Spectre orange

Nearly 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 

Saturday March 29, 2003

The Guardian 


Hong 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. Hong 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. 

Hong 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. "My 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." 

There 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. 

This 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. New 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. 

Teams 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. 

On 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. 

The 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. 

John 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". 

Ngo 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. 

When 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. 

A 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 Vietnam". 

Eight 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." 

In 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. 

That 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." 

By 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 super-strain 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. 

Almost 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). 

It 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 defects. 

Zumwalt 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. 

Most 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." 

The 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. 

Vietnam's 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." 

The 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


He 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." 

Back 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. 

The 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 suit. 

She 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." 

What 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." 

She 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. 

Hoi, 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." 

And 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 and death." 

This 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


Dr 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? 

"We 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 protection agency. 

It 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


At 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


The 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". 

The 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. 

"Studies 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." 

There 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." 

So 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


The 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. 

One 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 


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