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Long before dioxin-laced Agent Orange supplanted Agents Blue, Purple and Pink, the Kennedy administration grappled with the moral and political dilemmas associated with defoliation and crop destruction in Vietnam.

While the use of herbicides in war to defoliate and destroy crops is universally condemned today—primarily because of the health effects on humans exposed to the chemicals—that was not the case in Washington’s halls of power 50 years ago. Although a nascent environmental movement was just bringing to light possible health threats of widely used chemical herbicides, the public and policymakers did not assume a connection would necessarily exist. Thus, when presented with a plan to spray herbicides to defoliate swaths of jungle and destroy crops in 1961, the debate that swirled inside the new administration of President John F. Kennedy was focused mostly on military effectiveness and Cold War political fallout that might arise. Those early debates have been largely forgotten in the years since “Agent Orange”became symbolic of heartless, hubristic inhumanity, and the focal point of an emotionally charged post– Vietnam War“war”—complete with casualties—involving millions of veterans and civilians. As the program of defoliation and crop destruction, which would be waged under the wholesome-sounding code name Operation Ranch Hand, was being debated, voices were raised—but few listened—questioning the effects of crop destruction on the hearts and minds of those for whom the war was being waged. In an excerpt from Agent Orange: History, Science and the Politics of Uncertainty, Edwin A. Martini explores the internal deliberations that led to the unleashing of Ranch Hand and the never-ending legacy of Agent Orange.

In the late summer of 1962 Edward R. Murrow was concerned about crop destruction. Writing to National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy in August, the legendary journalist, then serving as the director of the United States Information Agency, expressed his skepticism about the ability of the United States to “persuade the world— particularly that large part of it which does not get  enough to eat—that defoliation ‘is good for you.’ ”

Among the many issues Murrow raised in his memo was that The New Yorker magazine had just run a series of pieces that called attention to the ecological consequences of insecticides. The articles, written by Rachel Carson, became the basis for Silent Spring, the book that helped usher in the modern environmental movement in the United States. Carson died two years later, but the ideas she popularized would fundamentally change the way people thought about chemical herbicides and insecticides. They would also complicate the crop destruction program in Vietnam, well underway at the time of her death.

Often concerned more with the global perception of the chemical war than with the chemical war itself, the Kennedy and Johnson administrations consistently fretted over the politics of defoliation and crop destruction as they escalated the war in Vietnam in the mid-1960s. Throughout this period the military stubbornly clung to its belief that the military effectiveness of herbicide use outweighed any possible negative political consequences. From the Pentagon down to field commanders, it became a given that Ranch Hand missions made life more difficult for the National Liberation Front (NLF) without having overly adverse effects on local populations. But in the face of mounting outside pressure to justify this increasingly controversial program in an increasingly controversial war, the internal debates over the pros and cons of the chemical war took on added significance during the critical year of 1967.

That year the RAND corporation, the Santa Monica–based think tank closely associated with the military and intelligence communities, released two scathing reports that called into question the herbicide program in general and crop destruction in particular. These reports, “An Evaluation of Chemical Crop Destruction in Vietnam,”by Russell Betts and Frank Denton, and “A Statistical Analysis of the U.S. Crop Spraying Program in South Vietnam,” by Anthony Russo, offered by far the most critical assessments to date of herbicidal warfare programs from within the military-industrial complex itself and touched off a serious debate within the Pentagon.

The origins of this policy debate lay in how the political battles over the herbicide programs had played out in multiple settings, from Washington to the Vietnamese countryside, and how the chemical war shaped and was shaped by the battle for hearts and minds. Most of the literature on the chemical war has notably overlooked such aspects. Military histories such as William Buckingham’s 1982 Operation Ranch Hand and Paul Cecil’s 1986 Herbicidal Warfare summarize and too often simply reconstruct the official military line on herbicides without interrogating the assumptions on which those policies were based; neither takes seriously the possibility that Ranch Hand was undermining support for the war in the countryside.

