TEXT ON SCREEN: January 10, 1962
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 5-23-78): WALTER CRONKITE: One of the most controversial American operations in Vietnam.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 5-7-84): PETER JENNINGS: Just the name of it evokes all sorts of horrible images. Agent Orange.
NARRATION: During the Vietnam War, Americans were told that spraying millions of acres of dense jungle with Agent Orange would deprive the Viet Cong of cover and save GIs lives. But in the decades since, the herbicides use in Vietnam has been blamed for a creating a human catastrophe among veterans
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 5-7-84):PAUL REUTERSHAN: I died in Vietnam and didnt even know it.
NARRATION: .and the Vietnamese.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 5-7-84): NEWS REPORT: Vietnam is convinced that these children are just the latest victims of the deadly chemical dioxin in Agent Orange.
NARRATION: Now, decades later, the fight over Agent Orange continues to take new turns.
BOBBY MULLER (FOUNDER VIETNAM VETERANS OF AMERICA): Americans might like to consider our war in Vietnam to be ancient history Its not ancient history.
AGENT ORANGE: LAST CHAPTER OF THE VIETNAM WAR
NARRATION: During the Vietnam War, the US military fought an invisible enemy Viet Cong fighters who quickly attacked, then slipped back into the dense jungle. In 1962, American forces responded with Operation Ranch Hand over the next nine years spraying an area about the size of Massachusetts with defoliants the most notorious being Agent Orange.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 5-7-84):NEWS REPORT: It was one way we were going to win the Vietnam War. Dump herbicides all over the jungle so the Viet Cong would come out and fight.
NARRATION: To both expose Viet Cong hiding places and deprive them of life-sustaining crops, large swaths of Vietnam were left barren.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 12-29-70): NEWS REPORT: Enough food to feed 600,000 people for a year has been destroyed.
NARRATION: Despite this sudden devastation, US officials said that the spraying created no lasting harm. And many agreed that it was helping turn the tide on the Viet Cong.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 12-3-69): REPORTER: What they are doing amounts to a pretty important form of conservation in itself, the saving of American lives.
NARRATION: But the communist North Vietnamese presented a different picture of Agent Orange one that became increasingly horrific as time wore on.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 12-29-70):HARRY REASONER: North Vietnam charged today that defoliants have produced many incidences of miscarriages, congenital defects and monstrosities among children.
NARRATION: The US government initially dismissed these charges as communist propaganda. But following a study that linked dioxin, a contaminant in Agent Orange, to birth defects in laboratory animals, the spraying of this herbicide was discontinued in 1970. The herbicide was also eventually banned in the US.
That did not stop the growing concern about Agent Orange which took a new turn a few years after the last American soldier had left Vietnam in 1975.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 3-23-78): REPORTER: Milton Ross, a special forces advisor from Plei Ku, has a son born without the tips of his fingers.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 6-25-79): NEWS REPORT: Frank More is nearly dead, from cancer. He thinks the cancer was caused by chemical defoliants he was exposed to as a soldier in Vietnam.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 5-7-80): NEWS REPORT: Thousands of Viet Vets think Agent Orange is now killing them
NARRATION: Bobby Muller, a former Marine Lieutenant and veterans activist, was among those who demanded that something be done.
BOBBY MULLER (FOUNDER VIETNAM VETERANS OF AMERICA): One day I said OK, Ive got a mouth Ill use it and I just started to talk. My voice got amplified and I became a spokesman.
NARRATION: But, he says the government dragged its feet, as it had with other veterans issues during the 1970s and 1980s.
BOBBY MULLER: I dont think people appreciate how negative Vietnam was an experience and how nobody wanted to deal with it.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 5-7-80): NEWS REPORT: More than 1300 Vietnam vets have filed claims for compensation. Not one has been honored.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 5-25-81):RON KOVIC (VETERANS ADVOCATE): We want an investigation of the Veterans Administration. We want the American people to listen to us.
BOBBY MULLER: The Vietnam veterans for years were screaming for attention, screaming for help.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 2-24-84): VETERAN: Gentlemen we cant wait 20-30-40 years.
NARRATION: The government said a lack of scientific consensus stood in the way of much being done.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 9-2-83): DR. ALVIN YOUNG: We dont mean to say there isnt an Agent Orange effect. But at this point in time, we dont seem to see anything that confirms that there is something there specifically.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 2-24-84): MAJOR GENERAL MURPHY CHESNEY: The Ranch handers are not dying off like flies.
NARRATION: But the veterans notched a victory after it was revealed that some of the herbicides makers had struggled over evidence of its potential dangers as far back as 1965.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 5-7-84):PETER JENNINGS: Just hours before thousands of Vietnam veterans were supposed to be represented in court against seven chemical companies, there was an out-of-court settlement.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 5-7-84): NEWS REPORT: Over the next six years, the fund will pay out at least a quarter of a billion dollars to veterans and their families including children not yet born.
