From Japan to Vietnam, Radiation and Agent Orange Survivors Deserve Justice From the US

by Marjorie Cohn, Truthout | Op-Ed

We have just marked anniversaries of the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the US government against the people of Japan and Vietnam. Seventy years ago, on August 6, 1945, the US military unleashed an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, killing at least 140,000 people. Three days later, the United States dropped a second bomb, on Nagasaki, which killed 70,000. And 54 years ago, on August 10, 1961, the US military began spraying Agent Orange in Vietnam. It contained the deadly chemical dioxin, which has poisoned an estimated 3 million people throughout that country.

Devastating Effects of Radiation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki

On the day of the first atomic bombing, 19-year-old Shinji Mikamo was on the roof of his house in Hiroshima helping his father prepare it for demolition when he saw a huge fireball coming at him. Then he heard a deafening explosion and felt a searing pain throughout his body. He said he felt as if boiling water had been poured over him. Shinji was three-quarters of a mile from the epicenter of the bomb. His chest and right arm were totally burned. Pieces of his flesh fell from his body like ragged clothing. The pain was unbearable. Shinji survived but most of his family perished.

Shinji’s daughter, Dr. Akiko Mikamo, told her father’s story at the Veterans for Peace convention in San Diego on August 7. She wrote the book, Rising From the Ashes: A True Story of Survival and Forgiveness From Hiroshima. Akiko’s mother Miyoko, who was indoors about a half-mile from the epicenter, was also severely injured in the bombing, but she too survived.

Akiko said 99 percent of those who were outdoors at the time of the blast died immediately or within 48 hours. A week after the bombing, thousands of people had experienced a unique combination of symptoms, Susan Southard wrote in the Los Angeles Times:

Their hair fell out in large clumps, their wounds secreted extreme amounts of pus, and their gums swelled and bled. Purple spots appeared on their bodies, signs of hemorrhaging beneath the skin. Infections ravaged their internal organs. Within a few days of the onset of symptoms, many people lost consciousness, mumbled deliriously and died in extreme pain; others languished for weeks before either dying or slowly recovering.

Southard notes that the US government censored Japanese news reports, photographs, testimonies and scientific research about the condition of the survivors.

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Gen. Leslie Groves, director of the Manhattan Project, which created the atom bombs, testified before Congress that death resulting from exposure to large amounts of radiation takes place “without undue suffering.” He added it is “a very pleasant way to die.”

Thirty years after the end of World War II, numerous cases of leukemia, stomach cancer and colon cancer were documented.

The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were criminal because at the time Japan was already defeated and had taken steps to surrender. With these atomic bombings, the United States launched the Cold War, marking the beginning of its nuclear threat.

The Continuing Legacy of Agent Orange in Vietnam

Sixteen years after the United States’ nuclear attacks on Japan, the US military began spraying Vietnam with Agent Orange-dioxin. In addition to the more than 3 million Vietnamese people killed during the Vietnam War, an equivalent number of people suffer serious diseases and children continue to be born with defects from Agent Orange. US veterans of the Vietnam War and their children suffer as well.

Agent Orange caused direct damage to those exposed to dioxin, including cancers, skin disorders, liver damage, pulmonary and heart diseases, defects to reproductive capacity and nervous disorders. It resulted in indirect damage to the children of those exposed to dioxin, including severe physical deformities, mental and physical disabilities, diseases and shortened life spans.

Dan Shea joined the US Marine Corps in 1968 at the age of 19. He served in Vietnam a little more than two months. But he was in Quang Tri, one of the areas where much of the Agent Orange was sprayed. When Shea saw barrels “all over” with orange stripes on them, he had no idea the dioxin they contained would change his life forever. When they ran out of water, he and his fellow Marines would drink out of the river.

In 1977, Shea’s son Casey was born with congenital heart disease and a cleft palate. Before his third birthday, Casey underwent heart surgery for the hole in his heart. Ten hours after surgery, Casey went into a coma and died seven weeks later.

Just as the US censored information about the effects of radiation after the atomic bombings, the US government and the chemical companies that manufactured Agent Orange – including Dow and Monsanto – also suppressed the 1965 Bionetics study that demonstrated dioxin caused many birth defects in experimental animals. The spraying of Agent Orange finally stopped when that study was made public.

Shea, who also addressed the Veterans for Peace convention, works with me on the Vietnam Agent Orange Relief and Responsibility Campaign. We seek to obtain relief for the Vietnamese, Vietnamese-American and US victims of Agent Orange through the recently introduced H.R. 2114. US vets have received some compensation, but not nearly enough. Vietnamese people and Vietnamese-Americans have received nothing for their suffering.

This bill would assist with the cleanup of dioxin still present in Vietnam. It would also provide assistance to the public health system in Vietnam directed at the 3 million Vietnamese people affected by Agent Orange. It would extend assistance to the affected children of male US veterans who suffer the same set of birth defects covered for the children of female veterans. It would also lead to research on the extent of Agent Orange-related diseases in the Vietnamese-American community, and provide them with assistance. Finally, it would lead to laboratory and epidemiological research on the effects of Agent Orange.