Other works on the use of herbicides in Vietnam have traded advocacy for historical context,collecting firsthand accounts from veterans and other victims of Agent Orange without considering the ways in which people encountered the herbicides. Yet most of these works focus on Agent Orange at the expense of other chemicals, such as Agent Blue, thereby disregarding the vital component of crop destruction altogether.

Focusing on crop destruction as it is addressed in previously ignored military records reveals that the political and psychological aspects of the chemical war were far from ancillary components of the military campaign. Rather, the revolutionary forces of Vietnam and the U.S.-led forces saw the propaganda battle over the program as a central front in the war. In this battle there was no clear winner: Both the U.S.-South Vietnamese forces and the NLF struggled to make their cases to Vietnamese villagers, and both drew their share of blame from local populations. There were, however, clear losers: Vietnamese civilians were, as one villager put it, like “a fly caught between two fighting buffaloes.” In rationalizing and justifying the use of herbicides and other chemical agents in Vietnam, U.S. policymakers consistently distinguished between civilian crops and those controlled by the NLF, distinctions which proved even less effective than similar differentiations between combatants and noncombatants in the American war of attrition.

The basic American assumptions about the military effectiveness of herbicide programs were based, at best, on limited evidence, while far more substantial proof of the political costs was readily ignored. As in so many other areas of the war, the United States sought in vain to reconcile its political and military objectives in Vietnam while villagers were forced to live in fear of bombs, bullets, and the spray. The extent to which these debates were grounded more in politics than in ethical or moral concerns can be measured in the decision to extend the chemical war to crop destruction in 1962.

The idea of herbicidal warfare resulted from a combination of approaches the Kennedy administration took to the Cold War. But if the military’s view of the problem was framed largely by the new administration’s flexible response to the global war against communism, the policymakers also realized that the political consequences of their actions would be framed through the lens of the Cold War and decolonization. Concerns about charges that the use of herbicides and other chemical agents would open up the United States to accusations of violating international prohibitions against chemical and biological warfare were present from the earliest discussions of the program. By the early fall of 1961, when the first herbicide test missions were under way, the American embassy in Saigon raised concerns that the introduction of the aircraft and the herbicides would be seen as a violation of the Geneva Accords of 1954 and likely result in accusations of chemical warfare from the North Vietnamese.

Worries over the political fallout, however, were normally raised by the embassy or the Department of State and as the vulnerability of Ngo Dinh Diem’s regime became more apparent toward the end of Kennedy’s first year in office, the president increasingly relegated political and diplomatic considerations to a status secondary to military necessity. During this period the American public remained almost completely in the dark about the chemical war. Only in the late 1960s, amid revelations by scientists and antiwar activists about the potential dangers of dioxin, would the full scale of the program become public knowledge.

Two central questions framed these early debates: Did the military use of herbicides constitute a form of chemical warfare prohibited by international law? And, regardless of the legal definitions, what was the political cost of the herbicide program in terms of international public opinion and the political struggle in southern Vietnam? The first issue was dismissed without much debate; the consensus of the administration was that the program was not tantamount to chemical warfare. This did little to assuage the uneasiness of many advisers about the potential political fallout, however. One State Department memo in November 1961, recalling “the propaganda circus created by the communists on alleged U.S. use of ‘germ warfare’ in Korea on the basis of fabricated evidence,”noted that the Communist bloc would take advantage of any such opportunity to launch a great propaganda offensive. In a memo to the president in late 1961, Secretary of State Dean Rusk argued that although the use of herbicides was not specifically prohibited by international law, such use would open the administration to charges of biological and chemical warfare.

Even Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara expressed concerns about the political impact of the program, suggesting that Diem make a public statement clarifying that the herbicides were not harmful.

Early on, however, the political costs of herbicidal warfare were phrased almost solely in terms of world public opinion or Communist propaganda. Both the Pentagon and the White House feared that herbicides would be seen by others around the world as a violation of prohibitions against the use of chemical weapons, but outside of the State Department, policymakers rarely, if ever, discussed the political costs of such programs to the battle for hearts and minds.

