I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
The Secret Agent is a feature length documentary investigating the effects and implications of the use of the chemical defoliant Agent Orange used in Vietnam between the years 1964 and 1971. The film will be released this winter by the Human Arts Association and Green Mountain Post Films. Opening with archive footage of Vietnam during the war, it follows the lives of American soldiers in the field, their exposure to Agent Orange during the war, their return home, their initial discovery of the harmful side effects caused by the chemical, and the developing veterans’ movement which is confronting the government and corporate war and post-wartime policies.
Betsy Sussler What is Agent Orange?
Jackie Ochs Agent Orange is a chlorphenoxy compound. It’s man-made. It’s derived from and imitates a plant hormone.
BS In what way?
JO It causes certain parts of broad leaf plants to grow rapidly, in effect it’s like a cancer, it makes the plant overgrow on the inside, the leaves fall off, and if enough is used the plant dies entirely. The scientists who invented Agent Orange were working off of models of plant hormones, they were looking for a chemical to control weed growth.
BS What are the chemical components of Agent Orange?
JO Two chemicals: 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D. The most poisonous part of Agent Orange is a substance called dioxin. Dioxin is an inadvertent by-product of 2,4,5-T production. This form of dioxin is the most poisonous manmade substance in the world today.
BS Can it be broken down?
JO They say it can be broken down in direct sunlight after 36 hours. However the half-life of dioxin in soil is anywhere from two-and-a-half to 20 years, according to different experiments.
BS What does it break down into?
JO Into ingredients that are not toxic.
BS How long does it take Agent Orange to destroy the plants?
JO In Vietnam? Effects were noticeable within a week. Leaves would begin to fall off in four to six weeks.
BS You mean in that time a jungle grows to gigantic proportions and chokes to death?
JO It dies—you don’t see it overgrow. The cancer is a growth within the plant, similar to the ways cancers affect people.
BS So in Vietnam, it was sprayed on uninhabited jungles or indiscriminately on hamlets and villages that were in the jungles as well?
JO The U.S. Military sprayed around roads, lines of communication and on crops, so inadvertently communities were in the areas of spraying. The Montagnards in particular got sprayed a lot.
BS The who?
JO The Montagnards—the highland people—those are the people portrayed at the end ofApocalypse Now. They have a different culture from the lowland peasants.
BS Whose side were they on?
JO It’s hard to say whose side anyone was on. Many of the peasants were caught between the two warring factions, without understanding the politics of the situation.
BS What does spraying Agent Orange do to people who are in the vicinity? What would be the after effects?
JO Terrible birth defects, like split hearts or two stomachs or no anus, wacked out internal things; an arm deformity reminiscent of Thalidomide, cleft palette, nervous disorders—that’s the children born to parents who’ve been exposed. In adults—liver cancer, soft tissue cancer, nerve degeneration, severe migraines, weight loss. The only disease the armed services and the chemical companies have acknowledged as being directly linked to dioxin is a reoccurring, horrendous skin rash called chloracne. And the only reason they are willing to assent to that is they had a lot of industrial accidents which caused chloracne conditions.
BS Here in the U.S.?
JO Here, and in Sweden and Germany—the workers would break out with it…which proved a direct correlation…
BS Who is producing Agent Orange—private chemical firms that the government is contracting?
JO Dow produces A.O. now. During the war it was also produced by Monsanto, Diamond Shamrock, Hercules and other major chemical manufacturers.
BS Where—all over?
JO U.S., Sweden, Germany, Italy…
BS What else is it used for? When was it developed?
JO They discovered it around WWII, and they developed it at the end of WWII. They were developing it supposedly, at the time, as a weed killer.
BS A weed control? When they were in the middle of WWII? Who had it developed?
JO The U.S. Army and the chemical companies.
BS Did they use it in Korea?
JO I think they used it in Manila. It was England who used it first. They wanted to cut off food supplies to communist insurgents so they sprayed their crops.
BS Potentially, can the chemical companies sell it to anyone?
JO Yes, they don’t just use it as a military weapon. They use it on rice fields, ranges, and as forest control. It’s sold as a domestic agricultural product.
BS Everywhere in the world?
JO Yes, a lot of Third World countries are using it extensively. It got banned in this country—except for use in rice paddies (that’s ironic). Yeh, in fact, rice was imported to Vietnam during the war. We sprayed the crops, destroyed food supplies, creating a refugee situation withinthe country as a result and then imported our rice.
