From Enemies to Partners: Vietnam, the U.S., & Agent Orange, with Charles R. Bailey

Jun 27, 2018

The Vietnam War ended over 40 years ago, but the U.S. and Vietnam are still coming to terms with the legacy of the toxic herbicide Agent Orange. Yet there is some good news: The cleanup is continuing and the U.S. Congress is committed. Bailey, who led Agent Orange programs at the Ford Foundation and the Aspen Institute, shares the inspiring story of the cooperation between former enemies, across multiple U.S. presidential administrations.

ALEX WOODSON: Hello. I'm Alex Woodson at the Carnegie Council in New York City. Welcome to this Ethics Matter podcast.

Today I'm joined by Dr. Charles R. Bailey calling in from Seattle. Along with Le Ke Son, Dr. Bailey is the author of From Enemies to Partners: Vietnam, the U.S. and Agent Orange.

Dr. Bailey, thank you for calling in today.

CHARLES BAILEY: My pleasure.

ALEX WOODSON: Dr. Bailey has been working on issues relating to the Agent Orange legacy in Vietnam since the 1990s. He was most recently the director of the Agent Orange in Vietnam program at the Aspen Institute, but he spent the majority of his career at the Ford Foundation. From 1997 to 2007 Dr. Bailey headed the foundation's Hanoi office, where he became involved in issues related to Agent Orange.

To get started, Dr. Bailey, I was hoping you could give us some background on the Agent Orange legacy. I think most Americans know that the U.S. military sprayed poisonous chemicals during the Vietnam War and that it has had lasting health effects, but I'm not sure people realize exactly what was being sprayed, why, and how widespread it was. Could you fill us in on some of this background?

CHARLES BAILEY: I'd be happy to. In 1961 the U.S. military decided that they would experiment with clearing vegetation through large-scale spraying of herbicides in Vietnam. Their objective at the time was to basically kill the vegetation—the trees, the shrubs—and to deny the enemy cover. They also sprayed it on food crops in enemy-held areas. This went on for nine years, relentlessly destroying the vegetation over an area of about 10 percent of Vietnam.

What no one realized at the time—or no one in a position of authority—was that many of the herbicides were contaminated with dioxin, a highly toxic poison, and it's this dioxin which persists and which continues to be the terrible legacy of that now long-ago war.

ALEX WOODSON: What are some of the effects of dioxin? As you detail in your book, it's pretty controversial about what the effects are and what dioxin does and what other chemicals might be involved. What exactly do we see in people who are affected by this poisoning?

CHARLES BAILEY: Let's start with our own Vietnam veterans. When they began to come back from Vietnam and into the 1970s and get married and settle down they started having diseases we think of as diseases of old people, old men, various kinds of cancers and other problems, and dying rather early.

They got organized and brought a lawsuit against the chemical companies who had produced this. This produced a settlement but not nearly enough, just a few thousand dollars per person, and ultimately they organized, and the result was the Agent Orange Act of 1991, which basically said that if you were in the service and served even a day in Vietnam and later developed any one of a number of diseases associated with dioxin exposure, you were eligible for disability compensation, annual payments. This system continued.

Basically a similar process went on in Vietnam. But remember, Alex, there were no diplomatic relations between our two countries between 1975 and 1995. Of course, there were many more people than our servicemen—Vietnamese—who were exposed, farmers, soldiers on both sides, and everybody.

The directly exposed are those who suffered a number of now 15-16 diseases and maladies that are recognized by both Vietnam and the U.S. Veterans Administration (VA) as having probable association with dioxin exposure. The indirectly exposed are their descendants—the children and grandchildren, now in Vietnam great-grandchildren.

Here the science is more contested because it appears to involve intergenerational genetic processes that produce congenital birth defects in subsequent generations but not always, and it is a very complicated and highly emotional subject. But the directly exposed on both sides and indirectly exposed are the real legacy of Agent Orange.

ALEX WOODSON: I want to give our listeners a sense of the scale of this. The U.S. military denuded over 10,000 square miles, 15 percent of South Vietnam, with these herbicides, comparable to the size of Massachusetts or Belgium. How many Vietnamese people were affected or do you suspect were affected by this?

CHARLES BAILEY: The Vietnam Red Cross estimates as many as 4.1 million Vietnamese were exposed and 2.8 million of our American soldiers. Of course, exposure didn't always lead to what I described a moment ago.

One can get a better handle on it by saying that in 2015 about 525,000 American Vietnam vets were receiving disability compensation linked to their exposure to Agent Orange. In Vietnam today the government and local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are paying allowances and family assistance to about 800,000 Agent Orange victims. So these are very significant numbers of people.