Writing to the director of the United States Information Agency, a member of the State Department’s Far East division noted the preoccupations of many in the department: “I am no military strategist or tactician, although I did learn a few things about chemical or bacteriological warfare (most of it harassing) at the Air War College. Perhaps defoliation can be a critical factor in exposing Viet Cong strongholds and destroying Viet Cong food supplies. If it is, and must be used, we can take the psychological bumps which are certain to be dealt to us. But the spectre of charges that ‘U.S. imperialists are waging germ warfare on Asians’ haunts me.” In the end, President Kennedy determined that the program was worth the risks and approved major defoliation operations that would later include crop destruction.

The documentary record shows that both military and civilian advisers within the Kennedy administration were operating on the assumption that the herbicides were not harmful to people or animals. Their concerns about chemical warfare were consistently political rather than moral in nature and relied on the fact that the same herbicides were being used domestically in the United States. Under Secretary of State George Ball noted that while the administration should make clear that these initial operations were not aimed at human targets, herbicides should be deployed in a “low-key” manner, “since defoliant is harmless to personnel and animals.”

In a memo prepared for Deputy National Security Adviser Walt Rostow, Robert Johnson of the National Security Council argued that to get out in front of any charges of biological and chemical warfare, the United States should make the program “as open and above board as possible,” emphasizing “the fact (I believe it is a fact) that the chemical agents involved are the same kind that are used by farmers against weeds.”Johnson suggested it might be advisable to get the International Control Commission, the international team charged with overseeing the implementation of the Geneva Accords,“to examine every drum of the defoliant mixture to determine that it is what we say it is.”

Regardless of the course of action, however, Johnson argued that informational efforts were urgent: “Otherwise we may pay many of the political costs while reaping no military advantages.”

Throughout 1962, the first major year of operations for Ranch Hand, the military constantly evaluated those supposed advantages, measuring the effects of the herbicide program on the vegetation itself as well as on the NLF. The“Review and Evaluation of the Defoliation Program” of 1962, performed by the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), strongly supported continuing and expanding the program but made specific recommendations for minor adjustments, such as modifications to the dispersal equipment in the C-123s and continued assessment of whether the herbicides then in use (largely Agents Purple, Green and Pink; Orange had yet to be introduced) were the most effective means of vegetation control.

The report targeted the destruction of “Viet Cong crops” as the primary area for expansion. As historian William Buckingham has observed, Diem had long advocated expanding the herbicide programs to include crop destruction. Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) troops had already been at work manually destroying crops, and Diem saw herbicides as a “cheaper and more efficient” method. Kennedy had seen crop destruction as a potentially more troubling form of herbicidal warfare, however, and was initially reluctant to employ it. The president was not alone in his misgivings. “Advocates of crop destruction,” Buckingham notes, “would have to overcome strong opposition from the State Department.”

In the summer of 1962, these tensions came to a head, as the Defense and State departments squared off over the crop destruction program. From the beginning the central issue was military utility versus political consequences. Within this larger debate, both advocates and critics regularly came back to two questions: How could U.S. and ARVN forces distinguish civilian crops from those controlled by the NLF? And, for the program to be effective, would not the civilian population already have to be isolated from the NLF?

Within the State Department, Roger Hilsman was one of the most vocal critics of the proposal. “Destroying crops will inevitably have political repercussions,” he wrote to Assistant Secretary of State Averell Harriman in July 1962, noting the potential fallout within South Vietnam and in the international arena. If the program could indeed force the NLF to focus on generating and transporting additional sources of food, “rather than fighting,” he went on, “the political price may be acceptable,”but only“after the Viet Cong have been isolated from the peasants and driven into well-defined areas of concentration.” The early response from Military Assistance Command,Vietnam (MACV) and the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) to such concerns was that the initial crop destruction targets, located in the central highlands, were essentially areas the Montagnards, a local ethnic minority, had abandoned to the NLF.Additionally, they observed, the destruction of crops had a powerful psychological effect on all Vietnamese:“An interesting side effect in such an operation as crop destruction is that because of the superstitious nature of the rural peasant in Vietnam, the ability of the GVN [Government of Vietnam] to kill large areas of vegetation ‘magically’ makes a deep impression on him. During the Mangrove defoliation operation, one hundred and twelve VC [Viet Cong] surrendered when it was publicly announced that additional defoliation operations would be conducted.”

