Agent Orange, Then and Now

By David Zeirler

One of the exciting aspects of working on my dissertation is that the Agent Orange controversy is very much “living history.”  This past June, the federal appeals court of the South District of New York heard a class-action lawsuit brought by Vietnamese plaintiffs against the chemical companies that produced the herbicide Agent Orange for the Department of Defense.  In many ways, the case resembles the 1979 suit brought against the chemical manufacturers by American veterans of the Vietnam War, who claimed a variety of deleterious health effects resulting from exposure to Agent Orange.  In each instance, the plaintiffs had no standing to bring charges against the United States government, which exercises sovereign immunity on such matters.  In 1985, the plaintiffs settled out of court before the trial began, in what was the largest mass tort class action in history.  The chemical companies, led by lawyers representing Dow and Monsanto, were confident that the veterans would be unable to produce conclusive evidence that tied their ailment to herbicide exposure.  Although it is likely the companies would not have been found guilty of criminal negligence, they characterized the out-of-court settlement as a “good-will gesture” in order to avoid lengthy proceedings in the courts. 

There are two key differences in the cases.  First, the Vietnamese plaintiffs have included widespread environmental damage among their complaints against the chemical companies, whereas the U.S. veterans cited personal physical illnesses only.  Second, because the latter case involves an international claimant, the plaintiffs’ basis for bringing suit rests on the argument that the United States violated international law by conducting a form of chemical warfare in Vietnam.  The legal basis of the charge is maddeningly complex and open to debate, not unlike the controversy that surrounds the health effects of exposure to Agent Orange.  As an historian reconstructing events in the 1960s and 1970s, it is fascinating to watch this issue continue to unfold.  Agent Orange is arguably the last “wound” of the Vietnam War that remains an open concern in the policy realm.  No matter the outcome of the case, which has yet to be decided, the lawsuit has reignited broader debates in this country and around the world about the lessons of the Vietnam War.  These debates had largely died out since Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush worked to eliminate America’s so-called “Vietnam Syndrome.”


Thanks to generous support I received from Temple’s Center for Vietnamese Studies, I was able to spend this past August in Vietnam to investigate the ecological and diplomatic legacy of Agent Orange.  I spoke with a variety of public health workers, scientists, and government officials on the topic.  While nearly everyone I encountered stressed the need for a “forward-thinking” approach toward the ongoing normalization of Vietnamese-U.S. relations, Agent Orange remains for many a sticking point to that process.  The conclusion to my dissertation will explore this topic in detail.  If all goes according to plan, this will happen sometime this spring.