Lies, Damned Lies and History: a response to F.B. Smith's "Agent Orange:
the Australian aftermath", Part IV of Brendan OKeefe, Medicine at War: Medical aspects of Australia's involvement
in Southeast Asia 1950-1972
My PhD thesis is called An Australian Odyssey: the Long Journey Home for Vietnam
Veterans. Part One, The Decade of Silence: Vietnam Veterans in the 1970s, is already written. Part Two, a work
in progress, deals with the political struggles that followed the emergence of the "Agent Orange" issue in Australia and the
formation of the Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia (VVAA). Part Three will deal with a number of issues relating to
the Vietnam War, Vietnam veterans and Australian society. These include the Vietnam War and Australian masculinity, the subject
of a paper I will be presenting at the "Frontlines" conference in Melbourne in July. There is also what I call "the Greek
connection", the subject of a paper I will be presenting at an Australian History conference at Gallipoli in September. The
use of the term "odyssey" in my title, and as an ongoing theme throughout my thesis, connects me with a new trend in Vietnam
War scholarship in the United States, which is finding links between the Vietnam War and ancient Greece. Other chapters in
Part Three will deal with the Vietnam War and Australian popular culture, and the Australian Welcome Home Parade for Vietnam
veterans. In 1986 I was one of six Australian veterans who travelled to Chicago to march in the Vietnam Veterans Welcome Home
Parade there. We brought the idea of a Welcome Home Parade back to Australia with us, and began to organise the Australian
event, which was held in Sydney in 1987.
One of the tasks in Part Two of my thesis is to analyse what others have written
on the Agent Orange issue, and to add my own perspective as both a historian and a participant. The paper I am giving today
is a response to "Agent Orange: the Australian aftermath", by F. B. Smith, which is part of the volume Medicine at War,
the third volume of the "official history" of Australia's involvement in Southeast Asian conflicts.
I gave the first draft of this paper to someone whose opinion I trust, for proofreading.
She advised me to tone it down, because there was a danger that the strong emotion would detract from the logic of my arguments.
So I toned it down, and showed the second draft to my supervisor. He advised me to tone it down, because there was a danger
that the strong emotion would detract from the logic of my arguments. So what you will hear today is a twice-toned-down version
of this paper. I remain confident that I will still be able to convey to you the rage I feel when I discuss Smiths work. Since
the ANU Reporter went out a couple of weeks ago, listing the schedule of seminars, I have received inquiries from a
number of people who can't be here today but who want me to send them a copy of this paper. All of these people expressed
the wish that they could have been given the opportunity to say the things I will say today. There is a great deal of anger
in the veteran community about this travesty of a history. That anger is not restricted to Professor Smith. It extends to
his publishers, Allen & Unwin and the Australian War Memorial.
I will begin by explaining what the Agent Orange issue is. Millions of gallons
of herbicides and pesticides were sprayed or dropped on Vietnam during the war. They included phenoxyacetic herbicides, other
herbicides such as paraquat, diquat, reglone, grammoxone, and many others, as well as pesticides, including malathion. The
phenoxyacetic herbicides were stored in colour-coded drums. These colours gave the herbicides their common names: Agent Orange,
Agent Purple, Agent Blue, and so on. In the late 1970s, the environment movement began raising questions about the potential
health effects of herbicides and pesticides. At the same time, Vietnam veterans in the United States began making connections
between the effects of herbicides and pesticides and health issues that were becoming prevalent in the veteran community.
These concerns were mainly centred on Agent Orange and its contaminant, dioxin. Consequently, the Agent Orange issue became
media shorthand for the issue of a possible link between the health of Vietnam veterans and their children and the full range
of herbicides and pesticides used in Vietnam.
We all know that history is dynamic. Any one of us can write a history today,
and events can change tomorrow to make our work redundant. But there are ways to avoid making ourselves look foolish when
this happens. For example, when we are writing about an issue involving a two-sided argument, we can present both sides in
an even-handed way. Unfortunately, Smith fails to do this. But he does more than simply take sides. He gets personal. He actually
makes unfounded accusations and insinuations against certain members of the Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia (VVAA),
including myself, who had been on the other side of the debate. As national secretary of the VVAA, I was deeply, personally
involved in the events about which Smith has written. Smith has never contacted me to check the veracity of any of the statements
he has made about the VVAA and its activities.
