50th anniversary of using Agent Orange in Southeast Asia

The US sanctioned coup of Diem sealed our fate in Vietnam

by Ed Mattson


August 10th marked the 50th anniversary of the commencement of using Agent Orange defoliant in Vietnam and other countries of Southeast Asia. This is not a momentous occasion by any stretch of the imagination, but like the Watergate incident involving the Nixon Administration; it marked the end in the belief for many, which was that the US was always right regardless of whatever action it would take.

Some folks have always bought into the idea that whatever government does, it is for “the greater good”, and have had the tendency to look the other way regardless of the fallout. The bombing of Japan to end the war in the Pacific, the nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union, and hundreds of feel-good programs embarked upon by our government trying to social engineer our way to providing equal prosperity to every citizen, are reminiscent of simpler times.

The lack of success the French had in their Indo-China war should have been a wake-up call that our incursion into Vietnam would be a difficult task and perhaps an impossible one at best given the political climate of the region and the corrupt government with whom we had aligned our country. The sense in fighting a war with a guerrilla enemy in a terrain that provided unlimited opportunities for concealment and refuge, to develop a democratic government that was borne of corruption, and to not expect a conflict that would go on for years is simply naïve in retrospect, but then, that’s how much of history is remembered…20-20 vision in hindsight.

Early-on US strategies were as observers and trainers of the South Vietnamese military, to protect the people and a corrupt government, probably as much from each other as for each other. It soon became obvious that, as talented and capable as some of the South Vietnamese soldiers were, they would never be a match for an enemy that could easily hide in the citizenry, and move in and out of a battle disappearing into the countryside or back to an urban area without batting an eye.  Since much of the internal conflict in South Vietnam was with the fascist government and president Ngo Dinh Diem, a staunch Catholic in a country dominated by Buddists, Diem had to go and the CIA was more than a willing accomplice in his assassination.

Following Diem’s demise there were a series of coups, but no one was strong enough to create a stable government so the US itself became the defacto head of state leading to charges of colonialism by many Vietnamese, and a rallying cry for the Communists of North Vietnam. With the US firmly entrench in the hole it dug for itself, the only survival for a struggling South Vietnam was US boots on the ground. And so we were incrementally sucked in by our own politicians believing that the only hope for success was the false notion that American blood would make a difference.

I guess to those in Washington DC the idea was the only way to prevent the spread of Communism throughout Southeast Asia, but today all would agree the loss of 58,000 American troops was not worth the effort which ended up dividing America and became the platform for much of today’s political derisiveness.  It is hard for a government to lead without the trust of its citizens, and one could easily argue the beginning of distrust emanated from the handling of affairs in Vietnam.

Adding insult to injury to the Vietnam War was the notion that we needed to level the battlefield of the enemy by depriving them the use of the jungle for refuge and for warehousing war-making supplies, and by using defoliating agents we could accomplish that task but also eliminate much of their food supply as well. The problem with the plan was the inability to tell guerrilla combatants from the citizenry. The devastation caused by the defoliation program had a catastrophic affect on not only most of Southeast Asia, but on the lives of hundreds of thousands of US troops and their families.

So, in 1961, the use of defoliants began, which in hindsight we can all agree was fool-heartedly at best, but as it has turned out is far more than that. While there is much blame to go around, what started out as negligence in the way the program was deployed, it evolved into a program that became felonious behavior. As I mentioned in a previous article regarding the infamous Dr. Joseph Mengela and his human medical experiments during the Nazi regime, so to could the cavalier use of Agent Orange and other toxins be applied to the actions of our government. The saddest part of the defoliant “experiment” is that it affected millions of innocent men, women, and children, in Vietnam and other countries of Southeast Asia.

Some will argue that the use of defoliants was a successful program in that it did destroy much of the vegetation, but  simply handing over toxin chemicals to the military, pat them on the back and say, “go spray”, without proper instruction as to cautions that should be taken in handling, mixing (proper concentration), storage, clean-up, and destroying waste and left-over product, has to viewed as fragrant disregard for the outcome which has come to be  recognized as nefarious.  A report by Admiral Zumwalt to Secretary Derwinski of the Department of Veterans Affairs  concluded some of the chemical mixes were 6-25 times the recommended dilution, when at a 50-50 dilution rate the toxin is one of the most deadly chemicals known to man…a fact not relayed to the boots on the ground.

It is one thing to deploy a strategy for waging a war, but we took it to a whole new level when we embarked on the use of defoliants. No one realized at the time that deploying 10-12 million or so gallons of Agent Orange would end up costing upwards of a trillion dollars before it can be determined to be “all over”. According to Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 4.8 million Vietnamese people were exposed to Agent Orange, resulting in 400,000 people being killed or maimed, 500,000 children born with birth defects, and 10 million hectares of agricultural land contaminated. It is nearly impossible to fix the exact cost in medical expenses for the Vietnamese people (and other citizens exposed in Southeast Asia), the US troops living with the aftermath, the cost of clean-up, and the future loss of productivity by those maimed by the deadly toxin.

So where are we today, fifty years after the fact? There is some good news to be found. A study conducted by Hatfield Consultants, Ltd, Vancouver, Canada, in collaboration with the government of Vietnam and through a series of earth core samples has reported the Vietnamese countryside to no longer pose a health threat with the exception of “hot spots” that are comprised of the former US military bases of Da Nang, Bien Hoa, Can Tho, Nha Trang, Phu Cat, Pleiku, and Yan San Nhut, and the downstream and the immediate surrounding areas. The Vietnamese government has stated that with proper notification of its citizenry, future problems can be minimizes.

An action plan by the France-Vietnamese Friendship Association (AAFV) in May 2011, has called for $300 million to help finalize the remaining clean-up operation financed mainly by the US government, but it still leaves in doubt, the medical fate of thousands of US soldiers and their families, as the Veterans Administration continues its knuckle-dragging policy of insisting upon the victims to prove a correlation between Agent Orange and their sickness.  Is it time to put the issue behind us and call for a speedy resolve of the situation?


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Following his service in the Marine Corps Ed Mattson built a diverse career in business in both sales/marketing and management. He is a medical research specialist and published author. His latest book is Down on Main Street: Searching for American Exceptionalism Ed is currently Development Director of the National Guard Bureau of International Affairs-State Partnership Program, Fundraising Coordinator for the Warrior2Citizen Project, and Managing Partner of Center-Point Consultants in North Carolina. Mr. Mattson is a noted speaker and has addressed more than 3000 audiences in 42 states and 5 foreign countries. He has been awarded the Order of the Sword by American Cancer Society, is a Rotarian Paul Harris Fellow and appeared on more than 15 radio and television talk-shows.