Bringing the War Home Justice for Vietnam's Agent Orange Victims

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Authors: Merle Ratner

Merle Ratner is the Co-coordinator of the Vietnam Agent Orange Relief & Responsibility Campaign and the Co-Chair of the Brecht Forum.

Full Article:

The news was devastating. Two weeks after a successful speaking tour of the US in June 2007, two of the Vietnamese Agent Orange victims on the delegation were dead.

Ms. Nguyen Thi Hong and Mr. Nguyen Van Quy, suffering respectively from terminal breast and stomach cancer, had come to share their stories with the people of the US.

They spent their last weeks of life appealing for justice and compensation for themselves, their families, and the millions of others suffering from life-threatening and debilitating illnesses caused by the US's spraying of Agent Orange during the Vietnam war more than 30 years ago.

Those of us who accompanied the delegation won't forget the tears in the eyes of US veteran leader David Cline as he tenderly pinned the Purple Heart he was awarded for serving in the Army in Vietnam on the frail chest of fellow veteran Nguyen Van Quy. We'll remember Nguyen Thi Hong's determination as she entered the courtroom in her wheelchair on the day of their lawsuit.

Hong and Quy, along with two other Agent Orange victims on the trip, exhibited a high level of dedication and selflessness as they spoke at numerous public meetings, attended an appeals hearing to reinstate their lawsuit, and met with Congressmembers Conyers and McDermott to explore possible congressional action.

This second Vietnam Agent Orange Justice Tour was organized by the Vietnam Agent Orange Relief & Responsibility Campaign, which began in 2004 in response to the Vietnamese lawsuit for compensation for Agent Orange victims. The impetus came from Vietnam war veterans and other anti-war activists who understood our responsibility to heal the wounds of war by addressing the issue that the Vietnamese people have identified as their priority - attaining compensation, treatment, and environmental cleanup for communities devastated by Agent Orange.

Established as a project of Veterans for Peace in 2004, VFP and Vietnam Veterans Against the War members are a key part of our leadership. In addition to vets and Vietnamese Americans, our Campaign involves leading African American, Latino, and labor activists in building a network of activists in more than twenty cities.

Our next organizing focus is in the public health and environmental justice movements, reaching out to US communities whose land has been poisoned by toxic dumping of dioxin by Dow Chemical and other companies. In November, we will bring a physician and Agent Orange researcher from Vietnam to meet with health care and environmental groups at the American Public Health Association convention in Washington, DC, where a resolution on Agent Orange will be considered.

How has a campaign that focuses on the aftermath of a war that ended in 1975 captured the support and attention of people today?

Relying on the Grassroots

Other efforts to gain justice for Vietnam's Agent Orange victims have floundered because they relied on using moral suasion to convince US elites to help Agent Orange victims. Without grassroots organizing there was no way to bring political pressure to bear on the government. The Vietnamese people were left with empty promises or denials of responsibility. As we learned from US veterans who fought to get disability compensation from the Veterans Administration (and from Frederick Douglass), "power concedes nothing without a demand."

Of particular importance to us is to involve young people both to ensure historical continuity and because young people are affected by chemical warfare, whether Agent Orange birth defects, depleted uranium and white phosphorous in Iraq, or the dumping of toxic chemicals in South Bronx communities. We speak in high schools and colleges and are now working on an exchange between a US and a Vietnamese high school.

Historically, communities of color have been strongly opposed to the war in Vietnam, the war in Iraq, and other US wars of aggression. However, the contributions of activists of color to anti-war movements and the centrality of the leadership that they exercise have often not been respected or acknowledged.

Since the end of the US war against Vietnam, organizing in African-American, Latino, Asian-American, and Native communities has often been ignored by many in Vietnam solidarity movements.

Our campaign from its inception understood that to succeed in achieving justice for Vietnam's Agent Orange victims, we needed to have strong leadership from the communities who bear the brunt of US wars. This understanding shapes our organizing priorities.

In the recent speaking tour, one of the warmest receptions we received came at a service at San Romero de las Americas Church attended by Black, Dominican, and Puerto Rican parishioners. A reminder that Agent Orange was tested in Vieques, Puerto Rico by the US military sparked plans for solidarity exchanges between Vietnamese and Puerto Ricans fighting against chemical weapons.

Developing true inclusion and equality, however, is a continuous process requiring real determination and ongoing examination of the impact of the racism and white supremacy in US society, especially among white activists.