When the Agent Orange issue emerged in Australia, a number of Australian veterans
noticed that they and their friends were suffering some of the same illnesses as the American veterans they had been reading
about in the newspapers. I ask you, just for a few moments, to put yourselves in the position of those veterans and their
wives. You are in your early thirties, and you have a young family. You have some health problems, and so do your children,
but you accept these as the luck of the draw. Once or twice a year you meet old mates from your Vietnam days, and you find
that they have similar problems, and so do their children. Then, by sheer coincidence, a group of unconnected Vietnam veterans
use their war service loans to buy new houses in the same street of the same housing development in Mount Druitt, in Sydney's
western suburbs. They get to know each other, their children play together. They wonder how it can be a coincidence that
they share the same illnesses, and the same birth defects in their children, as their Vietnam veteran neighbours, but with
nobody else on the estate. Then they read stories in the newspapers about American Vietnam veterans who have the same problems
and are asking questions about a possible link to the herbicides and pesticides used in Vietnam. So far all you have is the
evidence of your own eyes and some ideas from overseas. You want someone, with access to resources that you will never have,
These veterans initially sought information and help from the traditional sources
of help for veterans, such as the Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA), and the Returned and Services League (RSL). Instead
of helping, these traditional sources closed ranks against the veterans, and formed an information blockade. For further details,
I suggest that you go to my website, http://lachlanirvine.tripod.com, and read "The Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia as Counter-Discourse", which is chapter
three of The Decade of Silence: Vietnam Veterans in the 1970s. The actions of the DVA and the RSL forced these Vietnam
veterans to find a voice of their own. In 1979, they formed the Vietnam Veterans Action Association. A year later, when it
became a national body, they retained the initials, but changed the name to Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia.
It is important to note that VVAA was not asking for any kind of handout, or for
anything for which veterans were not already entitled. The Repatriation Act, as it existed at the time, decreed that a veteran's
claim must be granted unless it could be proved beyond reasonable doubt that there was no link between the veteran's illness
and his war service. The VVAA asked only that the Act be applied as it was written and that, if a link should be found between
the veteran's war service and the health of his children, then the Act should be extended to include the children of veterans.
Time will not allow me to go into any detail about the early battles of the VVAA.
It is necessary however, as a background to some of the issues I will be discussing, to say that the VVAA sought government
assistance to investigate the health of Vietnam veterans. Initially the government promised a major study. They then changed
their minds and set up a body called the Australian Veterans Health Studies group (AVHS), which proposed a number of smaller
studies. The VVAA believed that the AVHS proposals could not produce any reliable results, and they began lobbying for a Royal
On page 298, Smith asserts that Vietnam veterans wanted the AVHS to produce a
"quick predetermined result inculpating Agent Orange". No evidence is provided for this statement. In fact, at no time
did veterans want, advocate, or ask for, a predetermined result. They wanted an investigation. Also on page 298, Smith asserts
that VVAA cooperation with the AVHS study "meant controlling the investigation to fortify its allegations". Again, no justification
is given for this assertion. Nor does he explain what is meant by the VVAA's "allegations". In fact, the VVAA did not have
"allegations". It had only questions. It wanted its questions to be investigated by an appropriate authority. Unfortunately,
it soon became clear that the AVHS group was not going to be the appropriate authority. In place of the comprehensive study
the VVAA wanted, one which could produce reliable results, the AVHS group was looking for cut-price solutions. It came up
with a number of suggestions for smaller surveys. All of them involved only national servicemen, and all of them intended
to compare the health of national service veterans with restricted groups of Australians, and not with the whole Australian
male population in the same age group. National Servicemen made up about one third of Australians who served in Vietnam (roughly
17,000 out of roughly 50,000). Serving only two years in the Army, they only had time for a single tour of duty. Many regular
soldiers served two or more tours of duty in Vietnam. It is a matter of common sense that any study of the health of Vietnam
veterans, which excluded regular soldiers, would produce distorted figures. It would be studying only a minority, and would
exclude the very veterans who spent most time in Vietnam, and were therefore likely to have the greatest exposure to the toxic
chemicals used there. It is their objection to this kind of unsuitable study that Smith is talking about when he accuses the
VVAA of wanting to control the AVHS study.
