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Toxic War

The Story of Agent Orange

Peter Sills

Publication Year: 2014

The war in Vietnam, spanning more than twenty years, was one of the most divisive conflicts ever to envelop the United States, and its complexity and consequences did not end with the fall of Saigon in 1975. As Peter Sills demonstrates in Toxic War, veterans faced a new enemy beyond post-traumatic stress disorder or debilitating battle injuries. Many of them faced a new, more pernicious, slow-killing enemy: the cancerous effects of Agent Orange.

Originally introduced by Dow and other chemical companies as a herbicide in the United States and adopted by the military as a method of deforesting the war zone of Vietnam, in order to deny the enemy cover, Agent Orange also found its way into the systems of numerous active-duty soldiers. Sills argues that manufacturers understood the dangers of this compound and did nothing to protect American soldiers.

Toxic War takes the reader behind the scenes into the halls of political power and industry, where the debates about the use of Agent Orange and its potential side effects raged. In the end, the only way these veterans could seek justice was in the court of law and public opinion. Unprecedented in its access to legal, medical, and government documentation, as well as to the personal testimonies of veterans, Toxic War endeavors to explore all sides of this epic battle.

Published by: Vanderbilt University Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-vi


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

This book has been gestating for a long time—since the early 1980s, when Vietnam veterans and their families brought a class action against the federal government and the manufacturers of Agent Orange. The court ordered the defendants to turn over every piece of paper in their possession mentioning either dioxin or herbicides used...

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Introduction: One Statistic

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pp. 1-14

Dave and Laurel Maier spent the first night of their married life in downtown Cleveland, in a hotel that later became the local YWCA. They waited two months and journeyed several thousand miles for their second night together. They had no idea what they’d gotten themselves into—a strange, terrible war, and two glaringly...

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1: Techniques and Gadgets

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pp. 15-24

In 1880, Charles Darwin noticed that plants always lean toward their source of light; he postulated that some unknown growth regulator must be at work. His observation didn’t amount to much at first. It took another half-century before scientists figured out how to isolate and study botanical hormones. Researchers soon discovered that...

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2: Trail Dust

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pp. 25-32

The C-123, a cargo aircraft known as the “Provider,” was originally designed as an assault glider. It was simple, rugged, and easily maneuverable at low altitudes and speeds, with high-mounted wings and plenty of space in the hold. The Air Force declared the Provider obsolete in 1956.3...

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3: The Single Solution

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pp. 33-39

The US government couldn’t conceal the existence of Trail Dust, so it tried to make the program appear innocuous. This didn’t work either. A 1969 Crops Division report recalled, “Even though tight security restrictions were imposed on the early efforts, the activities attracted considerable attention among friendly and enemy...

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4: “We Didn’t Have Any Information That It Was Safe”

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pp. 40-44

Trail Dust would remain a minuscule program for a while longer. President Kennedy, whose main concern was enemy propaganda, continued to be wary about spraying these chemicals in wartime. The US military was confident, however, that Trail Dust had already dodged its propaganda bullet. The VC had tried to shock the world, and...

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5: The Chemical Corps and Dioxin, Part 1

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pp. 45-51

Were LNA and LNB more than simple defoliants? Were they sprayed deliberately on the Vietnamese to produce physical harm and/or psychological terror? There’s no definitive proof, but there is plenty of circumstantial evidence. The Chemical Corps was interested in dioxin as a potential weapon; the corps almost certainly knew that Agent Orange contained dioxin; a virtually effortless method to...

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6: Ranch Hand

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pp. 52-57

Once the restrictions on Trail Dust were removed, the program grew with astonishing speed. The Americans had begun to realize that they might actually lose this war. A February 1964 intelligence report gave the GVN only an even chance of surviving the next few months.1 The US military recognized that passive assistance was no...

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7: Good Citizens

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pp. 58-68

In 1964, George Lawton, a Navy lieutenant and medical resident, was assigned to the Public Health Service’s (PHS) Division of Occupational Health. Lawton spent a year in the dermatology section, run by Donald Birmingham and his assistant, Marcus Key. This PHS facility, based in Cincinnati, was small but important. The next generation...

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8: The Chemical Corps and Dioxin, Part 2

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pp. 69-76

When it became obvious that Ranch Hand personnel couldn’t be protected from ground fire, the military ordered another round of studies to determine whether Trail Dust was actually worth the risk. In June 1965, the Air Force’s brain trust, the RAND Corporation (the initials stand for “Research and Development”),3 conducted...

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9: The Rise and Fall of Ranch Hand

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pp. 77-84

Trail Dust grew exponentially. In 1966, Ranch Hand sprayed about five times as much land as the year before. In 1967, Trail Dust’s peak year, the C-123s covered nearly one and three-quarters of a million acres of Vietnam.3 And there still weren’t enough planes to handle all the requested targets. Army helicopters began taking over...

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10: Medicine from the Sky

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pp. 85-94

Did Operation Trail Dust protect American lives? Many military analysts (and most Ranch Handers) remain certain that defoliation was at least a useful tactic in preventing ambushes and identifying Viet Cong outposts. Even Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, who believed that Agent Orange killed his...

