A ‘brief’ History:
In 1952, Monsanto, a chemical productions company, sent a vague, penciled memo to the United States Congress to inform the government that the chemical herbicides and defoliants they were creating contained a carcinogenic dioxin*. The defoliant in question, is commonly known as Agent Orange, a powerful defoliant used by the United States in Operation Ranch Hand between 1961 and 1971.
Left disregarded, the United States continued production of the chemicals and eventually used it for 10 years during the Vietnam War; Monsanto was left exonerated. Agent Orange was used in Operation Ranch Hand which aimed to deprive the Viet Cong and its supporters of the required ground cover for guerrilla warfare and agricultural land for food; eventually either forcing surrender or destroying the villages of rural Vietnam. The operation itself included more than just Agent orange; the Rainbow Agents ,as they were ‘affectionately’ named, were in total six and joined by various insecticides like Malathion and DDT.
During the Vietnam war, United States military forces sprayed Agent Orange over Corps Tactical Zone 1 (particularly the Ho-Chi Min Trail) and Corps Tactical Zone 3. Australian Defence Forces were located and primarily isolated to the Phuoc Tuy Province in Corps Tactical Zone 3. Australian forces were limited to exercises and operations involving search and destroy missions and counter-guerrilla operations. Australians never participated in the spraying and distribution of Agent Orange or were directly exposed to Agent orange. At most, exposure to DDT and other insecticides was high likely. Exposure to insecticides were verified and approved with the World Health Organisation and was cited as safe for human exposure.
The Debate of Agent Orange:
The controversy of Agent Orange is international, cross-disciplinary and spans over four decades. From the environmental catastrophes in South Vietnam to the medical investigations into cancerous claims of United States Veterans; Agent Orange has left a besmirched legacy for both civilians and veterans. Agent Orange has plagued the Australian memory of the Vietnam War; The Australian debate, however, surrounds the question of whether or not Australian forces were directly exposed to , specifically, Agent Orange.
Upon return to Australian shores, military personnel felt subjugated to public disdain and vilification for their involvement and their military service in Vietnam. The feeling of exclusion from Australian society and from the ANZAC heroism experienced by their forefathers, meant a degree of bitterness and isolation set into the small community of approximately 7000 Vietnam veterans.
The beginning of the Australian Agent Orange debate began with an article in the August issue of the Rolling Stone in 1978, broaching the topic at the same time the Department of Veterans Affairs in the United States kicked off their investigations into Agent Orange Veteran claims. For a large Part, editorial, pinion pieces and anecdotal history advertised and bolstered public interest into the controversy, and was the only evidence for the case for Agent Orange in Australian veterans.
Parallel to rising amount of media converge of the debate, the Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia (VVAA), banded together to create an association that felt ignored and vilified by both the Australian government and public. The VVAA had a preoccupation with Agent Orange following a series of health issues doctors and the department of Veterans Affairs had dismissed.
Following public aggression and the VVVAA’s pressure on the government to deliver, the Evatt Royal Commission was established in 1983, lasting until 1985, and was the official investigation into the claims. The Royal Evatt Commission finally ruled that the Agent Orange was not guilty. This is where the word ‘specifically’ becomes exceedingly important. As all commissional and defence enquiries show, Agent Orange was the specific chemical outlined in the claims of VVAA members; however in the eyes of the law and the Commonwealth, Agent Orange specifically could not be held accountable for any health issues in Australian veterans; rather if VVAA claims could have been approved the veterans should not have specified a chemical and instead claimed “herbicidal, defoliant and insecticide exposure’.
Why is this an Australian Memory?
