Lasting Legacies: Agent Orange
Histories entail the excavation of past events, but their embedded imprints often reappear in the present, and sometimes, with devastating effects...
During a decade in the course of the infamous Vietnam War, a chemical warfare mission led by the U.S. armed forces, called "Operation Ranch Hand," destroyed more than 4.5 million acres of rural expanses in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. The various color-coded chemical poisons were deployed to kill the dense jungle foliage so enemy soldiers would be visible, and to render food crops inedible on the ground. Among these, "the most common 55-gallon drum found on military bases was Agent Orange, which came in various strengths and made up about two-thirds of the herbicides spread during the war" (Daley).
Court papers disclosed that the U.S. Government was fully aware of the long-term detrimental health effects that the herbicides could have on humans, long before it ceased using Agent Orange in Vietnam in 1971. As Jason Daley of The Smithsonian Magazine troublingly notes: "The byproduct of the manufacturing process, a dioxin called 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin or TCDD was found in large concentrations in Agent Orange and other herbicides. Dioxins accumulate in fatty tissues, and can last for hundreds or thousands of years, contaminating areas for generations and can lead to cancer even in small doses."
In 1991, Vietnam War veterans managed to secure the passage of the Agent Orange Act, which "acknowledged that these powerful herbicides were strongly linked to various cancers and other diseases later in life" (Daley). The bill granted medical benefits to those who has been exposed to the chemicals during the war. But the act was narrowly interpreted by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to extend only to the men who were on the ground in Vietnam or "serving on its river system, excluding “blue water” Navy personnel serving on ships off the coast. Now, reports Quil Lawrence at NPR, a Federal Court has ruled those veterans are eligible for the benefits as well" (Daley).
Following several class action suits in the late 1970s, the U.S. Supreme Court awarded a $240 million settlement for some sick veterans or their next of kin in 1988 (2.4 million service members filed suits claiming exposure to the poison). However, the U.S. Government had to admit that the effects from Agent Orange were lifelong and subsequently, the 1991 Bill determined that the Government would foot the medical bills for those affected.
"But there was one catch—veterans had to have literally set foot on Vietnamese soil or sail on its inland waterways, which excluded those serving at sea or at Air Force bases outside the country." -- Jason Daley
Veterans and their children— who were at risk because of their parent’s exposure—are not the only victims of Agent Orange. "One study estimates that 2.1 to 4.8 million Vietnamese people were directly exposed to the chemical during the war. The compound has lingered in the countryside ever since, making its way into food and water, which has caused a multi-generational health crisis and an environmental catastrophe that is still unfolding to this day" (Daley).
As recently as 2018, the U.S. Government is still promising to clean up the damaging pollution of ground water in Vietnam, from the lingering effects of Agent Orange. Eager to make Vietnam an ally in South-east Asia, given the rising threat of China, the U.S. has The United States has "completed a five-year, $110 million program that cleaned soil contaminated by Agent Orange at Danang International Airport, which was one of the main air bases used for storing and spraying the herbicide between 1961 and 1971" (Stewart). Now, the U.S. Agency for International Development, which will supervise the project, claims that the Bien Hoa site clean-up will be four times larger than Danang, and is expected to cost $390 million.
According to the U.S. Congressional Research Service (CRS), one soil sample from Bien Hoa had a “toxic equivalency,” or TEQ, of more than 1,000 times over the international limit. And a private research study revealed that "contaminated soil had spread from hot spots at the base into nearby lakes, ponds, creeks, and drainage ditches, increasing the amount of soil and sediment that will require treatment" (Stewart).
"The question is whether any civilization can wage relentless war on life without destroying itself, and without losing the right to be called civilized."
― Rachel Carson, Silent Spring
Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1962.
Daley, Jason. "Court Rules ‘Blue Water’ Vietnam Veterans Are Eligible for Agent Orange
Benefits." Smithsonian.org. 31 Jan. 2019 <
Lawrence, Quil. "Benefits For Navy Victims Of Agent Orange – Just 50 Years Later." NPR. 30
Jan. 2019 <
Stewart, Phil. "U.S. prepares for biggest-ever Agent Orange cleanup in Vietnam." Reuters.
World News. 17 Oct. 2018 <