The mental and physical wounds that emanate from the Vietnam War run very deep for the American and Vietnamese generation that fought. Today, countless veterans who were sent to Southeast Asia still suffer from their experiences. “Between 1962 and 1971, the U.S. sprayed an estimated 20 million gallons of herbicides in Vietnam, eastern Laos, and parts of Cambodia, usually from helicopters or low-flying aircraft, but sometimes from backpacks, boats, and trucks. Agent Orange alone accounted for more than half of the total volume of herbicides deployed. One of its key ingredients, dioxin, is highly toxic even in tiny quantities. Operation Ranch Hand deployed about 375 pounds of dioxin over an area about the size of Massachusetts, contaminating the entire ecosystem and exposing millions of people — on both sides of the conflict — to horrifying long-term effects, including skin diseases and cancers among those exposed, and birth defects in their children.”*
An example occurred when paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division sprayed more than 500,000 gallons of assorted chemicals (so-called rainbow herbicides, of which Agent Orange is the most notorious) into the A Shau Valley which was one of the strategic focal points of the war in Vietnam. Located in western Thua Thien province, the narrow 25-mile long valley was an arm of the Ho Chi Minh Trail funneling troops and supplies toward Hué and Danang. Further, the United States sprayed 750,000 gallons of chemicals on Quang Tri province along the Laotian border. The United States also unleashed more bombs on Quang Tri than were dropped on Germany during World War II. The best estimate we have is that 600,000 tons of bombs dropped on Vietnam failed to detonate, about 10% of the total by the Air Force’s account. As a result, by 2014 the Vietnamese government estimated that 40,000 people had died from unexploded ordinance and another 60,000 were injured.**
The ecological, health, and legal issues created by the use of chemical defoliants during the Vietnam War are complex, internationally debated, and continue to the present day. U.S. military personnel who were exposed to Agent Orange while serving in Vietnam have litigated the issue for decades, seeking compensation for medical care resulting from Agent Orange exposure. They have sued both the U.S. government and the corporations who manufactured the chemical compounds. Exposure to Agent Orange can cause many diseases, from 20 forms of cancer to Type 2 diabetes and serious birth defects like cleft palates and club feet.
Despite the fact that over 30,000 books have been written about Vietnam, the latest addition to that compendium, George Black’s THE LONG RECKONING: THE STORY OF WAR, PEACE, AND REDEMPTION IN VIETNAM is a superb addendum as he documents the effect of the war today, fifty years after the Paris Peace Accords that ended the fighting focusing on Vietnam’s Quang Tri and Thua Thien provinces along the Laotian border, home to a vital stretch of the Ho Chi Minh Trail – from the DMZ south into the A Shau Valley. Black begins his account by explaining the different factions within the North Vietnamese leadership as they approached how to unify their country with the south. Black introduces Ho Chi Minh, the founder of the Indochinese Communist Party and considered by many as the “father of the Vietnamese Revolution,” and General Vo Nguyen Giap, the military genius who engineered the victory over the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.
According to Black, Both men favored a protracted armed struggle combined with patient diplomacy and negotiations. They would be eclipsed in influence by two others, Le Duan, a member of the politburo, and Nguyen Chi Thanh, the head of the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN). Le Duan and Nguyen Chi Thanh advocated bold acts of revolutionary violence that would trigger mass uprisings as the key to national liberation.
(Manus Campbell and children he has helped)
By the end of 1961 Thanh was made a five star general, and the Third Party Congress named Le Duan as General Secretary heading the Politburo. A third important figure introduced, Colonel Vo Bam, was placed in charge of working out the mechanics of creating what was to be known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail to funnel men, weapons, and supplies into the south. By 1963 South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem’s control of the country was unraveling and would soon be overthrown, an action supported by the Kennedy administration. By August 1964 Congress, pushed by President Lyndon Johnson passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and by March 1965, 184,000 American troops were in country.
