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Agent Orange

Agent Orange was the code name for a militarily developed herbicide mainly used in Southeast Asian jungles.  Although the genesis of the product goes back to the 1940’s, serious testing for this herbicide did not begin until the early 1960’s.   “Agent Orange”, named after the broad orange band used to mark the drums it was stored in, was tested in Vietnam in the early 1960’s and was then brought into ever widening use during the height of the war in 1967-68.  The campaign to spray defoliants in Vietnam was known as Operation Ranch Hand.  Beginning in 1962 and ending in 1971, Operation Ranch Hand sprayed over 18 million gallons of herbicide affecting over 5.5 million acres of land.  The effects of Agent Orange can still be seen today, a devastating scar engraved in the veterans and civilians of the Vietnam War and on Mother Nature, herself.

To understand the effects of Agent Orange, one must first become familiar with the chemical components of Agent Orange and other herbicides used in the Vietnam War.  The most common ingredients of the herbicides were 2,4-d and 2,4,5-T, substances known as phenoxy herbicides.1 These herbicides were common agricultural used in the United States which act as growth inhibitors and cause destructive proliferation of tissues in plants even if hey are still in their active growth stages.  Adding to the deadly mixture of chemicals was cacdylic acid, an organic arsenic which killed plants by causing them to dry out.  The final product was dissolved in kerosene or diesel fuel, which kept the chemicals stable and minimized spontaneous combustion. 2 Various mixtures of these deadly herbicides were tested in the United States and shipped to Vietnam in prominently color-coded drums, originating in the names of the herbicides (Agent Orange, Agent Purple, Agent White, etc.).  One of the primary concerns in the ongoing controversy over the detrimental health effects of Agent Orange relates to TCDD, a dioxin impurity created as a byproduct in the manufacturing process of 2,4,5-T. 3 TCDD found in Agent Orange is thought to be harmful to man.  In laboratory tests on animals, exposure to TCDD caused a wide variety of diseases, the majority of them fatal.

Herbicide testing for Agent Orange began in the 1940’s shortly after World War II broke out.  The United States Air Force conducted tests in World War II to see whether sprayed chemicals could be used to mark navigation points and defoliate jungle covers. 4 Allied officials in World War II considered but did not employ tactics to destroy crops grown by Japanese Units on isolated Pacific Islands.  Later, however, during the Malayan Emergency of 1950, the British Air Force did spray herbicides on the isolated jungle plots of communist insurgents as part of a successful food denial program. 5

In 1957, dioxins were first identified as a contaminant.  The scientific studies proved inconclusive because no human exposure, direct or indirect, was studied.  However, laboratory tests showed that animals developed cancer when exposed to dioxins. 6 Despite this, development of herbicides continued because the U.S. government believes that Agent Orange was relatively harmless to human and animal life.  “But in 1969, the U.S. National Cancer Institute discovered that exposure to dioxins could cause cancer and possible birth defects.” 7 Agent Orange, alone, had dioxin levels of between 0.05 to about 50 PPM (parts per million); the highest concentration of dioxins among all of the herbicides. 8

In the decades preceding the Vietnam War, the United States Air Force funded programs to develop and improve herbicide delivery techniques and equipment.  One successful experiment was conducted at Camp Drum, New York, in 1959. 9 Sugar Maple leaves were obstructing the view of lost artillery equipment and ammunition.  Ground access remove the trees were impossible because of unexploded rounds.  “The Army Biological Warfare Laboratories sent Dr. James W. Brown, later in involved in the earliest stages of the herbicide program in Vietnam, to Camp Drum.” 10 He oversaw helicopter spraying of a mixture of experimental 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T on the maple trees.  Less than a month later, the leaves on the trees had dried and fallen greatly improving visibility.  This experiment at Camp Drum, New York, foreshadowed what was to come later in Vietnam and used the same chemicals for the same purpose that Operation Ranch Hand would in Southeast Asia.

