David Zierler


On his book The Invention of Ecocide: Agent Orange, Vietnam, and the Scientists who Changed the Way We Think About the Environment

Cover Interview of July 31, 2011

In a nutshell

The Invention of Ecocide traces the rise and fall of herbicidal warfare in Vietnam from the origins of plant physiology, in Charles Darwin’s laboratory, to the apex of the global environmental movement, at the United Nations Environmental Programme Conference in Stockholm, in 1972.

Several extant studies have focused on the military and political decisions that led to the massively destructive use of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.  While I document these decisions as well—and arrive at some very different and striking conclusions—my goal was to place the story of Agent Orange within a much broader context.

At the heart of the herbicidal warfare program was the tenacious, and uniquely American, idea that the United States could control the environment and thus win the war in Vietnam through high-technological solutions.

This idea represents a particular way of thinking that cannot be understood apart from the wider perspective of Cold War neo-colonialism and a postmodern reliance on technology to supplant human labor.  Essentially war planners were convinced that the United States could rid South Vietnam of communist insurgents the way a wheat farmer can rid his land of weeds.  I see this rationale as a microcosm of the fundamental illogic that propelled the U.S. involvement in Indochina in the first place, and compelled Washington to keep fighting long after any semblance of “victory” had passed.

The heart of my narrative follows the efforts of a small group of academic scientists who became alarmed at the long term human health and environmental dangers that herbicidal warfare engendered in Vietnam.  They learned of the program in 1964, and after a relentless campaign against the Pentagon to study sprayed areas, the scientists finally did so in 1969 and 1970.

What they found confirmed their worst fears: Agent Orange constituted the greatest chemical warfare operation since World War I, and it devastated both natural environments and its human inhabitants.  This prompted one scientist to decry the spray program as an act of “Ecocide.”  Upon their return to the U.S., the scientists set about publicizing the calamity of herbicidal warfare—many years before servicemen began to complain of dozens of illnesses they would blame on Agent Orange exposure.

The high point of my narrative focuses on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which was debating whether to ratify the Geneva Protocol of 1925, which forbade chemical and biological warfare.

President Nixon had submitted the Protocol for its ratification in 1969, thereby giving the scientists the perfect legislative opportunity to insist that Agent Orange was a form of chemical and biological warfare.  The Senators in the committee sided with the scientists, over the objections of the Pentagon and administration officials, even though standard legal opinion at the time did not consider herbicidal warfare as part of the Geneva Protocol.

I see this decision as a striking example of the collapse of the Cold War consensus—the widely shared notion that it was America’s unique mission to destroy communism wherever it arose.

The Vietnam War existentially challenged that assumption, thereby creating space for new ways to conceptualize international security.

The basis for the scientists’ protest centered on the idea that environmental problems cannot be contained within national boundaries, particularly because the “Ecocide” of Vietnam could be replicated anywhere forests and war intersected.  This was a form of environmental thinking that was radical in the 1960s, and, I would argue, normative today.