Agent Orange in Australia delves into a rather significant issue of Australian national history. Australian’s, since the end of the Vietnam War, have seen Agent Orange as a part of Australian memory and history, however it is not. It is the history of the United States and Vietnam; not Australia. Part of the responsibility of this memory existing falls to to the fact Vietnam was the first televised war; however the televising was of American involvement; and even post-Vietnam, Australians watched(and watch) American films on Vietnam. Full Metal Jacket, Platoon, Apocalypse Now and Forrest Gump show the Vietnam War as an American ordeal; never showing the international forces that were involved in Vietnam. For this reason, Australian perceptions and experiences of the Vietnam War have been eclipsed by American memories and histories. In the same way, Agent Orange was an american and Vietnamese ordeal, not an Australian one; yet Agent orange has remained one of the most famous herbicides and chemicals used in the Vietnam war; standing in as the poster boy of all chemical warfare during the Vietnam war era. The infamy comes from American depictions and memories of Agent Orange that have amalgamated into Australian memories and history.
Agent Orange is also a symbol for Vietnam veterans, a way to show the public that they were not simply murderers as they had been depicted during the Anti-Vietnam War movements; rather they were subjected to a different kind of warfare to that of their fathers and grandfathers. Soldiers who had been trained to fight men and to engage in warfare akin to trench-warfare were denied the experience of their fathers and grandfathers; instead Australian Vietnam soldiers were faced with the invisible, ageless and genderless enemy of the Viet Cong.
High Schools continue to teach students that Agent Orange is a part of the Australian Vietnam memory. It has not been written out of our national history, nor has it properly been delved into. Part of this is because Monsanto is still answering questions about Agent Orange and Veterans are still making claims. It is not the claims that are the problem, it is that Agent Orange has effectively become larger than it really is. It has over shadowed potentially substantial claims of other chemicals by becoming such a recognisable name; therefore allowing other chemicals to become lost in the milieu. Agent Orange will remain an insignia of the Vietnam War and perhaps in due time it will no longer remain in the Australian ‘memory’ of Vietnam; but rather become re-written as the memory of the debate of Agent Orange in Australia.
*Dioxins are in nature, chemical residues from manufacturing processes and are often cancerous. Typically, the side affects of dioxins in human exposure include Sarcoma, lymphoma(of various types), Blood diseases, respiratory diseases and various birth anomalies and defects of varying magnitudes of seriousness.
Alastair Hay, The Chemical Scythe: 2,4,5-T and Dioxin, (New York: Plenum Publishing Corporation, 1984)
Peter H. Schuck, Agent Orange on Trial: Mass Toxic Disasters in the Courtroom, (United States of America: Harvard University Press, 1987)
H. Frumkin, “Agent Orange and Cancer: an Overview for Clinicians”, CA: Cancer Journal for Clinicians 53(2003) pp. 254-55
Wayne Hall, ‘The Agent Orange Controversy after The Evatt Royal Commission’, Medical Journal of Australia,145(1986), pp. 219-225
Wayne Hall, ‘Logic of a Controversy: The Case of Agent Orange in Australia’, Social Science and Medicine, 29(1989), pp. 537 – 544
Brian I. O’Toole et al, ‘The Australian Vietnam Veterans Health Study: 1 Study design and Response Results’, International Journal of Epidemiology, 25(1996), pp. 307-318
P. Evatt, Royal Commission on the Use and Effects of Chemical Agents on Australian Personnel in Vietnam, (Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia, 1985)
Brendan G. O’Keefe and F.B.Smith, Medicine at War: Medical aspects of Australia’s involvement in Southeast Asia 1950-1972 (Sydney: Allen & Unwin in association with the Australian War Memorial,1994)
Gregory Pemberton, Vietnam Remembered, (Sydney: Weldon Publishing, 1990)
Jock Mucculloch, The Politics of Agent Orange: The Australian Experience, (Richmond: Heinemann, 1984)
Michael Gough, Dioxin, Agent Orange: The Facts, (New York: Plenum Press, 1986)
Senate Standing Committee on Science and the Environment, Pesticides and the Health of Australian Vietnam Veterans: First Report, (Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service, 1982)
Department of Veteran Affairs, Case- Control Study of Congenital Anomalies and vietnam Service (Birth Defects Study), (Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service, 1983)