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Sunday, March 30, 2014

Jonathan Schell: Agent Orange Victim?

Tom Englehart, the longtime editor and writer (now running TomDispatch, which I've contributed to) is out with a tribute to his friend and colleague Jonathan Schell, who passed away from cancer last week.  As I've written, I knew Jonathan for about 30 years and he was an inspiration for me, especially in my writing about nuclear issues.  But before I got into that, I wrote widely about Agent Orange, the Vietnam defoliant, and profiled the woman at the V.A., Maude DeVictor, who pretty much discovered of first fully documented the harmful link to our troops years.  Well, Tom in his piece makes the following alarming claim or observation.  Keep in mind, that Schell's first great reporting covered his extensive trips to Vietnam in the 1960s:
He died on the night of March 25th of a cancer spurred on by an underlying blood condition that just might have been caused by Agent Orange, the poisonous defoliant chemical so widely used by U.S. forces in Vietnam.  There is, of course, no way of knowing, but the Veteran’s Administration website does list his condition as one that might have been Agent Orange-induced.  In life as in death, Vietnam may have defined, but never confined, him.
The there's this amazing Schell recounting of what happened when he'd returned from Vietnam in 1967.
When I got back from Vietnam I met Jerry Wiesner, provost of MIT and a friend of my parents. He had been Kennedy’s science adviser and knew Secretary of Defense McNamara. We had lunch and when I told him about what I’d seen in Vietnam he said, “Would you be willing to go and talk to McNamara about this?” I said, “Yeah, sure,” and the meeting was arranged. So I went down to the Pentagon, where I’d never set foot, and was ushered into the secretary of defense’s office. It’s the size of a football field -- a proper imperial size. And there was McNamara, all business as usual, with that slicked-back hair of steel.  I began to tell my story and he said, “Come over to the map here and show me what you’re talking about.”

Well, I truly had my ducks in a row. I had overflown the entire province of Quang Ngai and half of Quang Tin. And so I really had chapter and verse. After a while he interrupted and asked, “Do you have anything in writing?” I said, “Yes, but it’s all in longhand.” So he said, “Well, I’ll put you in General so-and-so’s office -- he’s off in South America -- and you can dictate it.” And so for three days I sat in the general’s office dictating my longhand, book-length New Yorker article on the air war in South Vietnam. Up from the bowels of the Pentagon would come typed copy. It was a dream for me, probably saving me a month’s work because this was long before word processors.

Three days later, stinking to high heaven because I had no change of clothes, I reappeared in McNamara’s office. I handed it to him, he took it, and that was the last I heard about it from him. But I learned later that a foreign service officer in Saigon was sent around Vietnam to retrace my steps and re-interview the pilots and the soldiers I had quoted. He even read back to the pilots the gruesome ditties they had sung for me at the bar. The foreign service officer had to admit that my book was accurate but he added, “What Schell doesn’t realize is what terrible circumstances our troops are in. He doesn’t realize that old ladies and children are throwing hand grenades because the people are against us.” Hence, the Vietnam War makes sense because the South Vietnamese are against us!

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