The Guardian 30 March, 2005
Agent Orange research cancelled:
"A series of lies, deceit and blackmail"
The United States government has withdrawn from a commitment to joint research with Vietnam on the health consequences of Agent Orange, claiming that it had not received “the necessary co-operation from the Vietnamese government”. The following is a commentary on that development by US Professor Kenneth J Herrmann, which was published in the Vietnamese journal, Tuoi Tre, on March 22, 2005.
The cancellation of the US-funded project to research the connection between the use of Agent Orange during the war and the physical and emotional disabilities suffered by so many in Vietnam was decided by Dr Anne Sassaman of the US National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS). It was her decision to cancel the research funding as of January 1, 2005, but this was delayed until February 24 in order to give notice to those involved in America planning the project.
Dr Sassaman did not support the research in the beginning and seemed focused on finding reasons to end this co-operation. She and Dr Marie Sweeney at the US Embassy made repeated demands of the Vietnamese government officials involved that the project be performed only as the US officials required, a less than co-operative approach.
The original five-year project was cut to three years. The protocol was neither co-operative nor rationally geared toward achieving results with mutual cooperation. In fact, the behaviour of both Sassaman and Sweeney seemed geared toward sabotaging the project from the very beginning.
The US scientists involved were frustrated by the US officials’ behaviour, as, I am sure, were the Vietnamese officials who clearly wanted the research to proceed. Dr Sassaman also was very upset with Dr Phan Thi Phi Phi’s involvement in the recent Agent Orange class-action lawsuit.
Dr Phi Phi is a well-respected scientist who had the courage to visit America, share the pain of the Vietnamese victims with Americans, and stand up publicly for justice in the lawsuit [see Yet another atrocity]. The NIEHS, however, seemed to find this offensive.
Amid great publicity in 2001, the US government announced the beginning of an era of co-operation in researching the connection between Agent Orange and the millions of disabled in Vietnam.
This was quickly followed by a memorandum by the US Ambassador which ridiculed Vietnamese scientists; called the alleged Agent Orange disabilities mere propaganda by Vietnam with the purpose of getting US money; rejected all other research done by Vietnamese scientists or scientists from around the world as useless; and implied that US scientists involved in the research should find no connection between Agent Orange and disabilities in Vietnam.
Then, the research itself was delayed, as arrangements for it to begin became mired in establishing protocols. Eventually the potential research became little more than taking blood samples from the mothers of disabled children.
The time for the study was decreased from five to three years. Then, Dr Sassaman decided to end the funding all together for the research, leaving involved scientists both in the US and in Vietnam shocked and disappointed.
In fact, Dr Sassaman has privately told professionals in America that she will never again approve a project for US scientists to perform research in Vietnam. She even has gone to the point of threatening US universities that their future research funding on other projects will be harmed if they do not co-operate in stating they agree with her decision, even if they do not.
Bad political decision
This history is not merely bad science; it is a series of lies, deceit, and blackmail. This was a bad political decision, not a scientific one. It is obvious that the pain of the disabled in Vietnam has been ignored and belittled even by those in the US government who are charged both with producing objective research and supporting co-operation between Vietnam and America. This condescending, demanding, and abrasive attitude has sabotaged any potential help from the US government for the horrors resulting from its use of Agent Orange during the war.
The research began only because of the outrage from many nations around the world. It was begun with denials and roadblocks from US officials and has ended with US officials foolishly blaming the Vietnamese government for its termination.
It is ironic that once again America is blaming the victims for their own pain. This is an insulting and ethically offensive decision by Washington. The burglar is blaming the homeowner for the intruder’s burglary. It makes no rational sense at all and should produce outrage around the world.
America continues to fund disability compensation for American war veterans who were briefly exposed to Agent Orange during the war. It denies any connection between Agent Orange and the millions in Vietnam who were repeatedly drenched in the 20,000,000 gallons of this toxic chemical and have lived in its aftermath for over 30 years, suffering the same and similar disabilities.
The court in America says there is no connection. The American government now ends research into the problem before it even begins. This is an intolerable violation of responsibility and human rights and deserves to be strongly condemned.
Those of us around the world who attempt to help Agent Orange victims in Vietnam and also advocate for their cause will find these two repugnant decisions incentives to escalate our services. They are not reasons to end our efforts but rather reasons to devote more time, energy, and resources to help a people and a nation to overcome the results of both the war crime and the insult of the criminal.
The incentive to work co-operatively is symbolised in the eyes of one small boy in Que Lam, Quang Nam Province whom I visited two months ago with Nguyen Thi My Hoa, our Program Administrator in Danang, and our SUNY Brockport students. Little Tung’s sister died from her disabilities caused by Agent Orange.
He might not be able to travel to America to talk with the US government. He might not be able to testify in court. He might not be able to perform scientific research, but he can tell the world through his pain, paralysis, seizures, and other disabilities that America must do everything possible to help him and the millions of others like him. His silence is a strong message to the world, which demands attention and help. His life is an example of courage.
My hope is that many others will understand his courage and will continue to do everything possible to improve the condition of those whose silence can become a shout heard around the world.
Assoc. Prof. Kenneth J Herrmann is Director, SUNY Brockport Vietnam Program
and Director, The Danang/Quang Nam Fund, Inc.