In the case of the Americans, the VA doesn't break it down. They will say in 2015 about $24 billion was paid out to 1.4 million veterans of the Vietnam era. The 525,000 veterans I mentioned are a portion of that, but it is not broken down further. But you can get the idea of a large and appropriate response to our own veterans.

In the case of the Vietnamese, though, for many years the United States wasn't even talking about this with the Vietnamese, and then after they established diplomatic relations in 1995, in the late 1990s when I moved to Vietnam our diplomats in the embassy were told by the State Department not even to use the phrase "Agent Orange." So they were really poles apart. It was really this "fog of war" that continued well into the 2000s.

To this day the formal position of the U.S. executive branch is that there is no scientific evidence that dioxin causes ill health and birth defects, and the United States has no responsibility. But we have managed to work around that, and that's why we wrote the book, to tell good news about this legacy.

ALEX WOODSON: There has definitely been some progress in the recent years. Take it back to when you first got to Hanoi. As you said, that was 1997. How did you get involved with this issue? Is this something that you—obviously, most Americans know the term Agent Orange and know the history of the Vietnam War, but was this something that you were looking to do when you got to Vietnam, or did you get involved in a different way?

CHARLES BAILEY: No, not at all. I wasn't looking [for information] about it. In fact, I was trying to use the Ford Foundation to turn over the page, to turn a new leaf, to find positive things that we could do. So we focused on today's Vietnam and the needs in several areas. My programs at Ford were working with Vietnamese in areas like international relations, helping train the diplomatic service, sexuality and reproductive health, which were new subjects then for that place; economic development, and higher education. These were very contemporary.

I had no inkling of this until several months after I arrived I was visiting a grantee at an agricultural university. I was working with farmers in the Central Highlands, and I went to see what they were up to. The project was in a valley, the hillsides of which had obviously been denuded of trees. There was just scrub growth and land slips. I'm an agricultural economist, so I looked at that and I said: "Wow. Wait a minute." Then I remembered Agent Orange and talked to local people, and yes, they remembered spray planes.

That was a real eye-opener. But it was even more of an eye-opener when I went back to Hanoi and started talking with people to see what we could do about this. This is 30 years after the end of the spraying, and something needs to be done. The eye-opener was that neither side wanted to talk about it, the American side for the reason I mentioned, and the Vietnamese were very cautious. They were trying to build a forward-looking relationship, but on the other hand they had this environmental and human health issue, and so they didn't want to talk about it at that point either. So it was a real challenge.

I found that since the Ford Foundation is an independent private grant-maker and doesn't accept money from any outside source that I was in the literally unique position of having the means to do something about it. But there was as yet no opportunity. People didn't actually want a Ford Foundation grant to work on this subject, so it was a logjam, and it went on pretty much that way for the next seven years until we achieved a breakthrough.

What started as my nighttime job as a sense of obligation became my full-time job to see if we could actually open a door and solve this working with the Vietnamese, and hence the title of our book, From Enemies to Partners.

ALEX WOODSON: You mentioned that there was a breakthrough. What was the breakthrough?

CHARLES BAILEY: The breakthrough began with a study that I funded from my Ford Foundation budget which was based on a Canadian study looking at one particular valley in a remote area that had been very heavily sprayed to find out what had happened to the dioxin. The result of that was that the dioxin was only a danger at the former U.S. Army Rangers base in this valley, a place called Aluoi.

Then we decided, "Well, let's look at all the former U.S. bases for their dioxin status" and then made a grant to the Canadians to work with the Vietnamese to do this. This began to clear away the fog of war in the sense that it showed that dioxin was no longer a danger in the general landscape or environment of Vietnam, it was concentrated in the soil at just a few locations.

So we set out to find those locations, and we did. We found where it needed to be cleaned up. This brought focus and cleared away some of the fear and hesitation. By the time George W. Bush came for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting to Hanoi in 2006 it was possible for the American side to say: "We recognize that working with the Vietnamese to clean up these dioxin hotspots would really be a good thing. It would really improve our relationship overall."

The key idea was this "hotspot" hypothesis, the study that I funded, and the key person to continue to follow up on this was Senator Patrick Leahy. Leahy has had a very long-term concern about war victims and the general aftermath of war and its impact on people who later live in those areas. He had very early on, even before diplomatic relations, worked with the Vietnamese on the issue of unexploded ordinance. When I came along with this idea that we could clean up the hotspots—there was a small number of them, it turned out to be only three—and that could end the continuing public health threat to dioxin, he really jumped on this issue like gangbusters. He has been a leader in this subject in the U.S. Congress ever since.

