29 March 2003
30 years after the Vietnam war, a chemical weapon used by US troops
is still exacting a hideous toll on each new generation. Cathy Scott-Clark
and Adrian Levy report
Hanh is falling to pieces. She has been poisoned by the most toxic
molecule known to science; it was sprayed during a prolonged military
campaign. The contamination persists. No redress has been offered,
no compensation. The superpower that spread the toxin has done nothing
to combat the medical and environmental catastrophe that is overwhelming
her country. This is not northern Iraq, where Saddam Hussein gassed
5,000 Kurds in 1988. Nor the trenches of first world war France.
Hanh's story, and that of many more like her, is quietly unfolding
in Vietnam today. Her declining half-life is spent unseen, in her
home, an unremarkable concrete box in Ho Chi Minh City, filled with
photographs, family plaques and yellow enamel stars, a place where
the best is made of the worst.
Hanh is both surprising and terrifying. Here is a 19-year-old who
lives in a 10-year-old's body. She clatters around with disjointed
spidery strides which leave her soaked in sweat. When she cannot
stop crying, soothing creams and iodine are rubbed into her back,
which is a lunar collage of septic blisters and scabs.
daughter is dying," her mother says. "My youngest daughter
is 11 and she has the same symptoms. What should we do? Their fingers
and toes stick together before they drop off. Their hands wear down
to stumps. Every day they lose a little more skin. And this is not
leprosy. The doctors say it is connected to American chemical weapons
we were exposed to during the Vietnam war."
are an estimated 650,000 like Hong Hanh in Vietnam, suffering from
an array of baffling chronic conditions. Another 500,000 have already
died. The thread that weaves through all their case histories is
defoliants deployed by the US military during the war. Some of the
victims are veterans who were doused in these chemicals during the
war, others are farmers who lived off land that was sprayed. The
second generation are the sons and daughters of war veterans, or
children born to parents who lived on contaminated land. Now there
is a third generation, the grandchildren of the war and its victims.
is a chain of events bitterly denied by the US government. Millions
of litres of defoliants such as Agent Orange were dropped on Vietnam,
but US government scientists claimed that these chemicals were harmless
to humans and short-lived in the environment. US strategists argue
that Agent Orange was a prototype smart weapon, a benign tactical
herbicide that saved many hundreds of thousands of American lives
by denying the North Vietnamese army the jungle cover that allowed
it ruthlessly to strike and feint.
scientific research, however, confirms what the Vietnamese have
been claiming for years. It also portrays the US government as one
that has illicitly used weapons of mass destruction, stymied all
independent efforts to assess the impact of their deployment, failed
to acknowledge cold, hard evidence of maiming and slaughter, and
pursued a policy of evasion and deception.
of international scientists working in Vietnam have now discovered
that Agent Orange contains one of the most virulent poisons known
to man, a strain of dioxin called TCCD which, 28 years after the
fighting ended, remains in the soil, continuing to destroy the lives
of those exposed to it. Evidence has also emerged that the US government
not only knew that Agent Orange was contaminated, but was fully
aware of the killing power of its contaminant dioxin, and yet still
continued to use the herbicide in Vietnam for 10 years of the war
and in concentrations that exceeded its own guidelines by 25 times.
As well as spraying the North Vietnamese, the US doused its own
troops stationed in the jungle, rather than lose tactical advantage
by having them withdraw.
February 5, addressing the UN Security Council, secretary of state
Colin Powell, now famously, clutched between his fingers a tiny
phial representing concentrated anthrax spores, enough to kill thousands,
and only a tiny fraction of the amount he said Saddam Hussein had
at his disposal.
Vietnamese government has its own symbolic phial that it, too, flourishes,
in scientific conferences that get little publicity. It contains
80g of TCCD, just enough of the super-toxin contained in Agent Orange
to fill a child-size talcum powder container. If dropped into the
water supply of a city the size of New York, it would kill the entire
population. Ground-breaking research by Dr Arthur H Westing, former
director of the UN Environment Programme, a leading authority on
Agent Orange, reveals that the US sprayed 170kg of it over Vietnam.
