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Agent Orange and the Vietnam War

In 1961, United States forces in Vietnam began to use chemical herbicides and defoliants on South Vietnamese crops, bushes, and trees in order to deprive the Vietcong of both food and cover for ambushes. Code-named Operation Ranch Hand, the campaign used a variety of herbicides but the most commonly used, and most effective, was Agent Orange, named for the orange stripe painted on the 55-gallon drums in which the mixture was stored. It was one of several “Rainbow Herbicides” used, along with Agents White, Purple, Pink, Green and Blue.

Ultimately spraying more than 20 million gallons of herbicide on Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, the campaign destroyed five millions acres of forest and untold millions of acres of crops. Many of those exposed to Agent Orange, Vietnamese and Americans alike, suffered health complications as a result, and scores of children were born with severe birth defects which were believed to be linked to the herbicides.

In 1979, a class action lawsuit was filed on behalf of 2.4 million veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange during their service in Vietnam. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush signed into law the Agent Orange Act, which mandated that some diseases associated with defoliants be treated as the result of wartime service and their exposure to Agent Orange.

George A. Anderson was the political-military affairs officer at Embassy Saigon from 1968-1970 and was interviewed by Don Kienzle beginning June 1996. Lawrence H. Hydle was a consular and political officer in Ben Hua, Vietnam from 1968-1970. He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in July 1994.

Robert Hopkins Miller was deputy chief of the Political Section at Embassy Saigon from 1962-1965. He recounts being heavily involved in the beginning of Operation Ranch Hand in his book “Vietnam and Beyond: A Diplomat’s Cold War Education,” published by ADST. E. Allan Wendt was in the Economics Department for USAID in Saigon from 1967-1971. He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning May 1996. Lloyd Neighbors served in Vietnam though 2010 and was interviewed by David Reuther beginning in February 2013.

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“Kennedy insisted that crop destruction proposals had to receive senior approval in Washington”

ANDERSON: The herbicides were, of course, at that time dioxin and the Agent Orange. This was mainly a political issue as whether it was hurting the farmers and was it doing any good. The idea that there was dioxin in it was little known by anybody and it was not an issue. The issue was that there was drift involved and it was killing the forests, it was an environmental thing, and it was hurting the peasants, and so forth. So they were really concerned on the ecosystem and what its effect was going to be.

We had dropped over Vietnam at that point approximately over half of all the herbicides manufactured in the world. People know very little about what kind of herbicides were involved, they don’t know the difference between orange, white and blue, they don’t know the difference between the herbicide and desiccant, most of the palaver that you hear out there talked about is totally uninformed.

Coming from an agricultural area, and having been at that point the owner of farms, and my brothers and I used herbicides on farms that we’d bought together, I knew quite a bit about herbicides, but I learned an awfully lot more about it there.

HYDLE: As I understood the issue, there were different uses for Agent Orange. One of them was, of course, clearing away areas like in front of your own defense perimeter. Another purpose was clearing trails along which infiltrators might come. Still another, prompt destruction in communist areas.

It was during that period that there were some studies that Agent Orange might lead to birth defects or cancer. It was inconclusive but there were indications. I thought that some uses of Agent Orange could be justified while others were hard to justify. Particularly, it seems to me, if you can’t defoliate your own perimeter, you have to allow the communist to sneak up on you then clear up your perimeter. You’re losing lives by then.

MILLER: Soon after my arrival, one advisory role I participated in directly was what was then a small, tentative, experimental program of chemically defoliating tropical vegetation and crops, dubbed “Ranch Hand.” Only a few experimental defoliation missions had until then been flown in the delta southwest of Saigon along canals and roadways and around base areas to clear fields of fire and to reduce the risk of Viet Cong ambush.

On one occasion, I accompanied General Paul Harkins, the first Commander of the U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), on an inspection flight over sprayed areas in the delta. Later on, I flew on a number of Ranch Hand C-123 missions north of Saigon in Tay Ninh and Phuoc Long provinces whose purpose was to select isolated Viet Cong crop areas for destruction by defoliant spraying.

The Phuoc Long test operation, along with one or two other, laid the basis for decision in Washington to continue the program on a limited and carefully controlled basis. After evaluation of these operations in Washington, President Kennedy agreed to delegate to the ambassador in Saigon the authority to approve carefully defined defoliation operation but insisted that crop destruction proposals had to receive senior approval in Washington.

The C-123 Ranch Hand flights were not without their drama or their risk. We would take off from Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut airport in the early morning with Vietnamese military and agricultural experts, MACV representatives, and myself, the lone diplomat representing the political judgment of the embassy and the State Department.

Before taking off in the relative cool of what invariably became a hot, steamy tropical morning as the sun climbed higher, each passenger was handed a parachute (usually accompanied by some black humor –“If it doesn’t work, turn it in for a new one!”—from the crew member) and told to strap himself into his bucket seat.

The C-123 was a cargo plane – bucket seats for the few passengers, no interior finish or furnishing. As we reached our cruising altitude, the crew would open the rear cargo ramp to improve the air circulation inside the aircraft.

