UNITED STATES AND BRITAIN: Pioneers in Chemical Warfare and the Biggest Perpetrators of Environmental Damage in the World
Posted on April 13th, 2020

Dr. Daya Hewapathirane

AGENT ORANGE is the best known highly toxic herbicide and defoliant chemical, developed by Americans and used by the U.S. military as part of its chemical warfare program in Vietnam and neighboring countries. Between 1962 and 1971, during the Vietnam war, the United States military sprayed nearly 20 million gallons of various toxic chemicals – the “rainbow herbicides” and defoliants – in Vietnam, eastern Laos, and parts of Cambodia as part of its chemical warfare known as Operation Ranch Hand”, reaching its peak from 1967 to 1969. During the Vietnam war, Agent Orange was used extensively in Laos and Cambodia  because forests on the border with Vietnam were used by the Viet Cong. In 1961, it was John F. Kennedy, the US President, who authorized the criminal Operation Ranch Hand”, involving the widespread aerial spraying of Agent Orange or the toxic herbicide and defoliant chemical, in South Vietnam. USA justified its use by citing that Britain had already used herbicides and defoliants in Malaya during the Malayan Emergency in the 1950s and thereby has established a precedent for chemical warfare in Asia.  As the British did in Malaya, the goal of the U.S. was to defoliate rural/forested land, depriving Vietnamese rebels of food and concealment and clearing sensitive areas such as around base perimeters. The program was also a part of a general policy of forced draft urbanization, which aimed to destroy the ability of peasants to support themselves in the countryside, forcing them to flee to the U.S.-dominated cities, depriving the rebels referred to by them as guerrillas, of their rural support base


Several herbicides were developed as part of efforts by the United States and Great Britain to create herbicidal weapons for use during World War II. In 1943, the United States Department of the Army contracted botanist and bioethicist Arthur Galston, to find chemical means to destroy enemy crops in order to disrupt their food supply. (Galston is the American scientist who later discovered the herbicide and defoliant chemical named Agent Orange used  extensively in Vietnam and neighboring countries, to destroy forests and crops in view of disrupting food supply). U.S. began a full-scale production and aerial application of these herbicides against Japan in 1946 during Operation Downfall. In the years after the war, the U.S. tested 1,100 compounds, and field trials of the more promising ones were done at British stations in India and Australia, as well as at the U.S.’s testing ground in Florida, in order to establish their effects in tropical conditions. Between 1950 and 1952, trials were conducted in Tanganyika, at Kikore and Stunyansa, to test arboricides and defoliants under tropical conditions. During 1952–53, USA supervised the aerial spraying of these defoliants in the eradication of tsetse fly in Kenya.


The British gained control of what is now Malaysia in 1795 and formally made Malaysia a British colony in 1867. In 1909, the British merged all Malaya territory under their control to form Malaya. Using divide and rule tactics, the British encouraged rivalries between Malaysia’s different ethnic groups and between the sultans. During the Malayan Emergency (1948–1960), Britain was the first nation to employ the use of herbicides and defoliants to destroy bushes, trees, and vegetation to deprive insurgents of concealment and target food crops as part of a starvation campaign in the early 1950s. Malayan Emergency was a guerrilla war fought in the Federation of Malaya from 1948 until 1960. The conflict was between Commonwealth armed forces led  by Britain and pro-independence fighters of the Malayan National Liberation Army, the military wing of the Malayan Communist Party. The Malayan Emergency was a counter-insurgency operation undertaken by the Western powers,  where the British and Commonwealth forces defeated a revolt in Malaya. A detailed account of how the British experimented with the spraying of herbicides in Malaya was written by two scientists, E.K. Woodford of Agricultural Research Council‘s Unit of Experimental Agronomy and H.G.H. Kearns of the University of Bristol. After the Malayan conflict ended in 1960, the U.S. considered the British practice of using defoliants as a tactic of warfare


Agent Orange was usually sprayed from helicopters or from low-flying aircraft, fitted with sprayers. Spray runs were also conducted from trucks, boats, and backpack sprayers. U.S. Air Force records show that 6,542 spraying missions took place over the course of Operation Ranch Hand. By 1971, 12 percent of the total area of South Vietnam had been sprayed with defoliating chemicals. In South Vietnam alone, an estimated 39,000 square miles or 10 million ha of agricultural land was ultimately destroyed. It destroyed 20,000 square kilometres of upland and mangrove forests and thousands of square kilometres of crops. Overall, more than 20% of South Vietnam’s forests were sprayed at least once over the nine-year period.

