Vietnam: The Secret Agent

In November, approximately 60 community members, including students, veterans, and activists, gathered at Amherst Cinema for a one-time Veteran’s Day screening of a restored 4K version of Vietnam: The Secret Agent, a 1984 documentary by Jacki Ochs and Daniel Keller. The film was the first comprehensive look at dioxin, a contaminant found in “Agent Orange,” an herbicide sprayed over the crops, jungles, and villages of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. When U.S. veterans were trying to gain recognition and help for a host of illnesses that they believed resulted from their exposure to the Agent Orange defoliant, this film’s release prompted the largest mass tort class action settlement of its time, between the veterans and chemical companies responsible for the manufacture of Agent Orange.

Using rare archival war footage to support interviews with veterans, scientists, attorneys, the Air Force, the Veteran’s Administration, and Dow Chemical, Vietnam: The Secret Agent documents the extraordinary history of chemical warfare and agricultural herbicides, damage to our environment, and the plight of veterans from the war in Vietnam. Upon its release in 1984, the film won the Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and a Blue Ribbon from the American Film Festival.

Filmmakers Ochs and Keller joined Michitake Aso, associate professor of history at the University of Albany, and Bruce Dobson from the Vietnam Veterans of America on a panel discussion following the film. The panel, moderated by UMass professor of history and Vietnam scholar Christian Appy, discussed the film as well as the lingering issues around exposure to Agent Orange. Aso discussed his research on the environmental impacts on the people and land of Vietnam, while Dobson detailed efforts to expand medical coverage to the children of veterans who were exposed to and now suffer from effects of the toxin. Dobson also discussed recent legislation that increases health care and benefits coverage for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans exposed to “burn pits and other toxic exposures.”

The Robert S. Cox Special Collections and University Archives Research Center houses the original film elements of Vietnam: The Secret Agent, as well as many other films, as part of the Green Mountain Post Films Records. Green Mountain Post Films was co-founded in the mid-1970s by Daniel Keller and Charles Light. Over the course of their 50-year history, GMP has produced several films that have been used as educational and organizational tools for activists working on peace, veteran, nuclear, environmental, and other related issues.

The event was a collaboration between the Robert S. Cox Special Collections and University Archives Research Center, Amherst Cinema, the filmmakers, the UMass Department of History, and the Ellsberg Initiative for Peace and Democracy.

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