The Legacy of Agent Orange

One of the issues discussed when President Bush visited Vietnam this week was the long-term effect of the chemical defoliant Agent Orange. The Vietnamese say there are some 1 million people who have suffered health problems resulting from U.S. use of the chemical during the war.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

President Bush's very presence demonstrates that the relationship between the U.S. and Vietnam has come a long way since the fall of Saigon in 1975. Thirty-one years after the end of a war that left as many as three million Vietnamese and 58,000 Americans dead, U.S. warships now make port calls in Ho Chi Minh City and DaNang. American businesspeople are surging into the country. Passage of the U.S.-Vietnam trade bill, delayed earlier this week but still expected to approval, will bring even more.

One of the last outstanding issues between the two countries, though, is the damage done by the chemical defoliant Agent Orange. NPR's Michael Sullivan is based in Vietnam and joins us now from Hanoi. Michael, thanks for being with us.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN: Hi, Scott.

SIMON: And remind us, please, about what Agent Orange is and was used for during the war.

SULLIVAN: Well, as you said, it's a chemical defoliant that got its name from the orange identification stripes painted on the 55-gallon drums that it used to come in. The U.S. sprayed about 12 million gallons of this stuff in Vietnam from 1962 to 1971, almost all of it in the south, in an effort to deny the enemy cover there. And it's the dioxin that was in that chemical compound that's causing the problems.

The Vietnamese say there are about a million Agent Orange victims - people with birth defects or cancer or other health problems, problems the Vietnamese say are caused by dioxin in the food chain, in the water or in the soil. And the Vietnamese say these aren't just cases left over from the war, that there's a whole new generation who are now victims born to parents exposed to dioxin or newly exposed themselves.

The Vietnamese say the Americans sprayed the stuff, they should be responsible for making things right. And making it right for many Vietnamese means providing compensation. The U.S. says there's not enough definitive proof that Agent Orange, the dioxin in it, has caused all these birth defects and all these other health problems in all these people that the Vietnamese claim it has.

SIMON: Now, U.S. veterans have received compensation for the exposure to Agent Orange, haven't they?

SULLIVAN: Yeah. And this is, you know, to the Vietnamese, obviously, this is a little frustrating, because in the early '90s Congress okayed financial help for U.S. veteran. And in the late '70s a group of vets filed suit against the U.S. manufacturers of Agent Orange and settled out of court, in 1984, I think, for about $180 million.

So three Vietnamese filed a similar suit against the manufacturers two years ago in federal court in Brooklyn, but that effort failed. They've appealed, and the appeal is expected to be heard in a few months.

SIMON: Do Vietnamese citizens who have been injured or believe they have been injured by Agent Orange get any compensation from their own government?

SULLIVAN: They do, but it's not a lot. About $20 a month in compensation. The Vietnamese also haven't done a great deal in the way of environmental clean-up, so there are probably contaminated sites out there that people don't know about and being exposed to. But I think that's going to change in the future.

Because last week the Ford Foundation announced a new $2.2 million grant to help identify dioxin hotspots, and some new government-to-government cooperation between the U.S. and Vietnam on the environmental side as well.

SIMON: What form is that cooperation taking?

SULLIVAN: Researchers have identified several hotspots where Agent Orange was stored. And one of those places is DaNang, at the old U.S. airbase there. And last year the U.S. and Vietnamese governments got together on a project to test the soil there, and now the two countries are working together on a plan to remove the dioxin from the soil. It's going to be expensive and the U.S. is going to foot part of the bill.

So this is clearly an example of the two countries moving forward, and the Vietnamese say as much.

SIMON: Should we expect any progress on the Agent Orange issue at this summit meeting?

SULLIVAN: It's hard to tell. I mean there was a joint statement yesterday. President Bush and Vietnam's President Triet agreed that further joint efforts, like the one I was just talking about, to address environmental contamination, are needed. So that's encouraging.

Some here have hinted that President Bush might say more before he leaves. But we don't know.

SIMON: NPR's Michael Sullivan in Hanoi. Thanks very much.

SULLIVAN: You're welcome, Scott.

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