Nobody reads the saturday papers, so governments often announce items they want to keep quiet the friday before. Last friday, the US government announced Obama’s signing of a bill doubling funding to a little known project started in 2007 tackling the environmental and health aftermaths of Agent Orange in Vietnam.
During the war the US military faced a dilemma. Pound for pound, the combined military might of the US armed forces could easily crush the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army in open battle. However, the dense jungle terrain made identifying enemy locations difficult. You cannot bomb what you cannot see. From 1961 to 1971 the US employed a form of herbicidal warfare to negate the protection afforded by the country’s dense vegetation. Millions of gallons of the dioxin containing herbicide were stored in Da Nang airport. From here, it was loaded onto USAF aircraft and blanketed over the Vietnam countryside to destroy crops and remove the concealment the dense vegetation provided Viet Cong and North Vietnameses troops.
Most of the money will be spent on cleaning the area around Da Nang airport and not the countryside. Agent Orange has been blamed for upwards of four millions cases of serious health problems. This number is disputed by the US government. Apart from the site at Da Nang airport, there are 25 other internationally recognized Agent Orange “hotspots” in Vietnam.
The move comes just days before Vietnamese Agent Orange activists testified in front of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific and the Global Environment. Obama’s signature of the bill is likely intended to partially placate the activists before their testimony. There is a sizable research literature exploring the effect of domestic lobbies on foreign policy. Agent Orange offers a great example of global health lobbying, where a domestic lobby triggered international health diplomacy.
Christopher R. Albon is a political science Ph.D. specializing in armed conflict, public health, human security, and health diplomacy.