Shattering a Myth: Agent Orange and Australian Vietnam Veterans.

Four-ship formation on a defoliation spray run. (U.S. Air Force photo)

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.

Map showing Corps Tactical Zone 3 - Phouc Tuy Province.

Map showing Corps Tactical Zone 3 – Phouc Tuy Province.

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.

Commonwealth Action: 

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.

 Further Reading:

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)

15 comments on “Shattering a Myth: Agent Orange and Australian Vietnam Veterans.

  1. persephx says:

    Hi! I really found your blog interesting and I find the medical/social/political/military approach that you have managed to conglomerate so well really intriguing!

    In terms of the ‘memory’ of Agent Orange in Australian history – do you think that this is a result of an Americanisation of the Australian memory through the televising of American involvement in the war and Hollywood films? But also a general consensus to just ‘consume’ everything that is given to us and accept that, for example, Agent Orange did affect Australian soldiers?

    Thanks! I really enjoyed your piece!

    • soniakukreti says:

      Hi Persephonie!

      Yes, that is essentially what I am alluding to: Our perception of the Vietnam War as Australians has been shaped by the mass media of American depictions of Vietnam. I think it’s more than just consuming everything; more so it’s belief of media depictions. I think because of the apparent lack of dialogue of the Vietnam war in Australia between veterans, civilians and governments; the amalgamation of american and Australian experiences have ultimately done exactly what you say: people have just accepted agent Orange.

      I do however maintain that there is validity behind medical claims of veterans, it is rather the inability to discern between the different chemicals and the recognition of a name that makes veterans run back to Agent Orange.

      Thank you for reading!

  2. laurenswain15 says:

    Hi Sonia!

    I always find it interesting examining the way that various events from history have been remembered, particularly when they have been remembered incorrectly. That the piece was well written was also a definite plus. It was interesting that you said that High Schools continue to teach Agent Orange as part of Australia’s Vietnam memory. This is something that i would expect from movies but not as much from the classroom. As the curriculum is set, and often also quite politicised, I was wondering if there was a reason that you think that it is still taught in schools?


    • soniakukreti says:

      hi Lauren,

      Thanks for reading!

      I know it becomes so much more political when schools are brought into the picture of Agent Orange. Unfortunately within Australia the majority of research done into Agent Orange and Australian veterans has been isolated to the late 1970s to the early 1990s; a vast majority of it being anecdotal history or ‘histories’ written by VVAA members. Adding to this toxic mixture is the fact, since 1985, the Australian government has not revisited agent Orange and this therefore makes quelling these claims and amending these clams difficult because the public and the veterans were still talking about agent Orange after the final Commissional judgement.

      The reason I think Agent Orange is still taught in schools is that there has been a lack of disparity between the history of agent Orange and the history of the debate of agent orange. It has not been re-written as looking into the commissions and the claims; but rather as Agent Orange and the Vietnam War. Again part of this comes down to research and information. Within American Vietnam veteran communities and academic communities there is a vast magnitude of information on Agent Orange; in Australia there is not, so perhaps there is a recognition of Agent Orange, but a reliance on American sources. The debate is also still going, so really the history of it will continue to be written until the debate ends; in which case by that point One would hope we have rectified and rephrased the way we approach Agent Orange as a society.

  3. matthewchesworth says:

    I thought this was really interesting in that it gave a broad spectrum of not only how and why the particular myth of Agent Orange and the place it holds in Australian military and social history came to be, and how it has been debunked, but also the circumstances surrounding the consequences of this myth. Of particular note among these, I liked how you contextualised Agent Orange as causing suffering and issues among Australians today, but not through its biological effects, but by its ‘pop culture’ (for want of a better word) stature, and how the obscurity it’s caused for other health threatening chemicals has had particular ramifications within the legal sphere and how it has come to deny veterans support. In discovering these trends, and despite acknowledgements of the effects of Agent Orange in the continual education of young Australians and in the proliferation of American media among wider audiences, I would be curious to know if in your research you had found a growing number of veterans were now realising the disparities between popular history and their actual experiences, and finding relief in terms of compensation and government recognition, or if many still remained in the dark, despite the findings of courts and commissions? Regardless, this research is highly engaging to read of, especially in its challenging of commonly held perceptions, excellent work.

    • soniakukreti says:

      Hi Matt,

      Thanks for reading!

      It seems to have become a grey area of medicine and memory when looking back on Agent Orange; one must ask, how much of the memory is PTSD related? and if so how reliable? In the instance of the VVAA, simply finding their medical conditions aligning to those in American with compensation was enough for these veterans to believe the exposure. It does also come down to, what did these veterans actually do while in Vietnam: How much of it AT ALL can be blamed on Chemicals and how much of it is actually addiction to tobacco and alcoholism – (this is particularly important, as in Australian military bases there was a drinking and smoking culture but no drug culture like there was with American soldiers).

