11 December 2016
Agent Orange – Its Legacy Endures
Forty years ago, on December 10, 1976, the United Nations General Assembly passed the “Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques” by a vote of 96 to 8. It was the first time the international body had addressed the issue of the use of defoliants in military conflicts. Article One of the document broadly states: “Each State Party to this Convention undertakes not to engage in military or any other hostile use of environmental modification techniques having widespread, long-lasting or severe effects as the means of destruction, damage or injury to any other State Party.”
Agent Orange was one of a series of chemical defoliants used by the U.S. military in the war in Vietnam. From 1962 to 1971, over 20 million gallons of herbicides were sprayed on jungle and agricultural land in Vietnam and the surrounding countries of Laos and Cambodia. The spraying was ostensibly to eliminate foliage providing cover for enemy troops. It was called Operation Ranch Hand. Reaching its peak between 1967-69, Operation Ranch Hand sprayed toxic chemicals over more than one fifth of all the forests in what was then South Vietnam.
Of the 2.7 million U.S. troops who served in Vietnam, more than 39,000 have filed claims with the Veteran’s Administration (VA) for Agent Orange related health issues and, according to the Vietnamese government, more than 4 million of its citizens were victims of the spraying. The VA acknowledges more than 14 forms of cancer and other nerve and heart diseases to be directly associated with Agent Orange exposure. Birth defects in children of those exposed carry the toxic legacy forward into the next generation on both sides.
The Progressive first covered concerns over the toxic effects of Agent Orange in a May 1973 column noting: “…two Harvard scientists reported that a chemical defoliant widely used by the United States in South Vietnam during the recent unpleasantness has contaminated that nation's food chain. The scientists—chemist Robert Baugham and geneticist Matthew Meselson, who have made previous ecological surveys of Indochina—found the chemical, dioxin, in shrimp and five species of fish taken from various waters in South Vietnam. Dioxin, an ingredient of the defoliant known as Agent Orange, was present in amounts known to cause disease, genetic damage, and death in animals. The effect on humans has not yet been determined, but we are likely to find out before too long.”
It was exactly four years later in June 1977, that Maude DeVictor, an employee at the VA in Chicago first began to document the cases of cancer clustered in veterans who had been exposed to Agent Orange. A June 1978 article in The Progressive by Michael Uhl and Tod Ensign told her story: “Maude DeVictor works behind a cold, steel gray desk in the Benefits Section of the Veterans Administration regional office in Chicago. She is not your average paper shuffler. In recent months, Maude DeVictor has joined the select ranks of whistle blowers — those heroic individuals who discover an outrage and, in defiance of bureaucracy or suppression, bring it to public notice. The outrage Maude DeVictor discovered was the shocking effect of dioxin poisoning on American veterans who came into contact with the herbicides that were used to defoliate more than five million acres of the Vietnamese countryside between 1962 and 1970. Her efforts have not only focused attention on the plight of these latest victims of the Vietnam war, but have also raised new warnings against the domestic hazards posed by the herbicides.”
One of DeVictor’s early phone calls to find out information about chemicals that had been sprayed in Vietnam led her to a Captain Alvin Young: “Maude DeVictor recalls that Captain Young described several major Vietnamese defoliation programs, such as Operation Ranch Hand, and that he said there was ‘no doubt’ that anyone who participated in those operations would have been contaminated.”
Maude DeVictor advocated for the veterans seeking compensation for the effects of their toxic exposure and ultimately became a whistleblower to the press. “The VA doesn't even have any rating criteria for chemical disabilities,” she told The Progressive in 1978. “They're not doing anything on these cases because they don't have any standards for evaluation. Each case is either denied outright or 'diaried' — that is, placed in a computer where it's programmed to pop up every sixty days for re-review." The VA eventually fired DeVictor. Her story was told in the 1986 film “Unnatural Causes” made for television by John Sayles. She continues her political activism today, working at the polls in Richmond, California.
The man who first explained the history of Operation Ranch Hand to DeVictor, Alvin J. Young, remains at the center of controversy around Agent Orange. A newly released report by ProPublica, an independent non-profit newsroom, shows that more than any other person, Young has been most responsible for veterans not receiving benefits related to Agent Orange exposure. According to the report: “For decades, the military and the VA have repeatedly turned to one man to guide decisions on whether Agent Orange harmed vets in Vietnam and elsewhere. His reliable answer: No.”
The report recounts Young’s initial contacts with DeVictor, but goes on to explain: “Young publicly refuted many of the comments attributed to him — especially those suggesting Agent Orange might have harmed vets — and criticized media reports that he felt sensationalized the risks. But the episode was a turning point, moving Young from the Air Force’s internal herbicide expert to public defender of Agent Orange.” Since that time, Young, now 74, has “consulted for the Department of Defense and the VA, as well as [being] an expert witness for the U.S. Department of Justice on matters related to dioxin exposure. By his own estimate, he’s been paid ‘a few million’ dollars over that time.” But, according to ProPublica, “over the years, the VA has repeatedly cited Young’s work to deny disability compensation to vets, saving the government millions of dollars.”
Today, the efforts to achieve testing, treatment and compensation for toxic exposure remain a struggle for veterans and their families here in the U.S., and across the ocean in Vietnam where birth defects have affected at least 150,000 children born since the war’s end in 1975.
ProPublica has an ongoing investigation into the lasting impacts of the use of Agent Orange and other toxic herbicides in Vietnam; and in Vietnam efforts continue to get the United States to take responsibility in the compensation of the victims still suffering from the legacy of that long-ago war.
Norman Stockwell is publisher of The Progressive.