Agent Orange is a name given to the most effective chemical herbicide, or plant killer, sprayed by United States armed forces in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War (1959-1975). Agent Orange penetrated the waxy covering of leaves to poison the entire plant. It was created from an equal combination of 2, 4, 5-trichlorophenoxyacetic acid and 2, 4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid. It was called Agent Orange because of the color of the barrel in which it was shipped. Other herbicides used in Vietnam were also known by their barrel color, such as Agent Blue and Agent White. Agent Orange contained extremely toxic byproducts known as dioxins. Exposure to dioxins has been associated with severe birth defects and certain rare cancers in humans.
More than 19 million gallons of herbicides were sprayed in South Vietnam between 1961 and 1970. By destroying trees and crops, the U.S. military hoped to expose the hiding places of the National Liberation Front and the North Vietnamese army. About 12 percent of South Vietnam was stripped of foliage, and tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers and innumerable Vietnamese were exposed to dioxins. Toxins that leaked into croplands and rivers around the sprayed areas also had long-term effects on the food supply of the country as a whole.
Defoliants were first developed in the United States during World War II (1939-1945) to be used against Japan’s rice crop, but they were never deployed. The British used them successfully, however, in their jungle war against Communist insurgents on the Malay Peninsula in the 1950s. The administration of President John F. Kennedy was persuaded by the U.S. Army’s Chemical Corps to approve the use of defoliants in Vietnam beginning in 1961. A 1925 League of Nations agreement had set regulations for the use of chemical warfare, but the United States did not ratify the agreement until 1975 (see Chemical and Biological Warfare).
In 1969 a South Vietnamese newspaper reported that thousands of rural villagers were experiencing strange occurrences of stillbirths and birth deformities. That same year, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), one of the largest organizations of scientists in the world, voted to conduct a study of the ecological and health effects of herbicide spraying in Vietnam. In 1970 a secret government report was leaked that indicated that one of the chemicals in Agent Orange caused birth defects in laboratory animals.
Faced with mounting pressure, the administration of President Richard Nixon stopped the use of Agent Orange in 1970. Shortly afterward, the AAAS team in Vietnam showed that considerable levels of dioxins were present in fish, a staple of the Vietnamese diet, and in milk from nursing mothers. All herbicide missions were halted in 1971. In 1975 U.S. president Gerald Ford announced that the United States would no longer employ defoliants such as Agent Orange during “offensive operations.”
By 1978 the Veterans Administration was besieged with complaints from thousands of Vietnam veterans of skin rashes, liver disorders, and rare cancers (soft-tissue sarcomas, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and Hodgkin’s Disease). In 1984 the seven major manufacturers of Agent Orange (Dow Chemical, Monsanto, Uniroyal, Hercules, Diamond Shamrock, Thompson Chemical, and T. H. Agriculture and Nutrition) agreed to an out-of-court settlement of $180 million in a class-action suit filed on behalf of Vietnam veterans. A trust fund was set up by the court to disburse money to veterans claiming illnesses caused by dioxins. By 1986 over 210,000 claims had been filed. The growing body of medical evidence and pressure from veterans organizations prompted the U.S. Congress to act in 1991 by passing a bill that provides disability payments to Vietnam veterans suffering from soft-tissue sarcomas and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Another bill was passed in 1996 to provide benefits to the children of Vietnam veterans born with spina bifida, an often severe birth defect that affects the nervous system as a result of Agent Orange.