When I worked for Esso Eastern in New York in the mid-sixties, I was in training to go to the Far East as part of the war effort. Given the fact that I was at least twenty-five years younger than any of the old Far East hands employed there, recruitment of other youngsters just out of their MBA programs fell on my shoulders. The objective was to sign them up, train them a bit and then send them to Saigon and former Indo China parts unknown. My best strategy was to take them to the famous Toot Shor’s Bar, get them liquored up, and tell them about the great fun to be had in Saigon though I had never been there. I was successful with two candidates—no one got shot though one had a grenade bounce off his leg and the other flew into Saigon the day it fell to evacuate the young brother and sister of his Vietnamese wife. To answer the obvious question, yes, we were up to our neck in the war effort. Esso Eastern had several other youngsters in the program and we all came home with our boots on. A couple of us have spent a major part of our lives in that part of the world and could never get “living on the edge” out of our system, even to this day.
I found no conflict that I was deeply involved in the Peace Movement—marching in parades and the Central Park “Be-In.” Hey, one can certainly have a personal life apart from the job. Therefore, one day, I was asked to go to Columbia University to recruit some MBA candidates. When I arrived, there was a rowdy, massive demonstration against Dow Chemical given their manufacture of napalm which is a terrible product. As the sign on my interview room gave my name and employer, I wondered if anyone would realize that we sold the gasoline to Dow Chemical to make thickened gasoline gelly or napalm. I concluded that MBA candidates were not chemists and probably would not make the connection. Nonetheless, I left the campus before dark which I have adopted as an objective for dodgy places and circumstances. Little did I know that the more prodigious, long-lasting evil product was “Agent Orange” which Dow Chemical also manufactured.
Agent Orange is a powerful herbicide that also contains the deadly chemical dioxin that has caused draconian health problems for many people who were exposed to it. My father’s family immigrated from northern England a couple of hundred years ago and settled in Georgia to become farmers which was a good thing. However, all things from the UK are not necessarily good. The British Armed Forces were the first to deploy Agent Orange in Malaya (Malaysia today) during the Malayan Emergency. They sprayed Agent Orange to defoliate ground cover as part of their guerrilla war against communist insurrectionists. They were successful in their conduct of that war as they truly won the “hearts and minds” of the native people and not because of Agent Orange. Even though we should not have been in Vietnam, we took the wrong page from the British experience which was Agent Orange and ignored their conduct of a successful guerrilla warfare campaign.
After the Malayan conflict ended in 1960, the U.S. considered the British precedent in deciding that the use of defoliants was a legal tactic of warfare. Secretary of State Dean Rusk advised President John F. Kennedy that the British had paved the way for warfare through herbicides. In 1961, President Diem of the Republic of Vietnam asked the U.S. to begin the program and so Operation Ranch Hand began. From 1961 to 1971, the U.S. military sprayed herbicides across more than 4.5 million acres of Vietnam to destroy the forest cover and food crops. An unrecorded volume was also sprayed on the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos and portions of Cambodia. The U.S. was not “officially” in Laos and Cambodia, since it would have been a contravention of the Geneva Convention and represent an illegal act of war. Therefore, those records are sparse as well as any recognition of the lingering issues of the population there. The aerial herbicide broadcast coverage was in missions such as that shown below.
Spraying was also conducted on land which was most unfortunate as the chance of the soldiers being in contact with the deadly dioxin was much greater.
During the Agent Orange period, my time was primarily spent in the northern portion of Laos which was different though dark as well. However, Agent Orange was not an issue as the Ho Chi Minh Trail was considerably to the south. Agent Orange was later proven to cause a host of health issues such as cancer, birth defects as well as severe psychological and neurological problems to both the recipients and the U.S. servicemen who distributed it. History.com reports that an Air Force researcher associated with Operation Ranch Hand wrote to Senator Tom Daschle, “When we initiated the herbicide program in the 1960’s, we were aware of the potential for damage due to dioxin contamination in the herbicide. However, because the material was to be used on the enemy, none of us were overly concerned. We never considered a scenario in which our own personnel would become contaminated with the herbicide.” You would have to admit that is one of the most cold-hearted statements you have ever read.
A class action lawsuit filed on behalf of 2.4 million veterans exposed to Agent Orange was finally resolved in 1988 at the U.S. Supreme Court with a settlement of $240 million. Vietnam claims that a half million children were born with serious birth defects and as many as 2 million people are suffering from cancer or other illness as a result of Agent Orange. The prenatal impact on Vietnamese children has been horrific and beyond comprehension. Vietnam claims for compensation have been ignored. One opinion is the U.S. government could never admit that it deployed chemical warfare against the Vietnamese. There is certainly nothing that could be done about Laos as we were never there.
I met an interesting Expatriate Vietnamese couple in Houston in the mid-nineties that had developed some close ties in Vietnam and believed that we could capture oil exploration opportunities. Relationships were important as “Big Oil” also wanted to explore for oil in Vietnam and they would bury us with their money and control the process. Our partners, Hai Hoang Nguyen and Le Hang Lizeroux, are shown below to the right of the guard who took us up to the famous helicopter pad at the former U.S. Embassy. If you close your eyes, you can envision the U.S. Ambassador hopping in the last helicopter to flee what was once called Saigon as it was overrun. I had been there a couple of weeks before and it was crystal clear to me then that the conflict was finished but the U.S. had always been in denial regarding Vietnam. Nonetheless, Hai, Le Hang and I believed in each other. We were successful in all respects becoming a significant factor in the Vietnamese oil industry for over twenty years.
As SOCO Vietnam, we wrote into our agreements that we would financially support various educational, training and humanitarian issues in Vietnam. To form an identity with a country, you must join hands with them in all respects. We provided natural disaster relief, built schools, fostered industry training scholarships and various student programs such as the one shown below with our financial officer. In addition, we specifically supported Agent Orange rehabilitation programs.
As is evident, the youth of Vietnam is vibrant and excited about their future. Together with PTTEP Thailand, our partner alongside the Government of Vietnam, we have invested over $5 million into these humanitarian efforts. As our venture has contributed over $3 billion to the Government of Vietnam and $1.5 billion to Petro Vietnam, the state oil company, everyone is in a good space. This writing on Agent Orange prompted an inquiry from me back to our organization in Ho Chi Minh City as to further future support we might undertake. As a result, a meaningful Agent Orange funding provision has been included in our contributions budget for this year. Who would have thought back in the sixties we would have the close relationship we have with these wonderful folks?