Agent Orange: a Toxic Legacy

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The legacy of the Vietnam War is vast, complex and controversial. The USA’s 1973 withdrawal and the defeat of their South Vietnamese allies by the communist North Vietnam changed perceptions of their military might at home and abroad, emboldening other burgeoning communist regimes. What is often overlooked about Vietnam in favour of its impacts in the Cold War and US domestic politics is the sheer scale of destruction and brutality. Over 20 years of conflict from November 1955 to April 1975 more than 3 million died, half of them civilians; this extraordinary death toll, and many ill after-effects, were in no small part due to the US’s wide-ranging use of chemical warfare.

Chemical warfare was used not by choice but out of desperation: an attempt to counter the successful Vietcong strategy. With a far greater understanding of the jungle terrain than their American foes, they were able to effectively employ guerrilla warfare. Instead of fighting large pitched battles, they relied on small, agile groups of soldiers using their mobility and the element of surprise to gain an advantage, facilitated by the use of the dense tropical forests for cover.

The way North Vietnam specifically implemented this strategy made it all the more deadly. Their soldiers often disguised themselves as civilians, including farmers or rural residents, to ambush unsuspecting US soldiers. Ho Chi Minh, the president of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (i.e. North Vietnam), commissioned the construction of a tunnel system that covered tens of thousands of miles to allow for even greater secrecy in troop movement. The Ho Chi Minh trail through the rainforests of neighbouring Laos facilitated the supply of manpower and materiel to men fighting in the south despite intense US bombing efforts. By 1965, the Vietcong’s primary weapons, Chinese variants of the versatile AK-47 rifles, also assisted this style of warfare, giving them both firepower and mobility. They were also resourceful in building up their arsenal: land mines handcrafted in North Vietnamese villages used 20,000 tonnes of explosives salvaged from unexploded American bombs per year.

The difficulties the Americans faced led them to alter their strategy to one of attritional warfare – focusing on killing the enemy to deplete their numbers, regardless of cost. Initially, they had thought the war would be a straightforward case of occupying territory, but guerrilla warfare meant that territorial gains were insignificant since their opponents were able to infiltrate and ambush them regardless of where the battle lines were drawn on a map.

Therefore, the United States decided to change the terrain to their advantage. Guerrilla tactics were in large part made possible by the dense tree cover which made the Vietcong forces difficult to spot from the air, thus enabling them to hide and manoeuvre in secrecy on the ground. By destroying the tree cover, this advantage would be eliminated.

The method settled on to destroy these large areas of forests was the use of Agent Orange, with tragic consequences. The chemical was a strong herbicide manufactured in the 1940s to control plant growth along power lines and railways. However, in producing the active chemical that caused plants to die, one of the by-products was dioxin, a chemical highly toxic to humans, meaning that its effects were indiscriminate.

The use of Agent Orange in the war started in 1961 and lasted for a decade through Operation Ranch Hand. The use of chemical weapons was supposed to be targeted, but the military sprayed 20 million gallons of herbicide across more than 4.5 million acres of Vietnam. As well as on forests, Agent Orange was also tactically deployed on farmland to destroy food supplies of the North Vietnamese. This was reprehensible enough without the later discovery of the toxic effects of dioxin as it amounted to targeting non-combatants.

Furthermore, given that Agent Orange was sprayed from the air over a wide area, the idea of ‘targeted’ use was never feasible and collateral damage was unavoidable. Food shortages affected non-combatants, while any food that survived was contaminated, as were the water supplies. The South Vietnamese, US allies, were often as badly affected as civilians in the north, and US soldiers themselves could be the worst impacted since they were often deployed into areas where Agent Orange had recently been used, maximising their exposure.

The toxic effects of Agent Orange proved to be horrendous in the short term and no less so in the long term. Severe skin irritation, type 2 diabetes, birth defects, miscarriages, cancer and neurological and psychological problems all arose as a result of exposure, and these impacts have been observed even in later generations.

Unsurprisingly, there have been multiple lawsuits for reparations for the effects of Agent Orange, most suing the firms responsible for its production, since it was their negligence that allowed the presence of a chemical toxic to humans within.

The first of these lawsuits came after an unusually high number of returning US veterans of the Vietnam War began to report the ailments listed above. In 1979, 2.4 million Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange during their service launched a class action lawsuit. Seven multinational chemical companies responsible agreed to pay out $180m to veterans and their families in a 1984 settlement, but this was still seen as insufficient by many. 300 further lawsuits challenged this settlement until the total was increased to $240m. The Agent Orange Act was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush in 1991, requiring that certain diseases linked to Agent Orange and other herbicides be treated as a result of wartime duty and so eligible for extra support.

Despite the suffering caused to Americans, at least they received compensation and a tacit admission of wrongdoing; the same cannot be said for Vietnamese victims. In addition to the tremendous environmental damage caused by the US defoliation effort, Vietnam’s government reported that Agent Orange and other herbicides resulted in the death or injury of over 400,000 people. Half a million infants were born with major birth deformities, and a further two million people developed cancer or other illnesses.

Tragically, the potential impact on the Vietnamese people was never a serious consideration in deciding whether or not to move forward with the now-infamous Operation Ranch Hand:

“When we launched the herbicide programme in the 1960s, we were aware of the possibility for harm due to dioxin contamination in the herbicide,” Dr. James Clary, an Air Force researcher affiliated with Operation Ranch Hand, wrote to Senator Tom Daschle in 1988. “However, because the material was to be used on the enemy, none of us were overly concerned. We never considered a scenario in which our own personnel would become contaminated with the herbicide.”         

Only once US citizens were in harms way did the US government express concern about the humanitarian implications.

A group of Vietnamese civilians filed a class-action lawsuit in 2004 against more than 30 chemical corporations, including those that had previously settled with US veterans in 1984, on this basis. Given that these charges had been implicitly accepted by the settlement of the US veterans’ lawsuit, this should have been an open-and-shut case in favour of the plaintiffs.

However, a federal judge in New York dismissed the lawsuit in March 2005 and a final appeal was denied in 2008, prompting indignation among Vietnamese victims of Operation Ranch Hand and even many American soldiers that empathized with their former enemy. As such, despite the long-term damage inflicted on Vietnam, both its people and its environment, they have received no reparations.

Fred A. Wilcox, author of Scorched Earth: Legacies of Chemical Warfare in Vietnam, told the Vietnamese news source VN Express International, “The US government refuses to compensate Vietnamese victims of chemical warfare because to do so would mean admitting that the US committed war crimes in Vietnam.” The US was aware of the potential toxicity of Agent Orange prior to its deployment; it employed chemical warfare in such a way as to not just incidentally damage but even target civilians; and it had a horrific cost to combatants and non-combatants on all sides. If this does not constitute a war crime, what does?

Institute of Medicine, Committee to Review the Effects in Vietnam Veterans of Exposure to Herbicides, 1994. Veterans and Agent Orange: Health Effects of Herbicides Used in Vietnam. National Academies Press (US).