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Facts about the Use of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War

Facts about the Use of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War

Vietnam War, the prolonged struggle between the United States and Vietnam, has had numerous dreadful chapters. One of them was the use of Agent Orange by the US military, which claimed millions of Vietnamese lives. This Historyplex article presents some facts about the use of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.
Sucheta Pradhan
Last Updated: Apr 29, 2018
"Yes, there is a story about Agent Orange, and we knew that it harmed our troops and we knew how long it was to get the medical community to accept that, the military to accept it, the VA to accept it."
― Christopher Shays

One of the bloodiest chapters in the history of Southeast Asia, the Vietnam War was fought between the nationalist forces, who wanted to unify Vietnam under a communist rule, and the United States of America, who wanted to put a stop to the spread of communism in the world, by hook or crook. The war lasted for about 20 long years, from 1955 to 1975, with neither of the sides surrendering, until the end. The war destroyed Vietnam on a large scale; however, even the United States ended up losing the support of its citizens with respect to the war. A classic example of how a war should not be, the Vietnam War has always been a highly debated issue, with numerous heated discussions within the international community. One of the most controversial issues in this regard is the use of chemical warfare by the United States, in order to stop the Vietnamese forces from advancing further. The United States is accused of using several harmful and toxic chemicals in the war, the repercussions of which can still be seen on Vietnam and its people.
What Was Agent Orange?
  • Agent Orange was a code name used for a class of herbicides and defoliants, used against Vietnam by the United States, as a part ofOperation Ranch Hand, the latter's chemical warfare program.
  • Operation Ranch Hand aimed at spraying extremely harmful dioxin compounds (which were combined together to form Agent Orange), in order the destroy the vegetal cover of the rural and forested lands of Vietnam and the neighboring regions of eastern Laos and Cambodia.
  • By destroying vegetation, the motive of the American forces seemed very straightforward in the beginning, to bereave the Vietnamese guerrillas of cover so that they could be easily spotted from a height.
  • Another motive was to deprive the Vietnamese soldiers of food by destroying their crops. This would drain them of all the energy and discourage them to fight against the United States.
  • Agent Orange got its name, not from the color of the chemical, but from the orange-striped drums in which it was stored during the war.
Agent Orange and the Vietnam War
  • One of the darkest epochs of the Vietnam War was the period between 1962 and 1971, when the entire rural land of the country and the neighboring areas seemed to lose all its vegetation.
  • In these nine years, the military of the United States, with the aid of their helicopters and low-flying C-123 Provider aircraft, trucks, boats, and backpack sprayers, sprayed about 20,000,000 US gallons of toxic herbicides on 'enemy' territory.
  • The toxicity of Agent Orange, that was sprayed, was so much that the existing vegetal cover was not only destroyed, but the soil was also damaged to a great extent. Owing to this, it became almost impossible to cultivate healthy crops.
  • According to the records of the American Air Force, Agent Orange was sprayed about 6,542 times in the course of nine years, and over 20% forests of South Vietnam were destroyed during these missions.
  • However, the more intense repercussion of Agent Orange was the destruction of cultivable land, which deprived not only the Vietnamese soldiers, but also the common people of their daily food.
  • In 1965, when the US Congress took an inventory of Agent Orange spraying missions in Vietnam, it was realized that the mission seemed to stress more on crop destruction, rather than forest defoliation.
  • Most of the food that was destroyed during these missions was not produced for feeding the guerrillas. On the contrary, it was being produced for the consumption of the local civilian population.
  • The destruction of rural land and crops on a massive scale led to the large-scale migration of the rural population to the urban areas, dominated by the United States. This was one of the US policies at that time, which they named, forced draft urbanization.
  • The main purpose behind implementing the policy of forced draft urbanization was to strip the guerrillas of their rural support system, which did happen to a large extent.
  • Shockingly, until 1965, the American public had no idea regarding the massive crop destruction mission in Vietnam. It was only in 1966 that the American citizens were first informed about it.
  • There was a huge hue and cry in the international community after this information was disclosed. While many opposed the herbicidal warfare, the United Nations introduced resolutions, accusing the US of breaching the 1925 Geneva Protocol.
Effects of Agent Orange on Vietnam
  • According to reports, about 12% of the total area of South Vietnam was sprayed with Agent Orange (and some other defoliating chemicals) by the end of 1971.
  • The amount of the chemical used was, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), 13 times more than the recommended limit. Owing to this, over 10 million hectares of agricultural land underwent complete destruction in South Vietnam alone. The soil has also become highly toxic.
  • Not only this, continuous and repeated spraying of dioxins has dangerously disrupted the ecological balance in Vietnam. Several invasive species of plants and animals have made their way to the deforested land, making it next to impossible to restore the original state.
  • Added to this, several important species of plants and animals have vanished from the sprayed areas.
  • The food web was adversely affected, as the toxic substances gradually entered the same. The contaminated soil also affected the crops, thus in turn, poisoning the food that people and animals consumed.
  • Even the Vietnamese people have not been able to escape the grave effects of Agent Orange. According to the report of the Vietnam Red Cross, this chemical has affected as many as three million Vietnamese people, with at least 150,000 children born with deformities and genetic disorders.
  • Moreover, according to the estimates of the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Agent Orange affected at least 4.8 million Vietnamese people, out of which some 400,000 were killed or injured, and thousands of women suffered miscarriage and stillbirths. Same was the fate of the livestock as well.
  • Children born in areas exposed to Agent Orange have been suffering a number of health issues even today. Some of these include cleft palate, hernia, and several mental and physical disorders.
  • According to the US Department of Veterans Affairs, exposure to even minute doses of Agent Orange may be harmful and can pose some serious health risks, such as cancer, muscular dysfunction, and disorders of the nervous system. Even today, as many as two million Vietnamese people are suffering from cancer, as an aftermath of exposure to Agent Orange.
  • In 2004, a class-action lawsuit was filed by some Vietnamese citizens against 30 chemical companies, who are known to have manufactured Agent Orange to be used in the war. Unfortunately, the claim was rejected by the US court.
Effects of Agent Orange on the US War Veterans
  • Even the US soldiers and military personnel, who used Agent Orange to subdue the Vietnamese forces, could not escape the chemical's dreadful effects. In fact, the personnel who loaded the chemical into airplanes, helicopters, and trucks are considered to be the worst affected of all.
  • While they served in the Vietnam War, the authorities told the veterans that Agent Orange was not harmful to the humans in any way, and that there was no reason to worry.
  • However, after returning home, they started having various health issues, alongside miscarriages of their wives and deformed newborns. When many veterans experienced similar problems, it was suspected that the culprit may have been Agent Orange.
  • Owing to this, in 1977, many veterans filed claims for disability payments with the Department of Veterans Affairs; however, most of them were turned down.
  • Finally, after a prolonged legal battle, in 1993, some 486 victims out of 39,419, who had filed claims, received compensation.
  • Some of the health problems that the veterans have been undergoing include respiratory, digestive, and nervous disorders, skin diseases, leukemia, Hodgkin's and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, and cancers of various kinds.

The aftermath of Agent Orange is not only being witnessed in terms of health problems and ecological imbalance, but the chemical has also proved to be extremely dangerous on the socio-political front. The large-scale migration that took place in South Vietnam from the rural areas to the urban areas, suddenly led to an explosion in the urban population. The result was an increase in poverty, malnutrition, and unemployment, as this uncontrolled urbanization led to millions of people living in slums. Even today, Vietnam, the neighboring regions, and even the war veterans are living with the legacy of misery that Agent Orange seems to have left behind.