Linking Foreign and Domestic Issues

While peace and justice movements face many competing priorities, we see the Agent Orange campaign as an integral and vital component. To break down the dichotomy between "foreign"and "domestic"struggles, we have been promoting understanding of linkages across borders. Because Agent Orange affects people in Vietnam, the US, Korea, Puerto Rico, and other countries, we have been able to build a national campaign with strong international solidarity and shared strategy.

Organizing to Win

Our campaign is not a permanent organization - it will exist until we fulfill our goals of gaining justice and compensation for Agent Orange victims. And we intend to achieve these goals. We will not be content with promises to study the issue, unfulfilled commitments, or empty excuses. As we grow, we do so with the memory of our dear sister Hong and brother Quy, and with the memory of our board member Joan Duffy, a Vietnam veteran nurse who died of Agent Orange-related breast cancer late last year. We will do our best to draw from their example of courage, dedication, and hard work.

As Peacework was going to press, we received word that David Cline, a founder and leader of VAORRC who led a delegation from the US to a conference of Agent Orange survivors in Vietnam, died on September 15, 2007. We mourn his passing, and will carry on his determination to wage peace with justice.

Agent Orange: A Chemical Weapon that Keeps on Killing

By Merle Ratner

Between 1962 and 1971 the U.S government sprayed an estimated twenty million gallons of toxic herbicides (of which thirteen million gallons were Agent Orange) over a tenth of the land area of southern Vietnam. The Agent Orange (called that because it came in barrels with an orange strip) used is estimated to have contained over 500 pounds of TCDD dioxin - one of the most toxic chemicals known to science.

The Air Force used 2,4,5-T herbicide in Agent Orange in concentrations that were as much as thirteen times higher than that recommended by the manufacturers for use in the US. Approximately 4.8 million Vietnamese citizens were exposed to these herbicides, subjecting them to a 30% higher risk of death from cancer than those not exposed.

Exposure to Agent Orange causes cancer (including Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, Hodgkin's Disease, and chronic lymphocytic leukemia), Type II diabetes, spina bifida, chloracne, disorders of the endocrine system, cardio-vascular system and other illnesses. After a struggle by US veterans, the Department of Veterans Affairs automatically awards service-connected disability to Agent Orange-exposed Vietnam veterans for thirteen of these health conditions. Yet, the more than three million Vietnamese people suffering from these conditions have received no compensation from the US government or chemical companies.

The dioxin in Agent Orange lodges in the genetic material and continues to affect children born decades after the war. An estimated 50,000 children with deformities have been born to Vietnamese parents exposed to Agent Orange, who are 2.2 times more likely than non-exposed parents to have a child with a deformity. Agent Orange is an environmental disaster for Vietnam -- dioxin still contaminates the soil and natural environment in "hot spots"in central and south Vietnam.

Since the Vietnam war, the American military has continued to use toxic weapons and has refused to acknowledge that these weapons present a health hazard to either civilians or soldiers. The Pentagon is making heavy use of toxic "depleted uranium"shells, napalm, and white phosphorus bombs in its occupation of Iraq and in other wars.

Vietnamese People Seek Justice

By Merle Ratner

The chemicals used during the Vietnam War were ordered and sprayed by the US government and manufactured by Dow, Monsanto, and 35 other chemical companies who knew about the deadly affects of Agent Orange/dioxin to human health and the environment.

In 2004, Vietnamese victims filed a lawsuit against the manufacturers of Agent Orange in federal court. The organization representing more than 3 million victims, the Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin ("VAVA") is taking the lead in mobilizing Vietnamese and international support for justice and compensation for the victims. The Vietnamese government is already giving stipends to all those affected, but much more is needed.

What you can do:

* Sign a petition to Congress and the President online at www.petitiononline.com/AOVN

* Pass a resolution in your community group, school, place of worship, veterans' organization, or union asking Congress to allocate funds to care for and compensate Vietnam's Agent Orange victims and clean up the toxic "hot spots."

* Organize an event to learn about the effects of Agent Orange.

* Support the campaign for justice and compensation for Vietnam's Agent Orange victims by making a tax-deductible contribution to: Veterans for Peace/VAORRC; mail to Vietnam Agent Orange Relief & Responsibility Campaign, POB 303, Prince Station, New York, NY 10012; www.vn-agentorange.org.