Back Forty: The long shadow of Agent Orange in Vietnam

Back Forty will bring you periodic reviews, interviews and reporter insights about the stories they wrote. We hope you enjoy it as a companion to our main content on and our Ag Insider policy news site. You can subscribe to the newsletter below.

A U.S. Air Force Fairchild UC-123B aircraft spraying defoliant in South Vietnam in 1962. Image Source: U.S. Air Force.

By Samuel Fromartz

Several years ago, when George Black was FERN’s editor-at-large, he wrote a story about the toxic legacy of the herbicide Agent Orange and unexploded ordnance in Vietnam. It was one of our first foreign stories, and one that showed how wide-ranging our journalism could be.

That piece sparked an inquiry for Black that has lasted eight years and resulted in a book, 
The Long Reckoning: A Story of War, Peace, and Redemption in Vietnam, just published by Knopf. The book explains why the war unfolded as it did, setting the stage for all that followed. It also shows how a cast of characters — former military men, scientists, doctors and concerned citizens — worked to address the worst after-effects of the conflict, which were hidden or denied for decades. In short, it’s a masterpiece of reporting, war studies and narrative nonfiction. He took time to answer some questions about the project.

This book is all encompassing — the war and its 50-year aftermath. But what struck me was the environmental context of the war, since you explain how the geography and the tropical forest were central to the conflict. Was that clear to you going in?

I definitely had an inkling that there was something special about the area where that story was set, just below the old demilitarized zone, and two of the veterans I met there, Chuck Searcy and Manus Campbell, later evolved into the central characters in my book. Manus was a Marine who fought there during the worst period of the war, 1967-68, and Chuck, who was a military intelligence analyst in Saigon, has devoted much of his life since he went back to live in Vietnam in 1994 to dealing with the legacies of the war in the same area. The two provinces I write about, Quang Tri and Thua Thien-Hue, have a unique geography, and that had a huge influence on how the war was conducted there. They cover a tiny area, about the size of Connecticut, that’s bounded to the north by the DMZ, to the west by the Lao border and the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and to the south by a spur of the mountains that cut the area off from the rest of the former South Vietnam.

So it had huge strategic significance for both sides. It’s also the narrowest part of Vietnam — the coastal plain where the rice and most of the other food crops are grown is just 10 or 15 miles wide. The densely forested mountains rise up quite abruptly to the west and were an especially scary place for fighters on both sides, although the Vietnamese always had the advantage, because they knew the landscape intimately and the Americans didn’t. The U.S. response was to throw technology at the problem, in the form of bombs and chemicals. Sadly, a lot of the forest cover has now been replaced by monotonous acacia plantations, because the area was so massively defoliated. Along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos, which was also heavily sprayed — one of the great secrets of the war — you can still see bare mountainsides and countless bomb craters.

Put these geographical and military-political factors together, and you can see why the worst humanitarian legacies of the war have been so concentrated in this area. Quang Tri is the most heavily bombed piece of earth in history, and thousands of people have died there from unexploded munitions, mainly cluster bombs, beginning with the farmers returning to their fields after the war. Something like 2 million gallons of herbicide were sprayed on the two provinces, and thousands of families are still struggling with the birth defects and disabilities that resulted, with cases now even reaching into the fourth generation.

Author George Black, photo by Michael Lionstar.

I was struck by the comparison of the Vietnamese peasant to the American Indian. In both instances, the food supply was destroyed, people were moved off the land and the effects lasted generations. Do you think that’s just war? Or the result of a more pervasive mindset?

The destruction of food crops was by far the most controversial part of the herbicide campaign. There were no real qualms about using the so-called “rainbow chemicals” to remove the forest cover that was concealing the enemy, although many generals came to see it as a waste of time from a military point of view, because it was days or weeks before the defoliation took effect, so the enemy had plenty of time to simply pick up and move elsewhere. When the program began, President Kennedy strongly resisted the use of chemicals to destroy food crops. But eventually crop destruction became a big part of the war effort in Vietnam.

Armies have burned their enemies’ crops for millennia, but as an instrument of war for Americans, the techniques were also used against the Plains Indians. Slaughtering the buffalo and driving the Indians into reservations was supposedly a kinder alternative than killing them. So yes, in a sense it reflected a whole mindset, not just a military strategy. In Vietnam, those who suffered worst were the Indigenous people of the mountains, whose religious beliefs are rooted in the idea that the natural world is the home of spirits who determine every aspect of life. So there’s another similarity there to the impact of the 19th century wars on the Plains Indians, who also saw the land as sacred.

The parallels between the use of pesticides/herbicides in modern farming and the way they were used in the war are uncanny. And the companies are one in the same. Do you see those parallels or was the war just a case of overuse? An aberration?

They’re totally parallel, I think. Americans have an almost religious faith in the power of technology to solve our problems, and after World War II there was a deep belief in the old DuPont slogan, “Better living through chemistry.” Dow Chemical and Monsanto [now part of Bayer] were the two biggest producers of Agent Orange — the companies are still synonymous with agricultural chemicals of all kinds. Both in peacetime and during the war in Southeast Asia, chemical herbicides were a way to demonstrate human mastery over the natural world. Left to its own devices, the natural world is unruly and resistant to human control, and that was particularly true of tropical rainforest and mangroves. So in that sense you could say that the wartime use of chemicals was an aberration because of the quantities that had to be used to remove the vegetation. Often the first spraying of triple-canopy forest would remove only the top layer of leaves, so the operation had to be repeated.

The terrible health impacts only later became clear, when Vietnamese veterans returning from the war zone had unusually high levels of liver cancer — just one of the many illnesses associated with dioxin exposure from the defoliants. But it took decades for the U.S. to acknowledge the health impacts, first to its own veterans and much later and more guardedly with the Vietnamese.

You have a redemption story as well. I was struck by how many of the protagonists were concerned scientists, researchers and people dealing with the ghosts of their wartime experience. They were the ones who got the U.S. government to alter its policy in dealing with the effects of Agent Orange and its victims. Do you think that’s how change happens?

Well, it’s like the old Margaret Mead quote, which has always been one of my favorites: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed individuals can change the world; in fact it’s the only thing that ever has.” I wanted to orchestrate my story around exactly such a “small group of thoughtful, committed individuals.” I think of them as forming a kind of Venn diagram, each with his or her own distinct personality, background, interests and skills. There were military veterans, scientists and women who came out of the faith-based community, especially the Quakers. They joined forces on many issues, but above all it was to deal with the problem of Agent Orange and to aid its victims. And in the process of doing this work, they achieved a kind of personal redemption. For the veterans above all, it was about coming to terms with what they had done in Vietnam, and what Vietnam had done to them.

What I came to admire most about these people was that all of them came to Vietnam (and to Laos, which is an important part of the story) asking the same questions: What do you need? And how can we help? They didn’t arrive with solutions that had been cooked up by foreigners. Vietnam had had more than enough of those. So in every case — whether the issue was Agent Orange, or unexploded munitions, I see their Vietnamese partners as being at the heart of my story. I wanted particularly to honor the work of the Vietnamese scientists, who until now have never been written about in the West. Only one of them is still alive, Dr. Nguyen Thi Ngoc Toan, who was the most distinguished ob-gyn in Hanoi. She’s now 93, and being able to give her a copy of The Long Reckoning may have been the single most rewarding moment in writing the book.