Healing the Wounds of War? A Discussion of Agent Orange Compensation Programmes in the United States and Vietnam

By Palmer, Michael G. | International Journal of Comparative Sociology, October 2003 | Go to article overview

Healing the Wounds of War? A Discussion of Agent Orange Compensation Programmes in the United States and Vietnam


Palmer, Michael G., International Journal of Comparative Sociology


I. Introduction

Over the period August 1961 to April 1971, the U.S. Military dispersed large quantities of herbicides, known to contain chemical dioxins, as a defoliant aimed to "kill unwanted plants and to remove leaves from trees which otherwise provided cover to the enemy" (10-80 Organizing Committee 1993:462; Environmental Agents Service 1999:4). (1) According to figures from the Vietnamese Ministry of Labour, War Invalids and Social Affairs, the U.S. military dispersed over Vietnam approximately 72 million litres of herbicides, including 40 million litres of Agent Orange (Vietnam Investment Review 2000). Agent Orange was a term adopted by the U.S. military for a mixture of the herbicides, conventionally known as 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T, that contained a dioxin by-product, 2,3,7,8 TCDD (10-80 Organizing Committee 1993:461). Over time a number of scientific findings have reported sufficient evidence of an association between an exposure to herbicide Agent Orange and regressive human health effects. The Second International Conference on Herbicides in War held in Hanoi listed parentally transmitted diseases, reproductive disorders including birth defects, spontaneous abortion, trophoblastic diseases, cancer and disturbances of the central and peripheral nervous system (10-80 Organizing Committee 1993:463). More recently in the United States, positive links have been drawn to diabetes; however, the full effects of the chemical on human health are still to be known (Zwillich 2001).

It is estimated that there are currently one million first and second-generation living victims of Agent Orange in Vietnam (Vietnam News 2001a). Some 50,000 deformed children have been born to parents exposed either by location or though access to sprayed foodstuff (Vietnam Investment Review 2000). The exact magnitude of the problem in Vietnam is unknown. A national health survey was conducted in 1999 with respondents who reported or displayed (without medical verification) any possible AO-associated diseases. Respondents were short-listed to be blood tested. More recent estimates put potential numbers in the millions (Stellman et al. 2003). Meanwhile in the United States, 300,000 veterans have undergone medical tests for possible exposure, and an estimated 2,000 children are potentially suffering from Spina Bifida (Agent Orange Review 2000:4, 8). After a Californian court ruling in 1989 that causation was too demanding a standard, any disease is recognized for which the scientific evidence shows there is a "significant statistical association" with exposure to AO (Environmental Agents Service 1997:2). The American government, however, does not test veterans for dioxin on the basis of the National Academy of Science's finding in 1993 that results are not usually meaningful due to common background exposures, variations amongst individuals and possible measurement errors and exposure to other herbicides (Environmental Agents Service 2001:2).

A lack of political resolve on the part of governments and accessible judicial forums for individuals has resulted in no government and limited individual legal action for the compensation of victims (Palmer 2004). Since the U.S. government cannot be sued without its consent, undertakings to date have proceeded against the manufacturers of Agent Orange. A class action brought by American and Australian veterans in 1984 recovered $180 million however the damages applied only to veterans with death or total disability claims (Smoger 1993:1). While as recently as January 2004 the first legal action was taken on behalf of Vietnamese victims (Agence France Presse 1994). The nongovernmental Vietnam Association for Agent Orange Victims (VAAOV) filed a class action suit in a New York district court against several dozen US companies involved in the manufacture of AO including Dow Chemical and Monsanto (Kokkoris et al. 2004). Otherwise, compensation for victims in Vietnam has been limited to internal mechanisms, a nation wide fund of international donors, and nongovernmental and intergovernmental support. …

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