F Kennedy's presidential victory in 1961 was propelled by an image
of the New Frontier. He called on Americans to "bear the burden
of a long twilight struggle ... against the common enemies of man:
tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself." But one of the
most problematic new frontiers, that dividing North and South Vietnam,
flared up immediately after he had taken office, forcing him to
bolster the US-backed regime in Saigon. Kennedy examined "tricks
and gadgets" that might give the South an edge in the jungle,
and in November 1961 sanctioned the use of defoliants in a covert
operation code-named Ranch Hand, every mission flown signed off
by the president himself and managed in Saigon by the secret Committee
202 - the call sign for defoliating forests being "20"
and for spraying fields "2".
Luc, 67, was serving with a North Vietnamese guerrilla unit in the
Central Highlands when he saw planes circling overhead. "We
expected bombs, but a fine yellow mist descended, covering absolutely
everything," he says. "We were soaked in it, but it didn't
worry us, as it smelled good. We continued to crawl through the
jungle. The next day the leaves wilted and within a week the jungle
was bald. We felt just fine at the time." Today, the former
captain is the sole survivor from his unit and lives with his two
granddaughters, both born partially paralysed, near the central
Vietnamese city of Hue.
US troops became directly embroiled in Vietnam in 1964, the Pentagon
signed contracts worth $57m (£36m) with eight US chemical
companies to produce defoliants, including Agent Orange, named after
the coloured band painted around the barrels in which it was shipped.
The US would target the Ho Chi Minh trail - Viet Cong supply lines
made invisible by the jungle canopy along the border with Laos -
as well as the heavily wooded Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) that separated
the North from the South, and also the Mekong Delta, a maze of overgrown
swamps and inlets that was a haven for communist insurgents.
reporter for the St Louis Dispatch witnessed a secret spraying mission
and wrote that the US was dropping "poison". Congressman
Robert Kastenmeier demanded that the president abandon "chemical
warfare" because it tainted America's reputation. Instead,
William Bundy, a presidential adviser, flatly denied that the herbicide
used by America was a chemical weapon, and blamed communist propagandists
for a distortion of the facts about the Ranch Hand operation. Only
when the Federation of American Scientists warned that year that
Vietnam was being used as a laboratory experiment did the rumours
become irrefutable. More than 5,000 American scientists, including
17 Nobel laureates and 129 members of the Academy of Sciences, signed
a petition against "chemical and biological weapons used in
years after the military launched Operation Ranch Hand, scientists
from the National Institute of Health warned that laboratory mice
exposed to Agent Orange were giving birth to stillborn or deformed
litters, a conclusion reinforced by research conducted by the US
department of agriculture. These findings coincided with newspaper
reports in Hanoi that blamed Agent Orange for a range of crippling
conditions among troops and their families. Dr Le Ke Son, a young
conscript in Hanoi during the war and now director of Vietnam's
Agent Orange Victims Fund, recalls, "The government proposed
that a line of runners carry blood and tissue samples from the front
to Hanoi. But it was more than 500 miles and took two months, by
which time the samples were spoiled. How could we make the research
work? There was no way to prove what we could see with our own eyes."
December 1969, President Nixon made a radical and controversial
pledge that America would never use chemical weapons in a first
strike. He made no mention of Vietnam or Agent Orange, and the US
government continued dispatching supplies of herbicides to the South
Vietnamese regime until 1974.
year, Kiem was born in a one-room hut in Kim Doi, a village just
outside Hue. For her mother, Nguyen, she should have been a consolation
because her husband, a Viet Cong soldier, had been killed several
months earlier. "The last time he came home, he told me about
the spray, how his unit had been doused in a sweet-smelling mist
and all the leaves had fallen from the trees," Nguyen says.
It soon became obvious that Kiem was severely mentally and physically
disabled. "She can eat, she can smile, she sits on the bed.
