Agent Orange: 50-Year Legacy of Misery

By Dave Gahary

A toxic herbicide known as Agent Orange (AO), named after the orange stripe painted across drums containing the defoliant, continues to wreak horrific biological damage on newborns today, not only in the country where it was irresponsibly sprayed, but in countries where individuals, mostly veterans, of what the Vietnamese call the “American War” had sent them to fight.

President John F. Kennedy approved the large-scale chemical warfare program in August 1961 for use in Vietnam. It officially ended in 1970, although numerous firsthand accounts suggest it was extended past that point and used illegally in Cambodia and Laos.

AO, used to clear the triple canopy jungles of Vietnam, the lifeblood of that country’s civilians, contains TCDD-dioxin, the most toxic small molecule known to science. Some 50 years later, Vietnamese forests particularly hard hit by AO are still dead. Research done in 1982, where minute quantities of dioxin-laced food was fed to rhesus monkeys, proved fatal.


On October 7, AMERICAN FREE PRESS conducted an exclusive 90-minute interview with Fred A. Wilcox, the author of Scorched Earth: Legacies of Chemical Warfare in Vietnam, to get a more thorough understanding of the topic. Wilcox, an associate professor of writing at Ithaca College, has been a veteran’s advocate, environmentalist and scholar on the Vietnam War for over 30 years.

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“Three million Vietnamese, including 500,000 children, are suffering from the effects of toxic chemicals used during the war,” explained Wilcox. This number does not include 2.4 million American service members who were in Southeast Asia, nor does it include veterans from other countries such as South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

The effects, he said, are caused by dioxin settling in fatty tissues. Then it is transferred into sperm, blood and milk, which then pass the poison on to progeny. Those directly exposed suffer an early demise from various forms of cancer, among other maladies that claim even more victims.

Birth defects observed include cleft lips, absence of nose and eyes, shortened limbs, malformed ears, club feet, deformed forearms, water on the brain, all or part of the brain missing and a variety of heart problems. The most common birth defects are children born without anuses, and chest or belly-linked twins. Some children are delivered without belly skin, thus exposing their intestines and other organs.

The United States military turned its back on those who served, telling veterans who complained about the ill effects of their exposure that “they were alcoholics, drug addicts and malingerers and suffered from combat stress.” Only in 2009 did the Veterans Administration begin compensation for some AO-related illnesses.

A class action lawsuit brought by Vietnam veterans and their families in 1978 resulted in an out-of-court settlement of $180 million in 1984, a major victory for the companies that made AO, Dow Chemical and the Monsanto Corporation. Vets were left with a maximum payout of $12,000, widows received $3,700, while their children got nothing. However, the court did award more than $13 million in attorneys’ fees.

The Vietnamese weren’t so lucky. They brought a separate class action lawsuit 20 years later, accusing these corporations of war crimes. The plaintiffs were assigned the same Brooklyn, N.Y. judge that betrayed U.S. Vietnam veterans two decades earlier, Jack B. Weinstein.

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Dave Gahary, a former submariner in the U.S. Navy, is the host of AFP’s ‘Underground Interview’ series.

Be sure to check out all of AFP’s free audio interviews. You’ll find them on the HOME PAGE, ARCHIVES & AUDIO section.