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Agent Orange Cleanup: A Priority for Hillary Clinton in Vietnam

5 years ago
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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.

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A line has to be drawn on Government spending right now. We just can't afford to keep borrowing money to fund every "nice to have." I consider funding a cleanup of Agent Orange in Vietnam a "nice to have." Vietnam won the war. They want to be in charge. If the Communist system is so good, let them pay for the cleanup. We gave enough to that country. We can't afford to give more. That money can be better used to fund jobs in this country to save American homes and to help keep American families from breaking up due to the economy. If America had a budget surplus, full employment, healthcare for everyone, then I say help them. But, until then we just can't afford it.

July 23 2010 at 10:32 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
dc walker

My earlier comments on this subject were not printed so I would just like to say we should help out. These people helped our pilots in WWII against the Japanese and pulled them from the sea to safety.

July 21 2010 at 4:42 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The US government has recognized several medical problems that Vietnam Vets are experiencing from Agent Orange! Unfortunately it was a very bad chemical that should have never been used. Yeah it killed all the jungle foliage, but it also caused many health problems that killed or is killing our vets that served over there!

July 21 2010 at 10:01 AM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

Everyone keeps writing about Sarah Palin and if she will run for Pres in 2012. The better question, is, will Hillary oppose Obama? Hopefully people will remember her agenda is the same as that of the Obama admin, and will take a pass, should she hit the campaign trail.

July 21 2010 at 9:08 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to ettu's comment
dc walker

If Hillary and Palin run it would be a waste of their money. People are fed up. We don't want to see the same old faces. We want integrity, intelligence, experience and knowledge of domestic and foreign affairs. Most of all, Americans want someone who will take care of Americans first and the rest of the world second. When our people are working and taking care of their families THEN they can look outward like they have in the past with the Peace Corps, foreign assistance etc.

July 21 2010 at 4:10 PM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply

My husband was drafted into the Viet Nam War and spent two tours there on the front lines in a mobile medical unit. He saw many many casualties of that war. Many sons and daughters were lost for no apparent reason. I do not think Americans have any responsibility to Viet Nam for Agent Orange. The US Government has taken no responsibility for Agent Orange and its effects on the military men and women who returned from Viet Nam that were exposed to it. Unfortunetly, war is war as awful as it is. We should not go on paying forever for poor decisions made by our Government.

July 20 2010 at 10:55 PM Report abuse +11 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to kernsknn's comment

Sadly, you are right. That was an awful war, so many were lost. I still choke up when I remember it.

July 20 2010 at 11:31 PM Report abuse +8 rate up rate down Reply
Free the Land!

Unfortunately this is a very misinformed position. The U.S. government HAS recognized that Agent Orange causes a host of problems including cancer, spinal bifida, horrendous birth defects and painful death. U.S. combat veterans who served in Vietnam and their affected children do receive Veterans Administration benefits and care.

Many Vietnamese paid with their lives fighting alongside our brave soldiers. U.S. chemical companies--many of whom have been held liable for blithe use of toxic agents causing cancers in the U.S.

Why should the U.S. keep protecting these chemical companies from lawsuit--from BP to Dow Chemical? How will the U.S. ever find war allies when the ones we've had are repaid with death for them, their children and their grandchildren?

August 05 2010 at 7:39 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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