America’s hypocrisy – was Agent Orange a chemical weapon?

Food and Agriculture: Viet Nam

Nearly 40 years on from the devastating proxy war in Vietnam, the easternmost country on the Indochina peninsula is still plagued with the consequences of war. These are economic, social and medical. These medical consequences largely stem from the effects of chemicals used during warfare by the Americans. The total lack of concern for the effects of chemical use in Vietnam leads me to question their moral platform in current debates such as with regards to Syria.

America actively embraced chemicals for their own use during the Vietnam War, indiscriminately pouring 20 million gallons of defoliant Agent Orange over communities of civilians and whole swathes of forest and farmland. It destroyed crops and sentenced generations of Vietnamese to congenital birth defects and horrific disfigurement. The aim of this operation was to flush out the guerrilla fighters, the Communist Viet Cong, from their forest hideaways which proved to be a major thorn in the side of the American military. The aim of destroying farmland was to force urbanisation, driving the rural communities that formed the basis of Viet Cong support to US held cities. However, little thought was given to the health and lives of civilians. This begs the question, is the dogged pursuit of military intervention in Syria by a state that refuses to accept its own history of chemical weapon use and responsibility to its victims, morally acceptable?

It is estimated by Vietnam Red Cross that around 150,000 Vietnamese children are affected by birth defects due to dioxin, found in Agent Orange. America has refused compensation for Vietnam and claim these figures are unrealistic and exaggerate the effects of dioxin, despite doling out millions of dollars in an out of court settlement for US soldiers and personnel who were responsible for deploying the Agent Orange and providing free healthcare for a wide range of illnesses believed to be due to exposure to the herbicide. Yes, the Vietnamese Red Cross is possibly giving figures that are too high but it is difficult to argue that the problem does not exist at all. Although The US Supreme Court has dismissed a case by Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange, arguing that at the time of its use the American Government were unaware of its poisonous effect on humans and that the manufacturers had no control over its use by the government and by extension can enjoy sovereign immunity from litigation, it does not alter the fact that dioxins are known poisons and the one included in Agent Orange is particularly nasty. The US can deny responsibility all they like with Supreme Court decisions backing them up but this does not dismiss the claims that the areas in which Agent Orange was deployed have far higher rates of birth defects than many other places.

The majority of evidence for Agent Orange causing higher than usual rates of birth defects is obviously disputed by the United States of America. This should come as no surprise. The rulings by the Supreme Court in America cemented America’s standpoint and thus, while President Obama condemns the impunity in the Middle East, America is enjoying impunity also due to its status as superpower. In 2005 the a number of courts denied a lawsuit stating there were no grounds due to Agent Orange not being considered a poison in international law at the time of its use, the Supreme Court refused to hear the case. As with every controversial issue there are studies on both sides that confirm or deny the effects of chemicals used by the Americans during the Vietnam war but it is with incredulity that I read of the double standards of the US. The Department of Veterans Affairs, since 1991, offers free medical care for recognised illnesses caused by exposure to Agent Orange and dioxins; this is tantamount to admittance of the effects of Agent Orange. Yet it denies that there is any negative health impact in Vietnam, this must mean the Vietnamese biologically immune to poison. Of course.

A UK based charity, ‘Facing the World’, provides life changing craniofacial surgery for children with severe facial deformities from poor and disadvantaged countries where children cannot receive the care they need. One of the biggest successes of this charity has been the Vietnam Project where a team of surgeons have collaborated with Danang General Hospital in Vietnam to provide a training scheme, literature and a telemedicine link with London for local doctors to enable them to provide craniofacial surgery themselves. This is due to the extremely high incidence of deformity within Vietnam where there is stringent belief that Agent Orange is the cause of continued deformity in children. Although the work is in extremely high demand, the charity can only help on average 100 children per year across the world. The Vietnam Project is doing fantastic work in a country abandoned by those who arguably caused the problem. The superpower that is the United States of America denies responsibility for the children affected and denies them compensation that could improve their quality of life. When it comes to this issue doubt is cast on their status as defenders of humanity. See the link below for more information.

My question is whether the United States of America is getting away with impunity in the face of widespread injury to civilians due to the use of chemicals in a place it had no reason to be or whether it was a justifiable act in the course of war and the claims of the Vietnamese are exaggerated?


Bex Dunn