Let’s Look Forward Not Back

Old habits die hard. Old opinions are hard to change. Old patterns are hard to break. They are even more difficult when they become embedded in the culture and part of its political mindset. They may be based on painful experience, but they are often maintained when conditions change and then they stand in the way of progress. When this happens it prevents us from moving on and seeking solutions to current problems. There are many examples; Cuban-Americans can’t let go of their pain and hatred of Castro’s Cuba. Israelis continue to build settlements on the West Bank when it is clear that it will prevent a negotiated solution to their mutual problem. And – Vietnamese-Americans have such hatred and distrust of the government in their homeland that it prevents them from helping other Vietnamese and Vietnamese-Americans when they have a chance. New generations tend to inherit the attitudes and opinions of their parents.

Sometimes these opinions and behaviors are difficult to understand. Evolution and global warming are good examples. Both are supported by the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence, but there are those who refuse to accept the evidence. Agent Orange is another, where the science is not in question but political opinion and hard feelings have limited the US government and Vietnamese-American groups from accepting them and dealing directly with the consequences.

The facts are these: between 1961 and 1971 the United States sprayed 77 million gallons of defoliants, including 11 million gallons of Agent Orange over the forests of Vietnam. Agent Orange is an herbicidal defoliant and by itself is not toxic, but dioxin, a by-product of the manufacturing process is the most toxic chemical ever developed. Not only is it a carcinogen; it is also a terratogen a fat soluble chemical that causes chromosomal damage and birth defects that are passed from generation to generation. The US Veterans Administration recognizes 19 diseases (mostly cancers) that are Agent Orange “related” and those veterans affected are now eligible for care and compensation.

Vietnamese populations, both American and those in Vietnam continue to be affected by the deadly chemical. The current generation, the third since the war, shows continuing evidence of birth defects and latent cancers. As many as 4 million Vietnamese are still affected and no one has calculated the number of overseas Vietnamese with lingering symptoms. East Meets West is working with the Ford Foundation to determine the best practices in dealing with the consequences and allocating funds to treat the survivors. Large segments of both populations are affected. Agent Orange is no longer a political issue. Denying the problem is not helpful. Both governments are working on solutions to the last remaining issue standing in the way of full normalization of relations between the two countries. Those affected can be helped. Let’s embrace the solution not the past.


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