All the Facts on Agent Orange?

Josh Watts, 24 August 2012 | 1 Comment

Categories: War | Vietnam | USA | The Independent | BBC News |

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On the back page of its World news section, The Independent relayed a tiny 106 word Associated Press report, that the United States is 'beg[inning] a landmark project to clean up a dangerous chemical [dioxin] left from the defoliant Agent Orange, 50 years after American planes first sprayed it on Vietnam's jungles to destroy enemy cover'. 'Dioxin, which has been linked to cancer, 150,000 birth defects and other disabilities, will be removed from the site of a former US air base in Danang on central Vietnam'.

Whilst this operation is undoubtedly to be welcomed, it should be noted that this is only a fraction of the land of Vietnam which was covered in Agent Orange (AO) during the American attack on Vietnam. Furthermore, though the effects of Agent Orange are well known, it should be stressed that of course it did much more than simply ‘destroy enemy cover’, and that cancer, birth defects and ‘other disabilities’ are merely some of the horrendous effects. In his book Scorched Earth: Legacies of Chemical Warfare in Vietnam, Fred A. Wilcox documents his travels with his son in Vietnam, visiting ‘Agent Orange families’, who continue to suffer from the effects, decades after the official final spraying mission was conducted by the US air force in 1970, as well as those involved in activism, seeking redress for the victims of the ‘long, sad saga’ of Agent Orange.1 The wife of one Vietnamese soldier, in 1977, ‘gave birth to a “7-month headless and limbless foetus whose eyes are on his neck. Her second birth was a piece of pink flesh looked [sic] like worms intertwining together. Her third monstrous birth was a hairy monkey and the fourth one was a bundle of tumours”’.2  Such detail is not included simply to shock. Rather, given the severity, such birth defects and ‘other disabilities’ deserve definition. Also, ‘moving on from the destruction of ‘enemy cover’, AO was used to deliberately destroy food crops, poisoning the soil for decades. In some areas of the country, such as the Bien Hoa base in Danang, ‘up to 1,000 times the permissible level in the United States’ of dioxin continues to be found in the soil, whilst there ‘are no reliable studies of how many people living near these bases may have been heavily exposed to dioxin, or what the future consequences for these people and their offspring might be’.3 

‘The plan is’, the report explains, ‘to excavate 73,000 cubic metres of soil for it to be cleansed’. This is a start, of course. The New York Times observed that the base in Danang is ‘one of about two dozen former American sites that remain polluted’, and that the operation follows years of rebuffing Vietnamese requests for assistance in a cleanup’. A senate report of 1970 commented that ‘the US has dumped [on South Vietnam] a quantity of toxic chemical amounting to six pounds per head of population, including woman and children’. Robert McNamara, defence secretary to John F Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, said in 2002: ‘I don't think anyone had even thought about whether it [the use of Agent Orange] was contrary to the rules of war’.

Such merciless destruction is understandable, because the Vietnam war was, as Gabriel Kolko has explained – in what is considered one of the finest histories of the conflict -  ‘ultimately the major episode in a larger process of intervention’ which demonstrated ‘its intense commitment to create an integrated, essentially capitalist world framework out of the chaos of World War Two and the remnants of the colonial systems’.4

Thus, being

the major inheritor of the mantle of imperialism in modern history, [the United States was] acting not out of a desire to defend the nation against some tangible threat to its physical welfare but because it sought to create a controllable, responsive order elsewhere, one that would permit the political destinies of distant places to evolve in a manner beneficial to American goals and interests far surpassing the immediate needs of its domestic society.5

Says Kolko: ‘The history of the postwar era is essentially one of the monumental American attempts-and failures-to weave together such a global order and of the essentially vast autonomous social forces and destabilising dynamics emerging throughout the world to confound its ambitions’6. Clearly, in order to maintain such a system, and ensure its success, those ‘emerging throughout the world to confound [the United States’] ambitions’ – and whose ‘immediate needs’ are ‘far surpass[ed]’ by the ‘goals and interests’ of the United States – must be overcome. And overcome they were – or, rather, eliminated. As renowned French-American journalist and Indochina specialist Bernard Fall wrote, describing the US devastation of South Vietnam: ‘the countryside literally dies under the blows of the largest military machine ever unleashed on an area of this size’.7 Agent Orange meanwhile, further destroyed the country, for what was and remains to be, the foreseeable future. One scientist observing North Vietnamese soldiers who had served in the southern provinces, recognised, Wilcox explains, that the soldiers ‘appeared to be fathering an excess number of children with serious birth defects’, which included ‘cleft lips, absence of nose and eyes, shortened limbs, malformed ears, club feet, absence of forearms, hydrocephaly (water on the brain) and anencephaly (a condition in which all or part of the brain is missing), and a variety of heart problems’.8 As an epigraph to the introductory chapter of his book, Wilcox cites a Vietnamese research scientist: ‘In the abominable history of war, with the sole exception of nuclear weapons, never has such an inhuman fate ever before been reserved for the survivors’.9

Wilcox writes in Scorched Earth:

The United States has yet to send teams of epidemiologists to Vietnam to study the effects of toxic chemicals on the Vietnamese people, and US courts have failed to find ways to hold corporations that care more about profits than people responsible for their actions.10