The Joint Chiefs realized that not all crop destruction targets would be limited to the remote highlands. Eventually the program would require the destruction of crops in close proximity to civilian populations. As their memo makes clear, however, in addition to the psychological benefits of herbicides, another key factor was that crop destruction would support and strengthen pacification efforts, especially the strategic hamlet program. From the outset, the military considered herbicidal warfare in general and crop destruction in particular as part and parcel of the larger pacification effort; that attitude resulted in a key difference of opinion in the debate. State argued that if crop destruction was to be effective, the population would have to be separated from the NLF; supporters of the program, chiefly in the military, argued that crop destruction should assist directly in the forcible relocation of civilians.

As the MACV proposal for crop destruction worked its way up toward the White House in August 1962, the debate between State and Defense intensified. On August 8, McNamara sent his recommendation to the president, arguing that crop destruction would effect a “substantial military advantage.” He agreed with MACV and the JCS that defoliation should be seen as supporting pacification and that the technical resources for the program would be an efficient, effective means of improving crop eradication efforts already underway.“The only possible drawback anticipated is in the psychological area,” he noted, again concurring with those who suggested that this could be dismissed as Communist propaganda. Nowhere in the memo does McNamara discuss the potential political impact among the civilian population of South Vietnam.

Secretary of State Rusk attempted to reframe the issue in his own recommendation to President Kennedy on August 23. While the proposed course of action would likely result in increased propaganda, he remarked, the larger worry should be over the political fall- out among Vietnamese civilians.“The way to win a guerilla war,” Rusk asserted, “is to win the people. Crop destruction runs counter to this basic rule.” Rusk’s explication of the argument would prove to be prophetic: “The problem of identifying fields on which the Viet Cong depend is hardly susceptible to solution so long as the Viet Cong and the people are co-mingled. The Government will gain the enmity of people whose crops are destroyed and whose wives and children will either have to stay in place and suffer hunger or become homeless refugees living on the uncertain bounty of a not-too-efficient government.”Rusk disputed the psychological arguments about the supposed magic of herbicides that had gained currency among advocates in previous months: “Other people, who merely sympathize with [the NLF], will also hate the government for crop destruction. The use of strange chemical agents to destroy crops strikes at something basic implanted in human beings (even if people do not—as many will—fear that the chemical agents are also directly harmful to people).” Rusk went on to outline potential benefits as well but ultimately recommended that the program be terminated.

As President Kennedy mulled over his decision, the debate between the State and Defense departments continued. At a meeting at the Pentagon on August 24, the staff of the JCS and the East Asia desk at State went back and forth, talking point for talking point, about the central issues Kennedy was considering: Would crop destruction be effective only after other pacification programs had succeeded in isolating civilians from the NLF, or could it be an effective weapon in that effort? Would crop destruction force the NLF to redirect energies and resources that might otherwise be used in military and political efforts, or would the hardships of food denial be passed on to the local population? Would the program result in worldwide condemnation, or had the United States already weathered the storm of criticism, which might be written off as Communist propaganda? And, finally, would the program further alienate the rural population from the Diem regime and its U.S. sponsors, or would it help provide security from the NLF and be a potential ally in the battle for their hearts and minds? During one tense moment the State Department representative,Deputy Under Secretary Alexis Johnson, commented that“the program posed great psychological problems even though the chemicals to be used were obtainable at a hardware store. They were in fact similar to materials we use on our own lawns,” to which General Lyman Lemnitzer of the JCS staff replied,“It is strange that we can bomb, kill, and burn people but are not permitted to starve them.” The two sides were not going to come to any consensus.