During the federal election campaign of 1983, the opposition promised to support
the VVAA's call for a Royal Commission. Shortly after the election, the newly elected Hawke government kept its promise and
established the Commission. The VVAA had hoped that the Royal Commission would be a scientific inquiry that could investigate
and assess all available information, and make appropriate recommendations to the federal government. At the opening session
however, the hopes of the VVAA were dashed when counsel assisting the Commission announced that the Commission would be an
adversarial contest between the lawyers representing the VVAA on one side and the lawyers representing the Monsanto chemical
company on the other. It soon became apparent, in fact, that the real contest was between the lawyers representing the VVAA
on one side and the lawyers representing Monsanto, the DVA and the Royal Commission on the other. This was clearly a battle
the VVAA could not hope to win. There was some discussion within the VVAA about whether there was any point in continuing
with a hopeless cause. It was decided that the Royal Commission was an important opportunity for the VVAA to place all of
the information and evidence it had collected on the public record, regardless of the outcome. The information would be there
in the Commission's transcripts for perusal by future researchers who might make better use of it.
Eventually, nearly fifteen years after the Agent Orange Royal Commission, the
Department of Veterans Affairs conducted exactly the kind of study the VVAA had always been asking for. The department sent
health questionnaires out to the last known address of every Australian who served in Vietnam, and to the next of kin of veterans
known to have died. It received 40,000 responses. Here are some of the results, including a comparison with the expected figure
for the age group in the Australian community: for non-Hodgkins lymphoma, the figure for Vietnam veterans is up 185% on the
expected figure; soft tissue sarcoma, up 1,374%; cancer of the colon, up 246%; male breast cancer, up 1600%; cancer of the
testes, up 37%; cancer of the eye, up 772%; lung cancer, up 84%; prostate cancer, up 191%; diabetes, up 34%; hearing or ear
problems, up 116%; haemorrhoids, up 425%; migraine, up 1308%; anxiety disorder, up 31%; depression, up 26%; stomach or duodenal
ulcer, up 153%; post-traumatic stress disorder, up 308%; high blood pressure, up 88%. Some of the cancer figures were reduced
following a validation study, though they still remained high. I have used the raw figures because they reflect the kind of
anecdotal information the VVAA had been getting from veterans from the very start of the Agent Orange controversy. It goes
without saying that the VVAA lacked the resources to carry out its own validation study. It could do no more than present
this information and implore the relevant authorities to carry out a thorough investigation. This plea for a full investigation
is portrayed by Smith as the VVAA's "allegations".
Two entire chapters of "Agent Orange: the Australian aftermath" are completely
redundant. The first of these is chapter 15, "The birth defects allegations". Professor Smith uses most of this chapter to
attack the work of two researchers, Doctor Barbara Field and Professor Charles Kerr. Field and Kerr conducted a study of birth
defects among the children of Tasmanian Vietnam veterans. Their conclusion was that the children they studied did show a significantly
increased rate of certain birth defects compared with the general population. Clearly, Field and Kerr got it right. The Australian
Vietnam Veterans Health Study, carried out by the Department of Veterans Affairs, found the following rates of illness in
the children of Vietnam veterans compared with the general population: spina bifida, up 1048%; anencephaly, up 218%; tracheosophageal
fistula, up 446%; cleft palate, up 375%; absent body parts, up 1058%; other abnormalities, up 407%; suicide, up 229%. The
study concludes: "the reported number of abnormalities is considerably above expected for all abnormalities. This is a very
disturbing finding". Remember that this study was carried out by the DVA, which had always denied any connection between these
conditions and Vietnam service. Some of these results were worse than even the VVAA had feared. Yet it is these very fears,
borne out by this study, that Smith refers to as the VVAA's "allegations".
