Agent Orange Responsibility in Vietnam

In the span of about a decade of the Vietnam war, a war which lasted about twenty years and claimed the lives of millions, the United States sprayed a chemical called Agent Orange throughout the land of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.  The amount of land destroyed by Agent Orange was roughly 5.5 million acres, almost the size of New Jersey.  The United States stopped spraying the agent when they learned of the ill effects that the chemicals could have on those exposed to it; such as a substantial risk for birth defects, cancer, and other diseases.

Forty years later, the United States has instituted its’ first major program to rectify the environmental effects of Agent Orange on the land.  The United States will spend about $43 million dollars to clean up a former air base in Da Nang; a program that will take about four years to complete.  However, some do not believe this is enough.  Today, there are still those in Vietnam suffering the human consequences of the harm that the chemicals have had on themselves as well as their children.

Those who have worked on the issue say that the United States has been slow to respond because of liability issues.    It took years for American soldiers affected by the pollutant to come to settlements with the chemical companies who produced the agent.  In 2005, on behalf of millions of Vietnamese, a class action suit was filed against chemical companies in the United States.  The suit was dismissed on the grounds that the supply of the chemicals to the government was not a war crime, and the victims could not show a sufficient causal effect between the chemicals and their ailments.  Today, in an effort to cleanse their bodies of the harmful chemicals, some Vietnam residents are using a method called the Hubbard method, named for the founder of scientology, L. Ron Hubbard, and endorsed by actors such as Tom Cruise.  The purification method involves sweating in a sauna, taking vitamins and minerals, and strenuous exercise.  Researchers in the United States say that this method is not an effective way to rid a body of the substance.

Does the United States have a social responsibility to help those suffering?  How much assistance should be provided? Are the potential legal hurdles worth fighting?


SOURCES: The New York Times, The New York Times



  1. To quote directly from one of Matt’s sources: “Those who have worked on the issue say the American government has been slow to address the issue in part because of concerns about liability. It took years for American soldiers who sprayed the chemicals to secure settlements from the chemical companies that produced them.”

    I’m confused about the nature of these “settlements.” I wonder if the chemical companies were aware of the devastating effects of their products; my guess is that they were. Considering the scheme of our system of torts, could victims and/or users sue on grounds that the chemical companies were producing ultra-hazardous substances, and thus should be held strictly liable? This is just a guess – I couldn’t find any information on the nature of the lawsuits and what theory of liability was pursued. If anyone does, please share. If we assume that the chemical companies didn’t warn users about the potential effects of the hazardous substances though, users (American government officials and soldiers) could turn to the producing companies and seek indemnification after having to shoulder the disability and health care payments of both victims and users. Unless of course the American government received fair warning – then we absolutely should meet our obligations and pay. I guess we will never know how much our government knew about the nature of these chemicals.

    I’m concerned about the example we set, or failed to set, I should say. What does this say to other producers of volatile chemicals and substances, that repercussions weren’t felt until decades later? If deterrence is one of the main aims of punishment, did we accomplish our goal and send a message to producers of these substances? My guess is, no.

  2. The Vietnam years are a contentious issue in American history. Our legacy in South Asia will always bear a mark on it because of our actions there. It is frankly sad that it has taken this long to help clean up the effects of Agent Orange, since we have known of the devastating effects for years. And $43 million is not an exorbitant amount of money relative to amount of money that was spent during the Vietnam campaign.
    I am not sure if the U.S. could be held liable in a legal forum. Modern chemical warfare has been used since World War I, even though certain international treaties have forbade its use. The use of chemical warfare in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos seems to be another example of the lack of enforceability of international treaties. And as the article stated, the supply of chemicals to the government was not a war crime, even though that is certainly a debatable point. In terms of social responsibility, I think the U.S. is absolutely liable. Hopefully, this cleanup will be the first step in rectifying the destruction Agent Orange has done to the lands. A bigger problem will be helping the human population who are being born bearing the adverse effects of the chemicals. Identifying those will be a difficult task, as would be determining the compensation for each one. I am not sure any nation would want to open that door, but the U.S. can certainly help more with the environmental effects of Agent Orange.
    And the less sad about Scientology and their actions, the better.

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