Toxic warfare: revisiting Agent Orange

Alison Broinowski

‘Toxic warfare: revisiting Agent Orange’, Honest History, 16 July 2015

Soon after the Australian War Memorial announced that three new histories of the wars in East Timor, Afghanistan, and Iraq (to 2014) are to be written in the next seven years, the War Memorial Council has added one more. This book will correct the medical record on Vietnam and is to be written by the University of Melbourne’s Dr Peter Yule.

In 1994, 22 years after Australian troops left Vietnam, co-editors Brendan O’Keefe and Francis Barrington Smith produced Medicine at War, covering medical aspects of the South-east Asian involvement from 1950 to 1972. It included Professor Smith’s chapter ‘Agent Orange: the Australian aftermath’. It was one of the nine volumes comprising the official history of Australia’s conflicts in South-east Asia (1948-75), edited by Peter Edwards.

environmentGirls walk through mangrove forest devastated by Agent Orange, Vietnam (A Permanent Mark/Veterans Against the Veterans’ Administration)

Barry Smith, a social and medical historian, had earlier demythologised Florence Nightingale, presenting instead her paranoia, fantasies and lack of scruples in Florence Nightingale: Reputation and Power (1982). In his essay for the Vietnam War history he argued that the diseases reported among Vietnam veterans were not simply attributable to exposure to Agent Orange; he dismissed their complaints as dishonest and seeking compensation; and he reportedly did not interview veterans.

Smith ignored, however, two significant findings of the Royal Commission (1983-85) established under Justice Phillip Evatt on the effects of chemicals on Australian personnel in Vietnam. These findings were that two categories of cancer were attributable to Agent Orange and that the Department of Veterans’ Affairs had denied veterans the benefit of the doubt.

Although the fourth Geneva Protocol in 1925 outlawed chemical and biological weapons, the United States government claimed that Agents Orange, Blue, White, Pink and Purple (named after the colour markings on the barrels in which they were stored and transported), produced mainly by Monsanto and Dow Chemical, were herbicides and defoliants requested by the South Vietnamese government to be sprayed to deny cover and food to the  enemy. The US sprayed dioxins over 12 percent of South Vietnam from 1961 to 1971, covering ten percent of the country’s agricultural land and more than 20 percent of its forests.

Some four million Vietnamese were exposed to much greater concentrations of these dioxins than were allowed for spraying in the US and three million of them became ill or died. Many more starved or were malnourished as a result of crop failures. Disabilities and deformities in children multiplied.

Agent Orange contains equal parts of the dioxins 2, 4, 5-T and 2, 4-D and has been known since at least 1969 to have adverse health effects. The dioxin contamination is 2, 3, 7, 8 (TCD) and, the higher the temperature and speed of its manufacture, the more dioxin is produced and the greater the profit. Grossly deformed Vietnamese babies were evident by 1965 and US scientists confirmed the risk to American and allied soldiers in Vietnam in 1967. Henry Kissinger reduced the use of the chemicals in 1971 though their use did not end completely until 1974.

By 1977 the extent of exposure of Americans to dioxins could not be ignored, nor could US veterans’ cancers and their children’s illnesses and birth defects. In 1991 the US Congress passed the Agent Orange Act, giving the Veterans’ Administration authority to press for treatment and compensation for affected veterans and their children. The range of cancers and other problems affecting veterans widened considerably over the period, yet cases against the American manufacturers of the dioxins were dismissed in 2004 and again in 2007 largely because, when the agents had been used by the British in the Malayan Emergency from 1952 to 1954 as ‘herbicides and defoliants’, no complaint had been made that they were chemical and biological weapons. But the United Kingdom did not explain why it stopped using them after two years.

In Australia, the Vietnam Veterans Association, led by Tim McCombe, campaigned from the late 1970s for recognition that our veterans, too, were affected by dioxins. After McCombe’s death (and Barry Smith’s) this year he was succeeded by Jim Wain, who has welcomed the Memorial’s announcement of a new history.

The history will need to include the Australian veteran who had served with 3RAR in Nui Dat and who, in May 1982, made a statutory declaration to a Senate Inquiry on Pesticide Use in Vietnam, detailing the medical problems he and his sons suffered. This was followed by other accounts, whose authors also died young.

A sanitised report by the Army in December 1982 led to the Royal Commission and eventually the Department of Veterans’ Affairs began limited payments of compensation. In 2008 Jean Williams found the occurrence of cancer in Innisfail to be ten times higher than the Queensland average. Agent Orange had been secretly tested near Innisfail during the Vietnam War. This was denied by Queensland Health and local residents.

OrangeChildren of Agent Orange victims, Vietnam (Reddit/WTF)

In 2009 Graham Walker presented at the Australian War Memorial, ‘The Official History’s Agent Orange account – the veterans’ perspective’, adding new evidence. In 2013 the war historian Dr John Mordike wrote ‘Insecticide deaths: the truth about insecticides used at Nui Dat’. Mordike recorded that a Hygiene Officer at Nui Dat in 1970 had recommended that soldiers stop using Dieldrin as an insecticide but his report was ignored and the practice continued without restriction through 1971.

A revised history of this toxic experience is overdue. An inaccurate one should not have been published, long after the truth about Agent Orange was well known to scientists, the military, and governments. Let us hope that the new volume will include an account of the suffering inflicted by poison spraying, not only on US and Australian veterans but on the environment and people of Vietnam, affecting far greater numbers of civilians and their families for generations.

©Alison Broinowski 2015

Dr Broinowski is Vice President of Honest History and of Australians for War Power Reform. She is the co-editor of How Does Australia Go to War? She thanks Willy Bach for comments on a draft of this article. Willy Bach has himself written about Agent Orange.

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One comment on “Toxic warfare: revisiting Agent Orange
  1. contact front says:

    Sorry…time, tide and the advance of human knowledge has finally caught up with the myth of birth defects……none of the components of herbicide orange, 24D, 2458T and TCDD dioxin is mutagenic or genotoxic so it cannot be held responsible for birth defects…..blame that pesky Brit who discovered the genetic string (DNA) after the experts (and lawyers) decided that Agent Orange was demonised.

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