The U.S. military began targeting food crops in October 1962, primarily using what was referred to as Agent Blue”. US Military personnel were told they were destroying crops because they were going to be used to feed guerrillas. American policy during the Vietnam War was to destroy civilian crops and a greater part of the rural economy, because Americans believed that the Vietnamese rebels -the Vietcong obtained most of their food from the neutral rural population. Crops were deliberately sprayed with Agent Orange; areas were bulldozed clear of vegetation. It was discovered later that the food that was destroyed was not produced for guerrillas but for the local civilian population. In  Quang Ngai province, 85% of the crop lands were destroyed in 1970 and this contributed to widespread famine, leaving hundreds of thousands of people malnourished or starving.  In addition, the rural population was subjected to bombing and artillery fire. This led to excessive migration of people to urban areas and estimated 1.5 million people living a miserable life in the highly overcrowded Saigon slums. Urban population in South Vietnam nearly tripled during this time, growing from 2.8 million people in 1958 to 8 million by 1971.

Agent Orange caused enormous environmental damage in Vietnam. Over 3.1 million hectares or 18% of the total forested area of Vietnam was sprayed and defoliated. Official US military records refer to the destruction of 20% of the forests of South Vietnam and 20-36% of the lush mangrove forests of Vietnam. Forests that were sprayed multiple times show the greatest ecological damage and in most places, there has been total annihilation of vegetal cover and loss of animal life. Destruction and removal of forested areas severely destroyed all lifeforms big and small and totally disrupted the ecological equilibrium in Vietnam. Defoliants eroded tree cover and seedling forest stock, making reforestation difficult in numerous areas. The diversity of land and water-based animal species, bird-life and microorganisms, was sharply reduced owing to defoliant sprays of forests. The persistent nature of dioxins, erosion caused by loss of tree cover, and loss of seedling forest stock meant that reforestation out of the question in many areas. Defoliated forest areas were quickly invaded by aggressive pioneer species making forest regeneration difficult. Dioxins from Agent Orange have persisted in the  environment settling in the soil and sediment and entering the food chain through water and through animals and fish which feed in the contaminated areas. The movement of dioxins through the food web has resulted in bioconcentration and biomagnification. The areas most heavily contaminated with dioxins were former U.S. air bases.


In addition to its enormously damaging ecological/environmental effects, about 400,000 Vietnamese were killed by the toxic effects of Agent Orange. Up to four million people in Vietnam were directly exposed to the Agent Orange. The most illustrative effects of Agent Orange upon the Vietnamese people are the health effects. It has caused major health problems for several millions of people including children. As many as 3 million people suffered illnesses because of Agent Orange. Up to 1 million people are disabled or have health problems as a result of Agent Orange contamination. Millions of Vietnamese are living with the effects of Agent Orange and more are being born with defects linked to the herbicide. In 2019, infants were still being born with birth defects linked to a toxic herbicide used by the US military to weed out Viet Cong fighters. Many living in poor villages do not receive the health care and rehabilitation they need, simply because they cannot afford to seek treatment. Environmentalists say the country could see 6 to 12 more generations of victims. Exposure to Agent Orange is associated with many diseases – diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, and several forms of cancer.

Rigorous studies have been conducted to measure the levels of dioxin still present in the blood samples of the citizens of both North and South Vietnam. These studies indicate Vietnamese citizens have had severe  exposure to breadth and scope of the target. The Red Cross of Vietnam estimates that up to 1 million people are disabled or have health problems due to contaminated Agent Orange. According to a study by Dr. Nguyen Viet Nhan, children in the areas where Agent Orange was used have been affected and have multiple health problems, including cleft palate, mental disabilities, hernias, and extra fingers and toes. In the 1970s, high levels of dioxin were found in the breast milk of South Vietnamese women, and in the blood of U.S. military personnel who had served in Vietnam. The most affected zones are the mountainous area along Truong Son (Long Mountains) and the border between Vietnam and Cambodia. The affected residents are living in substandard conditions with many genetic diseases.

