August marks the 50th anniversary of the first use of herbicides by United States military forces during the war in Vietnam. From 1961 until 1971, more than 20 million gallons of Agent Orange and other herbicides were stored, mixed, handled by U.S. troops and sprayed by U.S. airplanes over millions of acres of Vietnamese forest and farmland. The goal of this military operation was to deny cover to the enemy on the ground.
The U.S. government now compensates U.S. Vietnam-era vets for 15 serious health conditions and one birth defect related to exposure to the dioxin that was part of those herbicides.
But some 3 million Vietnamese also suffered health effects, including 150,000 of today’s children with birth defects. Their needs have long been neglected, caught in the geopolitical and scientific conflict that followed the war. The Vietnamese government, several U.S. foundations, and nongovernmental organizations have set up hospitals and small remediation programs, but so far these have redressed less than 10 percent of the need.
But the devastating legacy of Agent Orange, one remaining shadow of that war, is on the way to being resolved in Vietnam — if current trends continue. We may have disagreed on many things in the past, but on a recent trip to Vietnam we witnessed a new spirit of cooperation and partnership among former adversaries. All sides are now determined to alleviate the health and environmental damage from Agent Orange, damage that continues to this day.
At a church-run center near Ho Chi Minh City, we knelt on the floor to meet Nguyen Van Minh, 14, one of 60 severely disabled children receiving medical care and rehabilitation there. Like any child, he giggled and sang along with us to a silly song about “fishies,” as other children competed to hold our hands and give us hugs. Their simple joy in life transcends partisan differences, making it clear that the way to see the Agent Orange legacy now is as a humanitarian concern that we can do something about.
Our former colleagues in Congress agree, so $18.5 million for Agent Orange remediation in Vietnam survived the recent 2011 appropriations battle. At former U.S. military bases, starting with the Da Nang airport, the U.S. Agency for International Development is already at work cleaning up deadly “hot spots” of dioxin residues that are still making people sick where the herbicides spilled and soaked into the ground. The State Department is beginning a new $34 million cleanup project at Da Nang, and David Shear, awaiting Senate confirmation to serve as the new U.S. ambassador, pledged to continue assistance for Vietnam’s disabled citizens without regard to cause.
This is all very good news, reflecting the U.S. mission’s astute understanding that America’s commercial and security interests are well served by dealing with the Agent Orange issue. To follow through during this window of opportunity, the United States should adopt a long-term action plan like that drawn up by the U.S.-Vietnam Dialogue Group on Agent Orange/Dioxin, a nonpartisan group of prominent scientists, policymakers and citizens from both countries sponsored by the Aspen Institute.
For an investment of $30 million a year over 10 years, shared with Vietnam and other donors, the Dialogue Group plan would restore damaged ecosystems, clean up contaminated soils and expand humanitarian services to people with disabilities. Advances in technology and know-how have made this possible, and now is the time to do it.
America is at its best when it responds to humanitarian concerns, restores hope and dignity to a devastated people and closes wounds from the past. Helping innocent children like Minh, who are suffering from their parents’ exposure to Agent Orange/dioxin, is a treatment that can heal us all.
The authors are former U.S. representatives in Congress Constance Morella (R-Md.) and Bob Edgar (D-Pa.)