The last stop on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's Asian tour this week is Vietnam, where she will discuss among other things an enduring remnant of the war, the after-effects of Agent Orange. The U.S. government belatedly recognized the impact of the deadly defoliant on American troops, but has resisted accepting responsibility for the damage the chemical inflicted on the Vietnamese with birth defects still evident decades after the end of the war.
Clinton, who arrives in Vietnam Thursday, is expected to address the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Vietnam to encourage support for a $300 million, 10-year plan developed by the Aspen Institute as part of the U.S.-Vietnam Dialogue Group on Agent Orange/Dioxin to clean up dioxin "hot spots" and help people with disabilities, while stopping short of linking those disabilities to the Agent Orange spraying.
Common Cause head Bob Edgar, a member of the Dialogue Group and an ordained minister, described to reporters in a conference call how he and a group of clergy on a recent trip to Vietnam could see and smell the virulent defoliant still seeping out of the ground in Da Nang, a major port city in Vietnam.
He told how a guide had them stop ahead of time in Ho Chi Minh City to buy waterproof, disposable shoes, and when they landed at the Da Nang aiport and saw the devastation, realized why they needed them. The airport was the major U.S. air base during the war, serving as the supply depot for Agent Orange, and the toxic chemicals have not been cleaned up. Edgar described walking on a platform over the area where the dioxin was processed, and where U.S. troops would cut the barrels in half and use them to cook their food.
Less than 100 yards away were houses and a small lake, still contaminated, where children play. "You would think that the dioxin would disappear over time," Edgar said, "but it's in the sediment of the water."
About a third of Vietnam was sprayed in an effort to strip away jungle foliage as protective coverage for the Vietcong, and there was no apparent awareness that the Agent Orange chemical, dioxin, was harmful to human health. "It was called Agent Orange, but it was yellow and green, too," said Edgar, who first began researching the chemical and its after-effects when he was a member of Congress from 1975 to 1987, and chaired a subcommittee of the House Veterans Affairs Committee that, over the objections of the White House, pressed to have the impact of Agent Orange recognized, and veterans who had been exposed cared for.
Edgar said that one might think that if we've accepted the effects of dioxin exposure on our own veterans, we would automatically make the same association in Vietnam. But that has not been the case, he said, largely because an admission of liability would open the U.S. government to an avalanche of insurance claims.
He observed that wars don't end when the last soldiers leave the battlefield, and unresolved issues around Agent Orange remain an irritant between the two countries 15 years after relations were normalized. It's clear where Clinton's sentiments must lie as a critic of the war and an advocate for women and children, and activists on the issue both here and in Vietnam are looking to her to help make the Aspen action plan a reality. Congress appropriated $3 million in 2007 and again in 2009 for dioxin removal and health care facilities in Da Nang, but the bulk of the money for the $300 million plan will have to come from private resources and foundations. There isn't a better cheerleader than Clinton, with the possible exception of her husband, who has built a philanthropic empire since leaving the White House.
The difficulty of tying specific health ailments to Agent Orange has long stymied progress on the issue. Edgar said that in his visit to Vietnam he saw many cases of spinal bifida, along with other birth defects, but it's impossible to say with certainty that any one case is the result of Agent Orange. Mapping shows an elevation of health problems in the affected areas, but no direct link. The Aspen plan gets around this by simply stating there is a humanitarian disaster that we can see, including children born today with certain disabilities, and it proposes to help people with disabilities regardless of cause.
Clinton was briefed on the plan before she left for Asia, and as a former member of the Senate, the issue is a familiar one to her. She also has a personal connection. As a longtime attendee of Renaissance Weekend retreats, she knew Adm. Elmo Zumwalt, chief of naval operations during the Vietnam War, and who along with his family attended Renaissance Weekend until his death in 2000. Zumwalt, like other military leaders, accepted the assurances of the drug manufacturers that their products were safe, and initially refused to recognize the complaints of veterans.
But then his son, who served in Vietnam, became ill, and his grandson was born with birth defects. Zumwalt spoke out about his regrets, and two years before Elmo Zumwalt III died in 1988 at age 42, he said, "I am a lawyer and I don't think I could prove in court, by the weight of the existing scientific evidence, that Agent Orange is the cause of all the medical problems -- nervous disorders, cancer and skin problems -- reported by Vietnam veterans, or of their children's severe birth defects. But I am convinced that it is."
When Clinton represents the United States in Vietnam this week, these are the experiences that inform her presentation, along with the very real limits of U.S. government resources and involvement 35 years after the end of the war.