Bach, Willy: Agent Orange in Vietnam

Bach, Willy

Britain, Australia, the United States and Agent Orange in the Indochina Wars: Re-defining Chemical-Biological Warfare: research paper (6 March 2015)

This article re-examines the sanitised history of Agent Orange and other defoliants used in the Indochina War between 1961 and 1974. It begins by reviewing the incomplete and misleading narratives regarding the use of these chemicals, which have occupied and confused the public imagination and the official record. For this purpose, I highlight the Australian public narrative notable for its disinformation and insufficient appreciation of these chemicals in historical context …

Defoliants were an instrument of imperial power, sophisticated chemical technology applied to peasant societies without risk of retaliation. Given global censure of chemical warfare from World War I forward, they necessitated a distancing of decision-makers from responsibility for “others” who were the weapon’s anticipated target. They were both defoliants for jungle clearing and herbicides, an instrument of food denial; but they could also be used as a toxic chemical weapon …

Governments and contracting manufacturers claimed that they did not know the chemicals were toxic. It was falsely claimed that the use of defoliants was legal under international law. Several government inquiries concluded that Australians were only incidentally involved with Agent Orange use. This included the unsustainable claim that Phước Tuy Province, Việt Nam had not been sprayed, in spite of official records, maps and veterans’ accounts showing that the province was the first to be used in a trial, then repeatedly sprayed. (from the introduction to the paper)

The paper concludes as follows:

In this paper fresh challenges have been issued against some of the disinformation and omissions surrounding the use of Agent Orange, that has beset Australian society to varying degrees since the Indochina War; has clouded public perception, government transparency, infected the official history and inflicted hurtful insults to the injured memories of Australian veterans, imposing conformity and silence on the nation’s narrative …

Yet evidence was available regarding the purpose of defoliant warfare and its devastating consequences. Its early development and its use in the very earliest stages of the Indochina conflict have been fully documented. To date, in Australia a sanitised history has displaced a more accurate appreciation of the great harm that Agent Orange and its siblings inflicted on the peoples of Indochina, especially in the southern regions of Việt Nam, and secondarily on many of the Australian, New Zealand and American soldiers who used the weapon. This is indeed a toxic recipe overdue for scholarly revision.

This lengthy paper is based on wide research in secondary and some primary sources, including archival material. The paper has been edited slightly in its punctuation and retains some unconventional formatting. It is published by Honest History because of the importance of the information it contains and the references it draws upon. Willy Bach is a postgraduate research student, School of History, University of Queensland. An earlier related paper on decolonisation and counter-insurgency doctrine is here.

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