Among Black’s focuses are two Americans who fought in Vietnam who are central to the narrative. The first was Manus Campbell who hailed from Bayonne, New Jersey endured the horrors of combat, first on the back roads that led east of the A Shau Valley to the city of Hue, then along the DMZ, and finally on a section of the Ho Chi Minh Trail where it crossed from Laos into Quang Tri province an area along with Thua Thien suffered the heaviest losses of American troops in the war. As Black points out, “it was his particular misfortune to serve in the most terrible combat zone in Vietnam and at the worst possible time.” Campbell struggled for decades with the traumatic aftermath of the war and returned to Thua Thien-Hue to confront his inner demons and help in modest ways to aid those he called “the invisible victims of the war—disabled kids and orphans, including those presumed to have been sickened by the toxic defoliant known as Agent Orange.” The second American, Chuck Searcy was from Thomson, Georgia worked in military intelligence and never fired a shot in combat. In November 1994 he returned to live in Vietnam and for the past twenty years he dedicated himself mainly to cleaning up the legacy of the war in Quang Tri, the most heavily bombed province in Vietnam. Through the experiences of these men Black is able to paint a picture of how they influenced the US government to take responsibility for the ongoing horrors caused by chemical weapons and unexploded munitions that still impact so many Vietnamese.
At the outset, the American government had few qualms about employing chemical herbicides to expose the enemy’s hiding places but applying them to food crops was a different matter. Black points out that the US decided to defoliate food crops arguing the military value outweighed the potential political cost. Initially, the Pentagon and some scientists downplayed the impact of chemicals on soldiers and peasants or anyone who was exposed, a flawed opinion that so many are paying for today. The American use of herbicides was in response to the intricate and ingenious way that the North Vietnamese went about building the Ho Chi Minh Trail despite American bombing including Laos. Black carefully lays out how the trail was constructed and concludes the course of the war was radically altered by its coverage of certain areas and the dedication of Vietnamese peasants.
(Lady Borton-with mic)
Campbell, age twenty, learned as did so many American soldiers that “ survival in combat was a matter of inches and feet and usually dumb luck.” Black employs Campbell’s experiences to understand what it was like to fight just south of the DMZ, how troops survived and did not, and the role of the Pentagon and politicians especially General William Westmoreland and President Johnson in decision making.
Perhaps one of Black’s most important chapters, “Tonight you are a Marine” is an excellent summary and analysis of what it was like for Vietnamese soldiers to fight the American war machine. Maneuvering along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, planning and carrying out the Tet Offensive, and the lack of supplies and food the Vietnamese soldiers had to deal with.
Roughly the first third of the book is devoted to the combat experience of the war and political decision making by both sides. Black zeros in through Campbell and to a lesser extent Searcy what it was like to be a “grunt” in the war. Black moves on to core of his narrative as he dissects American policy and its relationship with the Vietnamese government focusing on diplomatic recognition, research into the location and the effects of chemical warfare, unexploded ordnance, and the wounds and bureaucracies that prevented medical assistance to the victims that continued for decades.
Black delves into the lives of many Vietnamese and how they coped and survived. The families of Ngyuten Thanh Phu and Ngo Xuanhien provide an excellent example as they described the importance of scrap metal which was used in a myriad of ways to create items that they could not acquire including cannibalization to foster medical equipment. Further, they describe the many deaths suffered due to stepping on mines or unexploded ordnance. Their families lived in Quang Tri, an area where doctors discovered an alarming rate of children suffering from birth defects.
Black introduces a number of important characters who were essential to discovering the enormous medical and moral issues associated with the war. Jeanne Stellman, an occupational therapist, and her husband Steven, an epidemiologist conducted their own research in the mid-1980s and developed studies reflecting a clear correlation between exposure to Agent Orange and health problems. Their research showed that Center for Disease Control studies were controlled by White House political organs. The information needed for research was barred by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) until Freedom of Information requests secured their release. The research concluded that between 1961 and 1971 “more than twenty million gallons of herbicides were sprayed, covering as much as one-sixth of the surface area of South Vietnam…Agent Orange accounted for 60% of the amount…more than 3000 rural villages had come under the spray…at least 2.1 million people, and perhaps as many as 4.8 million-a figure that included only residents, not combatants or transients.”
