The Enduring Crime of ‘Agent Orange’

A half century ago, the U.S. government began a campaign of spraying Agent Orange herbicides on the forests of Southeast Asia, thinking that by defoliating vast areas, the military could more effectively bomb the “enemy” but instead created an ecological and health catastrophe, as Gary G. Kohls recalls.

By Gary G. Kohls

Fifty years ago next month (December 1965), with the urging of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the rubber stamp approval of President Lyndon Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, the United States Air Force started secretly spraying the forests of Laos with a deadly herbicide that was known as Agent Orange.

Operation Ranch Hand, whose motto was “Only We Can Prevent Forests” (a shameful takeoff of Smokey the Bear’s admonition), was a desperate, costly and ultimately futile effort to make it a little harder for the National Liberation Front soldiers from North Vietnam to join and supply their comrades-in-arms in the south.

A U.S. military helicopter spraying the defoliant Agent Orange over Vietnam during the Vietnam War. (U.S. Army photo)

A U.S. military helicopter spraying the defoliant Agent Orange over Vietnam during the Vietnam War. (U.S. Army photo)

Both the guerrilla fighters in the south and the NLF army had been fighting to liberate Vietnam from the exploitive colonial domination from foreign nations such as imperial France (that began colonizing Vietnam in 1874), then Japan (during World War II), then the United States (since France’s expulsion after their huge military defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954) and then against its own nation’s U.S.-backed fascist/military regime in South Vietnam that was headed by the brutal and corrupt President Ngo Dinh Diem.

(Incidentally, the nepotism in Diem’s iron-fisted rule was almost laughable, with one brother being the Catholic Archbishop of Vietnam, a second brother being in charge of the Hue district, and a third brother being the co-founder of the only legal political party in South Vietnam as well as Diem’s principal adviser. True democracies do not criminalize political parties.)

The aim of the National Liberation Front was to unite the north and the south portions of the country and free it from the influence and occupation of foreign invaders. The leader of the liberation movement since its beginning was Ho Chi Minh, who had made sincere appeals to both President Woodrow Wilson (after World War I had weakened France’s colonial system) and President Harry Truman (after the Japanese had taken over Vietnam during World War II and then surrendered to the U.S. in 1945).

Each appeal asked for America’s help to liberate Vietnam from their French colonial oppressors and each one fell on deaf ears, even though Ho Chi Minh had frequently incorporated the wording and spirit of America’s Declaration of Independence in his continuous efforts to achieve justice for his suffering people.

Agent Orange’s Ecological Devastation

Operation Ranch Hand had actually been in operation since 1961, mainly spraying its poisons on Vietnam’s forests and crop land. The purpose of the operation was to defoliate trees and shrubs and kill food crops that were providing cover and food for the “enemy.”

Operation Ranch Hand consisted of spraying a variety of highly toxic polychlorinated herbicide solutions that contained a variety of chemicals that are known to be (in addition to killing plant life) human and animal mitochondrial toxins, immunotoxins, hormone disrupters, genotoxins, mutagens, teratogens, diabetogens and carcinogens that were manufactured by such amoral multinational corporate chemical giants like Monsanto, Dow Chemical, DuPont and Diamond Shamrock (now Valero Energy).

All were eager war profiteers whose CEOs and share-holders somehow have always benefitted financially from America’s wars. Such non-human entities as Monsanto and the weapons manufacturers don’t care if the wars that they can profit from are illegal or not, war crimes or not; if they can make money they will be there at the trough.

They are however, expert at duping the Pentagon into paying exorbitantly high prices for inferior, unnecessary or dangerous war materiel. One only needs to recall Vice President Dick Cheney’s Halliburton Corporation and that company’s no-bid multibillion dollar contracts that underserved U.S. soldiers during the past three wars, but enriched any number of One Percenters.

Agent Orange was the most commonly used of a handful of color-coded herbicidal poisons that the USAF sprayed (and frequently re-sprayed) over rural Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. It was also used heavily over the perimeters of many of the U.S. military bases, the toxic carcinogenic and disease-inducing chemicals often splashing directly upon American soldiers. (But “stuff happens” as Donald Rumsfeld would say).

The soil in and around some of the U.S. and ARVN (Army of the Republic of Viet Nam) military bases continue to have extremely high levels of dioxin. The U.S. military bases where the barrels of Agent Orange were off-loaded, stored and then pumped into the spray planes or “brown water” swift boats are especially contaminated, as were those guinea pig “atomic soldiers” who handled the chemicals.

The Da Nang airbase today has dioxin contamination levels over 300 times higher than that which international agencies would recommend remediation. (Guess which guilty nation is doing nothing about Agent Orange contamination of the sovereign nation of Vietnam?)

