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