The Kennedy Administration inherited the ever-deteriorating situation in Southeast Asia in 1961, and immediately began to address what the United States might do to strengthen the Diem government of South Vietnam in its fight against a festering insurgency.  Chemical herbicides received special mention as early as July of 1961 because of the dense foliage of the Southeastern Asian Jungles. 11 The Defense Department advocated the use of defoliant agents along main supply routes.  The Department of State did not object to a closely controlled and selective defoliation program arguing that such operations would not violate any international law and could even be considered an acceptable tactic of war.  “On November 30, 1961, President John F. Kennedy personally approved in the start of Project ‘Hades’ (later renamed as Operation Ranch Hand), and for a year afterwards, all herbicide targets to be sprayed by U.S. aircraft had to receive specific Oval Office approval.” 12 However, a year later, President Kennedy limited the authority needed to spray herbicides.  A diagram of the sprayed area is attached.

Even though both South Vietnamese officials and the Defense Department favored herbicide spraying, there were some people that opposed herbicide use.  Roger Hilsman and W. Averell Harriman of the State Department argued that there was no way to insure that only Viet Cong (North Vietnamese) crops would be destroyed and the inevitable mistake would lead to the destruction of South Vietnamese crops. 13 Hilsman believe that the use of this technology would label Americans as a “Foreign Imperialist Barbarians.”  However, pressure from the South Vietnamese Government caused President Kennedy to allow limited defoliation from 1962 until 1964. 14 The South Vietnamese conducted most of the spraying during this period of time.  But some spraying was done by Operation Ranch Hand in airplanes with temporary South Vietnamese insignias painted on to protect the U.S.

The early use of herbicides in South Vietnam did not incite hostile international reactions, as some had feared.  After the first missions conducted by Operation Ranch Hand, radio stations in communist countries criticized America’s use of herbicides deeming it as chemical warfare.  However, reactions from non-communist countries was light until in February 1963, a reporter by the name of Richard Dudman wrote a series of articles on the United States’ policy in Asia. 15 “Dudman accused the U.S. of using ‘dirty war’ tactics against the Viet Cong, including spraying ‘poison’ from Ranch Hand planes to destroy rice fields and roadside ambush covers.” 16 This article disturbed Congressman Robert W. Kastenmeier of Wisconsin so much that he wrote President Kennedy and urged him to cease the use of herbicides as chemical weapons in Vietnam, questioning whether the survival of the Diem regime was worth compromising America’s moral principles. 17 However, the Department of Defense responded to Kastenmeier’s letter by contending that the herbicides were not chemical weapons and charging the press and communist countries for distorting military facts.

A year later, another article was published criticizing the use of herbicides in Vietnam.  “In May of 1964, an article by Jim G. Lucas, charged that a Ranch Hand plane had accidentally sprayed the friendly village of Cha La in the Mekong Delta, destroying the rice and pineapples upon which the people depended for their livelihood.”  The newspaper Lucas was working for called for an end to the use of herbicides claiming that they were an ineffective method of wearing down the enemy.  The military conducted an investigation upon the wake of the Cha La incident and failed to back up the charges made by Lucas.  At this point of the war, publicity of government actions was unable to deter Operation Ranch Hand from expanding, none the less, these early stories would be the precursors, fueling the inevitable release of the truth by the press in the following years.

Civilians felt the devastating wrath of herbicides such as Agent Orange in the first few years of its use.  Rural South Vietnamese villagers took the blunt of the impact, Operation Ranch Hand’s spraying in South Vietnam not only destroyed families’ food supply, but it also destroyed their morale.  With one spray pass by an airplane, the herbicide obliterated the crops and land that it took the farmers’ generations to cultivate.  The land sprayed by herbicides was now barren; farmers could no longer provide food for their families.  The herbicides sprayed also contained dioxins such as TCDD, though there were none reported prominent health problems, cancer developed in many of the civilians who were exposed to the herbicides. 18 Nevertheless, birth defects have risen in South Vietnam over the years, an added bonus as a result of Operation Ranch Hand. 19 Thus, innocent civilians suffered from chemical assaults targeted at the Viet Cong and many died or lived plagued lives as a result.