It is fair to speculate that any American GI who spent any time at bases such as Da Nang, Phu Cat and Bien Hoa in the 1960s and 1970s may have been exposed. U.S. Navy swift boat crews that sprayed Agent Orange on the shores of the bushy rivers that they patrolled were often soaked by the oily chemicals that were sprayed from the hoses. Secretary of State Kerry, who commanded a swift boat as a U.S. Navy lieutenant, are you listening?

The poisonous spraying continued for a decade until it was stopped in 1971. The South Vietnamese air force, that had started spraying Agent Orange before the U.S. did, continued the program beyond 1971.

Chemical That Never Stops Poisoning

Agent Orange was a 50/50 mixture of two herbicides: 2,4-D (2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid) and 2,4,5-T (2,4,5-trichlorophenoxyacetic acid). Other herbicide agents were mixtures of other equally toxic polychlorinated compounds, but every barrel was contaminated by substantial amounts of dioxin, one of the most toxic industry-made chemicals known to man.

The toxicity of the herbicidal chemicals known as “dioxins” or “dioxin-like compounds” is due to the chlorine atoms and the benzene molecules (or phenyl groups) in the compound to which they are attached.

Dioxins have very long half-lives and are thus very poisonous to the liver’s detoxifying enzymes that humans and animals rely on to degrade synthetic chemicals that get into the blood stream. The fatty tissues of exposed Vietnam vets, even decades after exposure, continue to have measureable levels of dioxins.  

According to Wikipedia, “War crimes have been broadly defined by the Nuremberg Principles as ‘violations of the laws or customs of war,’ which includes massacres, bombings of civilian targets, terrorism, mutilation, torture and the murder of detainees and prisoners of war (realities that abounded at places like My Lai and other massacre sites).  Additional common crimes include theft, arson, and the destruction of property not warranted by military necessity.”

According to that definition, anybody with a smidgen of awareness of what really happens in any combat zone would have to conclude that every war that the U.S. military has ordered its young soldiers to go off and fight and kill in, especially the many corporate-endorsed, Wall Street wars, was laden with war crimes.

Four million innocent Vietnamese civilians were exposed to Agent Orange, and as many as 3 million have suffered diagnosable illnesses because of it, including the progeny of people who were exposed to it, approximating the number of innocent Vietnamese civilians that were killed in the war.

The Red Cross of Vietnam says that up to 1 million people are disabled with Agent Orange-induced illnesses. There has been an epidemic of birth defects, chronic illnesses, fetal anomalies and neurological and mental illnesses since the “American War.”

Most thinking humans would agree that destroying the health and livelihoods of innocent farmers, women, children, babies and old people by poisoning their forests, farms, food and water supplies qualifies as a war crime.

Disrespecting Sickened Veterans

According to Wikipedia, the chemical companies accused in an Agent Orange Vietnam veterans’ class action lawsuit in 1984 (against seven chemical companies that got Agent Orange contracts from the Pentagon) denied that there was a link between their poisons and the veterans’ health problems.

On May 7, 1984, as is usual for Big Corporations that know when they are losing, the seven chemical companies settled out of court for $180 million just hours before jury selection was to begin. The companies agreed to pay the $180 million as compensation if the veterans dropped all claims against them, with 45 percent of the sum to be paid by Monsanto.

Many veterans were outraged, feeling that they had been betrayed by the lawyers. Fairness Hearings were held in five major American cities, where veterans and their families discussed their reactions to the settlement, and condemned the actions of the lawyers and courts, demanding the case be heard before a jury of their peers. The federal judge refused the appeals, claiming the settlement was “fair and just.”

By 1989, the veterans’ fears were confirmed when it was decided how the money from the settlement would be paid out. A totally disabled Vietnam veteran would receive a corporate-friendly maximum of $12,000 spread out over the course of 10 years. By accepting the settlement payments, disabled veterans would become ineligible for many state benefits such as food stamps, public assistance and government pensions. A widow of a veteran who died because of Agent Orange would only receive $3,700.

According to Wikipedia, “In 2004, Monsanto spokesman Jill Montgomery said Monsanto should not be liable at all for injuries or deaths caused by Agent Orange, saying: ‘We are sympathetic with people who believe they have been injured and understand their concern to find the cause, but reliable scientific evidence indicates that Agent Orange is not the cause of serious long-term health effects.’”

Talk about governmental and corporate disrespect for military veterans who have been sickened by military toxins or physically or psychologically wounded in battle! Such shabby treatment of returning veterans has been the norm after every war, including the “bonus army” revolt of the 1930s when thousands of poor, disabled and/or unemployed World War I vets marched on Washington, DC, demanding the bonus that had been promised them in the 1920s. Rather than receiving justice, Generals Douglas MacArthur and Dwight Eisenhower ordered their troops to burn the bonus army’s temporary villages and disperse the vets empty-handed.