That's it. I have barely left my home since my daughter was born."
the time the war finally ended in 1975, more than 10% of Vietnam
had been intensively sprayed with 72 million litres of chemicals,
of which 66% was Agent Orange, laced with its superain of toxic
TCCD. But even these figures, contained in recently declassified
US military records, vastly underestimate the true scale of the
spraying. In confidential statements made to US scientists, former
Ranch Hand pilots allege that, in addition to the recorded missions,
there were 26,000 aborted operations during which 260,000 gallons
of herbicide were dumped. US military regulations required all spray
planes or helicopters to return to base empty and one pilot, formerly
stationed at Bien Hoa air base between 1968 and 1969, claims that
he regularly jettisoned his chemical load into the Long Binh reservoir.
"These herbicides should never have been used in the way that
they were used," says the pilot, who has asked not to be identified.
immediately after the war finished, US veterans began reporting
chronic conditions, skin disorders, asthma, cancers, gastrointestinal
diseases. Their babies were born limbless or with Down's syndrome
and spina bifida. But it would be three years before the US department
of veterans' affairs reluctantly agreed to back a medical investigation,
examining 300,000 former servicemen - only a fraction of those who
had complained of being sick - with the government warning all participants
that it was indemnified from lawsuits brought by them. When rumours
began circulating that President Reagan had told scientists not
to make "any link" between Agent Orange and the deteriorating
health of veterans, the victims lost patience with their government
and sued the defoliant manufacturers in an action that was finally
settled out of court in 1984 for $180m (£115m).
would take the intervention of the former commander of the US Navy
in Vietnam, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, for the government finally to
admit that it had been aware of the potential dangers of the chemicals
used in Vietnam from the start of Ranch Hand. The admiral's involvement
stemmed from a deathbed pledge to his son, a patrol boat captain
who contracted two forms of cancer that he believed had been caused
by his exposure to Agent Orange. Every day during the war, Captain
Elmo Zumwalt Jr had swum in a river from which he had also eaten
fish, in an area that was regularly sprayed with the herbicide.
Two years after his son's death in 1988, Zumwalt used his leverage
within the military establishment to compile a classified report,
which he presented to the secretary of the department of veterans'
affairs and which contained data linking Agent Orange to 28 life-threatening
conditions, including bone cancer, skin cancer, brain cancer - in
fact, almost every cancer known to man - in addition to chronic
skin disorders, birth defects, gastrointestinal diseases and neurological
also uncovered irrefutable evidence that the US military had dispensed
"Agent Orange in concentrations six to 25 times the suggested
rate" and that "4.2m US soldiers could have made transient
or significant contact with the herbicides because of Operation
Ranch Hand". This speculative figure is twice the official
estimate of US veterans who may have been contaminated with TCCD.
damning and politically sensitive of all is a letter, obtained by
Zumwalt, from Dr James Clary, a military scientist who designed
the spray tanks for Ranch Hand. Writing in 1988 to a member of Congress
investigating Agent Orange, Clary admitted: "When we initiated
the herbicide programme in the 1960s, we were aware of the potential
for damage due to dioxin contamination in the herbicide. We were
even aware that the military formulation had a higher dioxin concentration
than the civilian version, due to the lower cost and speed of manufacture.
However, because the material was to be used on the enemy, none
of us were overly concerned."
Office of Genetic Counselling and Disabled Children (OGCDC) operates
out of a room little bigger than a broom cupboard. Dr Viet Nhan
and his 21 volunteers share their cramped quarters at Hue Medical
College with cerebral spinal fluid shunt kits donated from Norfolk,
Virginia; children's clothes given by the Rotary Club of Osaka,
Japan; second-hand computers scavenged from banks in Singapore.
chaotic and underfunded national health service cannot cope with
the demands made upon it. The Vietnamese Red Cross has registered
an estimated one million people disabled by Agent Orange, but has
sufficient funds to help only one fifth of them, paying out an average
of $5 (£3) a month. Dr Nhan established the free OGCDC, having
studied the impact of Agent Orange as a student, to match Vietnamese
families to foreign private financial donors. "It was only
when I went out to the villages looking for case studies that I
realised how many families were affected and how few could afford
help," he says. "I abandoned my research. Children need
to run before they die."
