“The Ninety-third Congress (1973-75),” observes Greg Grandin, “was perhaps the most anti-imperial legislature in United States history.” In this era, lawmakers passed the 1973 War Powers Act and began closely scrutinizing the intelligence community, laying the groundwork for the Church Committee’s work in 1975-76. By 1976, Congress had curtailed aid to reactionaries in Angola, Turkey, South Korea, Chile, and Indonesia. Elected officials even abolished abusive national security institutions, like the Un-American Activities Committee and the Office of Public Safety.
Susan Schnall is part of the generation that voted the Ninety-third Congress into office. As a Navy nurse in Northern California at the height of the Vietnam War, Schnall organized service members opposed to America’s most ruinous Cold War crusade. In 1968, she attended a peace march in uniform and dropped thousands of antiwar leaflets onto military bases across the Bay Area from a single engine plane. In 1969, the Navy court-martialed Schnall for her activism. Undeterred, she continued organizing in the decades after.
Today, Schnall is working to make Congress anti-imperialist again. As a core member of the Vietnam Agent Orange Relief and Responsibility Campaign (VAORRC), she’s had some success. Representative Barbara Lee introduced the Victims of Agent Orange Relief Act in the House last year. The bill aims to recompense victims of defoliation missions, which saw millions of gallons of Agent Orange sprayed over southern Vietnam between 1961 and 1971. Schnall played a pivotal role in drafting the legislation, which currently has 25 cosponsors. In a recent phone conversation, she shared her thoughts on our legacy in Vietnam, an unpleasant encounter with John McCain, and the prospects for enacting a humane and reparative American foreign policy in the coming years.
Michael Youhana: Can you talk about your advocacy for victims of Agent Orange in Vietnam and how you came to be involved in this work?
Susan Schnall: Oh, my goodness, sure. After retiring from my work in public hospitals in New York City a number of years ago, I went to Vietnam and visited a hospital called Tu Du Hospital in Ho Chi Minh City that takes care of the children who are victims of Agent Orange dioxin. I was astounded to see these children born with these terrible birth defects, from hydrocephalus to terrible spina bifida to atrophied limbs. I came back to the States and just said, “I have to do something about this.”
I went back through the old photographs from my days in the early 1970s with Medical Aid for Indochina, an organization that raised money for medical supplies for the Vietnamese. When I looked at them I thought, “Oh, my goodness, in 1970 and 1972 the Vietnamese knew that the United States was using this chemical.” And the more research I have done, the more I’ve learned that in fact the chemical companies knew that there was this dioxin contaminant in Agent Orange, and yet did nothing about it. They only tried to cover it up.
MY: What has the United States done so far to redress the damage done by spraying Agent Orange and other chemicals over Vietnam between 1961 and 1971?
SS: There was the environmental remediation of Danang Airport, an international airport in Vietnam. The US government has also begun remediation plans for Biên Hòa. There have also been fairly small amounts of monies allocated by the Senate, through the US Agency for International Development [USAID], that are supposed to be for both cleanup of the land and for individuals born with birth defects. The government will not say explicitly that these people were harmed as a result of the United States’ use of Agent Orange, so the monies will go to anybody who needs it. The problem is that when money goes out through USAID it has to go out through a third party for administrative purposes. So not very much in money or services has been given to the people with those needs in Vietnam.
MY: Why was the Victims of Agent Orange Relief Act of 2017 drafted?
SS: The legislation was drafted in the aftermath of a lawsuit brought on behalf of Vietnamese nationals. The suit was filed against American chemical companies that produced Agent Orange used in Vietnam. The Second Circuit ruled against the Vietnamese plaintiffs and the Supreme Court denied certiorari.
So a group of us got together and drafted this legislation. We hoped to draft a bill that would allow for reconciliation between people; between former enemies; between veterans who fought for the United States and veterans of Vietnam. We wanted to provide healthcare and services for uncompensated Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange in the United States and Vietnam. Also, since a father’s exposure to Agent Orange can have harmful effects on children, we drafted the legislation to provide medical services to the children of male, American veterans. Finally, we hoped to clean up contaminated land and ecosystems in Vietnam.
MY: What role did you and VAORRC play in drafting the Act?
SS: VAORRC has been working on this issue for about the past eight or nine years. We’re an organization of both American veterans and social activists. We work with an organization in Vietnam called the Vietnam Association for the Victims of Agent Orange (VAVA) to identify the needs of people on the ground in Vietnam. That work helped us figure out what injuries the United States might be responsible for.
We successfully advocated for the passage of a policy statement at the American Public Health Association’s 2007 annual meeting, which called on the United States government to redress victims of the spraying missions in Vietnam. We kind of used that statement as the basis for the list of requests contained in the legislation. Then we began working with John Conyers and his staff on the wording of the legislation. The bill eventually went to the legal counsel in the House who finalized the legislation and identified the sub-sections. Bob Filner introduced the first version of the Act in the House in 2011. Barbara Lee became the lead sponsor in 2013. [Ed: She has reintroduced the bill three times.]
