victims in Vietnam," Duc said. "They cannot lead normal lives as human beings and are socially isolated by that."
Commenting on the upcoming commemoration, Duc said the anniversary is just a sad reminder of the painfully slow lack of progress in dealing with the legacy of war.
Thirty-six years after the end of the Vietnam War, its most fearsome and tragic legacy that will haunt generations to come has not been brought to any kind of closure, and legions of victims still await the justice they have been denied for far too long by the US's refusal to accept responsibility for Agent Orange impacts.
Still, small beginnings have been made.
The US Congress appropriated an initial US$3 million in 2007 for cleaning up dioxin hotspots in Vietnam and in April this year approved another $18.5 million in new funding to address Agent Orange consequences. In June, Vietnam and the US began the first phase of a joint project to clean up environmental damage caused by Agent Orange at a former US airbase in the central city of Da Nang.
"Our ability to work constructively to resolve war legacy issues has contributed to an overall strengthening of our bilateral relations," a US embassy spokesman told Thanh Nien Weekly. "We have achieved a level of cooperation that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago."
Between 1961 and 1971, the US Army sprayed some 80 million liters of Agent Orange containing 366 kilograms of the highly toxic dioxin over 30,000 square miles of southern Vietnam. Dioxin, a highly toxic chemical in the defoliant used by the US troops to strip Vietnamese forces of ground cover and food, stays in the soil and sediment at the bottom of lakes and rivers for generations. It can enter the food supply through the fat of fish and other animals.
Between 2.1 to 4.8 million Vietnamese citizens were directly exposed to Agent Orange and other chemicals that have been linked to cancers, birth defects and other chronic diseases during the Vietnam War that ended in April 1975, according to the Vietnam Red Cross.
But while the US has provided assistance to Vietnamese with disabilities regardless of their cause, it has maintained that there is no clear link between Agent Orange and the myriad health problems.
"The US and Vietnam has so far not jointly conducted any study on the health effects of Agent Orange on human beings," said Le Ke Son, deputy general director of Vietnam's Environmental Administration. "We welcome any kind of cooperation and funding from the US in studying the environmental and health effects of dioxin in Vietnam."
Eight years ago, the US and Vietnam attempted to conduct a joint study of birth defects in children whose mothers were exposed to Agent Orange.
With Vietnamese and American scientists at odds on how to design the $1 million project, the timeline for the US National Institute on Environmental and Health Sciences funding expired before the study could get started.
A leaked unclassified US embassy memo written in 2003 exhibited the skepticism that has shaped US established position on the issue.
"The Embassy advocates"¦taking a straightforward approach to counter the Vietnamese propaganda campaign that hinges on non-scientific, but visually effective and emotionally charged, methodology aimed at laying blame on the [US government]," said the memo, posted on a number of credible Agent Orange-related websites such as that of War Legacies Project, a Vermont-based nonprofit whose main focus is to address the long term health and environmental consequences of Agent Orange.
"Allegations of"¦adverse impact of Agent Orange/dioxin on health are grossly exaggerated and unsupported by any objective measure," the memo said.
The US thus blamed Vietnam for stalling progress on conducting across-the-board studies on the true extent of the health effects of Agent Orange.
"We believe the [Vietnamese government] will never permit research that in any way might discredit the main theme of its two-decade long propaganda campaign, i.e., Agent Orange/dioxin is to blame for a huge range of serious health problems "” especially birth defects and mental retardation," the 2003 memo said.
But David Carpenter, who received the US grant to conduct the ill-fated 2003 study, offered Thanh Nien Weekly a different view.
"The US has never acknowledged that the birth defects seen in Vietnam are due to Agent Orange exposure. I thought at the time and still think that it really was that our government did not want to know the long term effects of Agent Orange exposure," said Carpenter, director of the University at Albany's Institute for Health and the Environment.
"This is, in my judgment, why they cancelled my grant to study the relationship between Agent Orange exposure and birth defects seen in new births, not just those 30 or more years ago."
Ton Nu Thi Ninh, a seasoned Vietnamese diplomat and former vice chair of the National Assembly's Foreign Affairs Committee, considers Agent Orange the most salient issue remaining between the US and Vietnam since the normalization of relationship in 1995.
Ninh recalls that years ago, a former US ambassador dismissed Vietnam's Agent Orange toll as "propaganda." But no US ambassador would use that word anymore today, she says.
"Which tells you what? Vietnam is very patient"¦How can you say it's propaganda when the facts are there?
"This is an issue that the Vietnamese government today wants to tackle from the humanitarian angle and for that, joining hands will be more effective, and frankly, my point of view is, it would complete full circle the exemplary nature of the normalization of relations between two former adversaries."
According to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the US partnership with Vietnam to deal with dioxin contamination in Da Nang "is a sign of the hopeful future the US and Vietnam are building together."
The fact that the US has recently switched from mere denying to some "realpolitik" in addressing the Agent Orange legacies in Vietnam has come as no surprise to observers.
"The main reason is the intention to establish a US-image as something like a "˜soft power' in Asia, to direct some sympathy of those who are disappointed by Chinese expansionist politics to a new US-role on Southeast Asia," said GÃ¼nter Giesenfeld, a German professor at the Philipp University of Marburg. "Some humanitarian acts or generous concessions seem to help winning influence in the region."
According to a report prepared in 2009 by Michael Martin of the Congressional Research Service, one potential benefit of the development of a comprehensive policy on Agent Orange in Vietnam could be the enhancement of the US's soft power in Southeast Asia.
"If the United States continues to deny the legitimacy of Vietnam's environmental and health claims"”and the responsibility to help ameliorate the damage caused by Agent Orange/dioxin it risks causing harm to its relations with Vietnam, and possibly weakening US soft power in Asia," the report said.
Le Ke Son, one of Vietnam's top environmental officials, said Vietnam would continue asking the US to help by funding future studies on the environmental and human effects of dioxin at another major dioxin hotspot: the Bien Hoa Airbase in the south. The most recent study, conducted by Canadian environmental firm Hatfield Consultants and released in late June, confirmed the lingering effects of dioxin contamination at the airbase.
But scientists in the field overwhelmingly concur that the problem is not just the hotspots.
"There are many other areas in Vietnam where we also found elevated dioxin levels from Agent Orange in people and in wildlife," said Arnold Schecter, a professor at the University of Texas's School of Public Health who has traveled to Vietnam for years to study dioxin impacts. "I do not believe that people were exposed to Agent Orange only at the so called "˜hot spots.'"
Unless drastic remedial efforts are made, dioxin, which has a half-life of 100 years meaning it will take 100 years for it to fall to half its initial strength would still be contaminating the land and water of Vietnam in the next century and beyond, heard a hearing called in June last year by Congressman Eni Faleomavaega, the then chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Sub-Committee on Asia, the Pacific and the Global Environment.
"There is, unfortunately, no way to decrease dioxin once it gets into in humans, usually by eating dioxin-contaminated food," Schecter said.
Duc, the Agent Orange victim, said he cannot expect more from his daily life. He comes home after 4 p.m. every day to help his wife take care of his twin children who will turn two this October.
"What I'm concerned about is if my children would be affected by dioxin as I was," Duc said. "They're doing well now and I hope they will grow up normally like their peers.
"But I know I have to be ready to face the worst."