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American Hypocracy* At Work:
Agent Orange -- Thirty Years After

by Harold Williamson
March 15, 2005

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“You can always count on Americans to do the right thing -- after they've tried everything else.”

-- Winston Churchill

The latest insult to our sensibilities by the U.S. Justice [sic] System occurred on March 10 when a federal judge dismissed a damage suit filed against American chemical companies in what is the first legal challenge in the U.S. court system on behalf of millions of Vietnamese victims suffering from the aftermath of some 80 million liters of Agent Orange that was dumped on them by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War.  And because of sovereign immunity, the U. S. government has not been sued.

The gist of the ruling was that not until 1975 when President Gerald Ford adopted national policies renouncing the use of herbicides in warfare were there any accords applicable to the unintended harmful side-effects of chemicals used in warfare.   This is the excuse the U.S. government is using for not taking responsibility for its own criminality, which amounts to manslaughter of biblical proportions.

According to The New York Times, Judge Jack B. Weinstein sided with the chemical companies and the U.S. Justice Department by arguing that supplying the defoliant Agent Orange to the military did not amount to a war crime.  Judge Weinstein wrote: "No treaty or agreement, express or implied, of the United States operated to make use of herbicides in Vietnam a violation of the laws of war or any other form of international law until at the earliest April of 1975."

William H. Goodman, the attorney who filed the class-action suit on behalf of an association of Vietnamese, said that the judge missed the point by ruling that what the defendants manufactured was not known to be a poisonous chemical at that time, even though these same companies that include Dow, Monsanto, and Hercules knew it was.

It was widely disseminated at the time that the main ingredients of Agent Orange -- 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T -- mimic the "harmless" plant growth hormone auxin.  But the herbicide contained trace amounts of the highly toxic TCDD dioxin, a waste byproduct in the manufacturing process of those chlorinated chemicals.  There is no evidence of a toxic threshold amount, so the only safe amount of exposure to TCDD dioxin is zero.  And by having a half-life in the body of approximately 7 years, one molecule can continuously disrupt cell physiology for quite a long time.

If your heart can withstand looking at factual real-life images of what TCDD dioxin is doing to our fellow human beings in Vietnam, one of the best photo-journalists of our time, Philip Jones Griffiths, has published a book simply titled Agent Orange that is testimony to the horrific crime that was the JFK-LBJ-Nixon administrations' authorization of the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam.

But U.S. Government officials just don't seem to give a damn, nor does the media, in spite of major studies of the toxic effects of TCDD dioxin by highly regarded U.S. and Canadian specialists.  And when it has been reported, the message has been that we should pay attention because Vietnam is a marvelous control group that can serve to teach us something useful for ourselves.  Shades of Joseph Mengele.  As Noam Chomsky put it: “Actually we can learn something useful ABOUT ourselves, but Western intellectuals are far too subservient to power to permit that to happen.”

Agent Orange is still poisoning the Vietnamese people today, over thirty years after spraying ended, through highly contaminated foods including poultry and fish.  A particular hot spot is Bien Hoa City, located just north of Ho Chi Minh City.

Agent Orange was used in South Vietnam at higher levels than what was reported at the time and in concentrations hundreds of times beyond any levels permitted here in the states.  If they were, I, myself, would have probably contracted cancer or some other malady that's on the list by now -- although I cannot rule out my late-onset COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease).  However, due to the idiopathic nature of my daughter's congenital anomalies and the fact that her birth occurred within a few short years after my exposure, I find this quite problematic.

My own personal exposure was right here in Illinois. I was a naive kid growing up in the formicary of the 1960s Midwest, and while in college I was indeed fortunate to have a scarce summer job with the State of Illinois spraying marijuana plants in a futile attempt to eradicate them all over the state.  It seems that during W.W.II when the supply of hemp to make rope was cut off from the Philippines, approximately 40,000 acres of Indian hemp was planted in Illinois, and it continues to sprout in or near farmer’s fields to this day.  I was on a spray detail five days a week for four months -- wearing, breathing, and ingesting the stuff without a care in the world, because we were told it was an artificial plant growth hormone that was harmless to humans. 

We simply called it 2,4-D, regardless of what else was mixed with it, and I cannot be certain exactly what formula was used back then.  However it must have been potent because hemp is very difficult to eradicate, and even a slight overspray mist could be lethal to adjoining crops.  But even if that is all that it was, this chemical alone has not exactly been given a clean bill of health. And 2,4-D is still widely used today, even though there is conflicting evidence about the teratogenic effects of the compound in animals.

All this is symptomatic of a much more sinister state of affairs, and it's high time for American corporations to take responsibility for disasters that are of their own making.  They need to do the right thing instead of the Right thing.  But judging by the "values" of our current State, absolutely nothing will be done for a long time to come.

* “Hypocracy” is not an accepted English word that means government by hypocrites.

Harold Williamson is a Chicago-based independent scholar. He can be reached at: Copyright © 2005 Harold Williamson.

Other Articles by Harold Williamson

* Truth in Humor
* Redefining America
* The Missing WMD: Bush's Red Herring
* The Darkness in America
* Spinning The Vietnam War: What Goes Around Comes Around
* None Dare Call It Murder
* It Isn't God Who is Crazy
* Don't Trust Anybody Over Thirty
* Faith in the Postmodern World
* Remember Who The Enemy Is
* Obscenity, A Sign of the Times and the Post
* Thinking Anew: A Do-It-Yourself Project
* America's Blind Faith in Government
* Think Tanks and the Brainwashing of America
* Bully for the Bush Doctrine: A Natural History Perspective