In stark contrast to his treatment of Field and Kerr, who got it right, in this
chapter Smith heaps praise on the efforts of those researchers who got it wrong. These include the Commonwealth Institute
of Health (CIH). Somehow the CIH failed to find any increase in birth anomalies among the children of veterans. Remember that
some of those rates were more than 1000% higher than the general population, but the CIH could not find any increased rates.
The DVA study demonstrates clearly that the claims made in the Field/Kerr study have stood the test of time. Allen and Unwin
and the Australian War Memorial must not allow any future edition of Medicine at War to be published without substantial
revision of this chapter, and an apology to Doctor Field and Professor Kerr.
On pages 304 and 305, Smith makes assertions about the motives of veterans with
handicapped children, who attended a public meeting of the Royal Commission. He suggests that these veterans "wanted the Commissioner
to prove the genetic link between their exposure to Agent Orange and their offsprings' defects in order that their children,
and their children's children, would be covered by repatriation benefits". He gives no evidence for this assertion. In fact,
what those fathers wanted was not some predetermined outcome, but a thorough investigation into the possibility of a link
between the herbicides and pesticides used in Vietnam and the health of their children. They had reason to hope that the Royal
Commission would carry out such a study. They were disappointed. They had to wait another fifteen years. As it happens, despite
the efforts of the Royal Commission, treatment is now being extended to the children of veterans on the basis of an accepted
link between exposure to chemicals in Vietnam and cleft palate and spina bifida in the children of veterans. Those children
could have received treatment fifteen years earlier had the Royal Commission done its job.
The other chapter that is now redundant is chapter 16, "The cancer allegations".
Smith wastes this entire chapter arguing against the proposition that the herbicides and pesticides used in Vietnam could
possibly cause cancer. He criticizes any study that found such a link. He praises any study that found no such link. He criticizes
the VVAA for trying to find out the truth. Here is the list of cancers now accepted by the United States Veterans Administration
as being caused by Agent Orange: Hodgkins disease; multiple myeloma; non-Hodgkins lymphoma; respiratory cancers: that is,
cancers of the lung, bronchus, larynx and trachea; soft-tissue sarcoma, and prostate cancer. The DVA study found that Vietnam
veterans have increased rates of non-Hodgkins lymphoma, soft tissue sarcoma, cancer of the colon, male breast cancer, cancer
of the testes, cancer of the eye, lung cancer, and prostate cancer. Allen and Unwin and the Australian War Memorial must ensure
that no future edition of Medicine at War is published without substantial revision of this chapter. To go on publishing
information known to be false, especially in a book that purports to be an official history, is simply wrong.
Professor Smith wastes several pages of chapter 14, "The health debate", arguing
about "exposure". That is, the extent to which any individual Australian service personnel may have been exposed to individual
herbicides and pesticides. The VVAA has always claimed that exposure is irrelevant. So many herbicides and pesticides were
used in Vietnam, in such quantities, that it is irrelevant to talk about levels of exposure of individual veterans to each
individual chemical. The Royal Commission seemed almost obsessed by exposure, and Smith appears to have followed its example
without question. Today, the United States Veterans Administration, normally less generous than its Australian counterpart,
accepts that the following illnesses are caused by Agent Orange: chloracne, Hodgkins disease, multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkins
lymphoma, porphyria cutanea tarda, respiratory cancers: that is, cancers of the lung, bronchus, larynx and trachea, soft-tissue
sarcoma, acute and sub-acute peripheral neuropathy, prostate cancer, and diabetes mellitus. In addition, spina bifida in the
offspring of Vietnam veterans is now accepted. This list comes from the United States Veterans Administration website, www.va.gov, and the section concludes with the following words: "VA presumes that all military
personnel who served in Vietnam and who have one of the listed diseases were exposed to Agent Orange". In other words, exposure
is not an issue. Proof of Vietnam service is proof of exposure. This is exactly what the VVAA was saying at the Royal Commission.
They have been proved correct. Unfortunately, we are still left with the embarrassment of an official history that argues
against this known fact.
