October 25, 2005
I return from my latest
(50th? 60th? since 1975) trip to Viet Nam both charged up and
Being charged up has to do with
what happened on the trip; being frustrated has to do with what awaited me upon
return, real life constraints on our ability to respond effectively.
The trip was centered on
Peter Yarrow’s second performance tour, this time to Hue
and Ho Chi Minh City
as well as a return to Ha Noi.
Culturally and politically, the program was a great success. Peter communicated the spirit as well as the
content of his “Peter, Paul and Mary” repertoire to an overwhelmingly
Vietnamese audience. People were
especially moved by Mary Beth Yarrow’s reading of a poem about My Lai by her
uncle, former Presidential candidate and Senator Eugene McCarthy.
By the third concert in Ho Chi Minh City it all
came together. Carnegie Hall style (an
innovation in Viet Nam), twenty five students from the University of Social
Sciences and Humanities formed an enthusiastic on stage chorus, encouraging the
audience to sing along too. Quang Dung,
a young very popular singer who had been an awkward auxiliary on stage in Ha
Noi, became a full partner in the HCMC performance. At the end of the show,
Peter had the audience on its feet, arms crossed and singing “We Shall
Overcome”. (photo by Ted Lieverman)
Peter continued to lift up
the issue of US
responsibility for the consequences of an unjust war, in particular the impact
of Agent Orange. He returned to Friendship Village
to sing again for disabled children and visited the hospitals in Hue and Ho Chi
Minh City where the tragedy of a plague of birth
defects comes home. He expanded his understanding
of post-war legacies by visiting in Dong Hoi and Dong Ha, north and south of
the former DMZ, with survivors of unexploded ordnance (UXOs) and land-mines and
with the staff of American and Vietnamese organizations that assist them.
We had a good meeting with
Ambassador Mike Marine who was friendly and forthcoming on everything but the
Agent Orange issue. Peter and Suxanne
Pasch (Vice President for Academic Affairs at Wheelock College)
conducted a workshop on Operation Respect at the Ha Noi University of Education
for 200 teachers and students plus staff from the Youth Federation.
The Vietnamese print and TV
media covered the performances extensively and half hour shows are being edited
in both Ha Noi and Ho Chi Minh City. Peter spent an hour answering questions
on-line on Vietnamnet. Don North, a
Canadian TV reporter who has worked on NBC and ABC, documented the whole
trip. We will turn his 21 hours of
digital video into a documentary and a sampler will be available by December.
The personally most moving
aspect of the trip was not on the planned program. FRD consultants Hugh and Nhi
Hosman and I visited the A Luoi Valley (familiar to Americans as “A Shau”), at
the behest of the head of the provincial Union of Friendship Organizations, the
former “mayor” of Hue,
Le Van Anh. Anh had worked in
agricultural development in the valley for a decade after the war, and is
determined to find help for the ethnic minority population that suffers from
the suspected impact of Agent Orange and the incontestable effect of UXOs.
The two hour drive west from Hue is spectacular. The “valley” is a broad flat highland area
bordering the mountains in Laos
and the Ho Chi Minh trail. No doubt its
strategic military location explains why the area was so contaminated by both
Agent Orange and UXOs.
We visited one family with a
15 year old boy with severe mental and physical handicaps (photo below) and
tried to go to another home where a woman in her twenties lay unable to move
from her bed. She was visible to us from
outside, but no one else was at home. A
few hundred yards down the road was another 15 year old boy as badly
handicapped as the first.
During a meeting with local
officials, we learned of the overall statistics. They are already assisting with $10 monthly
grants 680 cases of birth defects which they ascribe to Agent Orange. Another 4000 plus cases are known.
Somehow seeing the children
in their homes with their families has an even more powerful impact than seeing
their counterparts in Friendship Village, the school in Hue or in the Tu Du
hospital ward in Ho Chi Minh City.
