Scorched Earth: the Enduring Legacy of Agent Orange and America’s Ecological War in Vietnam
In the months before he died of cancer in 1978 at age twenty-eight, Vietnam Veteran Paul Reutershan delivered one of the first volleys in a bitter ideological war fought by those exposed to chemical defoliants.
“I died in Vietnam and didn’t know it,” Reutershan said.
For many, the symptoms began in country as chloracne — a bright red rash on the skin. They were told it would eventually dissipate. It was an ill omen of ailments to come.
By 1991, over 23,000 Vietnam-era veterans were declared 100% disabled due to their service related exposure to one of Agent Orange. Today, the VA’s list of diseases affiliated with Agent Orange includes Type II Diabetes, Heart Disease, Myeloma, Parkinson’s Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, Prostate Cancer, Respiratory Cancers and Soft Tissue Sarcomas.
Many veterans claim that list isn’t long enough. Connective tissue failure, obscure neurological disorders, reproductive issues, liver dysfunction and other rare cancers occur at an alarming rate amongst those who served in proximity to chemical defoliants. Vietnam veterans are also 33% more likely to have children born with birth defects.
The toll is ghastly on both sides. In Vietnam, a landscape decimated by decades of war yields its own toxic harvest. The Red Cross of Vietnam estimates that chemical defoliants sprayed on the Vietnamese countryside between 1962 and 1971 has affected 3 million people in that country including 150,000 children.
The war that 2.8 million Americans waged against the National Liberation Front and the People’s Army of Vietnam in Southeast Asia was as much an ecological conflict as it was ideological or cultural.
Rural values and an operational familiarity with the country’s undeveloped hinterland became a trademark of Communist organization in Vietnam. This methodology began in World War II and continued afterwards in the First Indochina War against the French and later in the Second Indochina War against the South Vietnamese government and their American allies.
Even after Ho Chi Minh seized power and established himself in Hanoi, the revolutionary dichotomy in Vietnam pitted common agrarian life against rhetoric that attacked the gaudy capitalism of the South and the industrialized inhumanity of the United States.
As early as the Truman administration, American dollars and military expertise were used to prop up the South Vietnamese government. Pentagon strategists and Langley analysists quickly identified the lynch pin in the burgeoning conflict: the “hearts and minds” of rural Vietnamese citizens had to be won.
Much has been made of the parallels between later American efforts and the earlier French attempts to secure “pacification” of a neutral populace. However, the narrative roots of America’s war are sunk into a deeper paradigm.
Searching for pointers in the early 1960s, American and South Vietnamese war planners enlisted the help of Sir Robert Grainger Ker Thompson.
The esteemed British soldier was a veteran of the Malayan Emergency — an eerie precursor to America’s incursion into Vietnam. Communist China and Viet Minh forces supported local Malayan guerillas in a rural war against the British colonial government in Malaysia.
British colonial history is littered with similar insurgencies. Institutional familiarity with counterinsurgency pointed the British in Malaysia back to an old trick they’d utilized during the Second Boer War at the turn of the 20th century. Facing recalcitrant civilians, British forces created “concentration camps. At war’s end, the Fawcett Commission reported that over 30,000 people had died in the camps.
During the Malayan Emergency, “New Villages” were created to isolate the rural population from the Communist fighters they harbored. With the “New Villages” came an aggressive campaign of defoliant use intended to deprive the guerillas of foliage cover and food supplies.
That program’s success was an alluring prospect for President Diem of South Vietnam. John F. Kennedy himself was impressed with Thompson and the British Advisory Mission.
Faced with the burgeoning challenge of countering National Liberation Front ideology in the rural jungles and rice paddies of South Vietnam, the Diem regime rolled out the Strategic Hamlet program in 1962 under the watchful eye of American planners.
It was an homage to Thompson’s “New Villages.” Civilian populations were pulled from isolated farms and concentrated under the watchful eye of South Vietnamese and American forces who were busy initiating a war against the environment itself.
In an eerie prelude to strategic thinking that would dominate the coming decade, air supremacy became the focal point in a campaign of violence committed against the ecology of Vietnam in a program known as Operation Ranch Hand.
Beginning in January 1962, American planes swept across Vietnamese skies to rain down chemicals on the jungle and farmland below. That year, 15,000 gallons of herbicides including Agent Green and Agent Purple started to peel back the plant layer that had long protected communist guerillas.
By 1963, the campaign had increased to 59,000 gallons per year. That yearly total leaped to 175,000 gallons in 1964. 621,000 gallons ate away at Vietnamese vegetation in 1965. During the calendar year 1966, 2,280,000 gallons were expended. The worst was yet to come.
