Bird, Jacqueline: In the matter of Agent Orange: Vietnam veterans versus the Australian War Memorial

Bird, Jacqueline*

In the matter of Agent Orange: Vietnam veterans versus the Australian War Memorial‘, Honest History, 15 March 2016

A detailed account of more than twenty years of history, leading up to the agreement by the Australian War Memorial to commission a new history of the effects of the chemical Agent Orange on Australians serving in Vietnam. The essay is a long read, more than 10 000 words, and a table of contents is included. There is discussion about what constitutes ‘official history’.

In 1994, the Australian War Memorial sparked a controversy with its publication of an essay by historian Professor FB Smith, entitled ‘Agent Orange: the Australian aftermath’. Of primary concern to critics was the essay’s narrow and tendentious presentation of events, coupled with its overtly hostile approach towards the Vietnam veterans who, in the 1980s, had campaigned for the truth about the herbicide’s impact. While the initial outcry about Smith’s essay gradually gave way to sporadic complaints from the veterans themselves, events took a turn in late 2008, when one group of veterans embarked on a protracted campaign to have their story rewritten.

This essay seeks to outline the dispute between the veterans and the historians and officials at the War Memorial, as it played out in public and behind the scenes over the following six years. Its purpose in doing so is both to shed light on the veterans’ complaints and to assess the validity of their demand for a new history. At the same time, it reflects on the broader question of where the responsibility of the official historian lies when writing about controversial subjects like Agent Orange.

Aspects of Agent Orange are dealt with also in a detailed account by Willy Bach. The more general aftermath of Australia’s Vietnam involvement is contained in a collection of resources. See also Alison Broinowski’s article about the struggle to right the record and about the broader implications. Finally, there is a recent article (behind a paywall) about more general health impacts of Vietnam service.

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* Jacqueline Bird is an independent historian, with a particular interest in the role of science in warfare. She completed her PhD at the University of Queensland, focusing on the role of scientists in the development of the United States nuclear weapons policy. The thesis was subsequently published in the United States. She is currently looking into the Australian experience of Agent Orange. 

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