As Thomas Jefferson School of Law professor Marjorie Cohn notes at CommonDreams, “Today marks the 50th anniversary of the start of the chemical warfare program in Vietnam without sufficient remedial action by the U.S. government.” More than 3 million people, including Vietnamese, Vietnamese-Americans, US veterans, and their children have either died, sickened or been disabled, and their children may, too, as the result of the wide-scale use of chemical agents by US forces during the Vietnam War.

From 1961 to 1971, approximately 19 million gallons [80 million liters] of herbicides, primarily Agent Orange, were sprayed over the southern region of Vietnam. Much of it was contaminated with dioxin, a deadly chemical. Dioxin causes various forms of cancers, reproductive illnesses, immune deficiencies, endocrine deficiencies, nervous system damage, and physical and developmental disabilities.

Among the many war crimes conducted by the United States, its use of biological agents in Vietnam may have been the worst. According to a 2008 report in The Globe and Mail, “Vietnam estimates 400,000 people were killed or maimed by the defoliants, 500,000 children have been born with defects from retardation to spina bifida and a further two million people have suffered cancers or other illnesses. Yet they have received no compensation from those who produced the chemicals and those who made them a weapon of war.”

When the white powder started falling from the sky, the soldiers were puzzled. Usually the American planes dropped bombs. Now, they were unleashing clouds of something that looked like fog, smelled like garlic and burned their eyes.

“The whole earth was covered with it,” remembers Tong Van Vinh, who was a 26-year-old truck driver in the North Vietnamese military at the time. “We thought they were dropping smoke bombs on us. We didn’t know it was a chemical”….

First sprayed in 1968, Mr. Vinh was plagued by muscular and skeletal disorders. But after the war ended in 1975, his health deteriorated rapidly. By 1994, he was paralyzed and spent six months in hospital, being fed liquids through his nose. He recovered, but not enough to work on his rice farm. Today, his voice is hoarse, he can’t swallow solid food, his spine is numb and often he is too weak to walk or even to turn over in bed.Victims of Agent Orange Relief Act of 2011

Now, Cohn reports, Congressman Bob Filner has introduced House Resolution 2634, the Victims of Agent Orange Relief Act of 2011. The bill would “provide crucial assistance for social and health services to Vietnamese, Vietnamese-American, and U.S. victims of Agent Orange.”

According to a press release by Vietnam Veterans of America:

“On August 10, 1961, the U.S. Air Force began spraying chemical defoliants, dessicants, and herbicides over wide swaths of land in South Vietnam. This was done, first and foremost, to protect our troops – to clear vegetation from the perimeter of fire bases and other outposts, to deny those we were fighting cover and concealment, and to deny food to our enemy,” said John Rowan, National President of Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA)….

“We, as a nation, need to accept our responsibility and address both the ecological destruction and the human agonies that resulted from our spraying of defoliants in southern Vietnam ,” Rowan said. “Maybe then we can finally have some closure to our war.”

U.S. interest in the use of biological and chemical weaponry goes back decades. Much of our knowledge regarding this remains hidden behind the wall of ongoing classification of military secrets. Interestingly, controversies over the use of biological weapons by the US during the Korean War was the impetus for the US brainwashing program that became MKULTRA, as it was reported that US airmen captured by the North Koreans and the Chinese had told their captors of US use of biological weapons during the Korean War.

Whatever the past history might be, there is no dispute about the terrible effect of chemical warfare conducted by US forces in Vietnam, including its blowback effects on US troops there. While no high-level US official has ever been held accountable for these or other crimes inflicted upon Vietnam, we have a moral obligation to help the victims who still suffer daily.

Cohn explains:

There has been some compensation for U.S. veteran victims of Agent Orange, but not nearly enough. In spite of President Richard Nixon’s 1973 promise of $3.25 billion in reconstruction aid to Vietnam “without any preconditions,” the Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American victims of the disgraceful chemical warfare the United States conducted in Vietnam have not seen one penny of compensation.

Fifty years is long enough. It is high time to compensate the victims for this shameful chapter in our history. H.R. 2634 will go a long way toward doing just that.