A herbicide used as part of the of the U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam’s (MACV) 1962– 1970 defoliation campaign in Vietnam, Agent Orange (along with Agents Blue, Green, Pink, Purple, and White) was utilized to reduce dense jungle foliage that might be used as enemy cover and to destroy food crops that might sustain Communist forces.
As with the later Gulf War, Vietnam veterans have accused the government (and the companies that supplied the product) of allowing service personnel to be used as unwitting guinea pigs in the introduction of an untested chemical weapon, and then engaging in a cover-up about the extent of the problem.
The chemical became a technological fix in an attempt to wage an inexpensive and uncomplicated counterinsurgency campaign, in lieu of seriously addressing the problem of denying enemy access to food supplies and concealment by jungle foliage.
In addition to its tactical uses, Agent Orange was also used in the clearing of U.S. base camp perimeters and other militarily sensitive areas. From 1965 to 1971, 3.2 percent of the cultivated land and 46.4 percent of the forest in Vietnam were sprayed with defoliants—approximately 3 percent of the Vietnamese population lived in defoliated areas.
Of the herbicides used by the U.S. military, Agent Orange had the reputation of being one of the most effective chemicals in defoliating inland and mangrove forests and the best herbicide for the rainy season (due to its oil-soluble composition). Due to this, between 1965 and 1970, approximately 11.2 million gallons of Agent Orange were dumped on Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.
The majority of this was sprayed from specially equipped C-123 aircraft during Operation Ranchhand, with smaller amounts coming from helicopters, boats, trucks, and even backpack-sized units worn by individual soldiers. Ranchhand defoliated approximately 4,747,587 acres of forest and destroyed 481,897 acres of crops.
Agent Orange contained the chemicals n-butyl esters of 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D) and 2,4,5-trichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4,5-T) as well as varying amounts of 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzop-dioxin (TCDD), a member of the dioxin group.
TCDD is considered to be one of the most toxic chemicals known to mankind, with sufficient evidence of an association between exposure to the defoliant and chloracne, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Hodgkin’s disease, and soft-tissue sarcoma.
There is also suggestive evidence of an association between Agent Orange and respiratory cancers (lung, larynx, trachea), prostate cancer, multiple myeloma, acute and subacute peripheral neuropathy, spina bifida, and porphyria cutanea tarda. The results of three epidemiological studies also suggest that a father’s exposure to herbicides may put his children at a greater risk of being born with spina bifida.
In addition to untold numbers of Vietnamese civilians and soldiers, many U.S. military personnel were exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. Vietnam veterans and their family members brought a class-action lawsuit against seven manufacturers of Agent Orange that was settled out of court by the establishment of a fund to compensate those exposed for any resulting disabilities. The total number of U.S. military personnel exposed to herbicides in Southeast Asia is unknown, but it is estimated that the number lies somewhere between 2.6 and 3.8 million.