“Planes would first come and bomb the area to scatter the guerillas, followed by the spray planes. We didn’t pay much attention but some villagers vomited and were bothered with bloodshot eyes. If you had a plastic bag, you could put it over your head. You could shampoo your hair with beer, or urine would also neutralize the chemical. At night you could hear the trees falling.” Dang Suong
One of the most complicated and tragic ironies of the Vietnam War was the use of a chemical cocktail with the sinister sounding name of Agent Orange. This was no breakfast drink chocked full of Vitamin-C. It was a liquid defoliant spiked with the cancer-causing ingredient dioxin. According the Veterans Administration, from 1962 to 1971, 19-million gallons of herbicides were applied across South Vietnam. Agent Orange was the most common blend of the plant killers, sprayed by air or by ground troops. Dr. Arnold Schecter, a professor of Preventive Medicine for State University of New York, and a dioxin authority, thought there were possibly millions of Vietnamese suffering serious health problems. There were very real concerns that traces of the chemical had entered the gene pool and birth defects could be passed down to future generations.
The strategy behind using Agent Orange made sense. Deprive the enemy of hiding places by applying the toxic mix to trees and underbrush. The leaves would drop and communist hiding places and infiltration routes would be exposed. Allied and Vietnamese lives would be saved by making the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese work harder to secretly move men, provisions and munitions. Agent Orange was extraordinarily efficient. It performed as advertised, and then some. The post-war years coughed up the human cost of Agent Orange, hundreds of thousands of civilians and soldiers, on both sides of the conflict, suspected that exposure to the defoliant was making them very ill. For American vets, troubling questions were raised to the Veterans Administration, but many of the important answers remained in Vietnam, where the population is as paranoid of Agent Orange as Japanese were of nuclear fallout.
By the 1990s, the intense interest in Agent Orange’s lingering impact had shifted to the civilian toll in Vietnam. One study purported to show that people who lived in South Vietnam, where the chemicals were sprayed, had the highest dioxin levels in the world. In contrast, the population living in North Vietnam, where Agent Orange was not used, had some of the lowest dioxin levels in the world. There were hearings in Congress, journalistic exposé’s, academic and health studies, and industry inquiries. In 1994, America’s most respected network investigative unit was preparing its examine the controversy for CBS News. “60 Minutes,” with reporter Ed Bradley, was planning to accompany Elmo Zumwalt to Vietnam. He’s the retired Admiral who ordered the spraying, and whose son died of cancer that may have been caused by Agent Orange exposure. Zumwalt also thought it was the cause of brain damage to his grandson. The Adm. would be traveling with the prominent American scientist Arnold Schecter. The show’s “Bluesheet,” which is a one-page prospectus, was a shocking summary. “Imagine an area where the infant mortality rate is about 5 times the national average, birth defects are 6 times higher…and in the last few years, 16 sets of Siamese twins have been born.” It was sure to be a high-impact, emotional story. “60 Minutes” came to me to help set up what would be a difficult journey into some of Vietnam’s near-inaccessible topography.
I recommended to the producers that I go in solo first, to advance the trip. My plan was to penetrate deep into the countryside where Agent Orange had been widely used, seek out witnesses who remember the spraying, find patients with suspected dioxin-related maladies, visit hospitals, photograph birth defects and identify English-speaking experts who might be interviewed. It was always a luxury to work with the documentary units because they had no daily deadlines to meet. So I was elated to join the production, but also apprehensive about the evidence, and alleged victims, I was about to encounter.