Agent Orange.

One of the many terms associated with the Vietnam War that evoke strong and often angry reactions. Why mention it now, and risk stirring those responses again? Partly, it’s the calendar: August 10 will mark fifty years since the first load of powerful defoliant was sprayed by US forces on the Vietnam landscape in 1961. It was the beginning of what was initially called Operation Hades, then was soon renamed and expanded into Operation Ranch Hand.

The name came from the color of the label on the barrels; other defoliant ”Agents” used were coded Blue, White, Purple, Pink, and Green. But Agent Orange made up sixty per cent of the sprays. The idea was that by withering the jungle, Agent Orange would deprive Ho Chi Minh’s guerrillas of cover. And by withering crops, it would help move rural farmers into towns under the control of the South Vietnamese government.

Over the ten years of Operation Ranch Hand, planes and trucks sprayed some 20 million gallons of such defoliants across parts of Vietnam that added up to an area as large as Massachusetts.

Yet, Agent Orange is not only about the painful past. It remains a present specter hanging over many of those who served in the Vietnam War — and the generations since.

Hundreds of thousands of US troops camped, marched and fought their way through areas heavily sprayed with it. Airmen and sailors handled thousands of barrels of it. And soon after their return home, many veterans began experiencing illnesses, often fatal, that they believed were related to that exposure. They had good reason for their fears. Most of the defoliant chemicals were contaminated with dioxin, one of the most potent toxic chemicals around. Dioxin has been linked to diabetes, spina bifida and other birth defects, along with various cancers and nerve disorders.

Agent Orange patch

In the US, dioxin made national news in 1978. The Love Canal area of Niagara Falls, New York, was found to have been built on a toxic waste dump laced with dioxin.

Surveys showed that as many as half the children born in the neighborhood suffered birth defects or serious childhood illnesses and cancer. After years of local denial, President Jimmy Carter declared a federal emergency there. More than 800 houses were demolished and the families relocated. Love Canal resulted in creation of the federal Superfund program, aimed at cleaning up such toxic sites.

As Love Canal showed, the effects of Agent Orange use in Vietnam were not limited to those who had served there. Among their children, and now grandchildren, there have been higher rates of birth defects and other congenital conditions. The struggle of these veterans and their families for recognition, treatment, and compensation for Agent Orange-related conditions has been a lengthy and often bitter one. Nor is it over.

But what about the people of Vietnam, who have had to live with the legacy of Agent Orange at close quarters?

Dioxin is a long-lasting toxin. After the rain washes it off the plants, it settles in the soil and the sediment of rivers. There it enters the food chain via fish and ducks, frequent items in the Vietnamese diet. Their government estimates that up to five million of its people were exposed to long-lived toxic elements of Agent Orange, with up to three million suffering physical symptoms. Many are children and grandchildren of the war generation.

The Vietnam War ended thirty-six years ago. The U.S. Established diplomatic relations with Vietnam sixteen years ago. In 2010, trade between the two nations totaled nearly $19 billion dollars. In this state of relative amity, Vietnamese support groups have visited the U.S., seeking help from private groups and Congress, and filing lawsuits against the manufacturers.

The lawsuits did not succeed. But their lobbying efforts may have begun to show results. In June, a joint U.S. and Vietnamese government cleanup project was launched at the site of the Da Nang airfield, where large quantities of Agent Orange were stored. Da Nang is one of dozens of “hot spots” in Vietnam where wartime toxic contamination lingers at high levels. Such cleanup efforts have a long way to go — as does the work of coping with the impact of Agent Orange on US veterans and families.

It has been fifty years since Operation Hades began. For both its American and Vietnamese victims, there has recently been some positive steps taken. But the story of Agent Orange is far from over.

~ Chuck Fager, Quaker House Director