“Not only crop destruction, but US policies of extensive bombing, defoliation, and relocation of people from the countryside seem clearly to fall within the definition of crimes against humanity and war crimes,” wrote the Stanford Biology Group in a report entitled The Destruction of Indochina.
As part of a deliberate campaign of environmental destruction during its war against Vietnam, the US sprayed the countryside with herbicides containing carcinogenic chemicals to destroy tropical forest foliage and agricultural crops. The objectives of this diabolical program, which perhaps should be called “death by defoliant,” were threefold: first, to deprive the Vietnamese resistance fighters of the National Liberation Front (NLF) of hiding places and cover; second, to starve them into surrender by wiping out their food supply; and third, to drive rural peasants to urban areas controlled by the US-backed regime in an attempt to decimate popular support for the NLF.
Code-named Operation Hades and later Ranch Hand, the aerial application of the defoliant known as Agent Orange, which was manufactured by Dow Chemical and Monsanto, extended from August 1961 until August 1970, before being suspended by Deputy US Secretary of Defense David Packard. Some 49 million liters of the lethal herbicide were sprayed over 12 percent of the land area of Vietnam using average application rates 13 times higher than those recommended by the US Department of Agriculture for domestic weed control.
Agent Orange, so called because of the herbicide’s orange striped container, is a mixture of 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D), and n-butyl-2,3,4-trichlorophenoxyacetate (2,4,5-T), both of which are likely carcinogens according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which is affiliated with the World Health Organization (WHO).
Over 18 million kilograms of 2,4,5-T, which constitutes 50 percent of Agent Orange, were sprayed on Vietnam as part of the fiendish US war crimes there.
By 1966, 2,4,5-T had been shown to cause greatly increased rates of birth defects, a fact which was suppressed by the US Government but confirmed by news reports from Saigon of increased birth deformities. The 2,4,5-T was also found to have been contaminated with TCDD (2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin), a known carcinogen described as “perhaps the most toxic molecule ever synthesized by man.” That the executives at Dow Chemical were well aware of the toxicity of the dioxin-contaminated 2,4,5-T was confirmed by an intra-company memo dated 22 February 1965.
As a result of the immoral and irresponsible herbicide spraying by the US under Operation Ranch Hand, it is estimated: 4.8 million Vietnamese were directly exposed to Agent Orange; 800,000 people suffer serious health problems and require constant medical attention; and 50,000 deformed children were born to parents who were either directly sprayed with defoliant or were exposed through consumption of contaminated food and water.
In 1990, in order to keep the Agent Orange atrocities under wraps, the White House under President Ronald Reagan ordered the cancellation of a 1987 Center for Disease Control study, which had concluded that Vietnam veterans ran a 50-percent increased risk of developing non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (NHL), a type of blood cancer, as compared to veterans who had been stationed elsewhere. Today, the US Veterans’ Administration assumes that all military personnel who served in Vietnam from 1962 to 1975 were exposed to Agent Orange.
Since then, research has linked Agent Orange exposure to the following cancers: Soft tissue sarcoma; NHL; Hodgkin’s disease; and Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), including hairy cell leukemia and other chronic B-cell leukemias. Evidence also suggests a link between Agent Orange exposure and respiratory cancers, prostate cancer and multiple myeloma. Also, sufficient evidence exists suggesting Agent Orange exposure is linked to Chloracne, Amyloidosis, Transient peripheral neuropathy, Parkinson’s disease, Porphyria cutanea tarda, High blood pressure, Ischemic heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and Spina bifida in children of those exposed.
In addition, exposure to the dioxin-laden chemical has been shown to be a risk factor in a number of cancers, diseases and other conditions, including: immune deficiency; reproductive and developmental abnormalities; central and peripheral nervous system pathology; endocrine disruption; diabetes; decreased pulmonary functions and bronchitis; eyelid pathology; altered serum testosterone levels; skin rashes; and thyroid disorders.
And the remnants of Agent Orange from the US war against Vietnam continue the legacy of death by defoliant:
The environment around many former US military bases is still contaminated,
Heavily sprayed areas remain a source of dioxin contamination,
Dioxin levels around Da Nang are 300 to 400 times higher than internationally accepted limits,
Over a million hectares of forests have been destroyed, causing a loss of ecological equilibrium,
Birds and animals have been destroyed along with forests either by direct spraying or as a result of destruction of food sources,
Barren, dry lands still exist in provinces in southern Vietnam where nothing grows,
And higher rates of birth defects exist among residents of sprayed regions and among families of veterans who fought in the south.
Agent Orange defoliation operations by the US were not limited to Vietnam, either, but were also conducted in Korea in the demilitarized zone (DMZ). From 1968 to 1969, over 220,000 liters of Agent Orange were sprayed over some 8,500 hectares of Korean land near the DMZ, affecting an estimated 4,000 US and 30,000 Korean soldiers. Others claim that the deadly defoliant was used there as far back as the late 1950s. According to a US Veterans’ Administration press release, “VA will presume herbicide exposure for any Veteran who served between April 1, 1968, and Aug. 31, 1971, in a unit determined by VA and the Department of Defense (DoD) to have operated in an area in or near the Korean DMZ in which herbicides were applied.”
The use of Agent Orange in Korea is particularly relevant to the writer, since I served in the US Army from August 1969 to August 1970 as a driver with the 2nd Supply and Transport Battalion at Camp Jessup, Munson, Korea located a few kilometers south of the DMZ. I was shocked to learn that I, too, must have been exposed to Agent Orange while carrying out my driving duties all around the region. Perhaps exposure to Agent Orange caused my thyroid problems or my children’s developmental disorders; lacking clear evidence, I don’t know for certain. But I would find comfort in knowing the truth – as no doubt would every victim of this horrific herbicide – even 40+ years after the fact.
Veteran Chuck Searcy, who returned to Vietnam to help with humanitarian programs for disabled children, said, “For me, the evidence is clear. I know it’s difficult to say 100 percent that this is the result of Agent Orange, but if you can find no other reason, then I agree with these families who believe the problem is the result of Agent Orange.”
In a February 2008 decision, the US second circuit Court of Appeals dimmed Agent Orange victims’ hopes of bringing to justice the criminal US government and complicit chemical companies responsible for Agent Orange. The Vietnamese plaintiffs then appealed to the US Supreme Court, which on 2 March 2009 refused to hear the case, bringing an end to litigation, but not the decree on the victims of death by defoliant.
Thus, almost 40 years have passed since the end of the US war against Vietnam, but for over 4 million Vietnamese and other victims of exposure who suffer profoundly both mentally and physically each day, this crime against humanity remains unpunished.
Yuram Abdullah Weiler is a freelance writer and political critic who has written dozens of articles on the Middle East and US policy. A former engineer with a background in mathematics and a convert to Islam, he currently writes perspectives on Islam, social justice, economics and politics from the viewpoint of an American convert to Shia Islam, focusing on the deleterious role played by the US in the Middle East and elsewhere.