In the same chapter, Smith reviews the Colin Simpson case. Colin Simpson was a
Vietnam veteran who claimed that his non-Hodgkins lymphoma was caused by his war service. His claim was rejected by the Repatriation
Board, and again, on appeal, by the Repatriation Commission. By this time Colin Simpson had died. The VVAA assisted his widow
to present her case at the next level of appeal, the Repatriation Review Tribunal. The earlier decision was overturned, and
Lorraine Simpson was granted a war widow's pension. The case was the subject of a feature film, A Street to Die. Professor
Smith's approach to the Simpson case is simply to question the Tribunal's findings. Although the argument presented by the
Repatriation Commission against Mrs. Simpson was weighed up and rejected by the Tribunal, it is only this evidence that Smith
reproduces in his history. He ignores the evidence given on Simpson's behalf, even though it was this evidence that won the
case. In his apparent determination to re-fight a lost case, Smith fails to acknowledge that the quality of the case against
Simpson was irrelevant under the terms of the Repatriation Act. The Tribunal, quite correctly, ruled that it could only reject
the Simpson claim if it was satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that his cancer was not caused by his war service. As long as
there was medical and scientific evidence presented on both sides, the tribunal was bound by the legislation to grant the
claim. Today, this process would not be necessary, because the fears of the VVAA in those early days, of a link between non-Hodgkins
lymphoma and the chemicals used in Vietnam, have been proved correct. The Department of Veterans Affairs now accepts this
link. This makes the entire argument presented by Smith against the Simpson case completely irrelevant. This is another chapter
that requires extensive revision.
I will turn now to Smith's assertions and insinuations against members of the
VVAA leadership. On page 293, Smith asserts that the VVAA was formed as a response to the Agent Orange issue when "a small
minority of Vietnam veterans seized on the issue both as an explanation of their discontents and a likely source of additional
repatriation benefits". He gives no evidence for this allegation. The entire history of the VVAA is available in a document
collection at the Australian War Memorial. Its collection number is PR 87/163. After the Royal Commission, the VVAA gathered
together all of the documents it had accumulated since its inception, and donated them to the War Memorial. It is a warts-and-all
collection. Nothing was left out. There is no excuse for Smith to make any statement about the history of the VVAA and not
back it up with some evidence, unless the statement is simply false, as this one certainly is.
The core members of the VVAA national leadership at the time of which Smith is
writing were Phill Thompson, Tim McCombe and myself. I will take them one by one.
Phill Thompson was the National President. On page 296, Smith compounds his earlier
falsehood by stating, without giving any evidence for the statement, "Thompson himself was receiving irregularly augmented
repatriation benefits". In fact, Phill Thompson received a pension from the Defence Forces Retirement Fund, known as the DFRDB.
This is a contributory superannuation scheme, to which, just like every other member of Australia's defence forces, Phill
had contributed throughout his army career. He was retired from the army on medical grounds because of a hereditary illness,
which caused him to have his bowel and small intestine removed in an ileostomy operation. The operation was performed while
Phill was VVAA National President, and while he was heavily involved in preparing and presenting the VVAA case at the Royal
Commission. Despite the operation, and its effects on his physical and psychological health, Phill made a heroic attempt to
carry on until the Royal Commission was over. Later, he took his own life in November 1986. Smith is unable to find a good
word to say about Phill Thompson's superhuman effort of selfless dedication. I repeat that Phill's ileostomy was caused by
a hereditary illness, and nobody has ever suggested it was Agent Orange related. Phill made no claim for repatriation benefits
Towards the end of the Royal Commission, government funding for the VVAA lawyers
ran out. In order to keep the VVAA case going, in spite of his constant pain, illness and depression, Phill Thompson volunteered
to present the case at the Royal Commission, in place of the VVAA lawyers, who had been led by Adrian McInnes QC. Again, Smith
finds nothing to praise in this action. Instead, on page 322 Smith claims that "Thompson told the press he was appearing without
fee, but in fact he was paid by somebody, presumably the Commonwealth". Smith uses the words "in fact", but fails to provide
any evidence for this "fact". All Commonwealth expenditure is accountable. The federal Attorney General's Department provided
all government funding to the VVAA during the Royal Commission. Smith is asking his readers to believe that the Australian
government paid a disabled veteran with no legal training and only intermediate high school education to act as a Queen's
Counsel at a Royal Commission. Furthermore, he is asking his readers to believe that this unusual government expenditure has
somehow been lost or hidden, despite the existence of government "razor gangs" and enthusiastic opposition scrutiny at estimates
committee hearings. The truth is that Phill Thompson neither sought nor received any personal gain out of the Agent Orange
issue. He did, however, receive the Order of Australia for services to the welfare of veterans, a fact Smith completely fails
to mention. His dedication to the cause of Vietnam veterans and their families cost Phill Thompson his health, his marriage,
and finally his life. His example of devotion to the truth and to the welfare of others deserves better treatment from historians
than the baseless insinuations made by Smith and published by Allen & Unwin and the Australian War Memorial.
