Operation "Ranch Hand, 1962 to 1971, Vietnam. Photo USAF.

Forty years ago, on December 10, 1976, the United Nations General Assembly passed the “Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques” by a vote of 96 to 8. It was the first time the international body had addressed the issue of the use of defoliants in military conflicts. Article One of the document broadly states: “Each State Party to this Convention undertakes not to engage in military or any other hostile use of environmental modification techniques having widespread, long-lasting or severe effects as the means of destruction, damage or injury to any other State Party.”

Agent Orange was one of a series of chemical defoliants used by the U.S. military in the war in Vietnam. From 1962 to 1971, over 20 million gallons of herbicides were sprayed on jungle and agricultural land in Vietnam and the surrounding countries of Laos and Cambodia. The spraying was ostensibly to eliminate foliage providing cover for enemy troops. It was called Operation Ranch Hand. Reaching its peak between 1967-69, Operation Ranch Hand sprayed toxic chemicals over more than one fifth of all the forests in what was then South Vietnam.

Of the 2.7 million U.S. troops who served in Vietnam, more than 39,000 have filed claims with the Veteran’s Administration (VA) for Agent Orange related health issues and, according to the Vietnamese government, more than 4 million of its citizens were victims of the spraying. The VA acknowledges more than 14 forms of cancer and other nerve and heart diseases to be directly associated with Agent Orange exposure. Birth defects in children of those exposed carry the toxic legacy forward into the next generation on both sides.

The Progressive first covered concerns over the toxic effects of Agent Orange in a May 1973 column noting: “…two Harvard scientists reported that a chemical defoliant widely used by the United States in South Vietnam during the recent unpleasantness has contaminated that nation's food chain. The scientists—chemist Robert Baugham and geneticist Matthew Meselson, who have made previous ecological surveys of Indochina—found the chemical, dioxin, in shrimp and five species of fish taken from various waters in South Vietnam. Dioxin, an ingredient of the defoliant known as Agent Orange, was present in amounts known to cause disease, genetic damage, and death in animals. The effect on humans has not yet been determined, but we are likely to find out before too long.”

It was exactly four years later in June 1977, that Maude DeVictor, an employee at the VA in Chicago first began to document the cases of cancer clustered in veterans who had been exposed to Agent Orange. A June 1978 article in The Progressive by Michael Uhl and Tod Ensign told her story: “Maude DeVictor works behind a cold, steel gray desk in the Benefits Section of the Veterans Administration regional office in Chicago. She is not your average paper shuffler. In recent months, Maude DeVictor has joined the select ranks of whistle blowers — those heroic individuals who discover an outrage and, in defiance of bureaucracy or suppression, bring it to public notice. The outrage Maude DeVictor discovered was the shocking effect of dioxin poisoning on American veterans who came into contact with the herbicides that were used to defoliate more than five million acres of the Vietnamese countryside between 1962 and 1970. Her efforts have not only focused attention on the plight of these latest victims of the Vietnam war, but have also raised new warnings against the domestic hazards posed by the herbicides.”

One of DeVictor’s early phone calls to find out information about chemicals that had been sprayed in Vietnam led her to a Captain Alvin Young: “Maude DeVictor recalls that Captain Young described several major Vietnamese defoliation programs, such as Operation Ranch Hand, and that he said there was ‘no doubt’ that anyone who participated in those operations would have been contaminated.”

Maude DeVictor advocated for the veterans seeking compensation for the effects of  their toxic exposure and ultimately became a whistleblower to the press. “The VA doesn't even have any rating criteria for chemical disabilities,” she told The Progressive in 1978. “They're not doing anything on these cases because they don't have any standards for evaluation. Each case is either denied outright or 'diaried' — that is, placed in a computer where it's programmed to pop up every sixty days for re-review."  The VA eventually fired DeVictor. Her story was told in the 1986 film “Unnatural Causes” made for television by John Sayles. She continues her political activism today, working at the polls in Richmond, California.

The man who first explained the history of Operation Ranch Hand to DeVictor, Alvin J. Young, remains at the center of controversy around Agent Orange. A newly released report by ProPublica, an independent non-profit newsroom, shows that more than any other person, Young has been most responsible for veterans not receiving benefits related to Agent Orange exposure. According to the report: “For decades, the military and the VA have repeatedly turned to one man to guide decisions on whether Agent Orange harmed vets in Vietnam and elsewhere. His reliable answer: No.”

The report recounts Young’s initial contacts with DeVictor, but goes on to explain: “Young publicly refuted many of the comments attributed to him — especially those suggesting Agent Orange might have harmed vets — and criticized media reports that he felt sensationalized the risks. But the episode was a turning point, moving Young from the Air Force’s internal herbicide expert to public defender of Agent Orange.” Since that time, Young, now 74, has “consulted for the Department of Defense and the VA, as well as [being] an expert witness for the U.S. Department of Justice on matters related to dioxin exposure. By his own estimate, he’s been paid ‘a few million’ dollars over that time.” But, according to ProPublica, “over the years, the VA has repeatedly cited Young’s work to deny disability compensation to vets, saving the government millions of dollars.”

Today, the efforts to achieve testing, treatment and compensation for toxic exposure remain a struggle for veterans and their families here in the U.S., and across the ocean in Vietnam where birth defects have affected at least 150,000 children born since the war’s end in 1975.

ProPublica has an ongoing investigation into the lasting impacts of the use of Agent Orange and other toxic herbicides in Vietnam; and in Vietnam efforts continue to get the United States to take responsibility in the compensation of the victims still suffering from the legacy of that long-ago war.

Norman Stockwell is publisher of The Progressive.

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Comments

It is never over, you just can not turn it off-----America where are now, you are killing us slowly-because of veterans like us you live the way you live.
America where are now dont you care about your sons and daughers---We died for us when we were teenagers-now we are dying slowly infected by many things among them agent orange===help your veterans---because of us we live the way we live===it is never over-you just can not turn it offf.
The denial and coverup of AO AFFECTS AND PLACES USED WILL CONTINUE TILL WE ARE ALL DEAD. I HANDLED MIXED AND POWER SPRAYED AO ON ANDERSEN.AFB GUAM and off base during the Vietnam War and later. I am dying from AGENT ORANGE HERBICIDES with 33 autoimmune diseases including severe spinal stenosis and ANKLYLOSING SPONDIOLYSIS with osteoporosis and osteoarthritis with degenerative joint and disc disease and colon cancer and rectal cancer and severe ischemic heart disease and peripheral neuropathy in all of my limbs and bladder disease and thyroid cancer hypothyroidism and Parkinsons-like symptoms and more from it. I also have one child affected by it and one grandchild born with several birth defects. SHAME ON YOU ALL FOR DISHONORING US.
The effects of Agent Orange last in Humans for seven Generations. That's your children's, children's, children's,children ,children's,children's,children. That's a heck of a long time and a whole lot of descendants.
It is killing us slowly but surely and taking away our "golden years".....It is a sad testament to the brave men and women who served and were exposed in Vietnam.....

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By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.


Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).


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