walls of his room are plastered with bewildering photographs of
those he has helped: operations for hernias and cleft palates, open-heart
surgery and kidney transplants. All of the patients come from isolated
districts in central Vietnam, villages whose names will be unfamiliar,
unlike the locations that surround them: Khe Sanh, Hamburger Hill,
Camp Carroll and the Rock Pile. "I am not interested in apportioning
blame," Nhan says. "I don't want to talk to you about
science or politics. What I care about is that I have 60 sick children
needing financial backers. They cannot wait for the US to change
its policy, take its head out of the sand and clear up the mess."
takes us into an intensive care ward to meet nine-year-old Nguyen
Van Tan, who two weeks before had open-heart surgery to correct
a birth defect thought to be connected to dioxin poisoning. There
is no hard proof of this, but his father, who sits beside the bed,
talks of being sprayed with defoliants when he fought with the Viet
Cong. The area they live in was repeatedly doused during the war.
Almost all of his former battlefield comrades have disabled children,
he says. Nhan ushers us away. "I don't want to tell the family
yet, but their boy will never fully recover. He is already suffering
from total paralysis. The most we can do now is send them home with
a little money."
in his tiny office, the doctor gestures to photocopies of US Air
Force maps, sent by a veterans' organisation because the US government
refuses to supply them. These dizzying charts depict the number
of herbicide missions carried out over Quang Tri, a province adjacent
to the DMZ, from where almost all Nhan's patients come. Its topography
is obliterated by spray lines, 741,143 gallons of chemicals dropped
here, more than 600,000 of them being Agent Orange. "I'm just
scratching the surface," he says.
Vietnamese government is reluctant to let us travel to Quang Tri
province. It does not want us "to poke and prod" already
dismal villagers, treating them as if they are medical exhibits.
We attempt to recruit some high-powered support and arrange a meeting
in Hanoi with Madame Nguyen Thi Binh, who until last year was the
vice-president of Vietnam. She receives us at the presidential palace
in a teak-panelled hall beneath an enormous photograph of Ho Chi
Minh in a gold frame writhing with dragons. "Thank you, my
young friends, for your interest in Vietnam," Madame Binh says,
straightening her grey silk ao dai, a traditional flowing trouser
looks genteel, but old photographs of her in olive fatigues suggest
she is a seasoned campaigner. As minister of foreign affairs for
the Provisional Revolutionary South Vietnamese government, she negotiated
at the Paris peace talks in 1973. "I must warn you, I will
not answer questions about George W Bush," she says, casting
a steely gaze, perhaps conscious of the fact that, since the lifting
of the US economic embargo in 1994, trade with America has grown
to £650m a year. Madame Binh does, however, want to talk about
chemical warfare, recalling how, when she returned after the war
to her home province of Quang Nam, a lush region south-west of Hue
which was drenched in defoliants, she found "no sign of life,
just rubble and grass". She says: "All of our returning
veterans had a burning desire for children to repopulate our devastated
country. When the first child was born with a birth defect, they
tried again and again. So many families now have four or five disabled
children, raising them without any hope."
should the US do? Madame Binh laughs. "It's very late to do
anything. We put this issue directly on the table with the US. So
far they have not dealt with the problem. If our relationship is
ever to be normal, the US has to accept responsibility. Go and see
the situation for yourself."