To take a step back, I could generalize and say, "You know, our divided system of government works" in the sense that here we have a succession of administrations going back to the 1970s, but since, say, Clinton and Bush and Obama and now President Trump, that maintained this position of "We don't think there is scientific evidence."

Then we have Congress saying, "What are you doing about Agent Orange?" The administration says, "We don't think we have the responsibility." So the Congress says: "What are you doing about Agent Orange? Here's some money to do something about it." So the administration in 2007 began to work with the Vietnamese on cleaning up the first hotspot at a place called Da Nang, a city of a million people on the Central Coast of Vietnam.

ALEX WOODSON: It's interesting that you bring up the roles of the different presidents because in reading the book it seems like each president does a little bit more: Bill Clinton normalized relations, George W. Bush stated the need to address the legacy. We can get to Obama and Trump.

I also read an article you wrote in Huffington Post in 2013, and you say, "The discussion of Agent Orange legacy has matured in recent years from a topic of polarized views toward active bilateral cooperation." We have a very contentious government right now with Congress and the Executive Branch. There is a lot of tension there and among the American people as well, but do you still see this bilateral cooperation continuing?

CHARLES BAILEY: I think so. We've been very fortunate from the get-go that not only Senator Leahy but Senator Mitch McConnell in 2007 when the Republicans then were in charge in the Senate and Senator McConnell was the head of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee dealing with the overseas non-defense budget of the United States. He was the one who agreed to make the very first allocation for this to get the ball going on Agent Orange in Vietnam.

Later, of course, Leahy took the lead, and now it's back with the Republicans, but each year every annual appropriation, the two sides have agreed that this is important. With every year that passes there is more success both on the cleanup and increasingly well-thought-through and targeted programs to help people with disabilities linked with Agent Orange exposure of a parent or grandparent to Agent Orange.

Whatever the words may be, the facts on the ground, supported by members of Congress and senators from both sides, have got us to a very good place. I want to emphasize the importance of having a focus on cleanup and knowing what to do and where to go and how to do it.

It's equally important since the last several years that Congress has focused money for health and disability on people who are most likely to be considered Agent Orange victims. These are children and young adults—several hundred thousand of them—with "severe upper and lower body mobility impairment," which is the technical language for their stunted limbs, cognitive disability, and developmental delay.

The Congress now has said to the administration, "Focus this money on programs that reach these people"—the severely disabled—"in the provinces that were the most heavily sprayed, not because we know for sure that everybody"—you could trace the link back 50 years through several generations and prove that; that's not possible, but you can say that if you focus your money in this way you will reach a majority of the people who are likely to be Agent Orange victims and equally importantly are seen by the Vietnamese as victims of Agent Orange. So you can have a lot of impact.

The other thing that can be said is that these are not huge sums of money, since 2007, about $270 million. It's now averaging about $30 million a year. This money is doing a lot of good. It's cleaning up the environment, it's helping these disabled young people. It's what someone described—$30 million—as a "rounding error" in the federal budget.

This is all very good news, but we need to continue. The one remaining dioxin hotspot is at Bien Hoa Airbase, which is about 18 miles north of Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City, and it's heavily contaminated. There are about 750,000 tons of contaminated soil that need to be treated and the dioxin destroyed. This will probably take about 10 years.

We're about halfway done. Ten years ago is when we started, and another 10 years is when we'll be done. We hope to continue, and we think the Congress and our government and the American people get enormous payoff from a very modest level of funding.

ALEX WOODSON: This has been such a huge problem for veterans in the United States and people in Vietnam that it's pretty amazing that you can say that it could be done in 10 years.

I just want to go back and talk a little bit about the broader issues around this. In 2007 you started something called the U.S.-Vietnam Dialogue Group on Agent Orange/Dioxin. What exactly was that, and why did you see a need to start this group?

CHARLES BAILEY: When President Bush came in November 2006 and the statement with the president of Vietnam acknowledged the need to clean up dioxin, there was still a need to get the ball rolling and actual facts on the ground. It's like President Trump meets the leader of North Korea and they agree in principle, but the devil is in the details: How do we actually create something good on the ground?

What I was able to do with my Ford budget was to fund the first steps in cleaning up the Da Nang Airport, basically engineering structures to immobilize, lock down the dioxin and to build a perimeter fence, and basically end its being a public health threat. We achieved that by January 2008, and that gave some breathing space to then plan how to actually destroy the dioxin.

