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Invention of Ecocide

Agent Orange, Vietnam, and the Scientists Who Changed the Way We Think About the Environment

David Zierler

Publication Year: 2011

As the public increasingly questioned the war in Vietnam, a group of American scientists deeply concerned about the use of Agent Orange and other herbicides started a movement to ban what they called “ecocide.”

David Zierler traces this movement, starting in the 1940s, when weed killer was developed in agricultural circles and theories of counterinsurgency were studied by the military. These two trajectories converged in 1961 with Operation Ranch Hand, the joint U.S.-South Vietnamese mission to use herbicidal warfare as a means to defoliate large areas of enemy territory.

Driven by the idea that humans were altering the world’s ecology for the worse, a group of scientists relentlessly challenged Pentagon assurances of safety, citing possible long-term environmental and health effects. It wasn’t until 1970 that the scientists gained access to sprayed zones confirming that a major ecological disaster had occurred. Their findings convinced the U.S. government to renounce first use of herbicides in future wars and, Zierler argues, fundamentally reoriented thinking about warfare and environmental security in the next forty years.

Incorporating in-depth interviews, unique archival collections, and recently declassified national security documents, Zierler examines the movement to ban ecocide as it played out amid the rise of a global environmental consciousness and growing disillusionment with the containment policies of the cold war era.

Published by: University of Georgia Press


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p. vii


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pp. ix-x


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pp. xi-xii

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ONE: Introduction

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pp. 1-13

For the past four years, I have followed 2,4-d (2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid) and 2,4,5-t (2,4,5-trichlorophenoxyacetic acid) through history. Plant physiologists classify these synthetic chemical compounds as selective auxins of the phenoxyacetic herbicide family. They were the first plant killers developed by scientists...

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TWO: An Etymology of Ecocide

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pp. 14-32

From the Peloponnesian War to the present-day Palestinian-Israeli conflict, combatants have accused the other side of committing atrocities. It is a unique form of propaganda — a condemnation that the enemy has crossed a normative boundary whose authority supersedes the objectives of both combatants...

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THREE: Agent Orange before Vietnam

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pp. 33-47

Agent Orange has a split lineage. The history of its component chemicals, 2,4-d and 2,4,5-t, begins with one of Charles Darwin’s lesser-known biological theories. The history of the military weapon Agent Orange begins on the eve of World War II, when the demands of total war sparked one scientist’s insight...

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FOUR: Gadgets and Guerrillas

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pp. 48-66

The decision to launch military herbicide operations in Vietnam in November 1961 was a key component of President John F. Kennedy’s grand strategy to contain the spread of communism and roll back the global influence of the Soviet Union. Three years before Lyndon B. Johnson “chose war”...

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FIVE: Herbicidal Warfare

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pp. 67-88

In early December 1961, immediately after President John F. Kennedy authorized herbicide operations, c-123 transport aircraft retrofitted with fixed-wing spray mechanisms took off from several U.S. Air Force bases. Although the merits of the term “chemical warfare” became a contentious issue in the latter part...

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SIX: Science, Ethics, and Dissent

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pp. 89-111

The scientific controversy over Operation Ranch Hand picked up where the controversy over atomic radiation had left off. A 1964 article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists launched the decade-long scientific movement to terminate herbicidal warfare.1 That same year, Lyndon B. Johnson...

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SEVEN: Surveying a Catastrophe

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pp. 112-137

The American war in Vietnam was not the first to create widespread ecological damage in that country. The Japanese occupation during World War II devastated Vietnamese forests. In keeping with Japan’s main goal to extract the maximum amount of natural resources from Indochina, Imperial...

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EIGHT: Against Protocol

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pp. 138-158

Fortuitous timing allowed the protesting scientists to help end herbicidal warfare for all time. The HAC members and their colleagues found an unwitting ally in President Richard M. Nixon. By attempting to ratify the Geneva Protocol of 1925, the president aimed to showcase American global leadership...

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NINE: Conclusion: Ecocide and International Security

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pp. 159-168

By the end of the 1960s, the cold war “consensus” among the Washington political establishment had collapsed.1 In the words of Senator Mark O. Hatfield, Republican from Oregon, as the decade drew to a close, “the disposition of Congress began to shift, almost imperceptibly. National economic...


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pp. 169-204


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pp. 205-232


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pp. 233-245

E-ISBN-13: 9780820339788
E-ISBN-10: 0820339784
Print-ISBN-13: 9780820338262
Print-ISBN-10: 0820338265

Page Count: 252
Publication Year: 2011

OCLC Number: 859671215
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Invention of Ecocide

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Vietnam War, 1961-1975 -- Chemical warfare.
  • Agent Orange -- Toxicology.
  • Extinction (Biology).
  • Agent Orange -- Health aspects.
  • Nature -- Effect of human beings on.
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