The Lasting Effects of Agent Orange in Vietnam

War in Vietnam broke out in late 1955, and raged for twenty years. During this time, what was then The Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) fought for dominance of the entire country; as a result, the USA Army was brought in as a force against the ‘Red Scare’ – the onslaught of Communism that had begun spreading throughout South East Asia in a domino effect. Throughout the War, many military tactics were used, but perhaps the one that has left the most long-lasting effects is the use of chemical warfare – more specifically, the use of Agent Orange (a herbicide) that was deployed by US Soldiers during a ten year period from 1961 to 1971. By wiping out thousands of kilometres of vegetation as well as causing multiple health defects for both the Vietnamese people as well as the USA Army, the devastation caused by this method persists in the country to this day, and affects the lives of millions.

Agent Orange was developed by British and American scientists during World War Two as a method to starve out guerrilla fighters in the Federation of Malaya in 1952. By spraying the forest where the fighters were suspected to be, this eliminated food production as well as hiding spots, thus created a starvation campaign where the fighters would be forced to flee. This was used as a similar tactic by the USA in Vietnam following President John F. Kennedy’s authorisation; the soldiers would spray the chemical through the vegetation in a bid to reduce guerrilla fighters’ support from Vietnamese civilians. However, as a result of around 20% of the Vietnamese forests that were sprayed being destroyed, the crop harvest for civilians and fighters alike was severely depleted. In addition, it has been estimated that around 4 million Vietnamese people were exposed to the chemical, with studies showing an increase in cancers and skin diseases. There are also many long-lasting effects for the US soldiers serving in Vietnam, most notably being prostate cancer and infertility. With the chemical having been promised to be ‘harmless’, the fact that it still contaminates water supplies in Vietnam and some Vietnamese people didn’t even know of its existence is shocking.

The defoliation of Vietnam’s forests has also left the country with long-term consequences; though it was used as a short-term method to remove the Viet Cong from the forests and the soldiers were told that the chemical was easily removable, the country lost around 6% of its total land through deforestation. This means that all the ecosystems and natural geography of the area was lost, as well as the crop for families living in affected areas. This ecological warfare resulted in additional flooding in the area, removing possibility for growing more crops and also keeping the chemical in the water source for much longer than the USA Army intended or thought that it would. Only recently, in 2010, did re-planting efforts begin in deforested areas due to the risk of high levels of Dioxin (a compound in Agent Orange that is classified as a toxic carcinogen). Therefore, with the immediate impact of Agent Orange being so destructive, it created a famine that spread all over the country, leaving the population starving and malnourished.

Though the Vietnam War occurred some sixty years ago, the devastation left by the use of Agent Orange in the country is still ever-present in Vietnam. The impact on the population as well as the ecology and physical well-being of those it came into contact with are not a fleeting memory; the deformations to babies born to mothers affected by the chemical and the carcinogens left behind mean that Vietnam still suffers greatly from the war tactics used by the US Army.