President Kennedy’s decision to approve limited crop destruction operations, as Buckingham has argued, was ultimately shaped not just by the internal debate between State and Defense, but also by a meeting he had with Republic of Vietnam Foreign Minister Nguyen Dinh Thuan in mid-September. Thuan was in Washington for meetings with the International Monetary Fund but met with various constituencies in the crop destruction debate. At a meeting at the State Department on September 19, Thuan assured those in attendance, among whom were some critics of crop destruction, that local province chiefs could help distinguish between civilian and NLF fields, although his reasoning—that the Montagnards put huts in their rice fields and the NLF do not—was not very convincing. A week later Thuan met with President Kennedy and repeated his earlier assessment. The president asked why the Viet Cong could not also build huts in their rice fields if this was indeed the primary way to distinguish civilian and military crops; he too was apparently less than convinced by Thuan’s reasoning. Still, Thuan insisted that crop destruction could be effective on a limited, targeted basis. On October 2, 1962, the president approved operations on exactly those grounds.

As crop destruction was put into action over the next several months, State continued its attempts to rein in the program, insisting on prioritizing political and psyops efforts to inform the civilian population about the purpose and the effects of the airborne spray. The department developed strict guidelines for all defoliation missions, including a role for the embassy in approving requests. This role was based in part on requests from MACV and the JCS that approval for missions be delegated down the chain of command to allow for more rapid response, an approach Kennedy resisted for the remainder of his presidency. Under President Lyndon Johnson, crop destruction and defoliation missions increased in direct proportion to the escalation of the war. Any remaining misgivings about political fallout trumping military necessity were marginalized.“In 1964,” Buckingham writes, “the restraints placed on chemical crop destruction by Washington officials, fearful of the potential domestic and international outcry again against the tactic,” slowly crumbled.

Even as the situation in southern Vietnam deteriorated in 1963, however, the political fallout should have been increasingly clear to officials. The Communist bloc was no longer alone in drawing attention to the herbicide program. The New York Times had begun reporting on crop destruction and the “sensitivity [of the United States] to the possibility that accusations would be made that Americans took part in chemical warfare.” Citing the Times piece in a letter to President Kennedy in March 1963, Congressman Robert Kastenmeier of Wisconsin noted Franklin Roosevelt’s refusal to engage in crop destruction against Japan during the Second World War and castigated the president for “our present starvation program in Vietnam.” In his reply to Kastenmeier, though, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense William Bundy argued that “the use of chemical and biological weapons has not occurred, and the compromise of moral principles has not been at issue.” “Chemical warfare as defined by international law,” Bundy noted, involved the use of chemicals on “the physical person of the enemy,” and the commercially available“weed-killers”being deployed by the United States and its South Vietnamese allies did not fit that definition.

The debates among policymakers and military leaders over herbicidal warfare and crop destruction centered around a number of false distinctions, each of which was magnified in the environment and historical moment the United States found itself in in south- ern Vietnam in the 1960s: that between the political and the military in a counterinsurgency, counterrevolutionary situation; that between civilian noncombatants and military combatants; and that between “the physical person” and the larger environment in which that body was located. The first two represent a failure by war planners to grapple with the political and military realities of their counterinsurgency efforts in Vietnam. The last, however, is more complicated. In hindsight, it seems absurd to believe that policymakers could separate the “physical person” of the enemy or, for that matter, of civilians from the physical environment in which they lived. How could the sprays being used to defoliate forests and destroy rice crops and fruit trees be considered any more separable than civilians and combatants in a guerrilla war?

In the early 1960s, this bodily divide was not simply a distinction relied upon by military commanders and the National Security Council. It was a common assumption about the relationship between body and nature held by many Americans at the time—before Silent Spring had helped draw attention to the dangers of pesticides and accelerated the spread of environmentalist thinking in the United States. This framework was under assault in the United States and elsewhere—a nascent environmental movement began to complicate common understandings of nature, the human body, and the effects of pesticides and herbicides, but it had yet to enter the mainstream.

The herbicidal warfare waged by the United States in Southeast Asia would become part of this discussion, demonstrating the futility of such distinctions and also the ultimate futility of the Vietnam War.


Edwin A. Martini, associate professor of history at Western Michigan University, is the author of Invisible Enemies: The American War on Vietnam, 1975-2000.

Originally published in the April 2013 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.