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Former NCC President Michael E. Livingston:
Decades after Vietnam, Agent Orange still maims

New York, June 9, 2010 -- Editor's Note: Last month former National Council of Churches President Michael E. Livingston was a member of an interfaith delegation to Vietnam to observe the continuing effects of Agent Orange and dioxin, chemicals used as defoliants during the Vietnam War to clear over 5 million acres of Vietnamese land. Some 4.5 million Vietnamese and 2.8 million Americans may have been exposed to the chemical, which has been linked to cancer, diabetes, and nerve and heart disorders. The Vietnam Red Cross estimates that up to 3 million Vietnamese have suffered adverse health effects, including more than 150,000 children with spina bifida and other birth defects, from their exposure. The interfaith delegation was supported by the Ford Foundation and led by the Rev. Bob Edgar, former NCC General Secretary, now President and CEO of Common Cause. This is Michael Livingston's report.

By Michael E. Livingston

For a week, May 21-29, I visited places whose names were inescapable during the late sixties and early seventies of my college and seminary days: Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), Da Nang, and Hanoi.  I was not sure what to expect but I am deeply humbled by what I saw and experienced.  I was part of an Interfaith Delegation investigating the continuing effects of Agent Orange and the deadly chemical, dioxin, on the people and the environment of Vietnam.

Thirty five years after the end of the war, Vietnam is thriving as a nation.  Unemployment is low, eighty-five percent of the people live above the poverty line, one can walk the streets of any major city day or night and feel—and be—completely safe and free from harm.  This does not mean Vietnam is not haunted by the after-effects of a devastating war that may not truly be over until there is a greater measure of relief from the horrors of Agent Orange and dioxin.

Created by U.S. chemical companies, Agent Orange was part of a comprehensive aerial campaign to defoliate vegetation providing cover for combatants and sustenance for civilians and soldiers alike.  An area of southern Vietnam roughly the size of Massachusetts was sprayed with toxins that began killing civilians and soldiers on both sides of the conflict. 

The destruction and the dying continue to this day and beyond.  Vietnamese and American soldiers, their children and grandchildren, in numbers estimated to be in the millions, have been severely affected by toxins in the chemical compounds with colorful names used in the spraying:  Agent Orange with dioxin, created by U.S. chemical companies was the most lethal toxin. 

Vietnam and the United States were on opposite sides of this war but the suffering set loose upon survivors does not respect national boundaries.  “Hot spots” in both countries were Agent Orange was produced or stored remain highly toxic and have yet to be decontaminated.  Vietnam has twenty-eight “hot spots,” three of them of the highest level of concern. 

I bought a pair of cheap shoes along with every member or our delegation, so that we could walk a section of the grounds at the airport in Da Nang where Agent Orange was stored.  The area is covered with concrete to keep the contaminated soil from seeping from the ground into a stream that flows into a lake a few miles away.  The concrete containment came years after the ground and water were profoundly polluted and the toxins were deposited into the ecosystem where they have been spread by water, vegetation, even breast milk into the bodies of hundreds of thousands, perhaps a few million people. 

I sat on the floor face to face with “the least of these” at the center for children with disabilities in Cu Chi, and the Da Nang Association of Victims of Agent Orange (DAVA) Children’s Care Center.  These children bear in their bodies the legacy of war for generations to come.

In small pairings our delegation was welcomed into the homes of children and their families struggling to redefine what family life means with resources too meager to match the ravages of dioxin upon the human body.  One boy sat and looked at me with what I thought were vacant eyes but he responded with a faint smile when I showed him a picture I took of him.  An aide raised his shirt revealing what looked like his spinal column protruding well into his breast.  None of the children could speak more than a word or two.  Few of them, aged two to 17, could stand or even sit without support.  

Agent Orange and other herbicides sprayed in Vietnam were contaminated with dioxin, a persistent organic pollutant linked to cancers, diabetes, birth defects and other disabilities.  Here in the U.S. our government has been slow to provide adequate care for the thousands of veterans of the war suffering the effects of exposure to Agent Orange.  We have only recently begun providing any support for cleaning up hot spots in Vietnam.

The delegation met with local and national government officials, among them:  Madame Tòng Thi Phóng, Vice Chairman of the National Assembly of Vietnam, the second ranked official in the National Assembly, Mr. Pham Binh Minh, Deputy Minister, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Van Huu Chien, Executive vice-chair, Da Nang Peoples committee, as well as Ambassador Michael Michalak, of our own American Embassy.

The delegation was organized by Rev. Robert Edgar, President and CEO of Common Cause, and funded by the Ford Foundation.  Ford has done remarkable work in Vietnam beginning soon after relations with the United States were normalized in 1985. Susan Berresford, a former President of the Ford Foundation and Dr. Charles Bailey, who directed the work of the Foundation in Vietnam were members of the delegation. 

Since returning, the delegation has endorsed and plans to work in support of the “Declaration and Plan of Action” developed by the U.S.-Vietnam Dialogue Group on Agent Orange/Dioxin.  The Dialogue Group is convened by Susan Berresford.  It’s American Co-Chair is Walter Isaacson, President and CEO of The Aspen Institute.  The Vietnamese Co-Chair is Ambassador Ngo Quang Xuan, Vice Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National Assembly of Vietnam.   The plan calls for a ten year, 30 million dollar per year commitment to fund a comprehensive humanitarian effort to deal with the continuing after effects of Agent Orange-dioxin. 

In addition to Livingston and Edgar, members of the delegation included Sister Maureen Fiedler, Sister of Loretto, PhD. and host of the public radio talk show Interfaith Voices; Rabbi Steve Gutow, President and CEO, Jewish Council for Public  Affairs; the Rev. Richard Cizik, President of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good and a Fellow at the Open Society Institute and UN Foundation; Mr. James Winkler, General Secretary, United Methodist General Board of Church and Society; Dr. Carroll A. Baltimore, Sr., First Vice President, Progressive National Baptist Convention; Ms. Paulette Peterson, Clinical Psychologist, U.S. Veterans Administration; Mr. Shariq A. Siddiqui, the Executive Director of the Muslim Alliance of Indiana and Director of Legal Services at the Julian Center;  and the Rev. Victor Hsu, former staff for Asian Affairs at both World Vision and Church World Service.

Since its founding in 1950, the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA has been the leading force for ecumenical cooperation among Christians in the United States. The NCC's member faith groups — from a wide spectrum of Protestant, Anglican, Orthodox, Evangelical, historic African American and Living Peace churches — include 45 million persons in more than 100,000 local congregations in communities across the nation.

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