      Compensations are still highly limited, unless a veteran has left the chemical exposure open to just insecticides or herbicides; the DVA will not approve Agent Orange claims. Only recently in 2011, the DVA has put forth a detailed census of 28000 Vietnam veterans, spouses and their children, results of which will be published in 2014 – hopefully this will shed some new light on the health issues that have been apparently claimed over the last 30 years.

      Thanks you again for reading and the lovely comments!

  4. leenabamann says:

    Debate of Agent Orange continues within American Vietnam veteran communities and academic communities but so does suffering. In Vietnam, pregnant mothers were offered to be tested if damaged by Agent Orange. Termination of babies in hospitals were paid by Americans but the fee for the test not. Therefore, many women could not affort to be tested and those children grew without limbs and are now begging on the streets in Vietnam. No compensation there.

  5. […] Shattering a Myth: Agent Orange and Australian Vietnam Veterans. ( […]

  6. Willy Bach says:

    Dear Sonia

    Thank you for a most interesting article. Respectfully, I present this Information some of what I have studied on this topic, which may complicate what you have set out here:

    You said that Phouc Tuy Province, Vietnam was not sprayed with defoliants and further that Australian soldiers did no spraying.

    1. The Australian War Memorial has published colour photos of an Australian helicopter with a spray boom and a machine gun in the doorway. There is a series of these photos. The Australians are clearly flying over fields of crops: A 1968 image taken from inside an Australian Iroquois helicopter in flight. A spray boom for defoliant extends from the helicopter beneath the machine gunner, who is on the right of the image. Defoliant was loaded onto helicopters in 30-gallon tanks. Agent orange was named for the orange stripe on such tanks. [AWM P01733.006]

    The accompanying text says in part: “Australian troops were also involved in the use of herbicides and insecticides, the latter being widely sprayed in Phuoc Tuy province, particularly at Nui Dat.”

    2. Paul Ham published a book in 2007, ‘Vietnam: the Australian War’ for which he also interviewed Australian veterans. Read Pages 617-628. Ham quoted former Australian soldier, Fred Ball, who disclosed :

    “We sprayed the bloody place with Agent Orange … I was mixing the bloody stuff, 44 gallon drums. It wasn’t just the bloody jungles; it was used on bloody paddy fields. It killed everything, not only the vegetation; it killed animals … Defoliation was simply a routine part of the war”. [Italics added] (Ham)

    Ham studied the transcript of the Australian Inquiry. In his account of the 1985 Australian Inquiry into the toxicity of Agent Orange under Justice Phillip Evatt, Ham concluded that the Inquiry was a fraud. The conclusions of the inquiry contained statements like: “The suggestion that chemical defoliants had caused birth defects was ‘fanciful’. The government had no case to answer”. Yet, as Ham explained:

    “The commission had simply lifted large chunks of its conclusions from the submission by Monsanto … Evatt adopted 70% of his materials [in the section on cancer] from Monsanto’s submission.”

    Australian veterans, Ambrose Crowe, Lachlan Irvine and Graham Walker have all written academic papers and theses describing their experience of dealing with government and produced very similar conclusions. If there was no factual basis for their statements that would need to be addressed.

    3. Dr. Jeanne Stellman, professor of health policy and management, and Dr. Steven Stellman, professor of epidemiology documented all of the sprayed areas in Việt Nam using GIS and measured contamination (2003)
    Watch the animation depicting all spraying done during the war period in Vietnam:
    Their report can be read here: ‘The extent and patterns of usage of Agent Orange and other herbicides in Vietnam’:

    Click to access Stellman1537.pdf

    I will pass on the link to your article to Jaqui Bird, who also has an interest in this topic.

    Willy Bach
    UQ School of History

    • soniakukreti says:

      Hi Willy,

      Thanks for your comment. I’ll look into Jacqui Bird’s work, and I’ll take what you say on board when I develop the project further.


      Sonia Kukreti

  7. Willy Bach says:

    Dear Sonia

    Thank you for accepting my comments. I have done a lot of work on this already. You say that you are intending to develop the project further. What area(s) of the topic are you researching?

    You began your article mentioning the year 1952, touching on the question of when did scientists and their employers in governments and industry know about the presence of dioxin in the finished products and the properties of dioxin as an extremely toxic group of chemicals. I have quite a lot of information on this question and on the early development work which led to the industrial scale of production that came later. The realisation that these chemicals could be used in colonial counter-insurgency wars in food-denial programmes predated this as they were manufactured on a large scale with the intention of destroying Japan’s rice crop in World War II. The first use of defoliants was by the British in Malaya from 1952-1954 during the Malayan Emergency. There are also claims that defoliants were used by US forces in Korea in 1955.

