Why the United States Won't Admit Guilt Over Agent Orange

Blogs - Vietnam: Feb. 5, 2018

When Le Minh Chau, 26, meets someone for the first time he doesn’t shake hands, but it’s not a choice based on attitude.

Chau’s full stature is under four feet tall. He rests his full weight on his knees, and his arms, underdeveloped and limp, hang permanently and without use at his sides. As he quickly climbed the stairs to his art studio, a modest flat located in Saigon’s increasingly trendy District 2, he apologised for the mess: “I’ve been working a lot,” he said through a translator.

Afflicted by disabilities attributed to prenatal exposure to Agent Orange, Chau’s body might make his daily life more difficult, but he avers that he’s not a victim. Chau is an internationally recognised and sought-after artist, thanks mainly due to the Oscar-nominated documentary based on his life, Chau, Beyond the Lines (2015). Shot over the span of eight years, the 30-minute movie documents Chau’s journey from the Tu Du Peace Village for disabled youth in Ho Chi Minh City to the fully independent life he enjoys today.

Video source: Seventh Art Releasing

The movie worked to shine a spotlight at an issue previously swept under the rug.

The Orange Stripe

In District 12, an hour from the city centre by motorbike and a lifetime away from the boutiques and coffee shops of District 2, the narrative is a bit different. Sister Kim Chi, founder and director of Thien Phuoc Orphanage, an organisation that houses and cares for 60 disabled children, many thought to be affected by Agent Orange, said, “Most of these children will be dead before they turn 17, 18. For us it’s about providing love and care while they’re here.”

Although Chau and the children at Thien Phuoc Orphanage were born long after the American War ended 43 years ago, they represent the conflict’s damaging legacy. Between 1961 and 1971, it’s estimated that the US Army sprayed around 20 million gallons of herbicides, loosely categorised as “Agent Orange” due to the colouring of the pesticide barrels, to deforest large tracts of densely covered land.

agent orangeImage source: s-i.huffpost.com

Exposure to the chemical’s chief component, tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD, referred to today as dioxin), has only recently been officially linked to “presumptive diseases” like cancers, heart disease and diabetes in veterans who dealt with the chemical directly; less studied, and more politically volatile, are the intragenerational birth defects, ranging from fused digits to spina bifida.

“There’s a lot we don’t know about it,” Charles Bailey, Agent Orange victims advocate and former Ford Foundation representative in Vietnam, said. “Once it’s in human bodies, it’s more complicated.” While the chemical does not affect the cellular structure of plants grown in previously exposed soil, it also does not dissolve on its own. During Vietnam’s annual months-long rainy seasons, heavy rains have transported much of the chemical to nearby water sources. Drinking this water, or eating the ducks and fish that live in and around it, can allegedly change the genetic make-up of offspring.

“It’s been found in blood, and the milk samples of lactating women. And we don’t know how many generations will be affected,” Bailey said.

Help, By Any Other Name…

The lack of definitive intragenerational medical studies, paired with the lack of funding from the US government to care programs for the disabled, has not been an oversight. To allocate funds, by association, leads to an admission of guilt and responsibility—a political arena the United States does not step into easily.

Today, millions of dollars of funds are transferred to foundations and care programs as part of humanitarian efforts rather than political reparations to ensure that at least politically, the United States will be cleared from blame.

“For the people working with these victims, I don’t think it matters where the money comes from, or the political discourse surrounding it,” Bailey said. “They just want to help people.”

Video source: assignasia

While the Vietnamese government has held fast to a narrative that applies dioxin exposure to disabilities almost across the board in the country, in 2007 a former US Ambassador to Vietnam told the press, “I cannot say whether or not I have myself seen a victim of Agent Orange. The reason for that is that we lack good scientific definitions of the causes of disabilities [...] that have occurred in Vietnam…We just don’t have the scientific evidence to make that statement with certainty.”

Although the Vietnamese government has pressured Washington DC to recognise intragenerational disabilities as dioxin-related, researcher Michael F Martin pointed out in a Congressional Report in 2012 that Vietnam’s Department of Agriculture has hedged away from these implications. The ministry “is concerned that by drawing attention to the continued pervasive presence of dioxin in the Vietnam’s [sic] environment, other nations may restrict or prohibit the import of Vietnamese crops, aquatic products, meats and poultry, and processed foods supposedly for health reasons.”

In 2017, Vietnam’s domestic food market was rocked by several high-profile food scares, including evidence that thousands of pigs had routinely been given sedatives to reduce weight loss. As of yet, no cases have involved references to dioxin.

Rather than dwell on the weaknesses incurred by the long-lasting drug, leaders in Hanoi typically focus on the environmental factors instead. Centres for the disabled subsist primarily on Vietnamese government funding, although the United States does allocate a small percentage of overall appropriations to rehabilitation centres. Sister Kim Chi’s Thien Phuoc Orphanage, for her part, subsists entirely on volunteer donations. “When I built the orphanage, people said I should make it in a old building that had leaks and problems. They said I would get more funding that way,” she said grimly.

This October, ground officially broke on the environmental cleanup of the Bien Hoa Airport, the country’s most dioxin-saturated area. It’s estimated that the cleanup will take 10 years to complete; a USAID Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) estimated that the cleanup will cost US$500 million.

When You Look at Them

So far, the United States appropriations committee has committed to helping fund the extensive cleanup efforts in all three of Vietnam’s dioxin hotspots: airports in Danang (a cleanup that was finished in 2012), Bien Hoa and, further down the line, Phu Cat.

“Now that the Bien Hoa cleanup is underway, I’m turning my attention to people with disabilities,” Bailey said.

“I want people to focus on recognising that they’re people too, with normal human needs. They need greater comfort and dignity.”

To that end, Bailey recently published From Enemies to Partners: Vietnam, the U.S. and Agent Orange with Dr Le Ke Son, a work he hopes will be a landmark for Vietnam-US Agent Orange relations.


In District 12, Sister Kim Chi remains practical in her work, if not optimistic. She discusses the recent death of a 12-year-old boy in the orphanage with the same matter-of-fact tone she uses to discuss the educational classes she has set up on the third and fourth floors of her orphanage.

More than anything, Chi speaks of changing the narrative of Agent Orange. “I don’t really like talking to reporters, because when I read the articles, it’s always the same. They talk about how sad the kids are, how disabled. But the kids don’t know about Agent Orange, or their disabilities. When you look at them, they’re happy. They just want love.”

agent orangeImage source: u.osu.edu

Banner Image source: myevergreenwellness.com