I have been disappointed for
years that the admirable men holding the position of US
ambassador in Ha Noi find it impossible to go beyond official denials of any
long term impact of Agent Orange and of US responsibility for unintended
consequences of its use. FRD has carried
out a low key educational effort on the topic.
We included legacies of war in ten Indochina conferences for
non-governmental organizations in the1980s and 1990s, and today offer the most
comprehensive web site. FRD is
cosponsoring an exhibit by Vietnamese artists of their interpretations of the
Agent Orange scourge for showing in both Ha Noi and in the US. <http://www.ffrd.org/agentorange.htm>
But that is not enough. We need to find the resources and the
vehicles for bringing the issue to the fore.
Agent Orange is not only a question of humanity and morality, but also a
growing impediment to closer US-Vietnam relations. While US officials believes
the problem will go away, they have fundamentally misread its origins and
resonance among average Vietnamese.
This visit stimulated an idea
that can help strengthen the case scientifically and will generate greater
public awareness in the US. It builds on the professionally rigorous
research conducted in the A Luoi Valley by a Canadian environmental company,
We are preparing a proposal
to team Americans and Vietnamese to carry out a systematic survey of the suspected
victims in the A Luoi Valley next summer.
The survey would be undertaken by Hue
university students (from the medical school, English department and the
learning resource center) paired with volunteer American counterparts.
Using a professionally
designed epidemiological questionnaire, the teams can create an unimpeachable
data base that sheds light on the controversy about causation. Assembling a broad roster of family histories
will add human depth to the scientific debate.
And one can be sure that every participant will go home as a powerful advocate for humanitarian assistance to the
victims/survivors, whatever the cause.
Photo by Don North
The inspiration for this idea
is the boy pictured above. His father
had been a soldier who was sprayed three times.
In 1976 he married a woman from Hue
and brought her to the valley. Their
fist two children were normal. The next
three suffered birth defects, one dieing in infancy, the son we saw, and a
daughter with a deformed leg. Would a
pattern like this suggest that the mother’s exposure to residual dioxin in the
environment is responsible? This
question is triggered by the fact the Veterans Administration accepts only one
birth defect as attributable to a father’s exposure, but eighteen if the mother
was exposed while serving in Vietnam.
The survey will also document
the number of victims of Explosive Remnants of War (land mines and UXO) in the
valley and the rate and cause of new accidents.
This is only the first step
in a comprehensive project to provide humanitarian and economic aid from
private sources to address the legacies of war in the valley and ultimately
to motivate US
government response. At the end of the day, the magnitude of the need and
moral responsibility for current consequences of past actions,
obligates an official US
The A Luoi Valley offers an
unparalleled opportunity to make the point.
1) The Hatfield study demonstrates the area was
severely contaminated by Agent Orange containing dioxin, both from spraying and
by unsafe disposal or accidental spillage.
2) The people of the A Luoi district have
suffered a large and disproportionate number of birth defects and other health
problems, many of which could have been caused by dioxin.
Proving that 2 is connected
to 1 is a matter of controversy among scientists and government officials in
the US and Viet Nam. While scientific studies should go forward to
advance our knowledge, the grave problems faced by those exposed to and
possibly affected by Agent Orange require immediate and substantial attention.
For purely humanitarian
reasons, the US
ought to provide wide scale assistance to survivors with cancers and birth
defects who were exposed to Agent Orange, or whose parents or grandparents were
exposed. If causation is proven
conclusively a decade from now, it would be unconscionable that nothing was
done during the intervening years to relieve the suffering of unintended
victims of a US weapon of war and their families. If research is scientifically inconclusive,
will gain merit for its generosity to those suffering grave disabilities.
However, unless we find
substantial funding for a barely visible cause, FRD will not be able to address
Agent Orange or any other aspect of US relations with Vietnam, Cambodia
John McAuliff, Executive
PS We have just received an additional challenge
grant of $15,000 from the Chino Cienega Foundation, bringing us to $55,000 from
this source in 2005. Prospects for
receiving a similar grant in 2006 depend on our ability to show matching grants