Agent Orange—this cocktail of chemicals is today known to cause birth defects, skin conditions, diabetes, liver dysfunction, several types of cancer, and nervous system disorders. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, it was one of many “herbicides” that constituted the 19 million gallons the U.S. Air Force sprayed on Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos from 1962-71 during Operation Ranch Hand. Not surprisingly, the effects of Agent Orange continue to plague Vietnam and the 2.8 million American veterans who served during this period. But this problem is not just restricted to Southeast Asia; Agent Orange was tested throughout the United States and many other countries. Additionally, the governments involved continue to insist that Agent Orange is merely a “defoliant” or “herbicide”—a tool solely for removing vegetation. Therefore, they claim, it cannot be classified as a chemical weapon, and they are not guilty under any international law. Although the VA does now finally offer benefits to some afflicted veterans, there are almost no benefits or cleanup help offered to Vietnamese or others, and the governments, companies, and universities that are responsible for Agent Orange’s use continue to shirk responsibility at every turn.
In what follows, I argue that, even if it is legal to develop and use Agent Orange and other chemicals, it should be and should have been illegal for the same reasons we believe mustard and chlorine gas should be illegal weapons. Additionally, the United States and other governments, the companies that produced Agent Orange, and the universities that helped develop Agent Orange and similar chemicals should all fully acknowledge their role and provide full relief to those affected, including in Southeast Asia. But, before we get into the arguments that today’s organizations use to justify their contribution to Agent Orange, we need to take a look at the history of this chemical’s development and use.
The History of Agent Orange
Understanding at least the basic composition of Agent Orange is highly important for arguments for and against justifying its use, because this is often carefully used to avoid blame. Agent Orange contains equal parts 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D) and 2,4,5-trichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4,5-T). The production process of 2,4,5-T also creates 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD). TCDD is the most harmful dioxin of all dioxins, and the EPA designates it as a known carcinogen.
According to a paper by David A. Butler, the Senior Program Officer at the National Academy of Sciences, Agent Orange began as somewhat of an accident. Through the 1870s to the 1940s, a foundation of research was laid in the chemical, herbicidal, and plant hormone fields. Researchers were particularly interested in finding a way to increase the rate of plant growth, and later realized the same chemicals they isolated would kill certain plants with increased dosages. Notably, Arthur Galston’s 1943 dissertation on plant growth regulators was a great contribution to what became Agent Orange, although he later condemned its use in this way.
Others were more open to developing this destructive potential. Ezra J. Kraus, then chair of the University of Chicago’s botany department, is credited as the first to record this suggestion. After a request from the Secretary of War in late 1941 to gather information on biological warfare, Kraus recommended that these chemicals—then known as “auxins”—could be useful to the military for destroying crops and other plants. Following this recommendation, the U.S. Army funded further research under Kraus and many others.
The U.S. Army planned to deploy Agent Orange during World War II, but the conflict came to close before there was a chance. Instead, the British were the first to use it from 1951-53 during an uprising in their Malaysian colony. Simultaneously, several chemical companies continued to develop similar chemicals for commercial use. Chief among these were Monsanto Chemical Corporation, Dow Chemical Company, and several companies based in Germany.
In the late 1950s the U.S. continued research on these chemicals for military purposes, developing several other compounds that would make up the “herbicide rainbow.” The Army began spraying Vietnam in 1961. The official purpose was to remove foliage that enemy combatants were hiding in and to destroy enemy crops. Spraying missions continued until 1971, and included parts of Cambodia and Laos near the border of Vietnam. Overall, about one-fourth of southern Vietnam’s land area was sprayed directly. This is roughly the size of Massachusetts, and is even more impactful than it sounds because of Vietnam’s uniquely oblong shape. From the map of U.S. spraying missions, it is easy to see how covering just one-fourth of the land can easily spread Agent Orange throughout the watershed and soil of the whole country.
Opposition to the use of Agent Orange and other chemicals grew throughout the 1960s. Arthur Galston was one of the key leaders in the academic community advocating for a halt to its use. He wrote many letters and gave talks urging further study of Agent Orange’s toxicological effects. He also personally travelled to Vietnam to record its effects of the ecology, noting that it was destroying mangroves essential to global ocean ecology. Then, in 1969 several reports surfaced that there were increasingly common birth deformities occurring in Vietnam, which stoked public outrage. Finally, on Galston’s recommendation, the government ran experiments and found Agent Orange to cause serious birth defects in lab animals. Consequently, the military stopped using Agent Orange in 1970, but did not stop spraying Vietnam with other herbicides until January 7th of 1971.