sends us back to Hue. Over chilled water and tangerines, we talk
to a suspicious party secretary who asks us why we have bothered
to come after all these years. "There is no point," he
says. "Nothing will come of it." But he opens his file
all the same and reads aloud: "In Hue city there are 6,633
households affected by Agent Orange and in them 3,708 sick children
under the age of 16." He eventually agrees to take us north-west,
over the Perfume river, beyond the ancient royal tombs that circle
this former imperial city, towards the DMZ. We arrive at a distant
commune where a handyman is sprucing up a bust of Ho Chi Minh with
white gloss paint. Eventually, the chairman of the People's Committee
of Dang Ha joins us, and our political charabanc stuffed with seven
officials sets out across the green and gold countryside, along
crisscrossing lanes. The chairman tells us proudly how he was born
on January 31 1968, the night of the Tet offensive, the turning
point of the war, when the Viet Cong launched its assault on US
positions. By the time we stop, we are all the best of friends and,
holding hands, he pulls us into the home of the Pham family, where
a wall of neighbours and an assembly of local dignitaries dressed
in shiny, double-breasted jackets stare grimly at a moaning child.
He lies on a mat on the floor, his matchstick limbs folded uselessly
before him, his parents taking it in turns to mop his mouth, as
if without them he would drown in his own saliva.
the boy's mother, tells us how she met her husband when they were
assigned to the same Viet Cong unit in which they fought together
for 10 years. But she alone was ordered to the battle of Troung
Hon mountain. "I saw this powder falling from the sky,"
she says. "I felt sick, had a headache. I was sent to a field
hospital. I was close to the gates of hell. By the time I was discharged,
I had lost the strength in my legs and they have never fully recovered.
Then Ky was born, our son, with yellow skin. Every year his problems
get worse." Her husband, Hung, interrupts: "Sometimes,
we have been so desperate for money that we have begged in the local
market. I do not think you can imagine the humiliation of that."
this family is not alone. All the adults here, cycling past us or
strolling along the dykes, are suffering from skin lesions and goitres
that cling to necks like sagging balloons. The women spontaneously
abort or give birth to genderless squabs that horrify even the most
experienced midwives. In a yard, Nguyen, a neighbour's child, stares
into space. He has a hydrocephalic head as large as a melon. Two
houses down, Tan has distended eyes that bubble from his face. By
the river, Ngoc is sleeping, so wan he resembles a pressed flower.
"They told me the boy is depressed," his exhausted father
tells us. "Of course he's depressed. He lives with disease
is not a specially constructed ghetto used to wage a propaganda
war against imperialism. The Socialist Republic of Vietnam has long
embraced the free market. This is an ordinary hamlet where, in these
new liberal times, villagers like to argue about the English Premiership
football results over a glass of home-brewed rice beer. Here live
three generations affected by Agent Orange: veterans who were sprayed
during the war and their successors who inherited the contamination
or who still farm on land that was sprayed. Vietnam's impoverished
scientific community is now trying to determine if there will be
a fourth generation. "How long will this go on?" asks
Dr Tran Manh Hung, the ministry of health's leading researcher.
Hung is now working with a team of Canadian environmental scientists,
Hatfield Consultants, and they have made an alarming discovery.
In the Aluoi Valley, adjacent to the Ho Chi Minh trail, once home
to three US Special Forces bases, a region where Agent Orange was
both stored and sprayed, the scientists' analysis has shown that,
rather than naturally disperse, the dioxin has remained in the ground
in concentrations 100 times above the safety levels for agricultural
land in Canada. It has spread into Aluoi's ponds, rivers and irrigation
supplies, from where it has passed into the food chain, through
fish and freshwater shellfish, chicken and ducks that store TCCD
in fatty tissue. Samples of human blood and breast milk reveal that
villagers have ingested the invisible toxin and that pregnant women
pass it through the placenta to the foetus and then through their
breast milk, doubly infecting newborn babies. Is it, then, a coincidence
that in this minuscule region of Vietnam, more than 15,000 children
and adults have already been registered as suffering from the usual
array of chronic conditions?
theorise that the Aluoi Valley is a microcosm of the country, where
numerous reservoirs of TCCD still exist in the soil of former US
military installations," says Dr Wayne Dwernychuk, vice-president
of Hatfield Consultants. There may be as many as 50 of these "hot
spots", including one at the former US military base of Bien
Hoa, where, according to declassified defence department documents,
US forces spilled 7,500 gallons of Agent Orange on March 1 1970.
