Site Description – SC

Agent Orange: Environmental Injustice at Home and Abroad

As a historian interested in American foreign affairs and legal history, researching the use of Agent Orange is an interesting and relevant way to connect foreign policy and law. With environmental injustice such a large issue today, understanding past injustices is essential in combating injustice today. 

Between 1961 and 1971, the United States sprayed more than 20 million gallons of various herbicides over Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Agent Orange, a powerful herbicide, was used to eliminate forest cover and crops for the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops. Agent Orange, which contains the deadly chemical dioxin, was later proven to cause serious health issues among both the Vietnamese and returning US servicemen and women. 

While Agent Orange was sprayed over Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, there is another site relevant to the story of Agent Orange: the Diamond Alkali plant used to create Agent Orange located in Newark, New Jersey. Dioxin was dumped into the Passaic River resulting in the pollution of the Ironbound area for years. 

In considering that Agent Orange polluted both areas in the United States and in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, a number of questions arise. First, how did the United States respond to the pollution crisis in the United States versus how they responded to it Vietnam? Second, in specifically looking at Newark, how much of a role did race or class play in the response of the United States government? In conjunction with that question, how much did race or class play a role in the United States deciding to spray Agent Orange in Vietnam? How was the use of Agent Orange justified by the United States, and how did the United States deal with the eventual fall out?  As there is a chemical site both in the United States and Vietnam that deal with the same chemical in the same time period, this will make for a very good way to compare the United States’ approach to environmental problems both at home and abroad. 

While the use of Agent Orange took place in the 1960s and 1970s, the controversey of it is far from over. While President Bush signed the Agent Orange Act, which mandated diseases caused by Agent Orange be treated a result of wartime service, US courts rejected a suit initiated by the Vietamese people affected by Agent Orange in 2005. As late as 2011, navy men who served in Vietnam were petitioning to be included under the Agent Orange Act and people in Vietnam still suffer from disease and birth defects linked to Agent Orange.  The history of Agent Orange, and the varying levels of environmental injustice that connect with race and class, provide a better understanding of just how big a role race and class play when it comes to environmental injustice. 

The topic of Agent Orange, and the effects it had in the United States and Vietnam allows for a comparison to be made between how the environment is treated by the United States both at home and abroad. The fact that there are two sites to research allows for an in depth look at how race and class play a role in environmental injustice. Looking at the creation and use of Agent Orange raises a number of questions. How did the United States respond to the pollution crisis in Vietnam versus how they responded to it in the United States? What role did race and class play in choosing where to spray Agent Orange and where to create it? How did the United States respond to the crisis of Agent Orange at home versus how they responded to the problem in Vietnam? As the effects of Agent Orange are still affecting people in the United States and Vietnam, the topic of Agent Orange remains extremely relevant. Both American and Vietnamese people are still fighting the toxic effects of Agent Orange and to do so are attempting to hold the United States and the chemical companies involved accountable for their actions.

Keywords: race, class, toxics, water, factories, global,