In the mid-1960s, few knew more about the constituent parts of Agent Orange than Dr. Arthur Galston. A plant physiologist by trade, Galston wrote his PhD dissertation on maximizing soybean production. He found that low-level application of a chemical similar to the 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T used in Agent Orange encouraged the plant’s growth to accelerate while too much caused it to shed its leaves and die.
Army scientists found these ingredients thanks in no small part to Galston’s dissertation. Alarmed, Galston and fellow members of the American Association of Plant Physiologists sent an ultimately unsuccessful petition to Lyndon Johnson advocating that the chemicals be taken out of service.
Galston, alongside colleagues at Bionetics Laboratories, eventually managed to convince Nixon science advisor Lee A. DuBridge to press the President to suspend Operation Ranch Hand. By 1971, the defoliant spraying program ceased over concerns about the long-term effects of a chemical byproduct called Dioxin.
In a war mired by controversy, few aspects remain as controversial as Dioxin. No consensus has ever been reached as to the chemical’s ultimate toxicity.
Over the course of their lives, most Americans will be exposed to negligible amounts of Dioxin. It’s a fairly common chemical by-product of both natural and industrial processes.
In 1979, Victor Yannacone, a Long Island lawyer known both for representing Linda Lovelace and a brief stint as council on the anti-DDT campaign that inspired Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, filed a class action lawsuit against seven chemical manufacturers on behalf of 40,000 veterans.
In August 1984, Dow Chemical, Monsanto, Diamond Shamrock, Uniroyal, T.H. Agriculture and Nutrition, Hercules and Thompson Chemical Company settled out of court for the princely sum of $180 million.
Per a court structured distribution plan, the VA administered the money through a Settlement Fund that issued money to 239,000 veterans and dependents between 1988 and 1994. For many it was cold comfort.
Fully disable veterans were eligible for $12,000 in restitution paid out over ten years. Widows of deceased veterans who succumbed to defoliant related illnesses were entitled to a one-time payment of $3,700.
Determining what exactly was and what exactly wasn’t a defoliant exposure related illness was a much larger battle.
As pressure from veterans and congressional chatter mounted, the White House authorized a twenty year, $140 million-dollar Air Force study on the effects of Operation Ranch Hand beginning in the late ‘70s.
As late as 1991, study administrators concluded that Dioxin exposure corresponds to glucose intolerance and non-cancerous growths. However, the same study concluded that the link between Dioxin and cancer, heart disease, neurological or nervous system disorders was non-existent.
The Air Force study and a similar CDC initiative soon became lightning rods for high-profile assaults on government credibility.
During hearings in front of the House Committee on Government Reform and the Senate Subcommittee on National Security, Veterans Affairs and International Relations in March 2000, representatives of the legislature (including a young Senator Bernard Sanders) took Air Force scientists and administrators to task over program discrepancies.
Dr. Richard Albanese, former Ranch Hand principal investigator and senior medical research officer, U.S. Air Force, testified that, “during my time with the Ranch Hand program, I observed two protocol violations. These were the lack of veteran representation in the science review process and command influence.”
Critics contend that both issues contaminated a study already plagued by the complex challenge of measuring the toxicity of defoliants that were ubiquitous in Vietnam. Exposure was not limited to air crews. The chemicals saturated the dirt and water of Vietnam. Agent Orange hung on clothing and skin.
Despite carefully constructing metrics charting time of service, crew duty and larger spraying rates to create a weighted exposure chart for the Ranch Hand veteran participants, the study administrators failed to apply a similar metric to the supposedly untainted regular veterans composing the control group. A proposed third sample group of men who had not served in Vietnam was never drawn.
A decade before the congressional hearings, similarly scathing rebukes issued forth against the Air Force from a sacred cow of the American military establishment.
A graduate of the Naval Academy and former Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt was a celebrated fixture of America’s post-WWII Navy.
As commander of naval inter-coastal and riverine forces in Vietnam, Zumwalt was instrumental in the deployment of Agent Orange. Years later, his son, Elmo Zumwalt III, was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Disease and Lymphoma after his own tour of duty in the riverine force. The younger Zumwalt’s son was subsequently born with developmental birth defects.
For Zumwalt, there was a direct line between defoliants like Agent Orange and this personal tragedy.
In his blistering 1990 “Report to the Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs on the Association Between Adverse Health Effects and Exposure to Agent Orange,” Zumwalt eviscerated both the CDC and the Air Force.
Between razor sharp criticisms, Zumwalt grafted in a remarkable breadth of footnotes drawn from obscure references ranging from statistics on Swedish railroad workers exposed to Dioxin to cutting edge immunotoxicology theory.
