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Oleg Burunov
Oleg Burunov
Oleg Burunov is a Moscow-based correspondent who has been working at Sputnik since 2015 and specialises in foreign affairs and defence.

The Colour of Death: Legacy of Agent Orange Still Plagues Vietnam After Decades of Peace

Agent Orange news

Agent Orange, which contains the deadly chemical dioxin, was the most common herbicide used by the US during the 1955-1975 Vietnam War to eliminate forest cover and crops in order to reveal North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops.

On August 10, 1961, American forces for the first time spayed Agent Orange in Vietnam as part of its herbicidal warfare program, Operation Ranch Hand.

Here’s a closer look into this highly toxic defoliant chemical, the use of which by the US military during the 1955-1975 Vietnam War resulted in up to one million people being disabled, according to the Red Cross of Vietnam’s estimates.

What is Agent Orange?

The defoliant derived its name from the color of the orange-striped US gallon barrels in which the chemical was shipped and stored.

It was created in 1940 and used in the United States as an agricultural defoliant, as it had the ability to kill some plants while leaving others unaffected.

Using the Defense Production Act of 1950, the US government prodded several American companies to make Agent Orange for military use. A 50:50 mixture of the herbicides 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D, the defoliant contains an extremely toxic dioxin compound.

Effects of Agent Orange

A 50:50 mixture of the 2,4,5-Trichlorophenoxyacetic acid and 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid, Agent Orange contains the Tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin, or TCDD, the most toxic of the dioxins, classified as a human carcinogen by the US Environmental Protection Agency.
Even short-term exposure to TCDD can cause cancer, liver problems and a severe acne-like skin disease, known as chloracne. The dioxin is also linked to type 2 diabetes, immune system dysfunction, nerve disorders, muscular dysfunction, hormone disruption and heart disease.

Additionally, the chemical can cause miscarriages, spina bifida and other problems with fetal brain and nervous system development.

Use of Agent Orange in Vietnam

During the 1955-1975 Vietnam war, the first US defoliation missions were launched near the Vietnamese village of Dak To in 1961.

The goal was to remove cover and concealment used by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army, so as to reveal hidden bases, communications centers and potential targets, and to improve visibility in tracking troop movements.

More than 13 million gallons (about 59 million liters) of Agent Orange was used by the US military in Vietnam, or almost two-thirds of the total amount of herbicides used during the entire Vietnam War.

The chemical was available in slightly different mixtures, sometimes referred to as Agent Orange I, Agent Orange II, Agent Orange III and “Super Orange”.

End of Agent Orange?

In 1969, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) urged the Pentagon to end its use of herbicides containing dioxin, specifically Agent Orange, something that the Department of Defense (DoD) eventually did.

Even so, the defoliation campaign continued, with the US military switching to Agent White, a chemical herbicide that did not contain the dioxin contaminant.

In May 1970, the US Air Force (USAF) flew its last defoliation mission, and almost a year later, the DoD announced that all crop destruction missions would also cease.

The remaining 2.22 million gallons of Agent Orange were moved by the USAF to Johnston Island Atoll in the South Pacific, where they were incinerated.

Legacy

The Vietnamese government said that up to four million people in the country were exposed to Agent Orange, and as many as three million people had suffered illness because of the defoliant.

The Vietnam Red Cross in turn pointed out that the defoliant had affected at least 150,000 children, and that babies in Vietnam are still being born with birth defects due to Agent Orange. In this regard, numerous studies revealed that dioxin levels are still in place in the blood samples of the citizens of both North and South Vietnam.

The chemical also caused immense environmental damage in Vietnam, with more than 3,100,000 hectares (31,000 km2) of forest being defoliated ( for comparison’s sake, Taiwan measures 36,197 km2).

Agent Orange-related issues also emerged in the US after an increasing number of returning Vietnam veterans and their families began to report a range of health problems, including skin irritations, miscarriages, psychological symptoms, type 2 diabetes, birth defects in children and cancers such as Hodgkin’s disease, prostate cancer and leukemia.
1979 saw a class action lawsuit filed on behalf of 2.4 million US veterans, who were exposed to Agent Orange during their service in Vietnam. In 1984, seven major US chemical companies that manufactured the defoliant agreed to pay $180 million in damages to the veterans or their next of kin.

Vietnam War

The 1955-1975 Vietnam War, which involved Laos and Cambodia, pitted communist North Vietnam and the Viet Cong revolutionary organization against South Vietnam, supported by Washington.

Preconditions for the war pertained to the desire of North Vietnam, which defeated the French colonial administration in 1954, to unify the entire country under a single communist authority, like in the Soviet Union or China. The South Vietnamese government, for its part, sought to preserve a Vietnam more closely aligned with the West.

The US was concerned over the spread of communism to South Vietnam and then to the rest of Asia, which prompted Washington to send money, supplies and military advisers to help the South Vietnamese government.

On August 2, 1964, North Vietnamese boats attacked a US Navy destroyer, the USS Maddox, patrolling in the Gulf of Tonkin near Vietnam, in what was used by the White House as a pretext to escalate the war and send American combat units to the South East Asian country. However, the US costs and casualties in the war prompted Washington to withdraw American troops by 1973, and a couple of years later, South Vietnam fell to a full-scale invasion by the North.

An array of war crimes was committed by the US military during the war, including the My Lai massacre, in which up to 504 unarmed South Vietnamese civilians, including women, children, and infants, were killed by US Army soldiers on March 16, 1968.

Another war crime pertains to Operation Speedy Express, conducted by the US Army in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta between December 1968 and May 1969 as part of the American military’s effort to pacify the Viet Cong. The operation led to 5,000 to 7,000 casualties who were reported to have been civilians.

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