One of the most shameful legacies of America’s failed war effort in Vietnam is the lasting damage done by Agent Orange (AO).
AO was a powerful herbicide used by the American military in Operation Ranch Hand, which was launched in January 1962, to clear foliage to build bases and transport routes, plus eliminate forest cover for the Vietnamese troops. Millions of gallons were sprayed during the conflict by US forces, but the fact it contained the deadly chemical dioxin meant it caused major health issues for many of those who came into contact with it.
Currently, about 20% of those affected receive aid, leaving the vast majority of victims marginalized. But one man, Charles Bailey, has dedicated his career to changing that by simultaneously tackling the issues of ongoing contamination and directing aid to victims, many of whom are still suffering today.
The affable 77-year-old is measured and sensitive about Agent Orange’s legacy, and this practical approach has enabled him toplay a key role in bringing the US and Vietnam together to tackle the problem, even co-authoring a book in 2018 about the effort. Speaking to him over Zoom, he exudes calmness, but there’s no disguising the sense of responsibility he carries towards his work.
Bailey, who has a PhD in Natural Resource Economics, arrived in Vietnam in 1997 as a grant maker for the Ford Foundation and spent the next 14 years trying to convince the US to face its responsibilities in helping those who were affected. Although now in semi-retirement, he continues his advocacy from his base in Washington state and is also part of the War Legacies Working Group at the think tank The Stimson Center. Without Bailey, it’s unlikely that much of the progress that has been made would have been achieved.
He landed in Vietnam 18 months after the country’s diplomatic relations with the US had resumed, having been frozen since 1975. Bailey recalled, “It was so difficult in the early years. US diplomats in the late 90s were instructed not to have conversations about AO or certainly not AO victims. Even much later, American ambassadors refused to use the word ‘victim’.”
But the truth is there were plenty of victims, with an estimated 400,000 killed and three million Vietnamese affected by AO, due to thepresence of dioxin. “That was a byproduct of sloppy manufacturing and also one of the most poisonous substances we know of,” said Bailey. “Many of the people who were directly exposed developed cancer, type 2 diabetes, ischemic heart disease, and died early.
“This became an issue in the United States in the late 70s as young men returning from war began to come down with ‘old man’s diseases’.The same thing was of course going on in Vietnam, but we in America didn’t much know about it because America slammed an embargo on Vietnam in 1975.”
The Vietnamese wanted help, but were trapped. To get America’s blessing to join the World Trade Organisation, they were warned not to talk about the effects of AO. Bailey needed a way to break the deadlock andhas some sympathy for the US officials who were involved. He said, “I think individuals in any large organization or government want to do the right thing, but then they get worried about their careers or whether this will damage their organization or make them look bad? Or they will blame the victims, saying ‘This is just propaganda, there is no evidence’.”