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

A close-up

A reader approaching my book from a “close-up” perspective would be best served by reading the introduction and conclusion.

In the opening pages I lay out the broad themes of the book: I explain how the chemicals that comprise Agent Orange were discovered and tested over time, how scientists and government officials looked at herbicides as a tool for solving disparate problems, and how President John F. Kennedy ultimately decided to put herbicides to use in the nascent Vietnam War.

Readers will see how I draw on Agent Orange to make what I hope they will consider many cogent interpretations about the 1960s more generally.  Through herbicidal warfare I examine the anti-war protest movement, the politicization of science, and the power of Cold War propaganda movements.

In the introduction I also address some of the many issues that readers might more readily associate with Agent Orange exposure—the health and legal problems that began during the war and continue to this day.

While on the one hand I dispel the common misconception that the U.S. government used Agent Orange deliberately to harm people, I do elucidate how Agent Orange became contaminated with the poison dioxin as a result of chemical manufacturers cutting production safety standards in an attempt to meet the Pentagon’s demand.

This slackening in safety protocol, engendered by profit motive rather than malice, compelled me to take a specific, even moral stand in my book.  While I acknowledge that the health effects relating to Agent Orange exposure remain poorly understood, this fact in no way excuses the chemical manufacturers or the U.S. government for their glaring negligence in deciding to massively spray a chemical without fully understanding its impacts on human populations.

In the book’s conclusion I explain how herbicidal warfare should be understood as part of the origins of global environmentalism.  I explain this through the prism of the creation of the UN Environment Programme, whose inaugural conference in Stockholm in 1972 marked a heady confluence of the countercultural movement, high government policy, and an international political consensus which held that humankind was altering the planet’s ecology for the worse, and that solutions could only be found through both international and non-governmental agency cooperation.

Two of the scientists I focus on attended this conference, and my interviews with the scientists and many other political actors from this time give even more detail to what I hope the reader will consider a colorful and compelling narrative.