Vietnam in the Aftermath of a Chemical Holocaust

04/03/2013 05:54 pm ET | Updated Jun 03, 2013

The Geneva Agreement of 1954 ended the French colonial rule of Vietnam. However, the Eisenhower administration subverted the idea of a united and independent Vietnam. It funded a puppet government in Saigon to resist Hanoi, thus precipitating a twenty-year American War in Indochina.

In 1961, president John Kennedy approved the use of herbicides to defoliate the dense jungles of Vietnam. This decision turned a bitterly fought war into an illegal, immoral, and humiliating contest for the United States and an ecological catastrophe for Vietnam.

The Americans sprayed the forests and rice fields of Vietnam with Agent Orange, a concoction of 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D, two exceedingly toxic weed killers. One of them, 2,4,5-T, was contaminated by TCDD-dioxin, the most potent molecule in the industrial world's chemical arsenal. The chemical warfare lasted until 1970 when president Richard Nixon renounced the first use of "incapacitating chemical weapons" and "any use of biological and toxin weapons."

In 1977, the Linnean Society of London published a study on the "Ecological Effects of Pesticides." Arthur H. Westing, a dioxin expert working for the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, authored a chapter about the "Ecological effects of the military use of herbicides."

Westing theorized that it would take centuries to undo the ecological damage the Agent Orange inflicted on Vietnam. He suggested that more than 200 pounds of TCDD-dioxin "was injected into the South Vietnamese environment as a concomitant of the military spraying."

Westing concluded that "chemical warfare with anti-plant agents [herbicides] is pernicious because its ecological and social ramifications are unavoidably widespread, long-lasting, and severe."

Fred A. Wilcox, professor of writing at Ithaca College, expanded the insightful work of Westing. He spent about 30 years studying the effects of Agent Orange. He started with the fate of the American soldiers who sprayed the Agent Orange over Vietnam. His 1983 book, Waiting for an Army to Die, denounced the deception of the Pentagon and the industry that ignored the Vietnam veterans until most of them died. They simply did not want to implicate the manufacturers of Agent Orange with the dioxin harm of their weed killers, which were also sprayed in the United States for decades. Indeed, 2,4-D is still in the American farmers' armory.

His Scorched Earth (Seven Story Books, 2011) completes the story of why, in fact, the spraying of the Agent Orange was pernicious, especially to Vietnam and its people. He visited Vietnam where he interviewed soldiers who had been sprayed by Agent Orange. "I wanted to listen to their stories," he said, "and to hear if their accounts were similar to those of American veterans." That process led him to Vietnamese who have been trying to survive "serious illnesses" and the "sorrow of knowing that their plight, their destiny, is irrevocable." He also talked to medical doctors trying to cope with the monstrous health effects Agent Orange left on its victims.

In 2008, one of those doctors, Nguyen Trong Nhan, sent a letter to the American Studies Association in which he reported the following:

Agent Orange destroyed more than six million acres of forest. This ecocide had deadly effects on farming and food.

"Vietnamese women," he wrote, "have experienced disorders and complications during pregnancy, including miscarriages, still births, premature births, and severe fetal malformations." But the worst thing of all, he added, was that the dioxin harm lasts for generations.

Finally, Dr. Nhan said, it was a pity the American courts dismissed the 2004 Vietnamese lawsuit against the Agent Orange companies. That, to Dr. Nhan, was disrespect for "truth and justice."

Another witness to the painful story Wilcox tells is Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, commander of all American naval forces in Vietnam. Zumwalt used Agent Orange along the banks of rivers and canals. However, Zumwalt changed when he returned home. The death of his son from cancer, which the admiral connected to his son's service in the spraying of the herbicides, set him on course to discovery. He accused the government and the industry of covering up the truth about the effects of Agent Orange.

Wilcox is showing that Agent Orange is responsible for harming more than three million Vietnamese, including 500,000 children. He says the veterans of Vietnam and America suffer from the same deformities and cancers. Vietnam, he adds, is enduring the "aftermath of a chemical holocaust."

The story of Wilcox is revealing. Yes, Vietnam is in great pain, but Vietnam is also opening its doors to its former enemy.

Read Scorched Earth. It is eloquent, thought provoking, absorbing, daring, moral, and necessary. It is a jolt to historical amnesia. It tells what chemical warfare did to Vietnam -- and, to a lesser degree, America.

Time has come for both the American government and the industry to admit responsibility for the harm of Agent Orange. Such an admission would lead to better environmental protection -- in this country and the world. It may even strengthen international law and human rights.