Agent Orange in Japan

The US government has also denied that Agent Orange is present on Okinawa, the Pentagon’s main support base during the Vietnam War. In February 2013, the Pentagon issued a report denying that there is Agent Orange on Okinawa, but it did not order environmental tests or interview veterans who claimed exposure to Agent Orange there. “The usage of Agent Orange and military defoliants in Okinawa is one of the best kept secrets of the Cold War,” according to Jon Mitchell, a journalist based in Tokyo.

“The US government has been lying about Agent Orange on Okinawa for more than 50 years,” Mitchell said. An investigation by Okinawa City and the Okinawa Defense Bureau found dioxin and other components of Agent Orange in several barrels found on Okinawa. Many bore markings of Dow Chemical, one of the manufacturers of Agent Orange. The Japan Times cited reports of military veterans who said that burying surplus chemicals, including Agent Orange, “was standard operating procedure for the US military on Okinawa.”

Two hundred and fifty US service members are claiming damages from exposure to Agent Orange on Okinawa during the Vietnam War, but very few have received compensation from their government. In spite of the Pentagon report, the US Department of Veterans Affairs granted relief in October 2013 to a retired Marine Corps driver who has prostate cancer. The judge ruled that his cancer was triggered by his transport and use of Agent Orange.

Abolish Nuclear Weapons and Compensate Victims of Agent Orange

Besides being criminal, the United States’ use of nuclear weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and poisoning of Vietnam and Okinawa with Agent Orange, are a shameful legacy. The denial and cover-up of each of these crimes adds insult to injury.

As we work toward a nuclear deal with Iran, the US government should abide by its commitment to nuclear disarmament in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

It is also time to fully compensate the victims of Agent Orange and fund a total cleanup of the areas in Vietnam that remain contaminated by the toxic chemical. Urge your congressional representative to cosponsor H.R. 2114, the Victims of Agent Orange Relief Act of 2015.

Finally, we must hold our leaders accountable for their crimes in Japan and Vietnam, and ensure that such atrocities never happen again.


Marjorie Cohn is a professor at Thomas Jefferson School, former president of the National Lawyers Guild, and deputy secretary general of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers. A co-coordinator of the Vietnam Agent Orange Relief and Responsibility Campaign, she is on the national advisory board of Veterans for Peace. Her latest book is Drones and Targeted Killing: Legal, Moral, and Geopolitical Issues.


Photo Atomic cloud over Nagasaki from Koyagi-jima, August 9, 1945 by Hiromichi Matsuda.

Copyright Truthout. Reprinted with permission.

The Nuclear Zero Lawsuits: Who Will Speak for the People?

This article was originally published by The Hill.

The U.N. just concluded the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Preparatory Committee with representatives from the 189 signatory nations and of civil society. The meeting was in preparation for next year’s NPT conference and to discuss the current status of fulfilling the obligations under the treaty and in particular, the mandate of the nuclear weapons states for global disarmament. The outcome was a continued foot dragging by the nuclear states motivating a demand for meaningful steps and progress toward disarmament by the other 184 nations in view of current international events.

Recent scientific studies by the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War on the humanitarian consequences of limited nuclear war have shed additional light on the danger these weapons pose. Describing a hypothetical conflict between India and Pakistan using less than ½ of 1 percent of the global nuclear arsenals, the studies confirm 2 billion people would be at risk of dying due to global climatic change.

Combined with recent scandals involving U.S. ICBM missile controllers and a growing accounting of nuclear mishaps and near misses in our nuclear forces over the years, the sense of urgency for disarmament is greater than ever. It has become a question of who will step forward and speak for humanity.

On April 24, the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) filed the Nuclear Zero Lawsuits in the International Court of Justice against all nine nuclear-armed nations, as well as against the United States in U.S. Federal District Court. RMI claims that the nuclear weapon states are in breach of Article VI of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which entered into force 16,121 days prior to the filing. In this David vs. Goliath action this tiny island nation has found the voice to speak on behalf of the world and the other nations signatory to the Treaty.

The case for the Nuclear Zero Lawsuit comes directly from the NPT where Article VI states: “Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”

This was the grand bargain that convinced many non-nuclear weapon states to sign the treaty and agree not to develop nuclear weapons of their own. Forty-four years later, with no meaningful negotiations on the horizon and no end in sight to the “step-by-step” process heralded by the permanent five members of the UN Security Council (P5), the RMI has stepped in to change the discourse on nuclear disarmament.

RMI is seeking declaratory relief from the courts that will compel the leaders of the Nuclear Weapons States (NWS) to initiate good-faith negotiations for an end to the nuclear arms race and to nuclear disarmament. They are challenging the leaders of the NWS to answer, on the record, why 44 years have passed and nuclear arsenals continue to be modernized, national security strategies continue to place nuclear weapons at the top of the list, and the P5 don’t even expect to have a “Glossary of Key Nuclear Terms” to talk about nuclear disarmament until 2015.

In addition to the five Nuclear Weapon States named in the NPT, the lawsuit also includes the four nuclear weapon states that are not parties to the NPT – Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea – which, RMI argues, are bound to Article VI obligations under customary international law.