BS So the first extensive use of Agent Orange was in Vietnam. When did they start using it there?
JO They started in 1964 but the heaviest years were ’67, ’68 and ’69.
BS What precisely was the Department of Defense trying to do?
JO They wanted to starve out the Viet Cong and bust up their support among the peasant population by destroying the rice fields. But the Viet Cong weren’t suffering because they could buy their rice or hold a gun to someone’s head and get it anyway. Cutting off food to the peasants did cause mass migration into the cities but instead of busting up support for the Viet Cong, it created it. It was alienating the peasants because: one, they were being sprayed on; two, they were starving. Rand Corporation—the think tank for the government—was asked to analyze the Crop Destruction Program and even they recommended that it be stopped because all it was doing was destroying the American image over there. But DoD [Department of Defense] still endorsed the program. Eventually, negative international publicity made them limit crop destruction.
BS And what effect has it had on the men who actually sprayed it? Is it crop dusting where they fly very low?
JO Yeah, they sprayed it out out of helicopters, planes, back packs…
JO The bizarre thing is…they weren’t just contaminated that way. See, it rained every day and the dioxin which was supposed to dissipate in sunlight…once it got washed off the leaves by the rain and washed into the soil or water, it didn’t disintegrate. Once it was in water, it entered the food chain through fish and other water animals, creating greater chance of exposure to the local population. And also, when you burn 2,4,5-T it reproduces the chemical reaction that produces dioxin, releasing it, this time, into the atmosphere. So infantry that lived for three weeks in the jungle, not taking showers, drinking the water, rolling in the foxholes and the brush or burning the jungle to make a clearing, were all exposed to Agent Orange.
BS What evidence exists that proves the components of Agent Orange are carcinogenic?
JO I’d say over 50 percent of the experiments conducted have proved this. The reason they call it the most toxic chemical is that they have yet to find a dose that doesn’t harm animals. We’re talking about parts per billion—one part dioxin to one billion parts of a neutral solution. That’s like one tablespoon in an Olympic size swimming pool.
BS When did they find this out?
JO They knew it had dioxin in it as early as 1957.
BS Who was responsible for controlling the use of this, the chemical companies?
JO The chemical companies are certainly responsible for its production. They were aware of the problems with factory workers no later than 1965, and probably earlier. And the use in Vietnam is the government’s responsibility.
BS What I’m trying to get at is whether the U.S. government conducted tests to find out what it would do.
JO They conducted tests to find out what it would do to vegetation. And there were many tests conducted on animals.
JO The government stopped use of Agent Orange in 1971 because one test came out saying it was carcinogenic, and The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), which is a government affiliated agency, thought that it was too dangerous to be used in Vietnam. See, the chemical companies have a theory. They have a cost risk benefit principal. That’s the health risk versus the economic savings of the use of this particular type of chemical. It’s economics. If we can grow 20 thousand tons more rice because we can control weeds that much better with 2,4,5-T and we can prove that…it doesn’t create a health hazard at a certain level of usage then the benefits overpower the risk. They deny down the line that it is dangerous used in the doses that it is used in this country. Usage is even less regulated in the Third World countries. The Environmental Protection Agency put a ban on it because they think it’s dangerous, and now Dow is arguing against that, saying it’s not dangerous. The environment is becoming more and more polluted with the most toxic man-made substance known to man, and the arrogance of that ideology—to think they can determine what amount of poison they can release into the environment without knowing whether its accumulation can become a major health hazard.
BS Not to mention the fact that the people making those decisions never informed or conferred with the people taking the risks.
JO It’s statistics. I had a fight with a nuclear physicist about this. First of all, they want to deny the side effects. This is what the suit is about.
BS What suit?
JO The soldiers are suing the chemical companies saying they were negligent—that it was criminal negligence to manufacture this product in that they knew that it was contaminated with dioxin and that dioxin was poisonous, and the corporation did not warn the government etc. Dow and the other chemical companies are countersuing the government saying that it was the government’s responsibility because they used it in an undiluted form in Vietnam and that it’s not dangerous, but if it’s proven dangerous it’s not their fault.
BS What was this fight with the nuclear physicist about?
JO “What proof do the veterans have,” he said, when I told him I was making a film on Agent Orange.
BS What proof do they have?
