Thursday, August 5, 2021

The Media's Failure on Agent Orange


This story is so seriously underreported that for many it hardly exists. But it does exist in a multitude of ways that are impossible to count. It has a continuing and important effect on people's lives, including unborn children, in South East Asia, mainly Vietnam, and in the United States, particularly among veterans. Until we solve the ills Agent Orange caused—and still does—the press gives it the coverage it demands and deserves, many people will continue to suffer in unimagined ways. It is media neglect of the worst sort.

Despite all the problems and the terrible damage it left in its wake, stories about the deadly defoliant are hard to find in newspapers, television or the Internet. Rarely is there anything new to report, so there is nothing to read or view. To its credit, PBS did air a substantial documentary recently, and there is an occasional newspaper story, but they are not enough to make people conscious of what the defoliant destroyed in South Vietnam in its more than eleven years of unbridled use.

I became acquainted with Agent Orange on every base that I set foot on from Can Tho to Dalat, from Saigon to Danang, from Tay Ninh to Pleiku. Every American base had its share of steel storage drums, some rusting, that were often leaning against the walls of American soldiers' and Marines' sleeping quarters, near a commissary and dining hall where troops ate, even a medical shack in Danang. By the way, its name comes from the color-coded hands painted on those steel drums, thus orange hands became Agent Orange, an easy transition as part of the language of war.

The rampant use of Agent Orange, a sort of poetic name for a killer, is one shame among many, committed by the United States in Vietnam. Even after more than 46 years since the war ended in 1975, we do not know how many suffered and how many still suffer from the effects of this powerful defoliant and herbicide.

Concerned about the movement of troops and supplies from North Vietnam into South Vietnam down the Ho Chi Minh Trail (really a spider web of narrow footpaths, wider trails, small streams, truck routes, mountains and jungle) confounded the American command’s efforts to close the seemingly unstoppable trafficking by Hanoi. Very early in the war, in 1962 when American advisors ran the show, staff in the Pentagon and White House came up with what they considered a failsafe plan to stop the ongoing influx of Hanoi's men, women and supplies into South Vietnam. It was simple: dump a variety of herbicides and defoliants with a bit of powerful dioxin included, to destroy all vegetation and crops, including trees, as well as to pollute streams and rivers. That way they would open the jungle to enable American and South Vietnamese aircraft and artillery to better detect and destroy their enemy. It never worked to stop traffic on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, but it was not until 1971-1972, with the damage already done, that the program ended.

Ron Steinman was bureau chief for NBC News in Saigon from 1966 through 1969, including leading the coverage of the Tet Offensive in 1968, and covered the war until 1972. Over the war years and after the war ended, he interviewed many soldiers and Marines to get their stories about Agent Orange, some of which are in his oral histories of the war, The Soldiers Story; Women in Vietnam; and his memoir, A Saigon Journal: Inside Television's First War.  


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