DA NANG, Vietnam — In the tropical climate of central Vietnam, weeds and shrubs seem to grow everywhere — except here.
Forty years after the United States stopped spraying herbicides in the jungles of Southeast Asia in hopes of denying cover to Vietcong fighters and North Vietnamese troops, an air base here is one of about two dozen former American sites that remain polluted with an especially toxic strain of dioxin, the chemical contaminant in Agent Orange that has been linked to cancers, birth defects, and other diseases.
On Thursday, after years of rebuffing Vietnamese requests for assistance in a cleanup, the United States inaugurated its first major effort to address the environmental effects of the long war.
“This morning we celebrate a milestone in our bilateral relationship,” said David B. Shear, the US ambassador to Vietnam. “We’re cleaning up this mess.”
The program, which will cost $43 million and take four years, was officially welcomed with smiles and handshakes at the ceremony. But bitterness remains here. Agent Orange is mentioned often in the news media and is commemorated annually on Aug. 10, the day in 1961 when it was first tested in Vietnam. The government objected to Olympic sponsorship this year by Dow Chemical, a leading producer of Agent Orange during the war. Many here have not hesitated to call the US program too little — it addresses only the one site — and very late.
‘It’s a big step. But in the eyes of those who suffered the consequences, it’s not enough.’
“It’s a big step,” said Ngo Quang Xuan, a former Vietnamese ambassador to the United Nations. “But in the eyes of those who suffered the consequences, it’s not enough.”
Over a decade of war, the United States sprayed about 20 million gallons of Agent Orange and other herbicides in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, halting only after scientists commissioned by the Agriculture Department issued a report expressing concerns that dioxin showed “a significant potential to increase birth defects.” By the time the spraying stopped, Agent Orange and other herbicides had destroyed 5.5 million acres of forest and cropland, an area roughly the size of New Jersey.
Nguyen Van Rinh, a retired lieutenant general who is now chairman of the Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin, has vivid memories of hearing US aircraft above the jungles of southern Vietnam and seeing Agent Orange raining down in sheets on him and his troops. Plants and animals exposed to the defoliant were dead within days. Many of his troops later suffered illnesses that he suspects were linked to the repeated exposure to Agent Orange, used in concentrations 20 to 55 times that of normal agricultural use.
“I would like to have one message sent to the American people,” Rinh said. “The plight of Agent Orange victims continues. I think the relationship would rise up to new heights if the American government took responsibility and helped their victims and addressed the consequences.”