Many images come to mind when Americans think of the Vietnam War: a young naked girl screaming in the street having survived a white phosphorous attack, a South Vietnamese general summarily executing a suspected communist prisoner by shooting him in the head, or American National Guardsmen killing unarmed antiwar protesters at Kent State University. These moments and images are fixed in time. They are specific incidents that capture evocative moments in the history of a much-hated war. Juxtaposed against these are the far more subtle yet far-reaching and permanent legacies of the war, such as post-traumatic stress syndrome, a pervasive distrust of the government by many American citizens, and the legacy of the use of herbicides as weapons, collectively remembered as Agent Orange.
Beginning with the Kennedy administration in 1961 and continuing until Nixon ended it in 1971, the United States sprayed nineteen million gallons of dioxins over Vietnam as a part of Operation Ranch Hand, a techno-centric attempt adopted by the whiz kids of the White House to [End Page 1030] deny enemy forces the natural cover provided by Southeast Asia’s lush forests. In Agent Orange: History, Science, and the Politics of Uncertainty, Edwin A. Martini traces the history of Agent Orange’s use and controversial long-term impact on the image of the United State, the soldiers and sailors who fought the war (on both sides), countless civilians (also on both sides), and nature itself with a multifaceted thesis that demonstrates the limitations that historical and scientific studies face when politics are so pervasive a part of the conversation. He mines an impressive number of archives across the globe and he uses the “work of scholars in such fields as toxicology, epidemiology, and public health history, to learn how those disciplines have contributed to public discussions, policy, and contested meanings of Agent Orange” (p. 5).
Martini demonstrates how truly complex the legacy of Operation Ranch Hand is by centering his narrative around several central themes: the story of Agent Orange is global and it must be understood in this context; the story is profoundly shaped and informed by the rise of environmental thinking, which occurred, coincidentally, as Operation Ranch Hand was under way; the story is shaped by challenges to scientific and state-based authority which has as often as not been contingent on the “state” in question, as diverse as Canada, New Zealand, the state of Missouri, the Korean peninsula, and the country of Vietnam. And the story has always been about much more than Agent Orange, as the need to delve deeply in expertise found in other disciplines suggests.
Martini draws three convincing conclusions. First, to question how the United States could have ever conducted Operation Ranch Hand demonstrates a failure to appreciate the way dioxins were understood by the leaders who chose to use them. At the time these herbicides were widely used in agriculture in the United States, and the scientists who informed political and military decisions were not armed with the knowledge of potential danger to humans that we have of these “rainbow” chemicals today. Second, despite exclamations from countless would-be victims of Agent Orange exposure, Operation Ranch Hand was not chemical warfare in the legal sense, making claims for compensation all the more dubious. And third, any notion of reparation is complicated and variable from nation to nation, since there has been almost no definitive evidence that Agent Orange is to blame for the various ailments that victims claim they suffer as a result of exposure. But whereas American veterans have received some reparation (a $180 million dollar fund set up in 1984 and closed in 1997), the Vietnamese have little hope of seeing much from the United States, which goes to the heart of the argument—politics and scientific uncertainty. Science, often in the employ of the chemical companies that created the dioxins, has been unable to definitively tie Agent Orange to any specific ailment, but it was politically expedient for the American government to [End...