By William Plummer
May 01, 2000 12:00 PM

Thirty years ago, Le Cao Dai, then a North Vietnamese army surgeon, was tending wounded soldiers in the South Vietnam jungle near Pleiku when he heard a plane overhead. Looking up, he saw a thick fog filtering down through the trees. “I knew it was some kind of chemical, but I didn’t know what,” says Dai, now 72. “A few days after that, the leaves turned yellow and everything began to die.”

The chemical was Agent Orange, a defoliant containing the deadly poison dioxin. At the time, Dai worried mostly about the loss of cover from the American bombs. “What we didn’t know then,” he says, “was that Agent Orange would go on killing people and causing many kinds of illnesses and disorders in their children.”

Today, based on Dai’s research with Dr. Arnold Schecter of the University of Texas School of Public Health in Dallas, the Vietnamese government estimates that the spraying of Agent Orange killed or maimed 400,000 Vietnamese and led to defects including retardation, spina bifida and other conditions in a half-million children. About 600 such children are cared for and educated in eight “peace villages” located mostly in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. “This is a political hot potato,” says Schecter, noting that the U.S. has not yet officially accepted these statistics or its own culpability (even though thousands of American vets also exposed to Agent Orange have made similar claims).

Still, Dai and Schecter’s research is compelling. Since the mid-’80s the two men have been testing soil and river-bottom samples and have drawn myriad vials of human blood in their search for traces of dioxin. Dai’s survey of former North Vietnamese soldiers shows that more than 5 percent of children fathered by men who fought in the south—and were exposed to Agent Orange—were born with defects, compared with just 1 percent of the children of soldiers who stayed in the north. The pioneering work of the two doctors recently led U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen to concede that the U.S. should seriously study the dioxin question. “We’re not talking about guilt here,” says Dai. “But I believe the U.S. has a moral responsibility to help us clean up contaminated areas.”

Born and raised in Hanoi, Dai—who works today as director of the Agent Orange Victims Fund of the Vietnam Red Cross—is the seventh of 13 children of a schoolteacher and his wife. He received his medical degree in 1954 from the University of Hanoi and served as an army surgeon during the war, operating for eight years in an underground hospital just south of the DMZ. Electricity was supplied by men on stationary bicycles hooked up to generators, and there was always danger in the air. “If you heard the planes, you had a chance,” says Dai. “We got good at diving into our shelters.”

Dai, who saw his family just once between 1966 and 1974, says he was “lightly exposed” to Agent Orange, but tests later showed no evidence of dioxin in his body. Dai attributes his good fortune to his distaste for fish, which he believes is a primary source of dioxin poisoning in Vietnam. “Maybe that was the reason,” he says. “Or maybe I was born under a happy sign.”

Though Dai retired as a full colonel in 1984 because of an eye condition that has rendered him nearly blind, he remains a surprisingly light-hearted man. The war, though, is never forgotten. His wife, Huong, 70, a painter, showed a recent visitor her impressionistic oils of airplanes dropping chemicals on a spectral forest. “The war may have ended 25 years ago,” Dai says, “but not for the victims of Agent Orange.”

William Plummer

Ron Arias in Hanoi