Throughout this era, Agent Orange and similar compounds were produced, stored, and sprayed all over the world for military and commercial purposes. Today, the Department of Defense publicly reports that these chemicals were tested several times in 20 states, Puerto Rico, Canada, India, Korea, and Thailand. They were simultaneously stored in many of these locations. Agent Orange was also accidentally sprayed in Cambodia, and purposefully in Laos.
Outside of Vietnam, a range of compounds were used commercially for controlling vegetation along highways or to clear areas for energy production. In British Colombia, Canada, over 30,000 gallons of Agent Orange were sprayed to clear forests for power lines and highways from 1962-73. The Canadian government denied this for many years, but recently it was confirmed through the Freedom of Information Act. The Canadian government maintains that it was not false to say Agent Orange was never used, but that some herbicide chemicals were used. Those compounds were 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T, which is Agent Orange in equal parts. More recently it was discovered that Agent Orange was also sprayed in Ontario from the 1950s-70s to clear highways. Additionally, Agent Orange was not banned in Canada until 1985.
In New Zealand, Dow Chemical Company produced Agent Orange from 1962-87. Today, people in the area around the production zones are reported to have dioxin levels over seven times the safe limit.
Professor Marcos Arruda claimed in an interview featured in the book 50 Years is Enough that the Brazilian government used Agent Orange in Para, a northern region of the country, in order to hastily remove trees for a hydroelectric project. He claims this was in the late 1970s, and that the people living in the region at the time were not informed. A 1984 New York Times article backs this up, and confirmed that Dow sold the Brazilian government what it calls “Tordon 101 and 155,” compounds that have the same contents as Agent Orange. Tordon 101 was still being sold to Brazil at the time the article was published. In a familiar pattern, Dow Chemical Company denies it ever sold Agent Orange to the Brazilian government—which is technically true. More recently, private ranchers have been found to be illegally spraying Agent Orange and other chemicals on the Amazon because it easily avoids detection.
High levels of dioxin have also been found in Guam’s soil, and many veterans have repeatedly claimed they took part in spraying Guam with Agent Orange and storing it there throughout the Vietnam War. They also maintain that they, and many others, are now suffering health problems as a result. However, the Department of Defense outright denied all of these claims, and even denied that Agent Orange was used or stored anywhere outside of Vietnam. This entirely contradicts a 2002 report by the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, which found dioxin levels of 19 million parts per trillion at Anderson Air Force Base in Guam. The EPA recommends that 1,000 parts per trillion is the safe maximum.
A recently released U.S. government report from 1972 reveals that Agent Orange and Agent White were tested in the Philippines with the help of the University of the Philippines. The same report also references tests conducted in England that it builds on.
Similar to Guam, many veterans have repeatedly made claims that they took part in storing and spraying Agent Orange in Okinawa, Japan, and that it is today causing health problems. The U.S. government firmly denied these claims, but a document recently released through the Freedom of Information Act revealed that 25,000 gallons of Agent Orange were moved from Okinawa to Johnston Atoll for storage after the U.S. Air Force stopped spraying Vietnam. An article from 2013 outlines the official response of the U.S. government, which hired Dr. Alvin Lee Young to conduct a study titled “Investigation into Allegations of Herbicide Orange in Okinawa, Japan.” I found that this official response has, strangely, since been removed. The article does give an outline of Dr. Young’s report, saying that he believes the earlier U.S. Army report confirming Agent Orange’s storage in Okinawa to be false because they, “were not DoD employees, nor were they likely familiar with the issues surrounding Herbicide Orange.” However, in an article from just last year, the same journalist reported that over 100 barrels of Agent Orange have been uncovered in Okinawa since 2013.
Many frustrated veterans pointed out that the U.S. government report did not interview anybody, did not test any soil, and did not account for any photographic evidence. Additionally, many people claim Dr. Young has previously worked for Monsanto and Dow, but I could not confirm this. He did work for the U.S. Air Force to develop spraying mechanisms for Agent Orange, he worked for several other government agencies, and he does currently do private consulting work. It should also be noted that Dr. Young was one of the early researchers who advocated using the mixture of 2,4-D and 2,4,5,-T—which is Agent Orange—to destroy crops. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that Dr. Young has continually denied that Agent Orange has any negative health effects.
Finally, the British government was keen to use Agent Orange and similar chemicals in its colonies. Like the U.S., it did extensive research on these chemicals during the 1940s. One 1947 publication for the British government stated that the chemicals had potential for use as, “a form of sanction against a recalcitrant nation which would be more speedy than blockade and less repugnant than the atomic bomb.” The paper also said they could be used, “for the destruction of food supplies of dissident tribes.” They tested the chemicals in their Indian, Australian, Kenyan, and Tanganyikan (now Tanzania) colonies until 1952.
