Agent Orange: 40 years after the Vietnam War, the ghosts of chemical warfare live on


Vietnam war 1

By Harshmeet Singh

This  April 30 would mark the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon (South Vietnam’s erstwhile capital), which led to the conclusion of Vietnam War. Lasting two decades, the Vietnam War was fought between North Vietnam and South Vietnam. While North Vietnam was backed by China, Soviet Union and other communist allies, South Vietnam was aided by the powerful USA and its allies.

North Vietnam majorly depended on the guerrilla war tactics as it trained the National Liberation Front (NLF) to fight against the US and its anti-communist allies. South Vietnam, on the other hand, relied on major air attacks and heavy firepower of the USA to uproot its enemy.

The US was ready to pull out all stops to check the spread of communism and avert the communist powers from taking over South Vietnam. While North Vietnam forces wanted to unify the two countries and establish communist rule over a unified Vietnam, the USA’s actions were based on its domino theory, according to which, if one country takes the communist path, the other nations in the region would soon follow suit.

Role of the US

By the time North Vietnam captured Saigon in 1975 and the war ended, the loss of life was unparalleled. The war casualties were numbered close to a staggering 3 million.

USA’s biggest involvement in the war was its air strikes over North Vietnam. The US army sprayed more than 20 million gallons of ‘Agent Orange’ over the agricultural land in South Vietnam and some parts of Laos and Cambodia. Codenamed ‘Operation Ranch Hand’, this move was aimed at exposing the guerrillas hidden in forest land and depriving them of cover and food. This also led to the peasants vacating their lands, thus eroding the support base of guerrilla fighters.

Exposure to Agent Orange led to horrendous after effects. According to the data furnished by the Vietnam Government, over 3 million people have suffered disabilities and illness due to this exposure. Even after 40 years since the conclusion of war, a number of birth and respiratory defects are still found among the people living in the affected areas of Vietnam and the US war veterans who served in these areas. Contaminated soil in the region has led to poisonous food which has given rise to health problems such as skin cancer, prostate cancer and lung cancer. The chemicals from Agent Orange have entered the food chains in the region through the animals that feed over the affected area.

John Kerry, the present US Secretary of State and a fierce opponent of Vietnam War, served in the Vietnam War as an officer in charge. In 1971, he testified before the senate, saying –

“They told the stories of times that they had personally raped, cut off the ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam in addition to the normal ravage of war and the normal and very particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country.”

The impact of a war long outlives the actual war. Children born without eyes, new born babies with twisted bodies and disabled adults are usual sights in the area where the deadly Agent Orange was sprayed. The victims now run in third generations. Albeit the war is long over, even today, the parents keep their fingers crossed while a new born is checked by the doctors for any signs of disability.

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US war veterans also affected

The US war veterans, who served in the affected areas of Vietnam, have incurred deadly diseases such as skin cancer, leukaemia and throat cancer at exceptionally higher rates than the average US citizens. The worse impacted ones were the personnel who were involved in loading the planes with Agent Orange and storing the chemical on the ground.

Astonishingly, according to many war veterans, while they were using this chemical in Vietnam, they were told that it is harmless. By 1993, over 39,000 war veterans in the US had filed for disability claims with the ‘Department of Veteran Affairs’, citing their exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam. Of them, only 486 victims were compensated.

Over the past decade or so, various consultations have taken place between the US and Vietnam, regarding the ill effects of Agent Orange and USA’s accountability. Although the US has agreed, more than once, to transfer technical and financial assistance to Vietnam to clean up the remaining bits of Orange Agent, the process is taking far too long to save the present generation from the chemical’s implications.

The Vietnam War possibly represents one of the biggest foreign affairs miscalculations on the part of the US. This also gave birth to the phrase ‘Vietnam Syndrome’ in the US, which depicts the government’s and public’s reluctance to enter any conflict, post the Vietnam War. Despite USA’s best efforts to stop the spread of communism in the region, Vietnam today stands as a unified, communist country. Amongst the effects of war on the US were huge federal budget deficit, over 58,000 dead soldiers and some important lessons on future military interventions. But considering the number of conflicts the US has been a part of since then, the lessons don’t seem to be taken well enough.

  • In nutshell, the US in garb of spreading democracy and ensuring peace has always been the reason for wars.