The Story of Agent Orange
The various chemicals were labeled by color-coded stripes on the barrels, an arsenal of herbicides known by the colors of the rainbow, including Agent Blue (which contained arsenic), Agent White, Agent Purple, and the lethal combination of 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T, Agent Orange.
On January 13, 1962, three U.S. Air Force C-123s left Tan Son Nhut airfield to begin Operation Hades (later called Operation Ranch Hand), the defoliation of portions of South Vietnam's heavily forested countryside in which Viet Cong guerrillas could easily hide. By September, 1962, the spraying program had intensified, despite an early lack of success, as U.S. officials targeted the Ca Mau Peninsula, a scene of heavy communist activity. Ranch Hand aircraft sprayed more than 9,000 acres of mangrove forests there, defoliating approximately 95 percent of the targeted area. That mission was deemed a success and full approval was given for continuation of Operation Ranch Hand as the U.S. stepped up its involvement in Vietnam.
SIX TO TWENTY-FIVE TIMES
STRONGER THAN RECOMMENDED
Over the next nine years, an estimated 12 million gallons of Agent Orange were sprayed throughout Vietnam. The U.S. military command in Vietnam insisted publicly the defoliation program was militarily successful and had little adverse impact on the economy of the villagers who came into contact with it.
Although the herbicides were widely used in the United States, they usually were heavily diluted with water or oil. In Vietnam, military applications were sprayed at the rate of three gallons per acre and contained approximately 12 pounds of 2,4-D and 13.8 pounds of 2,3,5-T.
The military sprayed herbicides in Vietnam six to 25 times the rate suggested by the manufacturer.
In 1962, 15,000 gallons of herbicide were sprayed throughout Vietnam. The following year that amount nearly quadrupled, as 59,000 gallons of chemicals were poured into the forests and streams. The amounts increased significantly after that: 175,000 gallons in 1964, 621,000 gallons in 1965 and 2.28 million gallons in 1966.
The pilots who flew these missions became so proficient at their jobs that it would take only a few minutes after reaching their target areas to dump their 1,000-gallon loads before turning for home. Flying over portions of South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia that had been sprayed, the pilots could see the effects of their work. Many of them adopted a grim fatalism about the job. Over the door of the ready room for Ranch Hand pilots at Tan Son Nhut Airport near Saigon hung this sign: "Only You Can Prevent Forests."
MAKERS KNEW OF DANGER TO HUMANS
Unknown to the tens of thousands of American soldiers and Vietnamese civilians who were living, eating and bathing in a virtual omnipresent mist of the rainbow herbicides, the makers of these chemicals were well aware of their long-term toxic effects, but sought to suppress the information from the government and the public, fearing negative backlash.
Of particular concern to the chemical companies was Agent Orange, which contained dioxin. Publicly, the chemical companies said dioxin occurred naturally in the environment and was not harmful to humans.
Privately, they knew otherwise.
A February 22, 1965 Dow Chemical Corporation internal memorandum provided a summary of a meeting in which 13 executives discussed the potential hazards of dioxin in 2,4,5-T. Following that meeting, Dow officials decided to meet with other makers of the chemical and formulate a stance on Agent Orange and dioxin.
In March 1965, Dow official V.K. Rowe convened a meeting of executives of Monsanto, Hooker Chemical, which operated the Love Canal dump, Diamond Alkali, the forerunner of Diamond-Shamrock, and the Hercules Powder Co., which later became Hercules, Inc.
According to documents uncovered only years later, the purpose of this meeting was "to discuss the toxicological problems caused by the presence of certain highly toxic impurities" in samples of 2,4,5-T. The primary "highly toxic impurity" was 2,3,7,8 TCDD, one of 75 dioxin compounds.
CONCERN OVER DIOXINS KEPT QUIET
Three months later, Rowe sent a memo to Ross Mulholland, a manager with Dow in Canada, informing him that dioxin "is exceptionally toxic, it has a tremendous potential for producing chloracne (a skin disorder similar to acne) and systemic injury." Rowe ordered Mulholland in a postscript to the letter that "Under no circumstances may this letter be reproduced, shown or sent to anyone outside of Dow." Among those in attendance at one of the meetings of chemical company officials was John Frawley, a toxicologist for Hercules, Inc. In an internal memorandum for Hercules officials, Frawley wrote in 1965 that Dow was concerned the government might learn of a Dow study showing that dioxin caused severe liver damage in rabbits. Dow was concerned, according to Frawley, that "the whole industry will suffer." Frawley said he came away from the meeting with the feeling that "Dow was extremely frightened that this situation might explode" and lead to government restrictions.
The concern over dioxins was kept quiet and largely out of the public view. The U.S. government and the chemical companies presented a united front on the issue of defoliation, claiming it was militarily necessary to deprive the Viet Cong of hiding places and food sources and that it caused no adverse economic or health effects to those who came into contact with the rainbow herbicides, particularly Agent Orange.
AIR FORCE KNEW OF HEALTH DANGER
But, scientists involved in Operation Ranch Hand and documents uncovered recently in the National Archives present a somewhat different picture. There are strong indications that not only were military officials aware as early as 1967 of the limited effectiveness of chemical defoliation, they knew of potential long-term health risks of frequent spraying and sought to keep that information from the public by managing news reports.
Dr. James Clary was an Air Force scientist in Vietnam who helped write the history of Operation Ranch Hand. Clary says the Air Force knew Agent Orange was far more hazardous to the health of humans than anyone would admit at the time.
"When we (military scientists) initiated the herbicide program in the 1960s," Clary wrote in a 1988 letter to a member of Congress investigating Agent Orange, "we were aware of the potential for damage due to dioxin contamination in the herbicide. We were even aware that the `military' formulation had a higher dioxin concentration than the `civilian' version, due to the lower cost and speed of manufacture. However, because the material was to be used on the `enemy,' none of us were overly concerned. We never considered a scenario in which our own personnel would become contaminated with the herbicide. And, if we had, we would have expected our own government to give assistance to veterans so contaminated."
MILITARY DOWNPLAYS USE OF HERBICIDES
Aware of the concern over the use of herbicides in Vietnam, particularly the use of Agent Orange, the U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), attempted to put the proper public relations spin on information concerning Operation Ranch Hand by announcing a "revision" in its policy on the use of herbicides.
It was not so much a revision of the policy as it was an appearance of a revision of the policy as it was an appearance of revision, as is evident in a memorandum signed by Gen. R.W. Komer, deputy to Gen. William Westmoreland for civil operations and RD support (CORDS).
"The purpose of this exercise would be to meet criticisms of excessive use of defoliants by clarifying that they will no longer be used in large areas, while in reality not restricting our use of defoliants (since they are not now normally used in this area anyway). In addition, there would be an escape clause . . . which would permit the use of defoliants even in the prohibited area provided that a strong case could be made to MACV/JGS.
"Appearing to restrict the use of defoliants in this manner would (a) help meet US and Vietnamese criticism of these operations; (b) increase peasant confidence so that they would grow more rice; (c) be of psywar (psychological warfare) value by suggesting that large areas were sufficiently pacified by now that large scale defoliants use was no longer necessary."
But the idea that the spraying of herbicides could be confined to a limited area as suggested in this memo was known to be futile as early as 1962.