Reviews – The Invention of Ecocide: Agent Orange, Vietnam and the Scientists Who Changed the Way We Think About the Vietnam War

The Invention of Ecocide: Agent Orange, Vietnam, and the Scientists Who Changed the Way We Think About the Vietnam War, by David Zierler, University of Georgia Press, 2011

Science is never “value neutral”—political and economic interests always inform which scientific questions get asked, and how the answers to those questions are put into practice. Author David Zierler, U.S. State Department Historian, explores this principle in depth with his scholarly and insightful history of the concept of “ecocide,” defined by scientist Arthur Galston as “the willful and permanent destruction of environment in which a people can live in a manner of their own choosing.” Galston coined the term in 1970 as an indictment of America’s use of the herbicide 2,4,5-T, better known as Agent Orange.

Agent Orange was first explored as a potential weapon in 1941, when University of Chicago botanist Ezra E.J. Kraus completed a paper with the innocuous title “Plant Growth Regulators: Possible Uses.” Kraus explored the possible utility of strategically defoliating Japanese forests, which would reveal hidden military installations and deprive the enemy of staple food supplies.

The dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 obviated any the use of Agent Orange during World War II. Zierler makes a convincing case that the bombings—which ushered in the era of “mutually assured destruction”—made the use of Agent Orange in subsequent conflicts all but inevitable. Consider the logic: If both sides are capable of initiating total catastrophe, then neither side is likely to use the nuclear option, which nullifies its deterrent effect in smaller conflicts.

The Soviets could therefore instigate conflict and revolution around the world without the United States’ nuclear arsenal posing any realistic threat. As a result, by 1961, President John F. Kennedy’s foreign policy emphasized “Flexible Response,” the development of wide ranging and diverse military technologies to combat communist insurgency around the world. With an insurgency growing in Vietnam’s jungles, Agent Orange appeared to the U.S. government as a perfect solution. In Zierler’s assessment, Kennedy approved Operation Ranch Hand (the official name for herbicide deployment in Vietnam) as an opportunity to test the Flexible Response approach to communist containment.

The U.S. government knew that this policy would meet with international resistance. As expected, Hanoi, Moscow and Beijing denounced the use of herbicides as a war crime as soon as Operation Ranch Hand became public knowledge. What the government did not anticipate was the resistance to Agent Orange that subsequently grew within the American scientific community. Zierler provides a detailed account of the exchange between the elite scientific organizations of the time and the Defense Department. The book’s strength lies in its delineation of the various ideologies at play. Galston, for instance, was careful not to oppose the war outright in his objections, strategically adopting and discarding frames for his arguments according to context. Furthermore, the scientists involved rarely considered themselves “environmentalists”—the term “environmentalism” had a far more limited meaning then. Indeed, Zierler shows how the holistic, modern definition of the term “environmentalist” grew to encompass foreign policy specifically as a result of the struggle over Agent Orange.

The Invention of Ecocide is a rewarding, well-reasoned scholarly work that provides a thorough examination of the first great ideological battle between nascent environmentalism and cold war dogmatism.

Patrick Robbins

One Response

  1. clayton

    re: Scientists Who Changed the Way We Think About the Vietnam War
    … “ecocide,” defined by scientist Arthur Galston as “the willful and permanent destruction of environment in which a people can live in a manner of their own choosing.” Galston coined the term in 1970 as an indictment of America’s use of the herbicide 2,4,5-T, better known as Agent Orange.

    The USA has not cleaned up it’s toxic mess in Vietnam, thinking and acting are different. This nation is still in denial while thousands suffer. But hey, Vietnam now sells Revlon products and Hershey bars so we really won that war. Seems like no one, not the omnipotent Pentagon, nor the toothless scientific community in the US learned anything from the use of Agent Orange and other toxic substances used in South East Asia. Weapons cost the American public money, funds that could be used to improve lives at home, etc. Many military officers enter the weapon sales in the private sector after retirement and earn huge salaries selling those weapons. It’s a win win situation for the inner circle of the defense industry ‘Pentagon players’. Sadly the USA is in collapse, the nation is crumbling from within. We have no moral compass to guide us, only profits made for the few by the exploitation and domination of third world nations and our own workforce are all that matters to the leaders in Congress. The nations leadership and those who install these leaders are content with their wealth and their lives and private ‘armies’. It’s really every man for himself in the final moments of this, our American tragedy.

    The USA now employs depleted uranium (DU) in weapons and has used those weapons in Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. without a peep from anyone.
    Some states and the International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons, a coalition of more than 155 non-governmental organizations, have asked for a ban on the production and military use of depleted uranium weapons.

    The European Parliament has repeatedly passed resolutions requesting an immediate moratorium on the further use of depleted uranium ammunition, but France and Britain – the only EU states that are permanent members of the United Nations Security Council – have consistently rejected calls for a ban, maintaining that its use continues to be legal, and that the health risks are entirely unsubstantiated.

    Studies by the U.S. Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute conclude that moderate exposures to either depleted uranium or uranium present a significant toxicological threat…”male Gulf War veterans reported having infants with likely birth defects at twice the rate of non-veterans. Furthermore, female Gulf War veterans were almost three times more likely to report children with birth defects than their non-Gulf counterparts. The numbers changed somewhat with medical records verification. However, Dr. Kang and his colleagues concluded that the risk of birth defects in children of deployed male veterans still was about 2.2 times that of non-deployed veterans.”

    What the USA and it’s partners are doing is polluting the earth, in the name of Capitalism. Civilians in Vietnam and other ‘invaded’ nations continue to pay the price for these crimes against nature and humanity. US soldiers will continue to be consumed like firewood and they will suffer the indignities claims denials until it’s too late. It is also fair to assume that these toxins will continue to cycle through the food chain via edible commodities produced on compromised agricultural land. Thanks America! Sadly, given the way things work nothing will change since the American public is powerless to make things different.

    Stay tuned for the next episode of Dancing With the Stars etc., more mind numbing entertainment while the rest of the world leaves the USA rot from within.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.