By David Kattenburg
The fortieth anniversary of America’s hasty retreat from Vietnam is upon us. A true memetic moment, that frantic, April 25, 1975 escape from the US Embassy rooftop is engraved in popular consciousness (Courtesy of The Simpsons, for those in their twenties and thirties).
Here in Canada, the commemoration of the world’s greatest televised military rout prompted the public broadcaster to focus on the 55,000 Vietnamese “Boat People” who would wash up on Canadian shores between the “fall” of Saigon and 1980 .
In the fifteen minutes allotted to recalling what Vietnamese elders dub the “American War,” today’s anniversary beckons us to wander down darker hallways.
What, for example, became of the countless Vietnamese people inundated with Agent Orange and other chemical defoliants that America used to deprive enemy troops of cover? I recall asking myself that question as a kid, sitting in front of the TV, listening to Walter Cronkite report on how defoliants were being used to stem the communist tide.
Years later, I had the chance to travel to Vietnam and find out for myself. At that time, the Vietnamese government was working with a variety of international organizations — and the US government — to clean up the toxic remains of the defoliation campaign. Seventy-five million liters of toxic chemicals were dropped on then-South Vietnam between 1962 and 1971. Four “hot spots” from those days had been identified, containing large quantities of the Agent Orange breakdown product dioxin. Efforts were underway to figure out how to clean them up.
Here are a couple of stories I produced back then. Listen to the short version first:
In the above story, an intrepid young man on a motorbike takes me to the northern edge of Danang airfield, where US forces stored their defoliants in large metal drums, mixing them on the spot. Plenty got spilled. Nearby, a number of lotus covered lakes, where people once fished, had been contaminated with dioxin-laced seepage.
Since this audio story was produced, dioxin cleanup at Danang Aiport has advanced considerably. Go here for the most current information.
The longer audio story below features the voices of kids from one of Vietnam’s handful of “Friendship Villages,” where children and adults believed to have been affected by Washington’s chemical warfare campaign live.
Vietnamese health authorities believe the impacts of defoliants and their breakdown products are trans-generational. Here’s a Reuters piece on the topic.