Agent Orange is a herbicide and defoliant chemical, one of the “tactical use” Rainbow Herbicides. It is widely known for its use by the U.S. military as part of its chemical warfare program, Operation Ranch Hand, during the Vietnam War from 1961 to 1971. It is a mixture of equal parts of two herbicides, 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D. In addition to its damaging environmental effects, traces of dioxin (mainly TCDD, the most toxic of its type) found in the mixture have caused major health problems for many individuals who were exposed.
Up to 4 million people in Vietnam were exposed to the defoliant. The government of Vietnam says as many as 3 million people have suffered illness because of Agent Orange, and the Red Cross of Vietnam estimates that up to a million people are disabled or have health problems as a result of Agent Orange contamination. The United States government has described these figures as unreliable, while documenting higher cases of leukemia, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and various kinds of cancer in exposed U.S. military veterans.
An epidemiological study done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that there was an increase in the rate of birth defects of the children of military personnel as a result of Agent Orange.
Agent Orange has also caused enormous environmental damage in Vietnam. Over 3,100,000 hectares (11,969 miles) of forest were defoliated. Defoliants eroded tree cover and seedling forest stock, making reforestation difficult in numerous areas. Animal species diversity sharply reduced in contrast with unsprayed areas.
The use of Agent Orange in Vietnam resulted in numerous legal actions. The United Nations ratified United Nations General Assembly Resolution 31/72 and the Environmental Modification Convention. Lawsuits filed on behalf of both U.S. and Vietnamese veterans sought compensation for damages.
Agent Orange was first used by the British Armed Forces in Malaya during the Malayan Emergency. It was also used by the U.S. military in Laos and Cambodia during the Vietnam War because forests near the border with Vietnam were used by the Viet Cong. The herbicide was also used in Brazil to clear out sections of land for agriculture.
In mid-1961, President Ngo Dinh Diem, of South Vietnam, asked the United States to conduct aerial herbicide spraying in his country. In August of that year, the Republic of Vietnam Air Force conducted herbicide operations with American help. Diem’s request launched a policy debate in the White House and the State and Defense departments. However, U.S. officials considered using it, pointing out that the British had already used herbicides and defoliants during the Malayan Emergency in the 1950s. In November 1961, President Kennedy authorized the start of Operation Ranch Hand, the code name for the United States Air Force’s herbicide program in Vietnam.
During the Vietnam War, between 1962 and 1971, the United States military sprayed nearly 20,000,000 U.S. gallons of various chemicals – the “Rainbow Herbicides” and defoliants – in Vietnam, eastern Laos, and parts of Cambodia as part of Operation Ranch Hand, reaching its peak from 1967 to 1969. For comparison purposes, an Olympic-size pool holds approximately 660,000 U.S. gallons. As the British did in Malaya, the goal of the U.S. was to defoliate rural/forested land, depriving guerrillas of food and concealment, and clearing sensitive areas such as around base perimeters. The program was also a part of a general policy of forced draft urbanization, which aimed to destroy the ability of peasants to support themselves in the countryside, forcing them to flee to the U.S.-dominated cities, depriving the guerrillas of their rural support base. Agent Orange was usually sprayed from helicopters or from low-flying C-123 Provider aircraft fitted with sprayers, “MC-1 Hourglass” pump systems, and 1,000 U.S. gallons chemical tanks. Spray runs were also conducted from trucks, boats, and backpack sprayers.
The first batch of herbicides was unloaded at Tan Son Nhut Air Base in South Vietnam on Jan. 9, 1962. U.S. Air Force records show at least 6,542 spraying missions took place over the course of Operation Ranch Hand. By 1971, 12% of the total area of South Vietnam had been sprayed with defoliating chemicals at an average concentration of 13 times the recommended U.S. Department of Agriculture application rate for domestic use. In South Vietnam alone, an estimated 39,000 square miles of agricultural land was ultimately destroyed. In some areas, TCDD concentrations in soil and water were hundreds of times greater than the levels considered safe by the EPA.
The campaign destroyed roughly 8,000 square miles (5,120,000 acres) of upland and mangrove forests, and thousands of square miles of crops. Overall, more than 20% of South Vietnam’s forests were sprayed at least once over the nine-year period.
In 1965, members of the U.S. Congress were told “crop destruction is understood to be the more important purpose … but the emphasis is usually given to the jungle defoliation in public mention of the program.” Military personnel were told they were destroying crops because they were going to be used to feed guerrillas. They later discovered nearly all of the food they had been destroying was not being produced for guerrillas; it was, in reality, only being grown to support the local civilian population. For example, in Quang Ngai province, 85% of the crop lands were scheduled to be destroyed in 1970 alone. This contributed to widespread famine, leaving hundreds of thousands of people malnourished or starving.
The U.S. military began targeting food crops in October 1962, primarily using Agent Blue.
Agent Blue is a mixture of two arsenic-containing compounds: sodium cacodylate and cacodylic acid. Agent Blue is chemically unrelated to Agent Orange. Agent Blue, along with Agent Orange, is one of the “Rainbow Herbicides” that is known for its use during the Vietnam War. The American public was not made aware of the crop destruction programs until 1965 (and it was then believed that crop spraying had begun that spring). In 1965, 42% of all herbicide spraying was dedicated to food crops. The first official acknowledgement of the programs came from the State Department in March 1966.
Many experts at the time opposed herbicidal warfare because of concerns about the side effects to humans and the environment by indiscriminately spraying the chemical over a wide area. As early as 1966, resolutions were introduced to the United Nations charging that the United States was violating the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which regulated the use of chemical and biological weapons. The U.S. defeated most of the resolutions, arguing that Agent Orange was not a chemical or a biological weapon as it was considered a herbicide and a defoliant and it was used in effort to destroy plant crops and to deprive the enemy of concealment and not meant to target human beings.
The U.S. delegation argued that a weapon, by definition, is any device used to injure, defeat, or destroy living beings, structures or systems, and Agent Orange did not qualify under that definition. It also argued that if the United States were to be charged for using Agent Orange, then Britain and its commonwealth nations should be charged since they also used it widely during the Malayan Emergency in the 1950s. In 1969, Britain commented on the draft Resolution 2603 (XXIV): “The evidence seems to us to be notably inadequate for the assertion that the use in war of chemical substances specifically toxic to plants is prohibited by international law.”
Harold B. Wolford is president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 1095. He served in the United States Army from 1970 to 1973.