At the tail end of the fifty-five-page onslaught, Zumwalt delivered a laundry list of maladies related to Dioxin poisoning before concluding, “with the scientific basis now available for it to be stated with confidence that it is at least as likely as not that various health effects are related to wartime exposure to Agent Orange, there is the opportunity finally to right a significant national wrong committed against our Vietnam Veterans.”
Less than a year after the report, as American forces prepared to fight Saddam Hussein and his arsenal of chemical weapons, President George H. W. Bush signed the Agent Orange Act into law.
The act mandated federal research spending on the ill-effects of herbicides and finally acknowledged that non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, soft-tissue sarcoma and chloracne were related to Agent Orange Exposure.
The passage of the 1991 Agent Orange Act was but a single step in the right direction in an unending marathon toward closure.
A dozen maladies have subsequently been added to the initial three medical conditions specified in the act. Many veterans claim that the greater legacy of the Agent Orange Act is the creation of a problematic bureaucratic membrane that prevents treatments of the myriad secondary concerns stemming from Agent Orange exposure.
A conflict that began in the jungles of Vietnam morphed into a fierce battle pitting former combatants against the same government bureaucracy and corporate interests that facilitated the first war.
Like Vietnam itself, there is no unified front. Only a scattering of pitched firefights conducted in American court rooms and town hall meetings by aggrieved victims.
In 2009, a major legal push from a group calling itself the Vietnam Association of Victims of Agent Orange made its way to the very doorstep of the Supreme Court. The highest judicial entity in the land declined to hear the case. In doing so, they upheld a lower court ruling that indemnified chemical companies from accountability as government contractors.
Meanwhile, former Agent Orange producers like Dow and Monsanto have gone to great lengths to shore up their flanks and defend against accusations of criminal misconduct.
One Dow position paper gamely contends that “when the collective human evidence is reviewed, it doesn’t show that Agent Orange caused veteran’s illnesses.”
For private and public interests eager to repulse costly lawsuits, there is an ace in the hole: former Air Force Captain, expert witness, researcher and Dioxin toxicity denier Alvin Young. Known by the moniker Dr. Orange, Young has made a career for himself as a vocal critic of what he sees as frivolous and exploitative lawsuits on the part of embittered veterans.
Young’s favorite tactics including broad indictments of investigative reporters, emphasizing the unprovable dimensions of chemical exposure and even underhanded implications that the veterans who sued were celebrity seekers.
Despite an omnipresent and lucrative tenure in the debate over Agent Orange, Young was ultimately unable to stem a growing ground swell of legal actions that enshrined the toxicity of Dioxin.
In 2015, the VA agreed to pay out $47.5 million over ten years to 2,100 Air Force and Air Force Reserve Veterans who contracted Dioxin-related illnesses due to service in C-123 Provider aircraft left over from Operation Ranch Hand.
Elsewhere, the United States Government footed the bill for a 2014 project at Da Nang air base where Dioxin contaminated soil was baked at 600 degrees to purify it from the lasting effects of Agent Orange.
Today, a modest plaque near the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. honors those veterans who have subsequently died as a result of their service in Vietnam. Close to 3,000 qualifying veterans have been remembered there since the “In Memory” plaque was installed in 1999.
Like the victims of the ecologically-rooted war it represents, the plaque is easily overlooked in a city strewn with monuments befitting an empire. For those with a discerning eye, the lasting implications of Agent Orange enshrine a more troubling past and an uglier future.
Ruthless, mechanized and highly toxic, Operation Ranch Hand was a grim precedent of misguided collusion between hubristic government policy and corporate chemical manufacturing. Faced with a glaring ideological conflict, the most expedient solution existed at an environmental level.
Forty seven years after the fall of Saigon and fifty five years after chemical defoliants were introduced into combat in Vietnam, the war continues to kill in a Faustian bargain struck long ago. One indicative of a larger mindset in which the immediacy of overwhelming force deadens an awareness of inevitable consequences.
In the ensuing decades, a shadow war for dignity and healing has been waged by those who need the public at large to understand that an immense catastrophe created by strategic convenience became an ecological disaster that has yielded a toxic harvest so potent that it has leached into the social fabric of both countries.
A host of once-hostile Americans and Vietnamese now find themselves allied in a battle of acknowledgement. For the countless whose lives have been taken or dramatically altered in the name of massive chemical warfare and an unthinkable group of future humans who stand to benefit from the wise application of Agent Orange’s cruel legacy, the stakes could not be higher.
Dedicated to the Countless and In Loving Memory of Cliff Romberger.
Full Text: “Report on the Concentration Camps in South Africa, by the Committee of Ladies Appointed by the Secretary of State for War: Containing Reports on the Camps in Natal, the Orange River Colony and the Transvaal”
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