Tim McCombe was National Treasurer of the VVAA. Tim received repatriation benefits
long before the VVAA was formed, because he lost a leg in Vietnam. Tim has never blamed the loss of his leg on Agent Orange.
He remains convinced that the mine he stepped on in Vietnam was solely responsible. Tim has been working on a voluntary basis
for the welfare of veterans and their families constantly since those early days of the VVAA. He is now National President
of the Vietnam Veterans Federation. He continues to devote his life to the cause with no thought of personal gain.
I was National Secretary of the VVAA throughout the duration of the Royal Commission.
I was a full-time public servant at the time, and had no need for repatriation benefits. I have never made an Agent Orange
claim for myself. I was granted a pension for combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder in 1991, after I had retired from
all activity in veterans' politics.
Phill Thompson died in 1986. Tim McCombe and myself were available at the time
Smith was writing. I was a history student at the University of Western Australia, still well known in the veteran community,
and very easy to contact. It would surely be expected that a professional historian would have approached us, or at least
checked our repatriation records prior to accusing us of using the Agent Orange issue as a "likely source of additional repatriation
benefits". Smith did none of these things.
The "job description" for leadership positions in the VVAA at the time of which
Smith is writing included, for example, a willingness to visit hospitals and watch young men waste away with lymphoma and
other forms of cancer. It included talking to the soon-to-be-widows of these men and trying to explain why they would have
to spend the foreseeable future fighting the Department of Veterans Affairs if they wanted to find out why their husbands
were dying. It included being available twenty-four hours a day as a point of first contact for veterans with medical, psychological
or personal problems. It included being available for the phone call from the police, inevitably in the middle of the night,
calling us out to disarm a veteran who had a rifle barrel in his mouth and was threatening to pull the trigger. This is all
unpaid work. Nobody does this kind of work for selfish reasons. Yet Smith's attribution of selfish motives to the VVAA leadership
stands for all time as part of the official history of Australia's involvement in the Vietnam War.
At times Smith's attempts to denigrate the VVAA descend into pettiness, such as
on page 304 where he describes VVAA members as "members". The only conceivable purpose of the quotation marks is to cast doubt
on the legitimacy of their membership. Again I commend to any historian the VVAA document collection at the Australian War
Memorial. There, Smith could have found everything he needed to know about the VVAA. Had he cared to do the basic research,
he would have found that the VVAA is, like most veterans' welfare organisations, member-driven and democratically structured.
Its members are, genuinely, members. They are not "members". This is simply a gratuitous insult to thousands of Australian
On page 306, Smith suggests that the title VVAA is "a self-aggrandising misnomer".
In a free and pluralistic society, Smith apparently assumes the right to tell a freely associating group of Australians what
they are allowed to call themselves.
Some of the assertions made by Smith would be too silly to be considered worthy
of comment, were it not for the fact that they appear in what is supposed to be the "official" history of Australia's involvement
in Southeast Asian wars. For example, on page 301, Smith asserts that "the VVAA claimed credit for the Labor victory" in the
1983 federal election. He provides no evidence for this ludicrous assertion. If such a claim had been made, surely there would
be some record of it somewhere, and surely Smith, as a professional historian, would have found it. The assertion is simply
false. In the 1983 federal election campaign, The VVAA held public meetings in three marginal electorates: Barton, Phillip
and Calare. Jeanette McHugh, who won the seat of Phillip, has been generous in expressing her gratitude for the role played
by the VVAA in unseating her Liberal opponent. That is the only evidence available of any claim of credit. It was not made
by the VVAA, and it refers only to one electorate, not the entire, national Labor victory.
