May 23, 2010; Source: Texarkana Gazette | The U.S. does not have a good history associated with some of its overseas military engagements in recent years such as Iraq, and some of us also have strong memories of our nation’s role in Vietnam. One of the legacies of the war in Indochina is the incidence of birth defects and environmental damage that the Vietnamese attribute to the U.S. military’s use of the herbicide Agent Orange.

Some 11 million gallons (Note: we’ve seen a GAO estimate of 18 million gallons) of this defoliant was sprayed on Vietnam between 1962 and 1971 with the intent of reducing the jungle foliage used by Vietnamese communist forces for cover. But almost half of it was used on food crops, some five million people were exposed to it, and the Vietnamese government claims half a million children were born with Agent Orange-caused birth defects.

Since a visit by George W. Bush to Hanoi, the U.S. government has pledged a total of $9 million and approved the expenditure of $6 million mostly for environmental clean-up, but contends there is no “clear link” between Agent Orange and birth defects. The government of Vietnam views $6 million as insufficient to undo the herbicide’s environmental damage.  Although the U.S.—both the Bush and Obama administrations—contends that there might be other causes of birth defects such as malnutrition, the Veterans Administration treats birth defects of children of U.S. servicemen who served in Vietnam as associated with this toxin.

Credit the Ford Foundation for its support of a coalition of faith-based and secular nonprofits (including some involved in the U.S.-Vietnam Dialogue Group on Agent Orange/Dioxin, created by former Ford Foundation president Susan Berresford) and its research funding on getting the U.S. to own up to its Agent Orange responsibilities.  This is an excellent example of foundation funding for public policy advocacy and, unlike many foundations, the power of philanthropic perseverance.—Rick Cohen