These are just the places that we now know have been sprayed with or have been storing or production sites for Agent Orange. The list of confirmed locations continues to grow as more documents are declassified or more Freedom of Information Act requests are filed. The true list is probably far longer, judging by the reluctance of governments so far to admit having used Agent Orange and other chemicals. Considering the long lasting, negative effects of these chemicals on human health and the environment, it is extremely unsettling that they were used so widely.
The Health Effects of Agent Orange
The negative health effects of Agent Orange and similar chemicals are now well documented. The Agent Orange Act of 1991 was the first acknowledgement by the U.S. government that there may be health effects related to Agent Orange. It “presumes” that non-Hodgkins lymphoma, each soft-tissue sarcoma, and chloracne and other acneform diseases are the result of exposure to dioxin and herbicides. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs now lists many other conditions as at least “associated” with military service exposure to these chemicals. These include AL amyloidosis, chronic B-cell leukemias, chloracne, diabetes mellitus type 2, Hodgkin’s disease, ischemic heart disease, multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Parkinson’s disease, early-onset
peripheral neuropathy, porphyria cutanea tarda, prostate cancer, respiratory cancers, and soft tissue sarcomas. The VA also recognizes several birth defects in the children of veterans who served in Vietnam and Korea. Spina bifida is the only condition recognized as being associated with herbicides. Many more are listed for the children of women who served, although the VA is careful to say that they are only associated with their service, and not necessarily herbicides. These include achondroplasia, cleft lip and cleft palate, congenital heart disease, congenital talipes equinovarus (clubfoot), esophageal and intestinal atresia, Hallerman-Streiff syndrome, hip dysplasia, Hirschpurng’s disease, hydrocephalus due to aqueductal stenosis, hypospadias, imperforate anus, neural tube defects, Poland syndrome, pyloric stenosis, syndactyly (fused digits), tracheoesophageal fistula, undescended testicle, and Williams syndrome.
Earlier, during the boom in commercial production of herbicides in the 1950s, several factory incidents were key to revealing the negative health effects of these chemicals. On March 8th of 1949, a safety vent at Monsanto’s plant in Nitro, West Virginia released 2,4,5-T into the surrounding air. A few days later, 117 of the workers involved in production and cleanup developed “eye and respiratory tract irritation, headache, dizziness, nausea, and severe skin irritation.” Weeks later, they developed chloracne, hyperpigmentation, liver function impairment, muscle pain, and central nervous system problems. And, although Monsanto physicians recorded this, it was not publicly reported until 1980.
According to the same paper, there were four other similar incidents at factories in Germany throughout the next five years. Similarly, the people nearby developed health problems, including chloracne. The physician Karl H. Schulz was the first to establish the connection between 2,4,5-T, dioxin, and chloracne after treating several of these people. He found that low grade 2,4,5-T, which contains dioxin, was the source of chloracne. He published his findings in three papers in 1957.
In 1966, Dow found that its plant producing 2,4,5-T in Michigan was causing chloracne in the workers, and dioxin was the cause. They closed the plant and restarted production that same year with a new process that limited exposure to workers.
Finally, the U.S. Air Force was aware by at least 1967 that the Viet Cong had become greatly concerned with the health effects of Agent Orange and other chemicals. They prohibited allowing animals to feed on sprayed areas, prohibited eating foods that were sprayed, and required wearing homemade gas masks. The Airforce dismissed this as propaganda, reassuring its members that the chemicals are entirely safe for humans.
Other documentation of the health effects comes from the countless testimonies and complaints of U.S. veterans and the residents of sprayed locations. Although these cannot all be confirmed, the overwhelming number of incidents strongly suggests a strong correlation between the chemicals and negative health effects. Over 2.8 million veterans who served in Vietnam were affected and still experience the effects of Agent Orange and other chemicals. The number of affected Vietnamese and people in other countries is impossible to know, but the Vietnamese Red Cross puts the number at 3 million people in just Vietnam. Considering how much of Vietnam was sprayed, and the fact that Vietnam is a very densely populated country—with over 90 million people today and 35-48 million people during the Vietnam War—it seems highly likely that the number is far larger.
