On November 8th, 2022, US House Representative Barbara Lee was reelected in California’s 13th district, which covers Oakland and parts of the East Bay area. In 2021, Representative Lee introduced H.R.3518, a bill that calls for the federal government to provide aid and assistance to people affected by exposure to Agent Orange during the period of US war in Vietnam.
Agent Orange was one of the many herbicides used in Vietnam and areas of Laos and Cambodia in Operation Ranch Hand, a US military campaign to destroy forested areas and crops in enemy territory. In the period from 1961 to 1971, the US military sprayed approximately 19,000,000 gallons of herbicides in these areas. Between 2,100,000 and 4,800,000 Vietnamese people were exposed to Agent Orange during this time. Recent reviews of old Air Force records show that some 600,000 gallons of Agent Orange was used in Laos, a neutral country in the war, and that Cambodia has been contaminated by the dioxin along with other UXO (unexploded ordnance).
None of these countries have received reparations or compensation from the United States. The US Department of Veterans Affairs only provides monetary compensation and assistance to the children of American women veterans with severe birth defects, and children of American male veterans with spina bífida (the only birth defect recognized as a result of exposure to Agent Orange). This is all despite the fact that the US explicitly promised to help heal the wounds of Vietnam in the 1973 Paris Peace Accords by providing billions of dollars in aid, a promise that has never been honored in the decades since.
If H.R.5318 passes, the people affected by the US military’s use of Agent Orange during the war in Vietnam may finally receive reparations. Still, government reparations are not and will not be adequate in addressing the needs, damage, and trauma caused by Agent Orange from its inception to its use in war; these were mass disabling atrocities that continue to harm affected individuals today. Additionally, many complicated histories underlie the use of herbicides in Vietnam, with connections to race, health, disability, militarism, and medicine. In highlighting some of these connections, this piece seeks to direct attention to the harm that different groups of people suffered as a result of the production and usage of Agent Orange, while emphasizing the far-reaching destructiveness and violence of militarism and imperialism.
Many of the herbicides used by the US military during their war in Vietnam, including Agent Orange, contained the toxic contaminant dioxin, also known as TCDD. Individuals exposed to TCDD, along with their children, may develop diseases and illnesses including Hodgkin’s disease and leukemia, as well as birth defects such as Achondroplasia and hydrocephalus. Throughout Operation Ranch Hand, the largest supplier of TCDD for the US military was Dow Chemicals. Having known about the dangers of dioxins, Dow appointed University of Pennsylvania dermatologist Albert Kligman (also the inventor of Retin-A, which is used in acne treatments) to conduct experiments on incarcerated people throughout the 1960s to study the effects of dioxin/TCDD on skin. Most of the individuals subjected to these experiments were Black men, who made up 47 out of 54 incarcerated people in the first protocol alone. In her book Experiments in Skin: Race and Beauty in the Shadows of Vietnam, Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu describes how Kligman also used his findings to bolster the academic credibility of the racist belief that Black people and Black skin were more immune and tolerant to pain, and that white people and skin were thus more vulnerable to disease and chemical harm. This erroneous belief has contributed to severe anti-Black racism in medicine and insensitivity to Black suffering, as well has being used to justify slavery and other violence and harm done to Black people. In 2000, some 300 former inmates sued Kligman for the injuries that they sustained from experiments, though the lawsuit was dismissed because the statute of limitations had expired.
Thus, to achieve real justice and reparations for the people affected by Agent Orange and other herbicides, there must also be reparations for the incarcerated people who were victims of the racist, violent experiments that prefaced the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam. Furthermore, we must acknowledge the anti-Black and carceral violence deeply entrenched in military production as well as the manufacture of beauty and skin products (such as Retin-A). It is clear that the touch of US militarism surrounding Agent Orange left wounds not just outside the country but also within it.
Additionally, the US military use of Agent Orange continues to do harm in the present. It’s important to highlight the lived experiences and challenges faced by people disabled by Agent Orange in South East Asia as well. In Vietnam, Susan Hammond writes that “being labeled as an Agent Orange victim is more a social classification than a scientific one,” and that many who may have been affected by Agent Orange choose not to label themselves as victims despite monetary benefits that they may receive as a result, due to the social stigma and discrimination related to being disabled. There is fear that one’s DNA will be “forever changed, bringing pain and suffering on future generations,” along with concerns about finding partners and having children.
Postwar Vietnam governmental campaigns focused on maintaining “population quality” by promoting an ideal of bodies and DNA “clean” from contamination; i.e., eugenic campaigns that centered on reproduction. Disabled people thus face the double bind of being both stigmatized and victimized: in order to receive the care that they need, they must also put themselves in a position of ostracization—of being part of the “unclean” population that eugenicist attitudes and campaigns would rather eliminate. In Laos, the lacking healthcare system results in very few infants, if any, being diagnosed as victims of Agent Orange, meaning that they cannot receive aid or reparations now or in the future. It is evident that monetary reparations for the US war in Vietnam will be inadequate not just in terms of providing aid and care to those who need it and who were affected by Agent Orange, but also in reaching any semblance of justice.
Activists in Vietnam have called for, at a minimum, acknowledgement of the consequences of the US military use of Agent Orange on Vietnamese people. Trần Thị Hoan, a Vietnamese Agent Orange victim, stated at the 2010 Committee on Foreign Affairs: “What do the victims need and want? We want those responsible for the terrible consequences of Agent Orange to hear our pain and then to respond as members of the human family. The chemical manufacturers and the U.S government who sprayed and dumped it in our country should respond to this human tragedy by doing the right thing.”
The victims of Agent Orange include many more than just US war veterans—from the people in South East Asia who were directly affected by Operation Ranch Hand, to the incarcerated men who were subjected to the dioxin experiments by Dow and Kligman, to the disabled people experiencing discrimination under eugenicist and ableist systems implemented after the war. US imperialism was and continues to be massively disabling.
We are currently living in yet another mass disabling event: the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, we have yet to adequately acknowledge the disabled people affected by and the harm done from the US war in Vietnam half a century ago. I encourage Asian communities across the US to support Representative Barbara Lee in the ongoing push to pass H.R.3518, and urge their representatives to do the same. This bill has opened up a broader discussion about imperialism and war as tools used to massively disable people.
This discussion can also serve as an opportunity to emphasize the importance of disability justice and of following the leadership of communities most impacted by ableism: disabled Black people and POC. These individuals know their own lived complexities and experiences better than anyone else does, as illustrated by the Vietnamese activists affected by Agent Orange. As such, we should listen when they communicate their needs and priorities for healing. This is especially crucial during the mass disabling event of COVID-19, and may be the only way that those who have been failed by institutions can receive support and assistance to live comfortably. In turn, perhaps we can finally begin to heal the deep wounds left from this imperialist and racist history.