JO He said, “What statistics do they have?” First of all, the reason the veterans don’t have any statistics is because the government refuses to admit there is a problem so that they won’t get the statistics. Like finding out how many veterans died since the war, how many died from cancer…So there are no statistics because there’s a cover-up going on, and veterans have no access to and can’t afford to amass these statistics. Dioxin lodges in your fatty tissues, and a scientist working for the Environmental Protection Agency and the Veterans Administration took samples from veterans who thought they had been exposed and veterans who had never been to Vietnam, and he found out that every single man in the test who claimed exposure to A.O. had high levels of dioxin in his tissue and had health problems. Even those who hadn’t been to ’Nam had some dioxin in their system, which means it has gotten into the food chain here, but the men who thought they had been exposed had much higher levels of it. So not only did it prove that they had been dosed, but it also proved that they had all been dosed. Now that experiment had been conducted for the V.A. which is only just publishing it and are not pursuing the results with further testing, even though they initiated the experiment.
BS The V.A. is a government agency?
JO Yes, a government agency which is supposed to take care of the veterans. They’re the second largest agency next to the Defense Department, with a budget of about 24 billion dollars a year.
BS What diseases are these veterans suffering from?
JO Cancer, nerve deterioration, nervous disorders, epilepsy, something they are calling a form of multiple sclerosis because they don’t know what else to call it, liver ailments, birth defects in their children, sterility. They have been subjected to other poisons—arsenic compounds, anti-malaria pills called Dapsone which have since been proven carcinogenic.
BS How are the veterans organizing?
JO It’s been hard for them to organize for several reasons. When the veterans came back they weren’t heroes. They were losers and between having lost the war and the anti-war sentiment, they were ostracized. Also, they weren’t given any re-entry program. In WWII you had four weeks in a boat to calm down, talk to your buddies, get their addresses, whatever, beside the fact that you’d won. In Vietnam they were literally flown out of their fox holes to an airport in the U.S. in the clothes they were wearing when they were in the fox holes and dumped on the highway to hitch home. Most of the time their families didn’t even know they were coming and hadn’t prepared…Consider that in a period of 36 hours you’re shifted from an unimaginable situation in some foxhole in Vietnam to your home in S.F. As reentry that’s psychologically shocking—for your family as well. Or they get spit on while they’re hitching home. One vet told me he was stepping off a bus and some guy started shooting at him. This is when they’re home. So they’re all gearing up, “Wow, I’m going home, I’m going home!!” and it was a gigantic blow.
BS So they are completely demoralized.
JO Yeah, they were alienated, paranoid and didn’t have each other either. It’s taken 15 years really for them to begin to come out of that, try to communicate their experience to the American people. Now people are starting to feel concerned.
BS How did you become involved with this?
JO The film started because a friend of mine, Frank McCarthy, who has an organization called A.O. Victims International, came to me at a point in time when the court suit exploded in the press.
BS What type of court suit is this?
JO There’s a multi-billion dollar class action suit against the chemical companies on the part of the Veterans, and it’s the largest class action negligence suit filed to date.
BS What exactly is a class action suit—across the board?
JO There’s a definition of class—in this case Vietnam veterans, their wives, their children—and rather than a case by case trial of each situation there’s a general trial which says yes or no to the issue and sets certain standards. Then it goes back to the individual state’s courts and they rule on each individual’s case based on the results of the class action suit—or if it’s a federal class action suit that’s the ruling and it doesn’t go back to the state.
BS What about the unions of the people who work in the factories that produce this chemical?
JO The Chemical Workers Union is just beginning to get interested. None of the factories that produced 2,4,5-T were unionized. The reason they’re interested now is that they have a lot of veterans in their ranks.
BS Have these workers been suffering from any other symptoms than the rash?
JO There have been studies done in Sweden and Germany that prove it’s a cancer-causing agent. Statistics do exist—statistical studies that prove valid the complaints the veterans are making but…
BS Being done out of the U.S.
JO Yes, and for every study that’s done that way, Dow pays some scientist to do a study that says the opposite—to refute those studies.
BS In what way? How?
JO Any scientist can interpret facts any way he wants. And that’s what they take advantage of. Ultimately, what the film is becoming more and more about is that the veterans cannot rely on the law and they can’t rely on scientific evidence because scientists will dispute forever the…you know it is quite obvious dioxin is toxic. That’s been proven on animals. Now, to prove how it is toxic to humans, technically you can’t prove it without a doubt because it is not legal to conduct overt experiments on humans in a laboratory situation. So that is where all the legal nonsense starts. And it’s legitimate only in that there are so many toxic waste products in our environment now—but circumstantial evidence is overwhelming.