NARRATION: This was only a partial victory.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 5-7-84):NEWS REPORT: None of this, say the defendants means an admission of their liability for the veterans injuries.CHARLES CAREY (DOW CHEMICAL): Agent Orange was a safe product when it was used in the Vietnam War and its a safe product today.
NARRATION: But the veterans continued to fight, and to gain ground.
In 1990, the Veterans Administration released a sharply critical report, which found that even if the scientific studies lacked consensus, there was enough evidence to compensate veterans for Agent Orange claims. Another announcement from the VA followed closely behind.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 5-18-90): NEWS REPORT: With todays decision the government admits for the first time Agent Orange may well have caused cancer, in this case, a rare form of soft tissue sarcoma.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 5-18-90):BOB SCHIEFFER: The government has now agreed to pay $8 million a year to veterans.
NARRATION: Vietnams American veterans were finally making headway in their long battle against Agent Orange.
ARCHIVAL (CNN, 7-11-95):BILL CLINTON: Today I am announcing the normalization of diplomatic relationships with Vietnam.
NARRATION: This was a historic announcement for both the United States and Vietnam. But behind the fanfare, one issue from the war remained as divisive as it had when Muller first sought to encourage reconciliation in 1981.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 12-27-81):NEWS REPORT: This past week 4 combat veterans of Vietnam returned there.
ARCHIVAL:BOBBY MULLER: As we anticipated, the Vietnamese doctors we met with very much share our concerns on the effects of Agent Orange.
NARRATION: In a poor country like Vietnam, where people confront a multitude health issues, it was hard to figure out exactly what had caused the birth defects exhibited by its children, but the Vietnamese government insisted the cause was Agent Orange.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 4-30-05):NEWS REPORT: Although that war was long ago, there is lingering anger about the United States use of a controversial defoliant spread by American aircraft on the jungles there.
ARCHIVAL(ABC, 4-30-05):NEWS REPORT: An epidemic of birth defects, brain damage and rare cancers still affecting hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese today.
TIM RIESER (SENIOR FOREIGN POLICY AIDE): There was always an issue that would come up in our discussions with the Vietnamese that was clearly a source of continuing resentment and anger and that was Agent Orange.
NARRATION: In 2006, with this bitterness still fresh, Bobby Muller asked Thao Nguyen-Griffiths, one of his advisors, to survey families like the Tans, who blamed Agent Orange for their childrens birth defects.
According to environmental studies, high levels of dioxin could still be found in the soil in certain areas and had seeped into nearby lakes.
THAO NGUYEN (VVAF COUNTRY DIRECTOR, VIETNAM): You know, people access the lake. Dioxin is containing the fatty tissue of fish and duck and there was a high level of dioxin in peoples blood sample.
NARRATION: Muller and Nguyen turned to Senator Patrick Leahy, for help pushing America to clean up areas that were still contaminated by the dioxin in Agent Orange.
TIM RIESER: Senator Leahy was not interested in the excuses and he felt that we had a responsibility. Fortunately, there were people in higher places who agreed with him.
NARRATION: In 2006, the group saw a window of opportunity as President George Bush was preparing to visit Vietnam. A few phrases referencing the contamination were inserted into a prepared statement.
CHARLES BAILEY (DIRECTOR, AGENT ORANGE/DIOXIN PROGRAM): It was an opening; it was the first time that a high level official, the President of the United States, had spoken on this subject.
NARRATION: This opportunity was seized. Six years later, in a joint project, the US government began cleaning up the first Agent Orange hotspot at the Danang Airport.
ARCHIVAL (NEW YORK TIMES): DAVID SEARS (US AMBASSADOR TO VIETNAM): Todays ceremony marks the start of a project between
CHARLES BAILEY: To actually see that the two governments are taking steps to tangibly destroy this terribly dangerous poison was very significant.
ARCHIVAL (NEW YORK TIMES): DAVID SEARS: This is an historic landmark: Were cleaning up this mess!
NARRATION: At the airport, where Agent Orange was once stored, theyve completed building what amounts to a massive concrete oven. Contaminated soil was put inside and will be cooked for several months under immense heat. Scientists say the process will finally render it harmless.
TIM RIESER: What weve learned is that you just cant turn your back on civilians. The price of doing so is simply creating more resentment among the very population whose support that you need to carry on the mission.
NARRATION: But many more contaminated sites remain in Vietnam. And back in the US, while most veterans are now covered for 14 illnesses presumed to be related to Agent Orange exposure, some veterans are still trying to get those benefits. The fight over Agent Orange continues.