Similarly, I was able to fund some pilot programs for health and disability assistance, which gave some experience to American and local NGOs so that they could later apply for American funding to continue this. These were the turning points that led to the situation today.

ALEX WOODSON: The situation today as you've said is that we're moving along with the cleanup. How do you continue to keep Americans interested in this topic? What are some ways that you've found to frame it that can get people interested? Obviously, we want to help our veterans, but how do you make sure that they understand that people in Vietnam are suffering and the need to help them as well?

CHARLES BAILEY: Right. You mentioned the U.S.-Vietnam Dialogue Group on Agent Orange/Dioxin. I set that up with Susan Berresford's help. Susan was then the president of the Ford Foundation and played an enormously important role in backing all that I was able to do.

We agreed that there was no genuine two-way dialogue between the two countries. The official channels were stuck as I mentioned earlier, so we thought, Let's create a second channel of so-called "track-two diplomacy," where you bring private citizens who are well-connected and well-credentialed but are speaking as individuals, bring them together, and have them work on ways to understand and propose a way forward and to communicate it back to the two governments, and then to report on progress and just generally to show concern.

We did this. Susan Berresford agreed to be the neutral convener. Walter Isaacson, then president of the Aspen Institute, was the American co-chair, and a very senior diplomat, [Ngo Quang Xuan], became the Vietnamese co-chair. Then there were people with expertise in the environment and health and public policy on both sides.

They met periodically in 2007 until I think 2013 and published annual reports each year, held press conferences, and generally raised awareness and made sure that the two sides kept talking about this rather than moving on to other things that maybe they found more palatable like trade or other subjects in a bilateral relation.

This mechanism, the track two, the U.S.-Vietnam Dialogue Group, played an important role in getting the two governments to talk, to providing ideas, like for example, Agent Orange is a humanitarian concern—"We can do something about this now, let's get going"—and also communicating with the American public through the press to try to show that this is something that we could at last do something about. It was no longer—we were clearing away the fog of war, in short, and we should be heartened by the possibility of progress on this issue that once had been thought so fearsome and intractable.

ALEX WOODSON: Does this group still meet?

CHARLES BAILEY: No. We are still in touch, but it finally came to a point where the Americans and Vietnamese agreed—well, two things happened. Basically during the period 2007-2013 I was raising money—not only Ford money but money from the United Nations Development Program, United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), several other countries, and a couple of companies, HSBC Bank and Hyatt Hotels—and using those funds to "prime the pump."

If you look in the book, you will find there is a graph showing private and official American assistance on this subject from 2007 to 2018. The private money—Ford and these other groups—peaked about 2009, and the U.S. government money started more slowly and eventually got to the levels we see today. This is really a government-sized program. The private sector, for-profit and non-profit, got the ball rolling in a very important sense along with the dialogue group.

ALEX WOODSON: Are people in Vietnam aware of this? Do they follow these talks? Did they listen to Obama's statement and Trump's statement, both of which were significant in the past 10 years or so? Is this something that has a lot of attention in Vietnam?

CHARLES BAILEY: The issue with Agent Orange victims and America's refusal to work with the Vietnamese received a lot of attention in late 1990s and into the 2000s, culminating in a Vietnamese NGO called the Vietnam Association of Victims of Agent Orange bringing a lawsuit in U.S. Federal Court in Brooklyn against the chemical countries following the same line of logic and in fact the same footsteps of the case that our veterans brought in 1984 in the same court before the same judge. But they weren't successful in the legal approach except that it continued. The case went on, and the defendants prevailed at the district level and appellate level, and finally the Supreme Court refused to hear it.

But all of these legal points were events that could be reported and were reported to some degree in the American press, particularly in Vietnam, and continued to fuel the idea in Vietnam that somehow the United States needed to do something. So all this effort I've been involved with was trying to make that happen in a practical sense because it's a problem that required a political rather than a legal solution, and that's what we have achieved.

Now, with the passage of time, more and more Vietnamese are realizing that there is important progress going on. When, for example, President Trump went to Da Nang last November for the annual meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Consortium (APEC), he arrived at an airport that had just finished being cleaned up of dioxin through a massive U.S. and Vietnamese joint project that had gone on for four years and cost $108 million. But all the dioxin was gone. The Vietnamese used that meeting in Da Nang to mention to all of the heads of state and all those governments about the U.S. cooperation. The number two in the Ministry of Defense went on television just before Trump arrived and celebrated this progress.