BS Do animals exposed to dioxin in the laboratory tests have the same symptoms?
JO Cleft palette, multiple birth defects, liver problems—some of them are and some of them aren’t. There have been terrible accidents. There was a horse arena that needed to be oiled down to keep the dust down and the oil that was used were old cans of 2,4,5-T. They didn’t realize it and dumped it all over and all the horses died within 24 hours, and the family that was working there got all kinds of joint problems, chloracne—the usual list. But the top scientists working on this are the Vietnamese. One of the theories they have come up with is that it affects your immune system through activity in your hormones and enzymes. If it affects your immunological system it can get you anywhere.
BS What direction is the film going in?
JO You can have all the scientific evidence in the world but if the people responsible don’t want to admit responsibility, it doesn’t matter how much proof there is. So the film is really about a grassroots…
JO No, political movement. No one wants the responsibility of paying for this. Not only that, but the ramifications are far greater than simply paying for some veteran’s cancer. It opens up a can of worms, other government chemical bungles, the corporate-government link up, chemical warfare, the chemical contamination that’s happening everywhere—not just militarily speaking but domestically as well. It’s total irresponsibility.
BS What do you mean by calling the organizing of the veterans a political movement? What sort of ideology do they have?
JO It didn’t come about because of an ideology. That’s what’s so interesting about it. These guys are former patriots. You are talking about people, a large portion of whom, had they returned from Vietnam and been treated humanely and given good benefits, would not be anti-government. They are becoming politicized as a result of being shafted first hand. It’s not just your poor black, chicano, etc.; it’s white lower class and middle class people who went, believing it was their duty, and they’re being stonewalled. And they’re pissed. So they’re telling kids not to go to El Salvador, not to sign up for the draft. You have soldiers speaking out against the government. That has a very powerful potential—affecting foreign policy, military policy, environmental policy. The government, as someone put it, is the multi-national corporations’ welfare. That’s where corporations get their welfare. The government pays for corporate mistakes.
BS How are you paying for this film?
JO Donations and out of our own pockets from work on other films.
BS Has anyone shown any interest in distributing it?
JO The co-producer is a distribution company—Green Mountain Post Films.
BS Who do they distribute to?
JO Environmental groups, university and college circuits, a few theatrical houses.
BS What about TV?
JO Television I’ll have to do on my own. Australia wants it, Europe and Japan are likely outlets.
BS What are you filming now?
JO There was a hunger strike at a V.A. hospital in California. We were shooting that. They took over the lobby and built a tent city on the grounds of the hospital.
BS For better health care?
JO For health care period. This was precipitated by a man who drove his jeep through the front plate glass of the hospital.
BS Right out of Rage with George C. Scott.
JO Yeah, well then he shot up the lobby.
BS None of these veterans can get treated in V.A. hospitals for their ailments?
JO One of the things they do is to tell them that their problems are all in their heads and prescribe a lot of downs so a lot of these veterans have become hooked on drugs. This is the Veterans’ Administration mind you.
BS Are they obliged to treat all veterans?
JO V.A. hospitals are supposed to treat all veterans. But if the illness is not service related it then depends on how much room they have. Now, there were 300 empty beds at this particular hospital. This guy walked in, his entire mouth is rotting—literally. It smells like rotten meat, is very swollen and has been like this for 15 years, ever since he got out of the war. Obviously there is something very wrong with his body. It’s not healing.
BS The auto-immune system.
JO So he came into the hospital and they told him to wait. Well, the strike was going on so everyone made a stink and they took him in, put something on his mouth and told him he was nervous and sent him home. The next morning he held a press conference, now this is someone who has been holed up in his room for 15 years. His mother is enraged, hysterical. Her son’s life has been ruined. He was a handsome bright kid, went off to war and came back and can’t work, can’t live, can’t do anything. What’s going to happen to him when she dies? He has no disability.
BS He can’t get disability because…
JO It’s not service-related. How do you prove “service-related?” They want to know about your medical records during the war. Now if you were covered with a rash during the war, generally, unless it was really bugging you, you didn’t go complain about it because you were more concerned about whether you were going to get your leg blown off then with this rash on your body, presumably from the jungle. So most of these guys can’t prove service connection and anyway how do you connect cancer to a rash, even if it is on your record that you had a rash?
BS What does this man have?
