The Continuing Curse of Agent Orange

04/29/2015 09:05 am ET | Updated Jun 29, 2015

By Merle Ratner and Azadeh Shahshahani

April 30 marks the 40th anniversary of the departure of the last U.S. personnel from Vietnam and the end of the long war. There has been a recent attempt by Pentagon to whitewash the history of the war and the impact on U.S. soldiers and the Vietnamese people. But veterans and peace activists have countered this false narrative in an effort to provide full disclosure about the war.

One of the areas in which the U.S. government needs to provide additional transparency and be held accountable is its use of Agent Orange.

Agent Orange is a chemical defoliant that the U.S. government sprayed over the people and lands of Vietnam to destroy crops and rid the land of foliage. It contains elevated levels of dioxin, the most toxic chemical known to science. Through their exposure to the dioxin, Vietnamese citizens, American veterans, and Vietnamese Americans (many of whom fought as U.S. allies) suffer from a variety of cancers, diabetes, heart disease, Parkinson's disease, and birth defects. Those directly exposed to Agent Orange now have children and grandchildren suffering from life-threatening birth defects.

The Vietnamese ecosystem has also been damaged by the dumping of Agent Orange in a number of "hot spots" in central and south Vietnam, where it remains in the land and water, poisoning people, the fish, and the wildlife.

After strong grassroots pressure from veterans, the government now grants disability for service-connected illness to veterans who served in Vietnam and have one of 15 diseases.

However, the Vietnamese people have yet to receive adequate compensation. Congress has finally appropriated some funding to clean up one toxic "hot spot" and assist the victims in Danang. This is an encouraging gesture. Little of the money for those affected has reached the victims, however. And the scale of human tragedy and environmental assault requires a much greater commitment of resources.

Children and grandchildren of American veterans similarly receive no health care or assistance from the government for birth defects or medical conditions related to their parents' or grandparents' military service in Vietnam. Neither do Vietnamese Americans who were affected by Agent Orange or their children.

Dow, Monsanto, and the other chemical manufacturers who deliberately manufactured a "dirty" Agent Orange with higher levels of dioxin in order to maximize their profits have denied any responsibility after a paltry settlement to U.S. veterans from a lawsuit brought in the 1980s.

In May 2009 a body composed of distinguished jurists from around the world met in Paris to hear evidence of the impact of the use of Agent Orange. The tribunal received testimony from 27 individuals, including victims and expert witnesses. The tribunal found that the U.S. government and the chemical manufacturers were aware of the fact that dioxin was present in one of the component parts of Agent Orange, yet they continued to use it and in fact suppressed a study that showed in 1965 that dioxin caused many birth defects in experimental animals. The tribunal concluded that the U.S. government and the companies must fully compensate the victims and their families.

For millions of Vietnamese and hundreds of thousands of American veterans, the war lives on through the scars that Agent Orange has left on their bodies and the bodies of their children. Pham The Minh, a 33-year-old English teacher, is one example. As one of the many second-generation victims, Minh's body bears the horrific legacy of Dow's Agent Orange. In 2010 Minh joined other victims of Agent Orange in a delegation to the U.S. to raise awareness about their plight and push for legislation that would address the needs of both Vietnamese and American victims of Agent Orange.

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-California) is due to introduce the Victims of Agent Orange Relief Act of 2015 shortly. This bill would provide cleanup of the contaminated "hot spots" in Vietnam and medical, rehabilitative, and human services to several generations of Vietnamese and Americans suffering with diseases and disabilities. It needs to be supported by a bipartisan coalition of legislators and passed as a long-overdue measure of redress.

It is time for the U.S. government to take responsibility for the human and environmental disaster that is still being caused by Agent Orange and provide comprehensive assistance to all those suffering from this deadly poison.

Shahshahani is a human rights attorney based in Atlanta and the president of the National Lawyers Guild. Ratner is the co-coordinator of the Vietnam Agent Orange Relief & Responsibility Campaign, a project of Veterans for Peace, that is working with veterans and their children, Vietnamese Americans, and others to gain justice for Vietnamese and U.S. victims of Agent Orange.