Wednesday, May 1, 2013


Interview with 1954-liner Allan Cantrell:

13 years of age in the year 1968, Allan Cantrell (my uncle) now recalls little of the Tet Offensive, but at the time maintained much disdain for those involved in the student protests of that year. Both the assassination of MLKJ as well as 'Bobbie' Kennedy left upon him the impression that America was a degenerating nation with an increasing number of national issues and few solutions. Olympic Athletes of the year who raised their arms for Black Power served only to slightly shock him, as his accepting, albeit deeply conservative upbringing led him to believe that black rights was not such an issue that African Americans would speak out in such a radical fashion. (It is worthy of bearing in mind that Allan was raised in rural Appalachia  and outside of his blue collar community had little interaction with these 'radicals' until he was older.) Skip to  22:16 to listen to his thoughts on the oft-made comparison between the fight for black rights in the 1960's and marriage equality in the 21st century.

However, African American rights was not the only issue of the 1960's. At the risk of injecting personal opinion, there is one major failure of the US government during the 1960's, the repercussions of which still reverberate in the more recent generations of Vietnamese. First, however, it is important to understand the background that contributed to the decision of US military leaders to perform arguably foolish actions.

Valley of A Luoi. Kan Lay, 55 years old, and her son, Ke Van Bec, 14 years old, physically and mentally handicapped, pose in front of the billboard denouncing the operation Ranch hand.
1954 marked the division of Vietnam by the 17th parallel and demilitarized zone (DMZ) into the communist North Vietnam, and the French-backed South Vietnam. In 1962 members of the US decided to stick their collective noses in the situation to prevent the dominoes from falling (read: North Vietnam communistifying the rest of S.E.A.). The Vietnam War itself began in 1959, and did not cease until 1975. Members of the partially guerilla Viet Cong army (the pro-communist opponents of the United States and South Vietnamese) occupied South Vietnam during this time, making good use of the South Vietnamese jungle as coverage with which to hide from enemies in the sky. To remedy this issue, the United States resolved to employ herbicidal warfare. Though it honestly sounds like a war against parsley, sage, rosemary  and thyme, herbicidal warfare is one of the most detrimental methods of warfare to raze the livelihood of civilians, not so much because of the destruction to the villages  but the long-lasting effects of the application of what has been determined as a carcinogenic and mutagenic compound.

Operation Ranch Hand lasted from 1962 to 1971 during which approximately 20 million US gallons of herbicides and defoliants were sprayed over South Vietnam, covering an estimated 20% of South Vietnamese forests over the course of 10 years (as well as portions of neighboring countries Laos and Cambodia) in an effort to deprive the Viet Cong of both their source of food and vegetative cover. "Ranch Handers" of the US Air Force (flying C-123s) stuck to the motto "Only you can prevent a forest"- a slightly humorous parody of the US Forest Service's Smokey Bear slogan. Herbicides were sprayed at concentrations of up to 50 times more than the amount normally used in agriculture. Most commonly used of the 'rainbow' of herbicides was the infamous Agent Orange: a mixture of 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid and 2,4,5-trichlorophenoxyacetic acid.

(An interesting and biological aside, the compound triiodobenzoic acid was first studied by plant biologist Arthur Galston in 1943 in an effort to procure a plant growth hormone which would allow for the adaptation of soybeans to a shorter growing season. Excessive usage of the compound was found to have an effect nearly opposite of that the desired. Instead of growing more rapidly, the compound caused 'catastrophic defoliation.' Side effects to both humans and the environment were prominent concerns of Galston, yet were somehow overlooked by the US government in years to come.)

While all is purportedly fair in love and war, the use of Agent Orange has no valid excuse. Of the 3-4.8 million Vietnamese exposed to the herbicide, between 150,000 and 500,000 were children born with birth defects. Exposure resulted in an inflated rate of both miscarriage and stillbirth in human females as well as in cattle, pigs, and water buffalo. Health problems resulting from being the child of one exposed to the herbicide include, but are not limited to a host of genetic diseases such as cleft palate, mental disabilities, hernias, extra fingers and toes, and keratosis. Incredibly elevated levels of dioxin were found in both the breast milk of Vietnamese women and the blood of US soldiers in 1970. Dioxin to this day contaminates Vietnamese soil and continues to pose a health threat to citizens by way of poisoning the food chain (thanks, biomagnification!), causing illness, serious diseases of the skin, and a whole host of cancers (lung, larynx, prostate, etc.).

In the years since the war, a number of law suits have been filed. Dow Chemical, Monsanto, and Diamond Shamrock (the companies which produced Agent Orange) have been sued multiple times since 1978. Vietnam veterans sued for injuries due to toxic dioxin. Widows sued for their lost loved ones. Eventually, in 1991, the US Congress enacted the Agent Orange Act which served to grant the authority to the Department of Veterans Affairs to declare certain medical conditions 'presumptive' to Agent Orange/dioxin exposure. VAVA, the Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange/dioxin filed a 2004 lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York in Brooklyn against a number of US companies for liability in causing personal injury. The case was dismissed with the statement that the herbicides  used during the war were not intended for the use of poisoning humans, and therefore were not in violation of international law. (The US Supreme Court declined the case.) The same case was dismissed and declined again between 2007 and 2009. Assistance to victims of dioxin exposure has come in the form of "peace villages" established by the Vietnamese (as well as by members of both the Vietnam Veterans Assiciation and an international group of US veterans) throughout Vietnam, wherein somewhere between 50 and 100 victims per village are able to receive medical and psychological help. Many of these victims are orphans, abandoned due to their genetic mutations and mental conditions. While failing multiple times in US court, VAVA has provided medical care as well as rehab and financial assistance to the injured.

The damage resulting from Operation Ranch Hand and herbicidal attacks on South Vietnam is ever present, and may take generations to subside. For further information on the devastation  the documentary embedded below is worthy of a glance.

If it wasn't clear, I don't like Agent Orange.

Sources Cited:
"Agent Orange." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 30 Apr. 2013. Web. 03 May 2013.
"Herbicidal Warfare." 
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 21 Apr. 2013. Web. 03 May 2013.
"Operation Ranch Hand." 
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 05 Jan. 2013. Web. 03 May 2013.
"The Vietnam War (1945–1975)." SparkNotes. SparkNotes, n.d. Web. 03 May 2013.