In 1964, Operation Ranch Hand reached its full potential.  Spraying of Agent Orange was carried out on almost a day to day basis by the operation’s 25 aircrafts.  From 1964 to 1971, 3/4 of the total amount of herbicides used by Operation Ranch Hand in Vietnam War would be dumped onto Vietnam and parts of Laos and Cambodia. 20 Thus, many scientists were concerned about the effects of long term exposure to herbicides in humans.  Urged by the Department of Defense to study the possible long-range ecological consequences of Operation Ranch Hand’s use of Agent Orange in Vietnam, the American Association for the Advancement of Science began an investigation in 1967. 21 Led by Professor E.W. Pfeiffer, the group of scientists determined that the plant-killing effects of the Ranch Hand herbicides would not last long and revegetation would eventually occur. 22 “On the question of toxicity to animals and people, the researchers determined that this should not be a factor of real concern, except that cacodylic acid should be the subject of further investigation.” 23 After reviewing the data drawn by the researchers, The National Academy of Sciences concluded that there was not enough information to prove that Agent Orange damaged the environment permanently.

During the Nixon Administration, the public became ever aware of the detrimental effects of Agent Orange because of the constant barrage of stories the media was throwing at them.  Under pressure from protesters, President Nixon cut Operation Ranch Hand by 30%.24 Though the Administration wanted to kill the operation entirely, military officials still believe that defoliation helped tremendously in the war effort.  The final string was pulled in the fall of 1969 when scientists confirmed the fact that the chemical 2,4,5-T, could, in relatively high doses, cause birth defects and still births in laboratory mice. 25 On April 15, 1970, the Departments of Health, Education, Welfare, Interior, and agriculture, ordered the immediate banning of this chemical. 26 Agent Orange was banned from use and the military, fearing that the chemical 2,4-D would also be banned, exhausted all supplies of a substitute defoliant, Agent White (which contained no 2,4,5-T), in less than a week.  By, January 7, 1971, Operation Ranch Hand was officially terminated, almost nine years to the day it began. 27

After years of anticipation by civilian scientists and the public, the Department of Defense contracted with the National Academy of Sciences in 1970 to study the effects of herbicides in Vietnam, under congressional mandate.  “The National Academy of Sciences took about three years to complete its research, releasing its report to the public in 1974.”28 Its researchers found no direct evidence of human health problems as a result of the spraying of herbicides, although there were second hand reports of a fluctuation of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome).  Even after considerable effort, the researchers could not find substantial evidence that Agent Orange caused birth defects or cancer among the civilians of South Vietnam.  The researchers also determined that there was no substantial damage done to forests.  Agent Orange is a defoliant that affect the leaves of the trees and therefore had little lasting damage in future growing seasons unless the area was sprayed more than three times.  Only about 15% of the total area covered by Operation Ranch Hand had received a triple dose of Agent Orange.  But, unfortunately, the mangrove forests of South Vietnam is an exception.  Because of its high sensitivity to herbicides such as Agent Orange, the mangrove forests were obliterated with just one spraying. 29 36% of all mangrove forests in Vietnam had been destroyed and would not return to its natural state for centuries to come. 30 Nevertheless, researchers concluded that Agent Orange had no detrimental effect to the nutrients in the soil, save Potassium.  They also tried to divert the attention from Agent Orange by stating that bombing and shelling had a worse effect on the forests than herbicides.  All in all, the researchers did not find any hard evidence that Agent Orange caused any long term effects on the citizens or environment in Vietnam (except for the mangrove forests).

Concern over the long-term effects on human health due to the exposure to Agent Orange surfaced again and again over the next few decades.  The 1,200 veterans who served in Operation Ranch Hand were tested again and again because they had the most extensive exposure to 2,4,5-T.  Complaints such as diminished sex drives and psychological problems were linked to 2,4,5-T. 31 As of 1996, the National Academy of Sciences has determined that there is a positive evidence to conclude that exposure to dioxins is associated with such diseases as soft tissue sarcoma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Hodgkin’s disease, and chloracne. 32 As a result, many of the veterans have sued the companies that produced the herbicides.

