Agent Orange: The History, Usage, and Effects!

It’s no secret that the Vietnam War was embroiled in numerous controversies, but one that continues to be a topic of discussion is the use of Agent Orange. 

The United States military attacked 12,000 miof the Vietnamese jungles with Agent Orange in a 10-year period, to destroy forestation that provided Viet-Cong guerillas with cover, shelter, and food. 

Over half a century later, and the legacy Agent Orange left behind is not just one of illness, birth defects, and continued deforestation but more so one that questions the United States governments liability for its use, and how to properly care for the victims of Agent Orange moving forward. 

Veterans who worked with Agent Orange have been known to be greatly affected by the chemical, due to the expanding number of health conditions associated with it, some of which are presumptive as per the Department of Veterans Affairs, and some, sadly, that are not. 

Agent Orange, Veterans
The U.S. Air Force sprayed nearly 11 million gallons of Agent Orange in Vietnam in an effort to defoliate jungles and remove the cover that was used by the Viet-Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers.

Agent Orange: What Is It? 

Agent Orange is a chemical herbicide that was used during the Vietnam War.  

Agent Orange was one of what was referred to as ‘Rainbow Herbicides’, this was also inclusive of Agent Pink, Agent Blue, Agent Purple, Agent White, and Agent Green – and two other variations of orange. 

Created in 1940, far before the United States’ involvement in Vietnam and even before the U.S. entered World War II, Agent Orange was primarily used as an agricultural defoliant, due to its ability to kill some plants, while leaving others unharmed. 

At the time, the United States reached out to nine different companies in order to manufacture Agent Orange for military use – including Dow Chemical and Monsanto (the company infamously known for their product RoundUp, which caused cancer in many Americans).  

The chemical itself is a mixture of two herbicides, 2,4D and 2,4,5-T. 2,4-D is still commonly used today, however, 2,4,5-T was found to have an issue in its production process, one in which contaminates the chemical with a byproduct called TCDD, a dioxin. 

Dioxins are persistent organic pollutants, more commonly known as ‘forever chemicals.’  

The Monsanto Chemical Company reported that the TCDD in Agent Orange could be toxic as far back as 1962, with the President’s Science Advisory Committee reporting the same findings to the Joint Chiefs of Staff that very same year.  

Multiple studies from 1954 onward actively work to confirm the toxicity of both herbicides used in the creation of Agent Orange. 

Agent Orange, Veterans
The Rainbow Herbicides are a group of chemicals used by the United States military in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. Success with Project AGILE field tests with herbicides in South Vietnam in 1961 led to the formal herbicidal program Trail Dust (1961–71).

The Use of Agent Orange in Vietnam 

Many people may not know that it was actually the United Kingdom that first used any type of chemical defoliant in a combat setting, deploying it against rebel forces in Malaya which set the tone for chemical warfare as a military tactic. 

The United States first used chemical defoliation in 1961, near the village of Dak To. In 1962, the United States Air Force launched Operation Ranch Hand, which would use C-123 cargo planes that were loaded with rainbow herbicides to defoliate areas near highways, railroads and power lines. 

From there, Operation Ranch Hand went on to target crops used to feed the Viet Cong inside the A Shau Valley using Agent Blue – Agent Blue was found to be incredibly effective at killing rice. 

Agent Blue is not made of the same chemical compounds as Agent Orange, with Agent Blue consisting of arsenic compounds – however, it’s still quite deadly to humans and lives forever in soil and water. 

Agents Pink, Green and Purple were phased out around 1964, as they were found to be contaminated with three times as much TCDD as Agent Orange. 

By 1965, the United States no longer required presidential authority to spray Agent Orange, and it was used immensely around Vietnam, specifically in Laos on the Ho Chi Minh Trail and the area between the demilitarized zone and the Cam Lo River, known as ‘Leatherneck Square.’ 

It’s estimated that 19 million gallons of these chemical agents were sprayed over Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos during the war – roughly 58% of the agents sprayed were Agent Orange. 

To this day, it’s still unclear how many of the 3.8 million American troops in Vietnam were exposed to the rainbow herbicides. 

Agent Orange, Veterans
Ranch Hand grew into an essential part of the war effort, with over six million acres sprayed in South Vietnam between 1965 and 1969. Beginning in 1965 with only four aircraft, by the middle of 1969 Ranch Hand had about 25 UC-123 aircraft available for missions.

Agent Orange and The Human Body 

Dioxins like TCDD take a long time to break down, if they ever do at all. 

They tend to accumulate inside of the fatty tissues of both animals and humans, which means that any youth previously unaffected by Agent Orange may be exposed to it through ingesting animal fat that’s riddled with the toxin itself. 

Acute exposure to TCDD and other dioxins can cause chloracne, a dark, patchy series of lesions on the skin, and long-term exposure causes alterations in liver function, immune system impairment, as well as damage to developing nervous, endocrine and reproductive systems, according to the WHO. 

There are 17 presumptive conditions that the VA recognizes as being connected to Agent Orange, those are inclusive of, but are not limited to the following:  


  • Bladder Cancer 

  • Chronic B-Cell Leukemias 

  • Hypertension 

  • Multiple Myeloma 

  • Prostate Cancer 

  • Soft Tissue Sarcomas 

Click here if you’d like to see the full list on the VA’s website. 

If short-term and long-term exposure to Agent Orange was not apparent, the effects of it have been found to skip a generation, according to the Aspen Institute. While that may sound promising, more than likely, those effects can reappear in later generations. 

Final Thoughts 

In May of 1970, the United States Air Force flew its last defoliation mission, and in February of 1971, the Department of Defense announced that all crop destruction missions would cease. 

The remaining 2.22 million gallons of Agent Orange were transported by the Air Force to Johnston Island Atoll in the South Pacific, where they were subsequently, and thankfully, incinerated. 

The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that as many as 2.8 million Vietnam Veterans could have been exposed to Agent Orange – and that number is not inclusive of American civilians or United States Navy Veterans who stationed off the coast. 

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