When we reached the province in which our prospective targets were located, we would usually land on a dirt airstrip to pick up local officials, Vietnamese and American, who were more familiar with the local terrain and security conditions.

Over the proposed target area, we descended to a relatively low altitude for better viewing of the rice or vegetable plots that were our tentative targets, in order to make better judgments as to their suitability for chemical defoliation. This is when we were most vulnerable to Viet Cong sniping for antiaircraft barrages — happily, something that never occurred on the flights I was on.

Under guidance from the State Department, the U.S. mission followed elaborate criteria to prevent spraying operations from hitting populated areas or crops near populated areas. This meant flying conditions had to be nearly ideal, with a minimum of wind and precipitation.

“Frustration with its inability to achieve its purposes in Vietnam led it to lose all perspective — moral and otherwise”

It meant, too, devising a scheme for compensating villagers if their crops were destroyed in error. Categorical assurances were repeatedly given by the chemical experts of the U.S. Army and the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) that the defoliants, “agents orange and purple,” were harmless to humans and animals.

We kept detailed records of every operation, assess the process of selecting targets, the operation itself, and the results. The State Department had serious concerns that destroying food with chemicals would lead the communist side to charge the United States with engaging in chemical warfare in Vietnam.

The Department insisted that an embassy political officer participate in the selection of possible crop targets to assess the potential political risks. The volumes on Vietnam in Foreign Relations of the United States 1961-1963 reflect the controversy that swirled around this issue in Washington as the policymakers grappled with the potential benefits and liabilities of such a program.

Ranch Hand ultimately grew from its modest beginning to a program of gigantic proportions. It was perhaps the most egregious — and tragic — example of how America’s frustration with its inability to achieve its purposes in Vietnam led it to lose all perspective — moral and otherwise — regarding the methods it employed. Americans and Vietnamese alike continue to bear Ranch Hand’s damaging consequences.

The Washington debate was complicated further by the American desire to describe Ranch Hand as a South Vietnamese program for which Saigon had requested our technical assistance. This ran smack into the Vietnamese desire to get on with the program without paying too much attention to U.S. restrictions, It became just one more source of tension between the Vietnamese and ourselves.

WENDT: One of my responsibilities in the Economic Section was to adjudicate U.S. military proposals for herbicide missions — basically, large-scale defoliation of areas judged to be under Vietcong control. The military brought proposed herbicide missions to us for analysis of whether or not the missions would adversely affect friendly Vietnamese as distinct from Vietcong. I had a very able assistant in my office named Elliot Rothenberg, who was in fact a lawyer by profession. He was careful but zealous in analyzing the missions, and in fact we stopped a number of them where we had evidence that friendly Vietnamese would be affected.

The military often asked me if I wanted to go up on one of the missions. I must say I was tempted, but something — and to this day I am not sure what — always held me back. Needless to say, after all the news about the medical problems that arose after exposure to Agent Orange, my instincts served me well in this instance.

Unofficial visitors from Washington would sometimes complain about the program. I always told them that the existence of the program was above my pay grade but that we did study the proposed missions carefully to ensure they were only carried out in Vietcong-held areas.

NEIGHBORS: Apropos the scars of war, I helped organize a seminar on how to mitigate the affects of Agent Orange. Ambassador [to Vietnam from 2007-11, Michael] Michalak participated, along with a number of American experts on hazardous chemical “remediation.” The U.S. sprayed Agent Orange – a powerful defoliant– all over the countryside in Vietnam during the war. The idea was to kill the vegetation that provided cover for Vietcong guerrillas and North Vietnamese forces.

After the end of the war, both American and Vietnamese activists charged that Agent Orange had severely damaged the health of those exposed to the chemical, particularly those who lived or worked in areas where Agent Orange was stored.

After long negotiations, the U.S. agreed to work with the Vietnamese in cleaning up the old storage sites, preventing further damage to the health of those living near the areas of highest chemical concentration. As part of the public seminar, we brought in American experts to talk with their Vietnamese counterparts about this vital issue. The Ambassador played a major role in the event, forcefully explaining the U.S. position and rebutting critiques of our policy.

Though in general we are working well with the Vietnamese on this issue, we do have some points of contention with them. For example, the U.S. has never admitted that Agent Orange causes long-term illnesses. We have, however, given subsidies to some American servicemen who claim they became ill 20 to 30 years after serving in Vietnam and being exposed to Agent Orange. The USG [U.S. government] paid these claims, but noted that scientific evidence on this issue remains inconclusive.

For their part, the Vietnamese said: “You’re giving money to U.S. servicemen for being exposed to Agent Orange. Why don’t you give it to us?”

To which Ambassador Michalak’s replied, cleverly articulating the U.S. policy. In essence, he said, “I am delighted you are concerned about the possible affects of Agent Orange, and we would applaud you, the Vietnamese government, if you were able to take care of your soldiers as we have done in the United States. We think compensation would be a good idea.”

In short, the Ambassador was saying that we would help clean up the contaminated sites where Agent Orange had been stored. But, we were not going to pay retirement/medical subsidies for Vietnamese soldiers. The Government of Vietnam should do that.