JO He has yet to get it diagnosed. He’s been to a lot of private doctors but no one has seen anything like it before. So he does the press conference and the V.A. hospital takes him in—for two days, then they send him home again. This is with 300 extra beds. Since they don’t want to admit culpability, they are not trying to find out how to help these men who are suffering from side effects. I have another friend who was a racing car driver, football type guy who joined up as his duty. His father fought in the war, he’s going to fight in the war—he was a forward air patrol—that’s air traffic control for the helicopters and planes from a jeep in the jungle that’s being sprayed. They keep the planes from knocking into each other. His group of six guys were called “The Lepers” because they had these horrendous skin rashes. Now he came back from the war, and six years later he can’t walk—he’s in a wheelchair—he finally got disability but most of the men have aged way beyond their years, probably don’t have very long to live and have no disability—zero. And they can’t prove anything but circumstantial evidence.
BS Who are the biggest lobbies against these men?
JO The government and the chemical companies.
BS So what happened at the strike?
JO If I ever make another documentary I would love to make one on how news is made. I was appalled by the news coverage of the V.A. strike. For three weeks the hospital was occupied but the L.A. Times had nothing in it until the last three days, the New York Times had nothing in it until the last two days. The local TV station covered it all the time—but they focused in on false rumors which were encouraged by the V.A. Anyway it hit network news at the end of June when they were waiting for a bust to happen. The National Guard and all that, you know, anticipating a violent situation.
BS The National Guard against U.S. Veterans?
JO Well, the night before it was supposed to happen a lieutenant for the National Guard came in and said if he was called upon he would not pick up a gun against these men. See, that’s what I was talking about—this is a real people’s problem, and people from all sides can see it.
BS The right wing in this country—a grassroots right wing like the one in the South has a history of not always being pro-government but for states’ rights, individuals’ rights.
JO But the right wing is pro-nationalism and pro-military. This is the right wing reassessing the system they thought they knew. The film is becoming more and more about multinationals’ link-up with the government. The Veterans’ Administration is the government’s second largest agency as far as money is concerned. Now their job is to send that money out to veterans. They have a clause called presumptive disability—until it is proven that something has not caused something they should grant disability benefits to the veteran. They could have avoided this whole issue by doing that but there is a pressure there, not to agree in any respect, that this chemical agent is causing these problems because it gets thrown back onto the chemical companies, domestic food production, forest production, and world food production, it gets thrown back into the international scene—these chemicals are being sold all over the world and everybody could start screaming about it. So rather than use this giant endowment to compensate veterans, the government is choosing to stonewall it because of bigger pressures—and those pressures are not from the people, they’re from the corporations, and their own culpability with the corporations.
BS What were the demands of the strikers?
JO The demands of the strikers were: one, investigate the VA hospitals; two, do extensive research work on Agent Orange; three, establishment of a delayed re-entry program for all Vietnam veterans; and four to meet with President Reagan. What they wanted was the executive branch of the government to agree that it was going to push for these resolutions. Because when the V.A. says they are going to do it it’s a joke—they always say they’re compensating, they say they’re giving disability, they say they’re taking care of the veterans in hospital, but it’s not done. And no one knows this better than they do. So they asked the President to say, “I’m going to make sure they do it.” Because then they could hold someone responsible. The President would not do that—I mean they just wanted a phone call from the White House, it didn’t have to be President Reagan. But no one will take it on.
BS And what about the Vietnamese?
JO 10 percent of the landmass in Vietnam is now useless. They used to have a gigantic lumber industry but it’s been largely destroyed, 20 percent of all mangrove forests are completely gone, They’re having a terrible problem with malnutrition and starvation. So we must recognize Agent Orange as a terrifying form of chemical warfare, which is slowly killing both American veterans and the country of Vietnam. I must say, I have a hard time distinguishing between certain American military tactics and genocide.
On June 9, 1981, the sit-in at Wadsworth V.A. hospital was brought to an end. Six strikers were arrested and carried out of the hospital. The remaining veterans and “hunger strikers” were ejected by V.A. police and regrouped at a local church. The “hunger strikers” took their protest to Washington D.C. and were given a Congressional hearing on July 16. On July 18, they ended the strike, based on a promise of action by Congressional subcommittee. On September 14, Clarence Stickler, hunger striker, committed suicide by jumping out of an eleventh-story hotel window in downtown Los Angeles. Steve Androff, fellow hunger striker, said, “Maybe this was his way of saying, ‘Hey man, this protest isn’t over.’”
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee