Chemical Warfare At Its Worst


The shocking images of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre in New York is well-etched in the minds of almost everyone who had access to a TV set. Similarly, all those who were adults or in their teens in the late 1960s and early 1970s and had access to radio or newspapers would have heard or read about the Vietnam War. Some of them may be familiar with the phrase “Agent Orange” and may even have come across some fleeting reference about the same. However, the devastating effect of the chemical warfare that the U.S. military had unleashed on Vietnam from 1961 to 1971 is hardly ever in the news despite being hundreds of times deadlier than the 9/11 attack in terms of death, devastation and long-term impact. This report is an attempt to shed light on some aspects of this 50-year old critical issue that has gone largely unnoticed and unaddressed. 

The Second International Conference of Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin was held in Hanoi from 07 to 10 August 2011 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first use of herbicides in Vietnam by the U.S. military during the then ongoing civil war between the Ho Chi Minh-led communist regime of North Vietnam and the U.S.-propped regime of South Vietnam. (The first Conference was held in 2006.) The U.S. Administration began ruthlessly using chemical-weapons on Vietnam (notably in areas theoretically under the “protection”of the U.S.-backed regime) exactly sixteen years after President Harry Truman had shocked the world by his decision to test nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 06 and 09 August 1945. The thoughtless use of these chemical-weapons, especially the one in the form of an herbicide called “Agent Orange” that contained trace amounts of a byproduct called TCDD (dioxin – one of the most toxic-chemicals known to humans), has had devastating effects. [1] No less than 80 million liters of herbicides were sprayed over Vietnam from 1961 to 1971, which had effectively destroyed over 3 million hectares of forests, mangroves and cultivable land and had devastated the lives of more than 3 million people in Vietnam alone.


The U.S. military used Agent Orange and other herbicides from 1961 to 1971 reportedly to save the lives of U.S. and allied soldiers by defoliating dense vegetation in the Vietnamese jungles and therefore reducing the chances of ambush. In the process, at least 3 million hectares of forests, mangroves and cultivable land were destroyed with toxins and about 4.8 million Vietnamese were exposed to the effects of the dioxin-laced “Agent Orange” of whom at least 3 million were affected. As a result, over 400,000 of them have since died and about 500,000 children have been born with all kinds of birth-defects ranging from acute physical deformities to extreme mental disabilities or a combination of both. A large section of U.S. and allied forces, who had served in Vietnam, has also met with a similar fate. Justice continues to elude all of them. In addition, the former U.S. military bases in Vietnam, where the herbicides were stored and loaded onto the airplanes for spraying, are suspected to contain high levels of dioxin in the soil, which continue to pose a threat to the surrounding communities.

The Second International Conference, which was organized by the Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange (VAVA), was attended by over 200 delegates, half of whom were from 24 other countries. They included Agent Orange victims from not only Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia but also from U.S.A, South Korea, Australia, and Canada. Victims of chemical warfare [2] from Sardasht (Iran), Marivan (Iran) and Halabja (Iraq) and victims of chemical disasters from Seveso (1976) and Bhopal (1984) also attend the Conference. Sanjay Verma, who lost his parents and six siblings in the Bhopal disaster and in its aftermath, along with this writer represented the Bhopal gas victims at the event.

The fact that U.S. and allied soldiers also became victims of Agent Orange testifies to the recklessness with which the U.S. military had sprayed these herbicides over Vietnam. The most striking example in this regard is the case relating to the Zumwalt family.  Admiral Zumwalt, as commander of the U.S. Naval Forces in Vietnam during 1968-1970 and as the one who had commanded the flotilla of Swift Boats that patrolled the coasts, harbors, and rivers of Vietnam, was instrumental is increasing the area and intensity with which Agent Orange was sprayed over Vietnam. His son, Lt. Zumwalt, who was commander of one of the Swift Boats that had patrolled areas that had been worst hit by Agent Orange, died of cancer in 1988 when he was just 42 years old. His grandson, Russell Zumwalt (born in 1977) suffers from mental retardation. Their unenviable plight is recounted in a moving account titled My Father, My Son (Macmillan, 1986). Lt. Zumwalt believed that Agent Orange had caused his cancer as well as the severe learning disabilities in his son.

Heather Bowser, a second generation U.S. Agent Orange victim (whose late father, Bill Morris, had served as a U.S. soldier in Vietnam in 1968 and had died of Agent Orange related disease in 1998) was born without her right leg below the knee, the big toe on her left foot and several of her fingers. The 38-year old Heather, the first second generation U.S. Agent Orange victim to interact with her counterparts in Vietnam, was there to seek justice for all Agent Orange victims. Concerned lawyers, scientists, and social activists from several countries as well as ambassadors of China, Greece, Iran, South Africa and Venezuela were among others who attended it.

Rosemarie Höhn-Mizo of Germany and Masako Sakata of Japan, who are now in their early 60s, had nothing to do with the war in Vietnam. Their tragedy was that they happened to marry U.S. war veterans, who had served in Vietnam in the late 1960s in areas that were sprayed with Agent Orange. Their husbands, George Mizo and Greg Davis, who realized that they were suffering from the effects of Agent Orange and who went back to Vietnam to seek justice for the victims of Agent Orange, subsequently died of cancer in 2002 and 2003 respectively. Rosemarie, as president of the International Committee of the Vietnam Friendship Village Project that supports Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange, and Masako, as a documentary film maker, are carrying on the struggle to seek justice for all Agent Orange victims. They too attended the Conference.

It is not known if President John Kennedy, who had first sanctioned the use of herbicides on 10 August 1961, was aware of the presence of dioxin in them and about the nature of their toxicity. Official reports have tried to argue that at the time these herbicides were permitted to be used on Vietnam, they were in fact sold commercially in the U.S. [3] In other words, these herbicides were then legally produced and used in the U.S. However, there was one crucial difference: there was wide variation in the amount of dioxin present in the batch of Agent Orange that was sold domestically and in the consignment that was exported to Vietnam. It appears that, “in domestic preparations, it is present in much lower concentrations, 0.05 ppm (parts per million) as opposed to peaks of 50 ppm in stock shipped to Vietnam. Therefore dioxin contamination of Agent Orange was up to 1,000 times higher than in domestic herbicides.” [4] 

While 0.05ppm was considered the “safe” level for domestic sale of Agent Orange in the U.S., the manufacturers (Dow, Monsanto, and 5 other companies) and the U.S. Administration consciously manufactured and exported Agent Orange to Vietnam with unacceptable levels of toxicity. They knew very well that using herbicides with high levels of dioxin would cause irreparable harm to the Vietnamese people, who happened to be in the vicinity of the spraying area, and would result in widespread destruction of the exposed environment. Thus, the U.S. Administration and the concerned manufacturers knowingly committed an abhorrent war crime – a crime against humanity – for which they have to be held accountable and punished. However, Dow, one of the guilty chemical companies, has conveniently placed the entire blame on the U.S. Administration by propounding the spacious plea that: “As a nation at war, the U.S. government compelled a number of companies to produce Agent Orange under the Defense Production Act. The government specified how it would be produced and controlled its use.”[5] While Monsanto has taken the following position: We believe that the adverse consequences alleged to have arisen out of the Vietnam War, including the use of Agent Orange, should be resolved by the governments that were involved.” [6]

The U.S. Administration cannot claim that it had the right to use chemical-weapons because the U.S. was not a party to the Geneva Protocol of 1925 [7] until 1975. If signing of international protocols has to be the yardstick for determining culpability, no action should have been contemplated against terrorists like Osama Bin Laden for the 9/11 attack because he was not a party to any international treaty governing conduct of war! The U.S. Administration is guilty of willfully poisoning the people of Vietnam (as well as its own soldiers and those of its allies) and of destroying the environment; it can in no way claim ignorance about the grievous consequences of its action. Thus, there is a strong case for the Government of Vietnam to seek suitable remedy before the International Court of Justice and to highlight the matter before the Non-Aligned Movement, the UN General Assembly, and every available international fora for eliciting appropriate support for their just cause.

Due to consistent protest from the then North Vietnam regime and the mounting evidence about the high toxicity of dioxin, concerned people across the U.S., including the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), expressed their firm opposition to the use of dioxin based herbicides. As a result, “On 15 April 1970, the Secretaries of Health, Education, and Welfare; Interior; and Agriculture announced the suspension of uncontrolled domestic use of herbicides containing 2, 4, 5–T. That same day, the Deputy Secretary of Defense suspended temporarily all use of Orange in military operations pending a more thorough evaluation of the situation.”[8] This decision practically ended yet another diabolical and sordid act of the U.S. Administration during the 20th century because the decision was never rescinded.

Considering the enormous level of destruction and devastation that the U.S. military had unleashed on Vietnam, at the time of signing the Paris Peace Accord on 27 January 1973, the U.S. made a solemn commitment to undertake necessary action to heal the wounds of war. Under Article 21 of the Accord, the U.S. pledged that:  “In pursuance of its traditional policy, the United States will contribute to healing the wounds of war and to postwar reconstruction of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and throughout Indochina.”[9] This promise was followed by a letter dated 01 February 1973 in which President Nixon had promised that the U.S. would contribute “in the range of $3.25 billion” in postwar reconstruction assistance to Vietnam over a five-year period. [10] The U.S. has completely failed to comply with this commitment despite the National Academy of Sciences’ Report affirming as early as 1974 that:“it is the Committee’s firm belief that rehabilitation and reconstruction efforts should …be undertaken as rapidly as conditions permit….. since any delay will make its accomplishment more difficult.” [11] 

Considering the enormity of the task of detoxifying 3 million hectares of affected environment and of medically, economically and socially rehabilitating 3 million dioxin-victims, the proposed plan of the ‘U.S.–Vietnam Dialogue Group on Agent Orange/Dioxin’ to tackle the problem over the next ten years (2010-2019) with a total budget of just $300 million is rather a farfetched one. [12] It only amounts to an average expenditure of just $5 per dioxin-victim for meeting all their needs per year and another $5 per hectare for detoxifying the affected land per year! Effectively, the Dialogue Group’s proposed plan grossly belittles the enormity and gravity of the problem while making a pretence that effective steps are being taken to remedy the same.

U.S. representatives on the Dialogue Group, who include senior members of the Ford Foundation and the Aspen Institute, did not attend the Second International Congress despite claiming that the Dialogue Group was set up to support the cause of Agent Orange Victims. It is, indeed, ironical that the U.S., which had no qualms in spending an estimated $658 billion (in 2008 dollars) for waging the Vietnam War and in spending an almost equal amount for waging the Iraq War [13], is so financially hard-pressed when it comes to the question of raising requisite funds for healing the wounds of war!  Retribution in the case of the 9/11 attack has been dealt with by the U.S. Administration on an entirely different level. This was despite the fact that the impact of the chemical warfare on Vietnam was hundreds of times greater than the impact of the 9/11 attack in terms of grievous human and environmental effects.

The U.S. Administration has either arrested or killed most of the alleged perpetrators of the 9/11 attack.  Over $38 billion has been paid out as compensation to the 9/11 victims, including $8.7 billion for 2880 cases of death (at an average of $3.1 million each), and $23.3 billion as compensation for property damages. Injury cases, numbering about 2680, were also paid over $1 billion as compensation which works out to an average of over $373,000 each. [14] Whereas in the case of the Agent Orange attack, no one has been arrested or prosecuted in the last fifty years. Of the 105,000 U.S. war veterans, who had served in Vietnam and who had reportedly suffered from the effects of Agent Orange, 52,000 have been awarded a total compensation of just $197 million at an average of about $3800 each. [15] The glaring double-standards in the award of compensation by the U.S. Administration even to its own citizens are evident on the face of it! As already noted, Vietnam has been promised a total of just $300 million in the next ten years for remediation of the effected land and as medical assistance!

Under the circumstances, despite President Kennedy’s questionable role in ordering the use of herbicides on Vietnam, it has to be noted that, he was the one who actually tried for a rapprochement with Vietnam as early as 1962. [16]  Not only was President Kennedy against escalation of the war in Vietnam, but also he had already initiated the process of rapprochement with the Soviet Union through, what became known as, the McCloy-Zorin Accord on General and Complete Disarmament that was signed on 20 September 1961. [17]Subsequently, on 20 December 1961, the historical McCloy-Zorin Accord was adopted unanimously by the UN General Assembly [18] and serious negotiations had begun under the aegis of the Eighteen Nation Disarmament Committee (ENDC) for implementing the Accord. However, the entire process was reversed by the wanton assassination of President Kennedy by forces associated with the military industrial complex, which felt threatened by the prospect of world peace if the disarmament process progressed. Kennedy’s assassination, thus, cleared the way for U.S. combat troops to land in Vietnam and for the escalation of the war.