Despite the dismissal of lawsuits brought by both the uncompensated Vietnamese and US veterans who continue to seek compensation greater than the tiny amount offered by the US government – and to a slight number of veterans, considering the number of those effected by Agent Orange will most probably never be known, not least because of the chemical companies' persistent refusal to acknowledge a link between such health issues mentioned above, and exposure to AO, preferring out-of-court settlements which enraged the plaintiffs – the companies are undoubtedly complicit in the terror and owe substantial compensation to victims. Consider McNamara’s plain admission that ‘we used Napalm to burn individuals’11, and then consider the remarks of an American pilot in Vietnam in 1966:

We sure are pleased with those backroom boys at Dow [which was sued over its production and sale of AO during the war]. The original product wasn’t so hot-if the gooks were quick they could scrape it off. So the boys started adding polystyrene-now it sticks like shit to a blanket. But then if the gooks jumped under water it stopped burning, so they started adding Wille Peter [WP-white phosphorous] so’s to make it burn better. It’ll even burn under water now. And just one drop is enough, it’ll keep on burning right down to the bone so they die anyway from phosphorous poisoning.12

Note the development process to achieve optimum capability for wartime deployment. Such ‘technical proficiency’ as Bernard Fall recognised in the US war machine, was required ‘to make up for the woeful lack of popular support and political savvy of most of the regimes that the West has thus far sought to prop up’.13 The American invasion and destruction of Vietnam was, thus, to McNamara, a ‘terrible, terrible mistake’.14

The report found in The Independent notes that the United States has ‘given about $60m for environmental restoration and social services in Vietnam since 2007, but this is its first direct involvement in cleaning up dioxin’. Why has it taken until now for the ‘first direct involvement in cleaning up dioxin’? we may wish to ask. According to the BBC, Tran Xuan Thu, Vice Chairman of the Agent Orange Victims Association considered the operation "a little late", though "greatly appreciated", and he ‘hope[s] these efforts will be multiplied in future’. 2007 was a significant year in which ‘A lawsuit brought by a group of Vietnamese nationals against US [chemical] manufacturers was dismissed’. It was not the first of its kind, in fact. In 2004, a law firm filed a lawsuit on behalf of several million Vietnamese, which was thrown out by the same presiding judge in 2005, under whom in 1984 lawyers reached an out of court settlement of $180 million (mentioned previously) which was achieved without the notification and agreement of all plaintiffs involved, who considered it a ‘sellout’.15

USAID, which is to oversee the operation – and which has often been used as a front for CIA activities - believes that ‘the U.S. Government is committed to building Vietnamese capacity to address environmental remediation beyond Danang’, and that USAID itself ‘is also addressing health and social conditions in Danang’, which ‘includes health, education, and job skill support to persons with disabilities, regardless of cause’.  The 'cause' here is of course the US government’s attempt to ‘bomb them back into the stone age’, as one commander described it . One of USAID’s stated objectives is to ‘Conduct assessments in Phu Cat and Bien Hoa and expand the integrated model from Danang to other selected areas’. One wonders how wide this selection shall grasp.

The report on the United States' ‘landmark project’ to clean up Agent Orange leaves out many graphic and implicating details. Concluding, we would do well to consider the words of Wilcox, speaking of those ravaged by the unforgiving effects of Agent Orange:

The families we [Wilcox and his son] visit will never sit in an air-conditioned theater, munching buttered popcorn while beautiful actors make them feel happy and frightened and safe and wonderfully sad. They won’t join friends in a cheerful restaurant, drinking wine and eating until they’re pleasantly stuffed. Their children will not spend hours talking on a cell phone, planning weekend parties, being young and strong and full of optimism.16

‘All we can do’, ‘he continues, ‘is promise that we will tell people about the extraordinary families we meet, the beautiful children, the determination, the courage, and the terrible suffering we encounter in Vietnam’.17


1. Fred A. Wilcox, Scorched Earth: Legacies of Chemical Warfare in Vietnam (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2011), p. 7.

2. Wilcox, Scorched Earth, 2011, p. 46.

3. Wilcox, Scorched Earth, 2011, p. 108.

4. Gabriel Kolko, Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, the United States, and the Modern Historical Experience (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985), p. 72.

5. Kolko, Anatomy of a War, 1985, p. 72-3.

6. Kolko, Anatomy of a War, 1985, p. 73.

7. Cited in Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, c.1988 (London: Vintage, 1994) p.183.

8. Wilcox, Scorched Earth, 2011, p. 29.

9. Cited in Wilcox, Scorched Earth, 2011, p.1.

10. Wilcox, Scorched Earth, 2011, p. 7.

11. Cited in Blackhurst and Leonard, Observer, 2002 (

12. Cited in Noam Chomsky, ‘The Backroom Boys’ in Noam Chomsky, For Reasons of State c.1972 (New York: The New Press, 2003), pp.1-2.

13. Cited in Noam Chomsky, ‘The Rule of Force in International Affairs’ in Noam Chomsky, For Reasons of State c.1972 (New York: The New Press, 2003), pp.221-2

14. Cited in Blackhurst and Leonard, Observer, 2002 (

15. Wilcox, Scorched Earth, 2011, p. 63.

16. Wilcox, Scorched Earth, 2011, p. 111.

17. Wilcox, Scorched Earth, 2011, p. 111.

Categories in which this article appears: War | Vietnam | USA | The Independent | BBC News |

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Comments (1)

1. chris24 August 2012 10:59

And the good ole USA is massing special forces on the border of Syria just in case they start to use chemical weapons. Vomit inducing hypocrisy.

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