    You say in your conclusion, “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”. I would say that Agent Orange should not be written out of our national history, since Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand were all manufacturers of these chemicals. Whether we can discuss the actual use of the products in Vietnam, we were suppliers and have responsibility for the way in which they were used.

    One of the discussants on this thread, Leena Barmann, posted a link which claimed that New Zealand troops in Vietnam, co-located with Australians were affected by the chemicals. In fact, New Zealand also had an inquiry to determine compensation eligibility for veterans and hosted a plant operated by Ivon Watkins Dow (IWD), which was located near the coastal town of New Plymouth:

    Australia hosted a Union Carbide plant in the heart of Sydney at Homebush Bay, Rhodes. The site became part of the Olympic Games site in 2001 and attempts were made by Thiess to remove the dioxin Signs were erected to warn amateur fishermen not to eat the fish caught in that part of Sydney Harbour. Furthermore, the defoliants were tested on serving Australian soldiers in the vulnerable rainforest environment near Innisfail in North Queensland. This remained secret till re-discovered in 2008: There is much more as well.

    I hope this is helpful. Keep in touch.


  8. Willy Bach says:

    Dear Sonia

    Several additional references came to my attention. Neither of these authors have any interest in Australian military history:

    Firstly, a Vietnamese scientist who specialised in the life of mangroves

    (Phan Nguyen Hong, Hoang Thi San :1993)
    Page 97
    According to Ross (1975), mangroves were sprayed with agent purple (similar to agent orange) along highway 15 from Bien Hoa to Phouc Tuy in January and again in March 1962. Some areas along the coast of the Mekong delta were sprayed in 1964 and 1965. Two areas heavily sprayed with herbicides from 1966 to 1970 were Rung Sat and the tip of Ca Mau peninsular. The tapes of the herbicide data file (HERBS) for the years 1965 to 1970 show that a total of 299 missions were flown into Rung Sat area when 2,529 kilograms of Agent Orange, 1,300 kilograms of agent white and 186 kilograms of agent blue were sprayed. From 1966 to 1970 the tip of Ca Mau received 1,027 kgs of agent orange through over the mangroves rapidly increased from 1966 to 1969. In 1966 the mangroves in all provinces along the coast of the Mekong delta were sprayed.

    The second is a US academic, again with no interest in Australian military history:

    (Alvin Lee Young :2009)
    Page 103-104
    Members of the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV) were first deployed in Vietnam in 1962, and were located throughout South Vietnam as part of the Advisory effort. In 1965, the First Royal Australian Regiment (iRAR) was deployed to an area adjacent to Bien Hoa Air Base. This began the buildup of Australian and New Zealand Forces in South Vietnam (Sinclair 1982). In 1966, the First Australian Task Force (1 ATF) deployed to Nui Dat (Phuoc Tuy Province in III Corps), while an Australian Logistic Support Group was at Vung Tau (also in Phouc Tuy Province). The Australian Forces saw the defoliation program as “an important measure in helping to deprive the enemy of the advantages that he enjoyed through the use of natural vegetation for cover in Vietnam’s tropical environment” (Sinclair 1982). When the 1 ATF was in place in the Phouc Tuy Sector, requests for defoliation by RANCH HAND aircraft involved more than 62 targets. Most of the early sorties were with Agent Orange, but after October 1967, Agent White became the predominant herbicide used in Phouc Tuy (Sinclair 1982; Cecil 1986). At both Nui Dat and Vung Tau, extensive aerial insecticide spraying programs were conducted by UC-123 insecticide aircraft (Operation FLYSWATTER) and by Australian aircraft (Sinclair 1982).

    You may like to discuss these further.

    Willy Bach

  9. David Kaiser says:

    Dear Sonia,
    very interesting article. I would like to ask if you could share from which resource you got the information that the Rainbow Agents were joined by DDT. I am searching for a “citable” reference.
    Thanks in advance!

  10. Willy Bach says:

    Dear Sonia

    Honest History has now reviewed and published my article on Agent Orange. You may like to read and comment:

    Willy Bach

  11. Willy Bach says:

    Dear Sonia

    I still hope to have a reply from you.

    Today’s ‘Life Matters’ was most interesting, Australian actor, Kate Mulvany, was born with a kidney cancer, following her father’s service in Việt Nam. She survived a major operation at three years of age, and visited Việt Nam on a number of occasions. She told the ABC radio audience that several babies per day were still being born, fifty years later, in 2016 with severe deformities and some were abandoned by their impoverished parents.

    My article on the Honest History web site now has recorded 86 downloads.

    Look forward to hearing from you.


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