Poised to decide whether to bombard Syria for its purported unleashing of chemical weapons on its people, U.S. policymakers might well remember America’s own deadly use of Agent Orange in Vietnam and Laos half a century ago and the international outrage it produced.

“Remember Agent Orange” is especially relevant for Hawaii. Agent Orange was tested under a U.S. Army contract at the University of Hawaii’s Kauai Agricultural Research Station 45 years ago. Several research workers, regularly drenched with the chemical containing dioxin, a dangerous toxin, died of cancer, according to court documents, and barrels of it were buried on Kauai for decades.

Besides Agent Orange, the U.S. secretly dumped 15 million-plus pounds of chemical weapons in Hawaiian coastal waters during or after World War II but these hazards were hidden from the public for half a century.

Syria is not the first Middle Eastern nation to use chemical weapons and President Obama is not the first commander-in-chief to face such a crisis.

In 1988, responding to the extensive use of chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq war, President Reagan, addressing the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 26, called for a conference to review the rapid deterioration of respect for international norms against the use of chemical weapons.

Convened by France, 149 states met in Paris, Jan. 7-11, 1989, for a Conference on Chemical Weapons Use. In its final declaration, the states “solemnly affirm their commitments not to use chemical weapons and condemn such use.” They also reaffirmed the prohibitions established in the international agreement called the Geneva Protocol of 1925. Until 1975, the U.S. was the only major government not to ratify the protocol; it then also agreed that the protocol prohibited use of anti-plant chemicals in war.

The U.S. began using Agent Orange in 1965 to defoliate the double- and triple-canopy forests of South Vietnam and Laos just as American combat units were being introduced and continued for six years, despite increasing Soviet propaganda against it and other international condemnation.

On Dec. 6, 1965, two Air Force spray planes flying at treetop levels began defoliating vegetation in Laos along the Ho Chi Minh Trail there. By the end of the month more than 40 sorties had defoliated almost 24 square miles of trails and roads with 41,000 gallons of herbicide, Paul Frederick Cecil wrote in his “Herbicidal Warfare” book. Other missions continued there for years.

That same month and year, C-123s started spraying in South Vietnam along the roadsides and forests below massive amounts of herbicides, including Agent Orange. By 1971, when the spraying was ended, about five million acres in South Vietnam had been sprayed with herbicides by U.S. fliers, Fred Wilcox wrote in “Waiting for an Army to Die.”

Flying over South Vietnam, I could often see below the dying leaves of jungles or mangrove swamps stretching for miles in the once-lush countryside.

Approval for this defoliation policy was akin to the environmental warfare of destroying the grasslands and buffalo of the Native Americans a century earlier, according to Cecil, a U.S. Air Force veteran of Vietnam’s defoliation operation and historian.

Following the U.S. Civil War, he elaborated: “The Army successfully employed environmental warfare to counter the ‘hit-and-run’ tactics of the plains Indians. Civilian destruction of buffalo herds upon which the tribes were almost totally dependent was applauded by the Army, and aided materially in forcing the tribes onto reservations, where they were more easily controlled.”

One of the more controversial operations in Air Force history, defoliation was criticized so severely at home and abroad as a violation of international agreements, especially the Geneva Protocol of 1925, that the program was cancelled in 1971, Cecil noted. Thus ended, as Cecil explained, a combat organization “created in secrecy and disbanded in controversy,” that was dedicated solely to the purpose of conducting war upon the environment by attacking plants instead of people.

In the final analysis in Vietnam, “The crop destruction program now appears to have been counterproductive and, as predicted by many officials from the beginning, provided the Communist world with a telling argument against the presence of American forces in Vietnam,” Cecil concluded. “Despite some inconvenience to enemy forces, the burden of the program frequently came to bear on civilians, especially women and children and the very young and very old.”

Even after the war had ended, however, the use of Agent Orange and other defoliants in Vietnam drew even more controversy in the 1970s when Vietnam veterans increasingly claimed serious health and genetic damage, when inconclusive medical studies were made and when numerous lawsuits were brought against the government (these were dismissed on procedural grounds) and then against the product manufacturers, who agreed in an out-of-court settlement to establish a $180 million indemnification fund, without any admission of liability.

Results of Agent Orange’s defoliation in South Vietnam appear long lasting in contrast to the sarin chemical the U.S. claims Syria has used; sarin dissipates in the air within six days.

Forests were destroyed and dioxin persists at levels exceeding standards of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. As The New York Times reported in 2007, the dioxin there has left traces in soil, animals, blood and breast milk and increased the risks of cancer and other diseases to the impoverished mountain peoples.

About the author: Professor Emerita Beverly Deepe Keever is the author of the recently released “Death Zones and Darling Spies: Seven Years of Vietnam War Reporting.”

Community Voices aims to encourage broad discussion on many topics of community interest. It’s kind of a cross between Letters to the Editor and op-eds. This is your space to talk about important issues or interesting people who are making a difference in our world. Columns generally run about 800 words (yes, they can be shorter or longer) and we need a photo of the author and a bio. We welcome video commentary and other multimedia formats. Send to news@civilbeat.com.

A good reason not to give

We know not everyone can afford to pay for news right now, which is why we keep our journalism free for everyone to read, listen, watch and share. 

But that promise wouldn’t be possible without support from loyal readers like you.

Make a gift to Civil Beat today and help keep our journalism free for all readers. And if you’re able, consider a sustaining monthly gift to support our work all year-round.