The RMI is a small sovereign nation, among the smallest in the world. However, their courage could not be greater. Having been a testing ground for 67 nuclear tests between 1946 and 1958, the Marshall Islanders have seen their land, sea and people poisoned from radiation. These tests had an equivalent explosive force greater than 1.5 Hiroshima bombs being detonated daily for 12 years. The Marshall Islanders paid a heavy price in terms of their health and well-being for these destructive tests. They have experienced firsthand the horrible destruction caused by nuclear weapons and those that possess them. They are willing to stand up to the nine nuclear giants and say, “Never again. We have seen the destructive impact of these horrific weapons and vow to do all we can so the world never sees such atrocities again.”

The RMI does not act alone in this action. A consortium of NGOs working to highlight the legal and moral issues involved in the Nuclear Zero Lawsuit has come together around the world coordinated by the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation in Santa Barbara. Respecting the courage of the plaintiff in bringing these lawsuits against some of the most powerful nations in the world they have developed a call to action.

The consortium urges everyone to join them by raising your voice in support of the Nuclear Zero Lawsuit. Go to www.nuclearzero.org, where you can read more about the lawsuits and sign the petition encouraging leaders of the Nuclear Weapon States to begin good-faith negotiations.

Williams received the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize for her work with the International Committee to Ban Landmines (ICBL) and is chair of the Nobel Women’s Initiative. Dodge is a family physician on the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and Physicians for Social Responsibility – the U.S. affiliate of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War – recipient of the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize.

ZERO, The Case for Nuclear Weapons Abolition

In his remarkably readable and informative book on why abolishing nuclear weapons is an imperative for a safe and secure world, David Krieger points out there is a growing consensus among the peoples of the world that ZERO nuclear weapons is the only option. David Krieger, a founder of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation in Santa Barbara, California and President of the Foundation since 1982, has devoted his life to educating, inspiring and urging world leaders and ordinary citizens to act with a sense of urgency in a quest to abolish nuclear weapons.

The United States’ nuclear strategy was built on the notion of mutually assured destruction: if any nation attacked the United States, we would respond by totally and complete destruction of the attacking nation. To pursue such a strategy the United States built an enormous nuclear arsenal with various response capabilities. To be able to withstand a first strike and retaliate, the US plan was to deploy our nuclear arsenal in the air, at sea and from land based missiles scattered across the country. With such an overwhelming ability to destroy any adversary, we were coaxed into believing no one would dare attack us. Such a false sense of security left other nations deciding they too must arm themselves with nuclear weapons, thus further perpetuating the false notion of security. In spite of the fact that the US and Russia have actually reduced their nuclear weapons, other nations continue to seek, or are believed to be seeking, a nuclear capability. In his book ZERO, The Case for Nuclear Weapons Abolition, David Krieger’s piece by piece analysis of the arguments in support of our continued reliance on nuclear deterrence convincingly demonstrates that it is a doomed and failed long range strategy for world peace and security. He grapples with such questions as: Do we really want to have the fate of the world and future generations entrusted to an ever changing cadre of world leaders who often govern under intense pressure (politically and emotionally) and stress?; Under such circumstances can these leaders be trusted to act prudently for the well being of all humankind?; If nuclear deterrence is so effective, why has the United States spent billions of dollars on missile defense systems?; Have those systems and nuclear arsenal stopped the attacks of 9/11? On the USS Cole? On our embassies in Africa and elsewhere?

With the fall of the Soviet Union, perhaps we have become complacent about the danger posed by nuclear weapons. ZERO awakens us to the dangers, costs, and absurdity of our reliance on these weapons for our security. . .because in reality with them, we are less secure. Krieger astutely observes that as long as the nine nations of the world’s “nuclear club” rely on the false notion of nuclear deterrence, we can expect nuclear war to loom over the future of the world.

Remembering the Hibakusha (the name given a person who survived the atomic bombs dropped on Japan), ZERO draws on the all too real, personal and intimate horrors nuclear war inflicts on all, individually and collectively, by relating the story of Miyoko Matsubara, a Hibakusha. Miyoko, 13 years old when the US dropped its atomic bombs on her country, describes how after the explosions her friend, Takiko, “simply disappeared from my sight.” Miyoko learned English so she could tell her story not to heap on us a sense of guilt and shame, but simply and quietly to give us a deeper understanding of the impact of weapons of mass destruction. She challenges us to become more aware of the world and a future we must avoid. Krieger’s book accepts that challenge by attempting to raise our consciousness and calling us to act in reducing nuclear weapons so there will not be a future of Hibakusha and others simply disappearing from our sight.

In the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu::

“This book makes a clear and persuasive case for why we must move urgently and globally to zero nuclear weapons. It should be required reading for all citizens of Earth.”

No matter your level of understanding on this all-important issue, ZERO is a concise and thoughtful book which will better your understanding of the development, history and proliferation of nuclear weapons and why nuclear disarmament is necessary for a secure world. It is an essential addition to your list of must reads.

Barry Ladendorf,
San Diego, Veterans For Peace
Hugh Thompson Chapter 091