The Long Reckoning: A Story of War, Peace, and Redemption in Vietnam
By George Black
Knopf. 478 pp. $35
“The truth of all wars is that they never really end,” writes George Black in “The Long Reckoning,” his well-researched account of Vietnam’s lasting legacy. Think of the Civil War and today’s virulent battles over Confederate names and monuments. Or World War II and Vladimir Putin’s obsessive fear of NATO troops, especially German tanks, deployed along Russia’s western border.
Black cites one estimate that 30,000 books have been written about Vietnam, so the bar is high. But this volume proves a useful addition to the canon by documenting how that conflict continues to cloud our national consciousness, 50 years after the Paris Peace Accords officially ended the fighting. One of the most tangible and terrible symbols of Vietnam’s enduring impact is Agent Orange, the lethal chemical used by American forces to destroy the jungles that hid Viet Cong forces and ravage the fields that fed them. Exposure to the poison can cause many diseases, from 20 forms of cancer to Type 2 diabetes and serious birth defects like cleft palates and club feet.
For decades Washington stubbornly refused to admit the damage it had caused to the Vietnamese people and their land and to U.S. troops. It was not until 2018 that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who spent 44 years as a Marine, promised to allocate $150 million in Pentagon funds to clean up the toxins Americans had left behind at the Bien Hoa air base outside Ho Chi Minh City, one of many untreated “hot spots.” It was, writes Black, “the first time the Pentagon had openly acknowledged responsibility for the legacy of Operation Ranch Hand,” the code name for the defoliation campaign.
Black, a journalist and the author of eight books, repeats the all-too-familiar story: a cunning and ruthless North Vietnamese army defeating the blind and brutal Americans and their feckless South Vietnamese allies. But the author uncovers in that narrative the seeds of the next and less-visible chapter, and the primary focus of his book: the ongoing work of public accountability and private penance pursued by a motley militia of civilian volunteers. Some were veterans, returning to Vietnam to heal the “hole in the soul” that crippled their postwar lives. Others were motivated by faith or science, profit or charity. All were determined to defy the official denials of American culpability and find the truth, “to do what their government couldn’t or wouldn’t do.”
The enormous challenge they faced started with a mind-set, implanted in young recruits but running right to the top of the military and civilian command structures. Chuck Searcy, one of those veterans who has lived for years in Vietnam, tells Black that his Marine training taught him to hate the “faceless” Vietnamese: “The enemy is not a human being. He has no mother or father, no sister or brother.” This dehumanizing hostility, this “othering” of the enemy, enabled the cruelty of Operation Ranch Hand, first authorized by President John F. Kennedy in 1961 and made fully operational four years later, a campaign that “was something without precedent in history, using all the tools of science, technology and airpower to lay waste to a country’s natural environment.”
Demonization of the enemy was compounded by the persistent self-delusion that the chemicals used in Ranch Hand were safe. “Some pilots tossed back a shot glass of Agent Orange as an initiation ritual,” Black notes, and the same corrosive cynicism that caused officials to inflate the number of dead enemies and pacified villages led to leaflets assuring peasants that the chemicals were harmless weedkillers. In fact, Dow Chemical’s chief toxicologist determined in 1965 that the dioxin in Agent Orange was “exceptionally toxic” to humans. Molecular geneticist Matthew Meselson of Harvard Medical School, one of the first scientists to visit Vietnam later and contradict the official government line, denounced the poison in the strongest terms, saying, “An evil genius could not devise a toxin with more evil properties.”
One key conspirator in the cabal of truth-tellers was Lady Borton (“Lady” was a childhood nickname for Adelaide), the field director for the American Friends Service Committee, the first American in the 1980s “allowed to live in a village, to harvest rice, to ride a bicycle.” Tom Boivin, another scientist whose fieldwork helped prove the dangers of Agent Orange, said: “There’s no way we could have done the survey without Lady. She . . . never took any credit, never asked to be paid. . . . She was our technical assistant, our bodyguard, our translator and interpreter. She could do anything from taking liver samples from a tilapia to getting the ear of the prime minister, and everything in between. I think of her as a kind of Mother Teresa, who also happened to like knocking back tequila shots in the evening.”
A critical role was also played by American charities, especially the Ford Foundation, and Charles Bailey, who was sent to Hanoi in 1997 to run the foundation’s Vietnam program. Agent Orange “was the furthest thing from his mind” when he arrived, reports Black. But Bailey was converted to the cause by Searcy, the resident veteran, who told him that the toxin triggered the “greatest frustration” among the military because “no one in the American government would even talk about it.” Bailey and Ford eventually invested $17 million in projects aimed at alleviating the fallout from Agent Orange and raised $30 million more from other sources. One effort involved building a fortification around a former air base to prevent dioxin from seeping into neighboring areas. As Bailey put it, “The Ford Foundation had never spent so much money on cement.”
A few American officials did grasp the moral obligation incurred by Operation Ranch Hand; then-Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and his aide Tim Rieser spent years stocking appropriations bills with millions of dollars to aid Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange. As Black notes, however, a great deal of “unfinished business” remains, and he gives one example: Forty-four provinces in Vietnam were defoliated, but “humanitarian aid for dioxin-related disabilities was reaching only eight of them.” Mattis insisted that America, with its latest financial package, was finally “exorcising our last ghosts” from the Vietnam era. But he was clearly wrong. Ghosts, like other vestiges of war, never really die.