The U.S. government has documented higher cases of leukemia, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and various kinds of cancer among USA Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange. An epidemiological study done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that there was an impact of birth defects of the children of veterans as a result of Agent Orange. Twenty-eight of the former U.S. military bases in Vietnam where the herbicides were stored and loaded onto airplanes may still have high levels of dioxins in the soil, posing a health threat to the surrounding communities. The soil and sediment on the bases have extremely high levels of dioxin requiring remediation. The contaminated soil and sediment continue to affect the citizens of Vietnam, poisoning their food chain and causing illnesses, serious skin diseases and a variety of cancers in the lungs, larynx, and prostate. In 2008, Australian researcher Jean Williams claimed that cancer rates in Innisfail, Queensland, were 10 times higher than the state average because of secret testing of Agent Orange by the Australian military scientists during the Vietnam War.


The United Nations being a paw in the hands of the USA and the Western world, played its usual hypocritical role by passing Resolution 31/72, which is not a complete ban on the use of herbicides and defoliants in warfare. In 2002, Vietnam and the U.S. held a joint conference on Human Health and Environmental Impacts of Agent Orange. These negotiations broke down in 2005, when neither side could agree on the research protocol and the research project was canceled.

However, the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam resulted in massive legal consequences with lawsuits filed against the USA.  Since  1978, several lawsuits have been filed against USA companies which produced Agent Orange, among them Dow ChemicalMonsanto, and Diamond Shamrock. The chemical companies involved denied that there was a link between Agent Orange and the veterans’ medical problems. However, in 1984, some chemical companies settled the class-action suit out of court agreeing to pay $180 million as compensation if the veterans dropped all claims against them. Many veterans who were victims of Agent Orange exposure were outraged the case had been settled instead of going to court and felt they had been betrayed by the lawyers.

In 2004, a victim’s rights group, the Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange/dioxin (VAVA), filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York in Brooklyn, against several U.S. companies for liability in causing personal injury, by developing, and producing the chemical, and claimed that the use of Agent Orange violated the 1907 Hague Convention on Land Warfare, 1925 Geneva Protocol, and the 1949 Geneva Conventions. Dow Chemical and Monsanto were the two largest producers of Agent Orange for the U.S. military and were named in the suit, along with the dozens of other companies (Diamond Shamrock, Uniroyal, Thompson Chemicals, Hercules, etc.). On March 10, 2005, Judge Jack B. Weinstein of the Eastern District – who had presided over the 1984 U.S. veterans class-action lawsuit – dismissed the lawsuit, ruling there was no legal basis for the plaintiffs’ claims. He concluded Agent Orange was not considered a poison under international law at the time of its use by the U.S.; the U.S. was not prohibited from using it as a herbicide; and the companies which produced the substance were not liable for the method of its use by the government.  It was argued that “if the Americans were guilty of war crimes for using Agent Orange in Vietnam, then the British would be also guilty of war crimes as well since they were the first nation to deploy the use of herbicides and defoliants in warfare and used them on a large scale throughout the Malayan Emergency. Not only was there no outcry by other states in response to Britain’s use, but the U.S. viewed it as establishing a precedent for the use of herbicides and defoliants in jungle warfare.


To assist those who have been affected by Agent Orange/dioxin, the Vietnamese have established “peace villages”, which each host between 50 and 100 victims, giving them medical and psychological help. As of 2006, there were 11 such villages, thus granting some social protection to fewer than a thousand victims. U.S. veterans of the war in Vietnam and individuals who are aware and sympathetic to the impacts of Agent Orange have supported these programs in Vietnam. An international group of veterans from the U.S. and its allies during the Vietnam War working with their former enemy—veterans from the Vietnam Veterans Association—established the Vietnam Friendship Village outside of Hanoi. The center provides medical care, rehabilitation and vocational training for children and veterans from Vietnam who have been affected by Agent Orange. In 1998, The Vietnam Red Cross established the Vietnam Agent Orange Victims Fund to provide direct assistance to families throughout Vietnam that have been affected.

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