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11: “There Is No Immediate Cause for Alarm”

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pp. 95-101

The risks of military herbicides weren’t a secret. As early as February 1966, the Army adjutant general in Vietnam warned General Westmoreland, the new MACV commander, “There have been instances of concern as to possible adverse effects upon exposure to chemical defoliants. This concern must be dispelled among the...

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12: Activist Science

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pp. 102-108

As more herbicides were sprayed on the forests and fields of Vietnam, 2,4,5-T became the subject of an extensive and intense scientific debate. The US government had recognized, as early as 1961, that spraying herbicides in Vietnam might antagonize its allies, perhaps even its own citizens. At first...

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13: Bionetics

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pp. 109-119

In 1963, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) hired Bionetics Research Laboratories to conduct the largest, most comprehensive toxicological research project ever done: “screening studies” on 130 industrial chemicals and pesticides that were either potentially toxic or in wide use. Bionetics would determine if any of these compounds appeared to be carcinogenic...

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14: The End of Trail Dust

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pp. 120-128

The DuBridge announcement energized a loose union of local citizens’ groups and antiwar activists, the beginning of a new environmental movement. Now that their suspicions had been confirmed by the Bionetics report, they pushed to end both the military and domestic uses of D and T. On December 27, 1969, the AAAS adopted a resolution expressing concern...

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15: Guinea Pigs

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pp. 129-141

As the war dragged on, thousands of American soldiers began to develop odd and unexpected symptoms. Many were strikingly similar to those suffered by 2,4,5-T workers: rashes, joint pain, numbness and/or tingling in the hands and feet, severe headaches, exhaustion, mental lapses, depression, and sudden fits of temper. Some...

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16: Two and a Half Million Plaintiffs

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pp. 142-151

In the spring of 1978, Paul Reutershan (see Chapter 15) retained Edward Gorman, a Long Island personal injury lawyer, to sue the manufacturers of Agent Orange. Reutershan was killed by his cancer nine months later, before the case made any real headway. The relationship between Gorman and Reutershan’s group, Agent Orange...

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17: Politics and Epidemiology

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pp. 152-161

There was no longer any doubt that Agent Orange was toxic. The latest animal research linked 2,4,5-T and dioxin to birth defects, cancer, and other diseases. But there was still no solid proof that American soldiers had been exposed to enough poison to cause them harm. The VA insisted that no Vietnam veteran had ever been diagnosed with chloracne...

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18: The Management Committee

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pp. 162-177

The Class Action dragged on for years, the attorneys neck deep in discovery. Millions of pages of memos, letters, health records, and scientific studies were identified, copied, and delivered to every opposing counsel. Millions of pages presented by the other side were read and analyzed. Scores of people were deposed and dozens of...

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19: “People Lost Track of What Was True”: The Agent Orange Research, Part 1

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pp. 178-187

We’ll probably never know for certain whether Agent Orange harmed the people who fought and lived in Vietnam. It’s not because the necessary research couldn’t have been done; it just wasn’t done properly. Politics trumped science, and we’re all the poorer for it...

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20: Validation: The Agent Orange Research, Part 2

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pp. 188-203

The failure of the CDC’s research had little impact on the Veterans Administration, which had already determined that chloracne was the only disease connected to Agent Orange exposure. Cancer, neurological problems, porphyria—any other health problems—were simply the veterans’ hard luck...

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21: The Light at the End of the Tunnel: The Agent Orange Research, Part 3

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pp. 204-218

Two factions of Congress—Vietnam veterans and antiwar activists—formed a surprising coalition, intent on forcing the government to do a better job of determining whether herbicides had injured American soldiers. They were certain that science had been betrayed by politics, and they believed the White House was willfully ignoring...

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22: The Ongoing Cost of War

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pp. 219-226

By shutting down the Agent Orange exposure research, the government missed its best opportunity to decipher the human cost of spraying herbicides in Vietnam. The experience study, selective cancer studies, and the other research on veterans were never meant to be definitive; they could at best offer only hints and possibilities to be...

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Epilogue: One Story

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pp. 227-228

The VA had refused to take Dave Maier seriously when he tried to explain the connection between herbicides and his disease. He decided to fight back. Laurel understood that Dave now had a purpose beyond just staying alive. “He kept thinking there was a reason he was still around that he didn’t know about yet.”...


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pp. 229-230

Appendix A: The Institute of Medicine’s Update of Findings Regarding Associations between Exposures to Herbicides and Specific Health Outcomes

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pp. 231-232

Appendix B: Agent Orange–Related Diseases and Birth Defects Compensable by the Department of Veterans Affairs

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pp. 233-234


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pp. 235-266

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 267-268


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pp. 269-286

E-ISBN-13: 9780826519641
Print-ISBN-13: 9780826519627
Print-ISBN-10: 0826519628

Page Count: 288
Publication Year: 2014

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • United States. Veterans Administration.
  • Operation Ranch Hand, 1962-1971.
  • Veterans -- Diseases -- Research -- United States.
  • Agent Orange -- Health aspects -- Research -- United States.
  • Agent Orange -- Toxicology.
  • Vietnam War, 1961-1975 -- Chemical warfare.
  • Agent Orange -- War use.
  • Agent Orange -- Health aspects.
  • Veterans -- Diseases -- United States.
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