There has been a lot of change which has come with seeing that the United States is prepared to respond and is responding. There are milestones that are happening, and there is more that needs to be done.

ALEX WOODSON: One of the interesting points I saw in the book was that you were talking about how it's a medical issue and it's a political issue; it seems like you've had some success talking about it as a humanitarian topic. I really like this George Washington quote from the book: "Morality is a necessary spring of popular government." Translated into simple English: "Americans learn at an early age that if you make a mess, you clean it up." I just think that's a very positive way to talk about this issue.

CHARLES BAILEY: I read that, and I started thinking, Well, what do Americans expect of our government in its dealings with foreign countries? Of course, these relations are always in the news, but underneath what is it that we really would like to see? Well, a humanitarian approach promoting peace and economic cooperation and so forth, but under that there must be some expectation that in a democracy our government responds to the will of the people, and like peoples everywhere Americans have a very strong moral sense.

I went back and said, "Where does this trace to?" George Washington, like so many other things, was talking about it. He put it in his Farewell Address. He said, "This is important."

Then I thought, Well, in my own bringing up, what did I learn? If you hurt somebody, try to make it right to the extent you can, and if you made a mess, clean it up. Clean your room, my son. Those sorts of things I think resonate with Americans.

Generally, almost all of the reviews of this book have been positive. They often get to this point of, "We didn't think we would ever feel good about this." In fact, Americans felt badly and didn't want to talk about it. It was a very difficult subject. But now we see it's possible to make progress.

It was a terrible mistake. For years we thought—people don't like to talk about their mistakes, particularly when they seem so difficult and so expensive and so intractable and hard to deal with, so better not to talk about it, better not to think about it. But that's not a very ethical position, to sort of sweep it all under the rug. People feel uncomfortable with that.

So when you say, "Oh, Agent Orange never should have happened," no one disagrees with that. We clearly were responsible. We took it there. It wasn't as if the Vietnamese somehow dumped dioxin over Northern California. No, no, no. We Americans took it there, we're responsible.

So let's go to our fundamentals here. George Washington got it right: We want our country to operate in a moral sphere, and here's an opportunity to do so.

ALEX WOODSON: Just to wrap things up, what's your role now with the Agent Orange legacy? Do you still travel to Vietnam?

CHARLES BAILEY: When we were writing the book, my co-author Le Ke Son and I traveled together quite a bit because we were interviewing people we thought had moved the needle in one way or another during the last 20 years both in the United States and in Vietnam. Then he came here, and we spent a week in a hotel in Seattle going through the drafts.

Now it's translated and is going to be published later this summer in Hanoi in Vietnamese and distributed nationally, so I will go there for the book launch. To continue, I will take the opportunity to go and meet with U.S. and Vietnamese officials, not just to promote the book but to say: "What's next? What's up?"

There are some important projects that are underway. I mentioned Bien Hoa, but there are also health and disability projects in the former Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). You may remember in the Vietnam War there was an area west of Saigon that was particularly contested and particularly intensely sprayed, and there are projects there led by a Vietnamese American, Ca Van Tran, whose organization Vietnam Assistance for the Handicapped plays a very important role, and perhaps some of the other NGOs like Children of Vietnam, which is a North Carolina-based NGO that for 20 years has been helping kids with difficult lives in Central Vietnam.

I'll go there. If they say, "Turn up and talk and show you care," then I will go back and at an appropriate moment go to Washington and talk with our lawmakers and tell them how important it is to stay the course, to reap the benefits of this very promising initiative, and here are facts fresh from Vietnam to show not only why it's important, but it's so valuable, and it's an effective use of taxpayers' money.

ALEX WOODSON: That's great. It seems like this has really been a success story starting from 2006-2007. It might be a little disappointing that it took so long to get together and do something about this, but reading the book and talking to you it definitely seems like the momentum is going in the right direction, so that's one piece of good news.

CHARLES BAILEY: Thank you. I think it is. We are going to get there. I hope that more people will read the book, particularly young people or people who are new to this subject or people who might think the subject off-putting, but it's actually a very hopeful story, particularly for us Americans. That's why we wrote the book, for those who will come after us and work on this subject, and more broadly as an example of U.S. foreign policy success.

ALEX WOODSON: Thank you very much.

This has been Dr. Charles R. Bailey. The book is called From Enemies to Partners: Vietnam, the U.S., and Agent Orange. Dr. Bailey, thank you so much for speaking with us today.

CHARLES BAILEY: Thank you very much. I appreciate the opportunity.

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