MY: How did you get 25 members of congress to co-sponsor the latest version of the bill?
SS: Oh, my goodness, Michael. I have to admit, we all learned a lot about the whole process of submitting legislation. The second time the legislation was introduced we formed a legislative committee. We contacted legislators and their aides and made several trips to Washington, DC, sometimes in conjunction with VAVA. We also sent word out through Vietnam Veterans Against the War and Veterans for Peace, asking people to please contact their legislators, tell them about the legislation and ask them to support it. We also went to conferences and did presentations on Agent Orange and on the legislation. We developed what we call an “orange card” that briefly summarizes the legislation and asks for people to sign it and also to contact their Representatives. Finally, Liz Lee, in Barbara Lee’s office, has been incredibly helpful in our efforts to reach out for additional co-sponsors.
MY: All of the co-sponsors are Democrats. Did you try to find Republican co-sponsors? How did they respond to the legislation?
SS: We thought it would be best to try to get a significant number of Democratic co-sponsors before reaching out to Republicans. A couple of years ago, we actually saw Senator McCain and tried to talk with him about it and he barely listened to us. So we’ve tried. It’s a very difficult process.
MY: That’s very interesting. Could you talk a little bit more about your meeting with McCain?
SS: Sure. There were, I think, about three of us who met him. It must have been the 15th anniversary of the reconciliation between the United States and Vietnam. We tried to talk with him about the proposed legislation, and we explained that it was to take care of the Americans who had been in Vietnam and the Vietnamese. And he said he would only support legislation that took care of American soldiers and POWs. He was adamant about it.
MY: Did he give a reason why?
SS: Oh, Michael, it must have triggered something in him because he was very angry. And so, I did not think it was appropriate at the time to ask: “Why?” I should explain to you, I am a Vietnam-era veteran and one of the other people with us is Geoff Millard, who is a veteran of the war in Iraq. And we kind of introduced ourselves to Senator McCain and started the conversation that way. But that was kind of the end of it. I think if we had more people to work with, we certainly would have continued.
MY: This issue elicits emotional responses.
SS: Absolutely. We looked for sponsors in the House who might be sensitive to our appeals. We looked at veterans. That was kind of the start. In the Senate, we met with Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, who was very sympathetic. We were talking about introducing a companion bill for the Senate. But we’re still working on that.
MY: What’s the status of the House legislation today?
SS: Well, we are going to have to get the legislation reintroduced in the new session of Congress. It expires every two years if there’s no movement. So we’re taking a look at the legislation as it currently stands and then figuring out if we want to make any changes. We’re working alongside Children of Vietnam Veterans Health Alliance, an organization started by an activist named Heather Bowser, who was born with birth defects following her father’s return from Vietnam. Then we’ll ask Representative Lee to re-introduce it.
Having worked on this bill for a long time and spoken with legislators, we’ve had difficulties. It really is extraordinary that Representative Lee has introduced it. Originally, Representative Conyers told us that members wanted to bifurcate the legislation: to have a separate section for Americans and separate sections for the Vietnamese. We said, “Absolutely not.” Bifurcating the bill would undermine our efforts at reconciliation.
MY: You could imagine a version of this legislation that did not acknowledge the sordid history of American intervention in Vietnam. It could have been a plain foreign aid bill. I’m wondering why the drafters made the choice to acknowledge the United States’ responsibility for the spraying missions in the text of the legislation?
SS: Because we want Americans to recognize that this is our responsibility to take care of. We hope the legislation reminds people that war doesn’t stop and the battles don’t stop when the guns stop shooting and the bombs stop dropping. We leave behind a legacy.
And this was not a one-time issue. This is what the United States did then. This is what we continue to do across the world. We hope the legislation can serve as a starting point for a discussion about what’s happening today: in Iraq and in Afghanistan and Yemen and Syria. You know, veterans have identified a number of medical issues after their exposure to burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan. The VA is collecting medical data from veterans to determine if there is a correlation between exposure and illness.
In short, if we don’t learn from history, we will continue on this path over and over and over again.
MY: Do you have any reading recommendations for people interested in our legacy in Vietnam?
SS: Oh, there’s lots. I recommend GI Guinea Pigs and Vietnam Awakening by Michael Uhl, who was in Army Intelligence in Vietnam and who is also a friend of mine. There are histories that are written of Vietnam Veterans Against the War: Winter Soldiers, by Richard Stacewicz; The New Winter Soldiers, by Richard Moser; and The Turning, by Andrew Hunt. Fred A. Wilcox’s Waiting for an Army to Die is also worth reading.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Susan Schnall is the President of the New York City Veterans for Peace and a member of the core of the Vietnam Agent Orange Relief and Responsibility Campaign.
Michael Youhana works at a non-profit and occasionally writes about foreign policy. You can follow him on Twitter at @Michael_Youhana.