The key individual who would help foster further research was Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt who was appointed head of the new cabinet level Department of Veterans Affairs by President H. W. Bush as by 1989 over 31,000 veterans had their claims for compensation rejected. Interestingly, Zumwalt’s son served in the Mekong Delta and in 1988 died of Hodgkin’s Disease and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Black carefully explores the research that went into finally proving American culpability in conducting massive chemical warfare and finally breaking the deadlock in negotiations between Vietnam and the United States. The work of Dr. Ton That Tung and his colleagues began their research in 1971 for Vietnam and they would soon learn of numerous still births, miscarriages, monster fetuses, birth defects, and liver cancer. Amazingly it was mother’s breast milk that passed on much of the toxins as women would drink from poisonous streams and lakes. Dr. Le Cao Dai, a Vietnamese researcher, and Dr. Arnold Schecter, a dioxin specialist from SUNY Binghamton corroborated these findings and continued to explore them further.
Black integrates the life stories of many important individuals in trying to rectify the atrocity of what remained for the Vietnamese people. Chief among them was Adelaide Borton, better known as Lady Borton, who began her journey in Vietnam in 1967 and would leave and return to live for many decades. She would write two books reflecting on her experiences and conveyed the stories of Vietnamese who poured their hearts out to her. In 1990 she came to live in Hanoi to work for the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) and “people joked that she was really Vietnamese disguised as an American.” Jacqui Chagnon and her husband Roger Rumpf went to Laos to head up the AFSC where they discovered the same issues that existed in Vietnam. Charles Bailey, an agricultural specialist headed the Ford Foundation’s efforts in Hanoi which eventually raised $47 million to ameliorate the situation. Senator Patrick Leahy who was the motivating force for Washington to fund cleanup sites and assist those who suffered birth defects from the war including in Laos. At the same time these individuals impacted the plight of the Vietnamese and Laotians, Searcy developed and enhanced existing prosthetic programs along with working on the unexploded ordnance problem.
(General William Westmoreland)
Two Canadian scientists played a key role in the process, Chris Hatfield and Wayne Dwernychuk who founded a consulting firm, and they would dive into the problems described when the United States still in 1999 refused to devote the proper resources to assist the American vets and the Vietnamese people. They would apply Canadian resources and develop a strong working relationship with the Vietnamese governmental body called the 10-80 Committee. When 60 Minutes released a segment on what had occurred in the A Luoi Valley through interviews by Christiane Amanpour and evidence of birth defects in the children of American veterans it was difficult for Washington to ignore the problems. Hatfield’s work and the 10-80 Committee transformed the debate on Agent Orange in Vietnam.
More and more the work of Veterans, Scientists, pacifists, and some politicians interested in looking forward than looking back, chipped away at painful obstacles to normalize relations with Vietnam-first over POWs and MIAs, then prosthetics for the disabled, then the removal of unexploded ordnance, and lastly the legacy of Agent Orange. It took until 2018 for Defense Secretary James Mattis to promise an allocation of $150 million in Pentagon funds to clean up the toxins Americans had left behind at the Bien Hoa air base outside Ho Chi Minh City, one of many untreated “hot spots.” It was the first time the Pentagon openly admitted responsibility for the legacy of Operation Ranch Hand,” the code name for the defoliation campaign. For Laos it took until 2022 for the Senate to approve $1.5 million to help treat Laotian children who suffered from birth defects thanks to the work of Senator Leahy. Through the work of so many people like Searcy, Campbell, Bolton, Hatfield and a motley militia of private volunteers pursuing their own penance working with their Vietnamese counterparts’ intensive work would be done that needs to continue today.
It is clear that many individuals and their work described by Black had a tremendous impact on the lives of the Vietnamese people. It is a story that needs to be told to improve American-Vietnamese relations and help combat veterans from both sides understand what had occurred to them during the war and how to deal with the demons it fostered in their lives for decades. Black should be commended for his work publicizing the issue and bringing attention to many moral and ethical issues. Black is correct when he states, “the truth of all wars is that they never really end.”