A first hand observation of possible effects of the toxin was observed by journalists touring Vietnam in the early 1990’s. 33 Agent Orange was suspected to have caused the veterans to father children with mild or severe birth defects.  It was discovered that Agent Orange causes diseases in victims’ eyes, as well as the lungs, the liver and other organs. Birth defects were more prominent in the children of affected people as reported by the 10-80 committee set up by the Vietnamese government to investigate the effects of Agent Orange. 34

In a village near Con Tien, a local farmer, has seven children. 35 The three eldest were born whilst the family lived in an area that had not been sprayed, and they were healthy.  The disturbing fact was that the four youngest were born, in Quang Tri province, and they were all both mentally and physically disabled. 36 “When the oldest of the four was born”, the man told reporters, ” the doctor said that maybe I was affected by a poisonous chemical. He advised me not to have any more children.” 37 To prove Agent Orange caused the defects, one would have to test blood samples of the farmer and his family to see if they contain elevated dioxin levels. This is expensive, costing up to $1,000 USD per sample. Few laboratories in the world – and none in Vietnam – can do it. 38

The high cost is only one reason why more research on Agent Orange’s legacy has not been done. Both Vietnam and the US are reluctant to fund it. And the reasons for that reluctance are political.  The Vietnamese government isn’t united on the issue. Those concerned with public health want more research done, but those dealing with commercial interests don’t want any adverse publicity about dioxins, which could affect food exports, such as rice, and tourism. 39 The US attitude is also ambiguous. It is clear that the US is worried about possible compensation claims from Vietnam. There are already claims for a billion dollars compensation for Agent Orange damage, from South Korean veterans who fought on the American side during the Vietnam War. 40

Agent Orange originated as a great military tool that was used to help clear dense foliage.  Later, it was questioned whether it was safe to use.  The perception held by Americans, that any chemical substance might be harmful to the environment made it easy to deem herbicides as dangerous and even immoral.  Opponents of the Vietnam War were even able to use the issue of Agent Orange as a key point in their attack on the U.S. policy in Asia.  Perhaps if Agent Orange never had been used, we would all be better off.  But, if it was never used, we would not have had the opportunity to learn from out mistakes nor would we have understood to the full potential the devastating effects of herbicides on our environment.



1 Vancil L, Agent Orange ( 1994).


2 Floyd M. Ashton and Alden S. Crafts, Mode of Action of Herbicides (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1973) 148.


3 Floyd M. Ashton and Alden S. Crafts, Mode of Action of Herbicides (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1973) 149.


4 Tim Page ed. and John Pimlott ed., NAM – The Vietnam Experience 1965-75 (New York:  Barnes and Nobel Ltd., 1995) 127.


5 Tim Page ed. and John Pimlott ed., NAM – The Vietnam Experience 1965-75 (New York: Barnes and Nobel Ltd., 1995) 127.












11 John Pimlott, Vietnam Decisive (London: Marshall Editions Ltd., 1990) 103.


12 Tim Page ed. and John Pimlott ed., NAM – The Vietnam Experience 1965-75 (New York: Barnes and Nobel Ltd., 1995) 127.


13 Floyd M. Ashton and Alden S. Crafts, Mode of Action of Herbicides (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1973) 168.










18 John Pimlott, Vietnam Decisive (London: Marshall Editions Ltd., 1990) 102.


19 John Pimlott, Vietnam Decisive (London: Marshall Editions Ltd., 1990) 102.


20 Vancil L, Agent Orange ( 1994).







24 Vancil L, Agent Orange ( 1994).

25 John Pimlott, Vietnam Decisive (London: Marshall Editions Ltd., 1990) 102.








29 Tim Page ed. and John Pimlott ed., NAM – The Vietnam Experience 1965-75 (New York: Barnes and Nobel Ltd., 1995) 127.


30 Tim Page ed. and John Pimlott ed., NAM – The Vietnam Experience 1965-75 (New York: Barnes and Nobel Ltd., 1995) 127.

























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