Agent Orange is now also known to cause serious ecological damage. For instance, early on Dr. Galston documented the effects of Agent Orange on the mangroves in Vietnam, expressing concern that it was causing long lasting damage to delicate ecosystems. Additionally, many of the affected areas remain deforested today, which has impacts on soil erosion and biodiversity. As mentioned several times before, the contamination also travels through the food chain, which is one of the largest concerns to humans. This problem is also long lasting. Most countries cap the safe limit of dioxin in soil at 1,000 parts per trillion (ppt), and 100 ppt in sediments. In Vietnam, some areas today have been found to have 365,000 ppt, 236,000 ppt, and 185,000 ppt in the soil.
Overall, the health effects of Agent Orange and similar chemicals are severe and long lasting. These chemicals also greatly impact the environment, which affects the water and food supplies that people rely on. This will likely continue for several decades.
Despite various indirect recognitions, some attempts to help veterans, and at least some effort to help Vietnamese, the stance of each organization involved is shocking. Nobody has officially taken responsibility for the use of Agent Orange and its impacts.
For instance, the U.S. government has maintained, over at least 30 years of litigation, that it had and still has the legal right to use “herbicides” and “defoliants” like Agent Orange. First, it notes that it never ratified the 1925 Geneva Protocol that banned the use of chemical weapons until 1975, when it had stopped using chemical sprays. Therefore, that international law doesn’t even apply to the U.S. Even if it did, the government argues, the 1925 Geneva Protocol left the term “weapon” ambiguous. They interpret it to only mean weapons like mustard and chlorine gas. Agent Orange, as a tool merely for removing vegetation, cannot be classified as a chemical weapon under this law. Their justification is that Agent Orange’s purpose is to kill plants, and any effect on humans is an unintended consequence. On top of all of this, the government responded to a United Nations General Assembly Resolution condemning the use of Agent Orange, saying that this is in no way binding law, and that many nations did not ratify the joint resolution anyway. Finally, the government has continually affirmed that, even though it agrees no country should use Agent Orange, it still reserves the right to use it under the president’s approval. Overall, the U.S. government has made it clear that it will not be facing legal consequences, ever.
Additionally, the U.S. government was very particular to use the precedent of British involvement in Malaysia. Noting that Britain did not face any consequences for its use of Agent Orange, then Secretary of State Dean Rusk advised President Kennedy that using Agent Orange and other herbicides was not illegal. To this day, one argument the government uses to defend itself is that, if it is guilty of a war crime, so is Britain. Since Britain is not guilty of a war crime, the United States also cannot be.
I could not find any recognition of the British government’s involvement, or any apology. The same is true of other governments who had any part in the development or use of Agent Orange and other chemicals.
Monsanto, one of the largest producers of Agent Orange and similar chemicals, also removes blame from itself for several reasons. First, the company’s web page on the topic points out that the days of Agent Orange fell under “former Monsanto” because it was such a long time ago. Second, they emphasize that Monsanto was one of 9 companies producing the chemicals, and besides, the government “set the specifications” for production. Finally, and most outrageous, Monsanto continues to claim that there is no proof at all that Agent Orange is linked to any health problems. One company representative even labeled people who believe otherwise to be “extremists” who likely have political or economic interests contrary to Monsanto’s. All the while, Monsanto tells its own history with a focus on how it “saved the lives of U.S. soldiers and Vietnamese” with Agent Orange production.
Dow has an almost identical stance to Monsanto’s. It emphasizes that it was one of 8 companies that were compelled under the Defense Protection Act of 1950 to produce Agent Orange, that the government controlled how much was produced for what purposes, and that Agent Orange was never commercially available. Dow defers the resolution of the problem to the governments involved. Finally, like Monsanto, Dow denies that Agent Orange causes any illnesses.
Some points should be noted. First, both Monsanto and Dow claim they produced Agent Orange only for the government. This is technically true, but they also produced 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T for commercial purposes and sold them to many governments. These are the exact chemicals that make up Agent Orange, they just called it something else. Additionally, they both emphasize that the government compelled them or at least requested them to produce the chemicals. It is true that the U.S. government used the Defense Protection Act of 1950 in 1967 for this purpose. But what the companies fail to mention is that they actually encouraged the use of Agent Orange and similar chemicals during the Vietnam War. For instance, in 1965 when the U.S. government realized it needed more Agent Orange than was being produced, it made plans to build its own production plants. Both companies lobbied against this, and Dow proposed the government use its “Tordon 101,” also called Agent White. Additionally, all of the chemical companies quickly met at Monsanto’s headquarters to devise ways to increase production.
If any of the universities involved have acknowledged their involvement or taken any responsibility, I am unaware. This includes at least the University of Chicago, Bristol University, Oxford University, the University of the Philippines, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Hawaii. The full list is likely to be much longer.
