In Vietnam, a painful war legacy

Hanoi. The war is long over for most Vietnamese, especially since fewer than one-third of them are old enough to remember a conflict that ended 30 years ago this past weekend. But one legacy of the war remains a painful reminder and a sore point in Vietnam's otherwise improving relations with the United States, especially for the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese living with what they believe are the consequences of exposure to the defoliant Agent Orange.

Nguyen Thi Tuyen, 56, a somber-faced woman with a long, graying ponytail, is one of them. She remembers the day in 1966, in the jungles of central Vietnam, that changed her life.

"I was 17, and I'd just joined a unit to transport weapons from the North to the South," she recalled. "I smelled a strange scent in the air, and my friend yelled that it must be chemicals. So we covered our faces with soaked towels."

But the towels did not help. Tuyen said her friend felt sick almost immediately. After an hour or two, blood was flowing from her own nose, and she had difficulty seeing and hearing. Ever since, she said, she and other women she knows who served in the area have not menstruated. She still occasionally bleeds from her nose and ears. She has remained single and childless.

"Since I contacted this chemical, I have no feelings for men," she said. "And also men haven't wanted to be with me, because I can't have children."

Two other women sitting with her in a stark dormitory room in a center for Agent Orange victims nodded their heads in agreement. They said that they also had not had menstrual periods since their contact with Agent Orange.

Agent Orange is a brownish-orange herbicide containing dioxin, a toxin that studies have linked to cancers, birth defects and other serious health problems. U.S. forces sprayed an estimated 68 million liters, or 18 million gallons, of Agent Orange over more than 15,540 square kilometers, or 6,000 square miles, of South Vietnam's rice fields, riverbanks and jungles from 1966 to 1971. The intent was to destroy trees and crops, denying the enemy cover.

What did not seem to be considered at the time was that a poison strong enough to clear dense jungles was also strong enough to damage the health of tens of thousands of American military personnel on the ground and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese.

The American victims of Agent Orange quickly sought redress. They filed a class-action suit against the chemical companies that manufactured Agent Orange, including Monsanto, Dow and Hercules, for knowingly producing and supplying a harmful chemical. The chemical companies argued - much as cigarette manufacturers did for decades - that there was no conclusive evidence linking Agent Orange with serious health problems.

But in 1984, the companies reached a $180 million out-of-court settlement with the 50,000 U.S. plaintiffs. Few of the victims received more than $5,000.

The U.S. government has offered its own compensation and disability payments. That includes compensation and disability payments for prostate and other forms of cancer, and for spina bifida in the children of veterans who served in Agent Orange-affected areas.

But no such U.S. assistance has been offered to the Vietnamese victims. So last year, the Vietnamese Association of Victims of Agent Orange, a group backed by the Vietnamese government, filed a class-action suit against the chemical companies, in the same U.S. District Court in Brooklyn where the U.S. veterans had won their settlement.

The Vietnamese lawsuit sought what could have amounted to billions of dollars in damages and environmental cleanup, on behalf of what it claimed were four million Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange.

In March, the same judge who heard the U.S. veterans' case, Jack Weinstein, dismissed the Vietnamese case. He sided with the chemical companies, saying that supplying the herbicide did not constitute a war crime, as the Vietnamese case alleged, or even a violation of international law as it existed at the time that Agent Orange was used in Vietnam.

"No treaty or agreement, express or implied, of the United States operated to make use of herbicides in Vietnam a violation of the laws of war or any other form of international law until at the earliest April of 1975," Weinstein wrote in a 223-page decision.

In 1975, President Gerald Ford adopted a national policy renouncing the first use of herbicides in warfare - largely as a result of the controversy surrounding Agent Orange. Also in 1975, the U.S. Senate finally ratified an international Geneva accord from 1925, which outlawed the use of poisonous gases during war. But even under that law, Weinstein wrote, "the prohibition extended only to gases deployed for their asphyxiating or toxic effects on man, not to herbicides designed to affect plants that may have unintended harmful effects on people."

Weinstein also argued that the Vietnamese plaintiffs had not established a clear causal effect between exposure to Agent Orange and their health problems. The Vietnamese plan to appeal the decision, pursuing the case to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary. Meanwhile, many are angry about how their claims were dismissed.

"They urged us to have tests for all the millions of Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange, to prove they were contaminated by dioxin," said Mai Xuan Thai, the director of a center near Hanoi for Agent Orange victims, called Friendship Village. "They just don't want to take responsibility. Even the Americans have not tested all their veterans, and they want us to take these expensive tests, when we're a poor country? This is just an excuse."

Whatever happens in the appeals courts, Tuyen said she thinks the United States should help Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange like her, out of the common decency she believes most Americans have.

"If I met those chemical companies here," she said, "I'd ask them, 'Do you think what you did to the Vietnamese people is as righteous as American people are?"'
By Mary Kay Magistad

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