Dr Arnold Schecter, a leading expert in dioxin contamination in
the US, sampled the soil there and found it to contain TCCD levels
that were 180 million times above the safe level set by the US environmental
is extremely difficult to decontaminate humans or the soil. A World
Health Organisation briefing paper warns: "Once TCCD has entered
the body it is there to stay due to its uncanny ability to dissolve
in fats and to its rock solid chemical stability." At Aluoi,
the researchers recommended the immediate evacuation of the worst
affected villages, but to be certain of containing this hot spot,
the WHO also recommends searing the land with temperatures of more
than 1,000C, or encasing it in concrete before treating it chemically.
home, the US takes heed. When a dump at the Robins Air Force Base
in Georgia was found to have stored Agent Orange, it was placed
on a National Priority List, immediately capped in five feet of
clay and sand, and has since been the subject of seven investigations.
Dioxin is now also a major domestic concern, scientists having discovered
that it is a by-product of many ordinary industrial processes, including
smelting, the bleaching of paper pulp and solid waste incineration.
The US environmental protection agency, pressed into a 12-year inquiry,
recently concluded that it is a "class-1 human carcinogen".
evidence is categoric. Last April, a conference at Yale University
attended by the world's leading environmental scientists, who reviewed
the latest research, concluded that in Vietnam the US had conducted
the "largest chemical warfare campaign in history". And
yet no money is forthcoming, no aid in kind. For the US, there has
only ever been one contemporary incident of note involving weapons
of mass destruction - Colin Powell told the UN Security Council
in February that, "in the history of chemical warfare, no country
has had more battlefield experience with chemical weapons since
world war one than Saddam Hussein's Iraq".
US government has yet to respond to the Hatfield Consultants' report,
which finally explains why the Vietnamese are still dying so many
years after the war is over, but, last March, it did make its first
contribution to the debate in Vietnam. It signed an agreement with
a reluctant Vietnamese government for an $850,000 (£543,000)
programme to "fill identified data gaps" in the study
of Agent Orange. The conference in Hanoi that announced the decision,
according to Vietnamese Red Cross representatives who attended,
ate up a large slice of this funding. One of the signatories is
the same US environmental protection agency that has already concluded
that dioxin causes cancer.
can be proposed until hell freezes over," says Dr Dwernychuk
of Hatfield Consultants, "but they are not going to assist
the Vietnamese in a humanitarian sense one iota. We state emphatically
that no additional research on human health is required to facilitate
intervention or to protect the local citizens."
is cash to be lavished in Vietnam when the US government sees it
as politically expedient. Over the past 10 years, more than $350m
(£223m) has been spent on chasing ghosts. In 1992, the US
launched the Joint Task Force-Full Accounting to locate 2,267 servicemen
thought to be missing in action in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Jerry
O'Hara, spokesman for JTF-FA, which is still searching for the remains
of 1,889 of them, told us, "We don't place a monetary value
on what we do and we'll be here until we have brought all of the
boys back home."
it is that America continues to spend considerably more on the dead
than it does on the millions of living and long-suffering - be they
back home or in Vietnam.
science of chemical warfare fills a silent, white-tiled room at
Tu Du hospital in Ho Chi Minh City. Here, shelves are overburdened
with research materials. Behind the locked door is an iridescent
wall of the mutated and misshapen, hundreds of bell jars and vacuum-sealed
bottles in which human foetuses float in formaldehyde. Some appear
to be sleeping, fingers curling their hair, thumbs pressing at their
lips, while others with multiple heads and mangled limbs are listless
and slumped. Thankfully, none of these dioxin babies ever woke up.
floor below, it is never quiet. Here are those who have survived
the misery of their births, ravaged infants whom no one has the
ability to understand, babies so traumatised by their own disabilities,
luckless children so enraged and depressed at their miserable fate,
that they are tied to their beds just to keep them safe from harm