On page 299 Smith makes a curious attempt to belittle the work of the Vietnam
Veterans Counselling Service (VVCS), an independent organisation funded by the federal government and completely separate
from the VVAA. He suggests that the overwhelming majority of veterans "felt no need for them". This appears to be a suggestion
that the good health of the majority of veterans somehow makes it unnecessary to provide help to the minority who need it.
In fact, since the time of which Smith is writing, the VVCS has expanded into all state and territory capitals, and into regional
centres such as Townsville, Launceston and Albury/Wodonga. It continues to provide a much-needed and appreciated service to
thousands of Vietnam veterans and their families. It is currently working on a response to the shocking revelation, in the
DVA health Study, that the children of Vietnam veterans have a suicide rate that is three times the national average.
On pages 297 and 298, Smith gives credence to one of the more irrelevant quotes
from the Royal Commission, about use of the chemical issue by the North Vietnamese during the war for propaganda purposes.
The logic of this argument is that the case of those who claim that herbicides and pesticides are dangerous is weakened simply
by the fact that the North Vietnamese used these claims for propaganda purposes. Of course they used it; it would be highly
surprising if they had not. Though Smith fails to say what relevance that has to the truth of the veterans' case here
in Australia. There is a story, well publicised during the time of the Royal Commission, and available to Smith had he cared
to use it, that demonstrates the folly of using the enemy propaganda argument in this context. In 1985, among Defence Department
documents that were being declassified, the bizarre case of the "Lord Casey letter" came to the surface. Lord Casey was a
former Governor-General of Australia, and had been a minister in the governments of Sir Robert Menzies. In 1970, he read an
article in New Yorker magazine about birth defects in Vietnamese children whose parents had been exposed to the American
herbicide spraying programme. Lord Casey wrote to the then Minister for the Army, Andrew Peacock, expressing concern that
Australian soldiers may have been similarly exposed. Lord Casey's letter was passed on to the then Minister for Defence, Malcolm
Fraser, who passed it on to Australia's military leaders. They had received, some time earlier, a warning from the United
States military leaders in Vietnam that the North Vietnamese were likely to make use of the chemical issue for propaganda
purposes. So Australia's military leaders placed Lord Casey's letter in a file marked "enemy propaganda", where it remained
for fifteen years. A letter from a former Governor-General to a future Prime Minister and a future Opposition Leader was filed
under "enemy propaganda". Any use of the "enemy propaganda" argument that omits any mention of the Lord Casey letter simply
fails to tell the full story.
On pages 305 and 306, Professor Smith makes an extraordinary list of unsubstantiated
statements that can only be read as opinion, lacking any basis in fact and therefore out of place in an official history.
The assertion of exposure to toxic chemicals proved that the cause of the victim's
sufferings was external and therefore exonerated the victim from responsibility. Resentment, loss of self-confidence, the
displacement of public values by self-absorption, could be blamed on officialdom and a hostile community;
Allegation was confused with proof and the sufferers vindicated themselves against
the powers that had inflicted the hurt. Such a vindication made the theory persistently attractive to believers. It was potentially
remunerative to the veterans and some of the experts who acted for them.
Smith gives no substantiation for any of this psychobabble. There are no footnotes.
He also gives no evidence that any veteran or any expert who acted for any veteran actually found the Agent Orange issue remunerative.
In fact the opposite is true. It cost several people money, their health, and in some cases their lives. Despite Smith's best
efforts however, it has since been shown that they were on the side of truth.
Time constraints make it impossible for this paper to tell the full story of the
baseless allegations and the fallacious and redundant arguments in "Agent Orange: the Australian aftermath". This whole exercise
is a warning to us all of the importance of maintaining the moral integrity of the History profession. It is vitally important
that our research is thorough, and that we investigate all sides of the story with equal vigour. This is especially important
when our research involves real people; people who are still living; people whose lives can be affected by what we write.
Allen & Unwin and the Australian War Memorial must not allow any future reprint of this volume to be issued without substantial
revision and an apology to Australia's Vietnam veterans. This must not be allowed to stand as the official record of this
piece of Australian history.