The Second International Conference in its Appeal [19] has called upon the U.S. Administration and the U.S companies (Dow, Monsanto, etc.) to assume responsibility for the horrendous crime it committed against the people of Vietnam and against its own soldiers and those of its allies. The Appeal noted that the U.S Administration and the said U.S. companies have an abiding duty to take appropriate remedial measures for detoxifying the affected environment and for medical, economic and social rehabilitation of all the dioxin-victims. Unfortunately, the Appeal is silent on the role of the Government of Vietnam and other concerned governments and peoples in pressurizing the U.S. Administration to fulfill its duties and responsibilities towards the victims of Agent Orange and to take the U.S Administration to task for the war crime it committed against the people of Vietnam and against humanity in general.


N.D. Jayaprakash is a Co-Convener, Bhopal Gas Peedith Sangharsh Sahayog Samiti (BGPSSS – a national coalition of organizations for supporting the cause of the Bhopal gas victims) and Joint Secretary, Delhi Science Forum. He can be reached at: jaypdsf@gmail.com.


[1] (a) Report of the National Academy of Sciences, “The Effects of Herbicides in South Vietnam” (Washington DC, 1974) at:http://www.vietnam.ttu.edu/star/images/225/2250215001a.pdf

(b) Jeanne Stellman et al, “The Extent and Patterns of Usage of Agent Orange  and Other Herbicides in Vietnam”, NATURE, 17 April 2003, pp.681-687, at:http://www.stellman.com/jms/Stellman1537.pdf

[2] Saddam Hussein, as an ally of the U.S., had used a variety of chemical weapons (including phosgene, sarin and mustard gas) primarily on the Kurdish people during the Iraq-Iran war of 1980-1988

[3] Willard J. Webb and Walter S. Poole, “The Joint Chiefs of Staff and the War in Vietnam – 1971-1973”, Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Washington, DC, 2007, p.378 at: http://www.dtic.mil/doctrine/doctrine/history/vn71_73.pdf

[4] Hugh Warwick, The Ecologist, Vol.28, No.5, Sept-Oct.-1998, p.264 at http://www.theecologist.org/back_archive/19701999/

[5] See: http://www.dow.com/sustainability/debates/agentorange/

[6] See: http://www.monsanto.com/newsviews/Pages/agent-orange-background-monsanto-involvement.asp

[7] “Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare” 

[8] Webb and Poole, op cit., p.380

[9] Ibid, p.407

[10] See: Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, 28 March 2009, p.4 at: http://www.fordfoundation.org/pdfs/about/agent-orange/Martin-CRS-Presentation-DC-052809.pdf

[11] See: Report of the National Academy of Sciences, op cit., p.41 (s-16)

[12] See: http://www.aspeninstitute.org/policy-work/agent-orange

[13] See: http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2008/07/25/national/main4296368.shtml [16 July 2009] (Other reports indicate that the U.S. may have spent over three trillion dollars or more on the Iraq War. See: article titled “The three trillion dollar war” by Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes at http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/guest_contributors/article3419840.ece)

[14] See: http://usgovinfo.about.com/od/defenseandsecurity/a/randon911.htm and http://www.justice.gov/final_report.pdf

[15] See: http://www.vba.va.gov/bln/21/benefits/herbicide/AOno2.htm

[16] See: The Boston Globe, 06 June 2005 at: http://www.boston.com/news/nation/articles/2005/06/06/papers_reveal_jfk_efforts_on_vietnam/

[17] See: http://www.nuclearfiles.org/menu/key-issues/nuclear-weapons/issues/arms-control-disarmament/mccloy-zorin-accords_1961-09-20.htm

[18] See: http://www.un.org/depts/dhl/resguide/r16.htm [A/RES/1722(XVI)]

[19] See: www.vava.org.vn

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