I conclude this essay by listing the currently-accepted list of diseases that the Veteran Administration acknowledges can be caused by exposure to Agent Orange. This applies to American veterans, but one can be certain that the consequences are a hundred times worse for the Vietnamese people who were sprayed and who are still being exposed to it in the soil for the last 50 years.

The VA says that certain cancers and other health problems can be caused by exposure to Agent Orange and the other herbicides during their military service. Veterans and their survivors may be eligible for benefits if they have one of these diagnoses:

Amyloidosis, Chronic B-cell Leukemias, Chloracne, Type II Diabetes Mellitus, Hodgkins Disease, Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, Ischemic Heart Disease, Multiple Myeloma, Parkinson’s Disease, Peripheral Neuropathy, Porphyria Cutanea Tarda, Prostate Cancer, Respiratory Cancers (including lung cancer), Hairy Cell Leukemia, Soft Tissue Sarcomas and spina bifida in infants of Agent Orange exposed Vietnam veterans.

Gary G. Kohls is a retired physician who practiced holistic, non-drug, mental health care for the last decade of his family practice career. He now writes a weekly column for the Reader Weekly, an alternative newsweekly published in Duluth, Minnesota, USA. Many of Dr. Kohls’ columns are archived at http://duluthreader.com/articles/categories/200_Duty_to_Warn.

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6 comments for “The Enduring Crime of ‘Agent Orange’

  1. Zachary Smith
    November 14, 2015 at 2:01 pm

    On May 7, 1984, as is usual for Big Corporations that know when they are losing, the seven chemical companies settled out of court for $180 million just hours before jury selection was to begin.

    Any internet joke page can explain that event:

    Q: What does a lawyer get when you give him Viagra?
    A: Taller

    Rather than receiving justice, Generals Douglas MacArthur and Dwight Eisenhower ordered their troops to burn the bonus army’s temporary villages and disperse the vets empty-handed. …

    Incredibly sloppy work here – at the time of the Bonus Army raid, Eisenhower was a junior aide to the Great Man, and he was only a Major. This project was entirely the work of the pompous hack MacArthur.

  2. JeanChas
    November 14, 2015 at 6:48 pm

    Our USA government does not take responsibility for the Agent Orange rain of cancers on the Vietnamese people or other civilians — like myself, a USA merchant seaman. The funding is for present and future wars, not the past, such as the shameful manner that our government treated the WWll Filipino scouts. Do you remember that bumper-sticker from the war on Viet Nam, “War is Profitable, Invest Your Son” ? Chemical warfare assaults the unrevealed future; it remains a war crime ! Chemical warfare is short-term profits for the few; its use continues to attack the yet to be born, like fracking !

  3. November 15, 2015 at 2:05 am

    The article’s estimates of the numbers of people exposed are grossly understated. The particular formulation of Agent Orange was a 50/50 mix of the n-butyl esters of 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T, which have a volatility temperature of 75.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Typical night-time temperatures in South Viet Nam were below that temperature and typical day-time temperatures were above. The result: the mixture would rise and be spread by the winds during the day, then fall back to earth at night.

    That factor is emphasized by the fact that high levels of dioxin were found in shrimp caught some 15 miles off the coast of Viet Nam.

    In other words, the entire population of Viet Nam and all foreign troops that passed through were exposed. This is why, after an initial period in which the VA required veterans to prove that they served in an area that was sprayed in order to establish service-connection for disabilities, the VA changed its procedures to establish a presumption that all Viet Nam War veterans were exposed.

  4. Olav Boye
    November 15, 2015 at 6:01 pm

    Stop calling it the Vietnam war, say the American war against Viet Nam.
    Thank you for very good information about this war crime.

  5. Hilary
    November 15, 2015 at 8:12 pm

    Agent Orange continued to be used as in Columbia in the US “War on Drugs”.

    http://www.ratical.org/ratville/Columbia/PoisoningEnv.html

  6. John
    November 24, 2015 at 11:37 pm

    One thing that was left out of this excellent piece was how Monsanto managed to avoid liability from the vererans lawsuit. Their toxicologist, Bill Gaffey (now deceased) falsified data on a study of an industrial accident in W. Virginia to show that exposure to elevated levels of dioxin did NOT result in statistically significant excess cancers. This bogus study was also used to set exposure limits as well by the EPA. When analyzed correctly, the study DOES show excess cancers, and thus the veteran’s lawsuit would likely have bankrupted Monsanto. Dr. Peter Montague did this story many years ago for Rachel’s Hazardous Waste website.

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