Despite denial at every turn, there has been some help offered to those affected outside of the VA’s benefits. In 1985, the companies that produced Agent Orange lost a law suit against 2.4 million Vietnam veterans and had to collectively pay $180 million in benefits. However, this only reached about 50,000 people. Additionally, in 2007 the U.S. offered $61.4 million in aid for health benefits to Vietnamese. In August of 2013, the U.S. government also offered $84 million to help clean up some severely polluted sites in Vietnam, which is supposed to finish at the end of this year. However, this does not constitute official acknowledgement, and government representatives are careful to note that the aid isn’t specifically for Agent Orange and is for all people. Additionally, it is not nearly enough to remedy Agent Orange problems. For instance, the U.S. offered $18 billion to U.S. veterans in 2011 alone. Cleaning the soil is also much more expensive. For comparison, just the one site in Okinawa has an estimated cleanup cost of $1 billion.
Overall, no government, company, university, or any organization that was involved in producing Agent Orange and similar chemicals has taken any responsibility for the millions of people globally who are still suffering. The closest thing the victims have gotten is not only not enough, but doesn’t even constitute admission of guilt. What’s more, we all remain at risk for these health effects because nobody has cleaned up the vast majority of these sites.
A Case Against These Chemicals
During World War I, poisonous gasses saw widespread use from all parties as the conflict escalated. These included at least chlorine, mustard, phosgene, and nerve gasses. These chemicals are all deadly, and cause debilitating and long term health effects in the victims who survive. Most of these chemicals do remain in soil for potentially several days, but they all react with other chemicals in the environment and become harmless relatively quickly.
The horrible effects of these weapons eventually led to the Geneva Protocol of 1925, which bans using “asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and of all analogous liquids, material or devices” during war. However, as the United States government is so eager to point out, the Geneva Protocol and the Hague Convention left the term “poison weapon” ambiguous. The key distinction, from the government’s perspective, is that the kind of weapons outlined in the Geneva Protocol and others are outlawed because their intention is to kill or harm humans. Since Agent Orange was designed to remove plants, it cannot be classified as a weapon under this law. In response to Vietnamese attempting to file a suit against the U.S. government in 2008, the U.S. Court of Appeals stated, “Inasmuch as Agent Orange was intended for defoliation and for destruction of crops only, its use did not violate the international norms relied upon here, since those norms would not necessarily prohibit the deployment of materials that are only secondarily, and not intentionally, harmful to humans.” And, since the plaintiffs could not show that the primary purpose of Agent Orange was to kill or harm humans, the court ruled they had no case.
The intentions or purposes of using Agent Orange or other substances should not matter when it comes to whether or not it should be illegal to use. Under this interpretation, if the U.S. government had done the exact same spraying operations with the exact same chemicals, and with the exact same effects in destroying both plant and human life, but intended only to kill or harm humans, then that is what would make it illegal. But, from the many cases listed above, the government should have known about the negative effects on humans it was bringing about. If it knew it was simultaneously wreaking havoc on the people and environments it was spraying for potentially decades, then it is equally responsible for those outcomes.
If the U.S. government wants to claim that it did not know about the negative effects of Agent Orange, that is also problematic. Is it really a good stance to maintain that, today, millions are suffering because of negligence in conducting enough research on safety? That should also be a form of responsibility.
Overall, we as a society believe that weapons that cause extremely negative and long lasting health effects should be illegal. Agent Orange and the “herbicide rainbow” not only cause these terrible effects, but they linger in the environment that people live in for decades. Thus, if you believe weapons like mustard gas should be illegal, you should certainly believe that the herbicides used during the Vietnam war should also be illegal. This should be true regardless of what is intended by using them. And, if the 1925 Geneva Protocol doesn’t cover this, there should be a law that does.
All of the governments involved in the development, production, and use of Agent Orange and similar chemicals should take full responsibility for the effects of the chemicals today. The same is true of the companies, universities, or any other organizations involved. All of these groups should not only fully acknowledge the past and apologize, but they should provide full relief for all victims. This includes providing for the health care costs of all people directly and indirectly affected, and taking full responsibility for cleaning all of the environments affected.
When Dr. Galston and his colleagues realized that their research could be used to cause harm to people, they took action. It was their persistent, outspoken protest that got the U.S. government to finally conduct more research on the toxicology of Agent Orange, which led President Nixon to put a halt to its use. Perhaps the U.S. government and all of the organizations involved can learn from Dr. Galston’s sense of responsibility.