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.
“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.”
I arrived at this project because I was interested in tracing the development of an idea.
We are frequently told that Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring “launched” the environmental movement after its publication in 1962. But when one looks closely at Carson’s narrative, it is clear that her understanding of environmental issues was decidedly national in character. Carson’s concern about humankind’s abilities to destroy natural environs took place upon an explicitly American backdrop. And yet modern discourse on environmental politics and problems is bounded by no such distinctions. Our culture takes at face value that deforestation in the Amazon, acid rain in Eastern Europe, or the ozone hole over the Antarctic are not simply problems isolated to those areas—they are global in scope.
As a historian, I was seeking answers to explain this intellectual transformation throughout the latter half of the twentieth century. As it stood, there was a gap in the logic between modern global environmentalism and the credit normally bestowed upon Rachel Carson. This led to my work on Agent Orange and Vietnam.
I think one of the reasons that the story of “Ecocide” resonated so powerfully at the end of the 1960s was that the sheer destructive power of herbicidal warfare clarified for many people what humankind was capable of doing. The vast moonscapes of formerly lush rainforest (images of which appear in my book) presented an eco-dystopic harbinger of the future. For Americans, it mattered less that this program took place on the other side of the globe; more compelling was the speed and relative ease with which massive forests could be wiped out.
Further, the destructive power of Agent Orange set it apart from nearly all other forms of industrial environmental degradation of the modern era. Whereas nearly all environmental problems are the unnecessary (but generally unavoidable) byproduct of human labor, environmental destruction for the sake of environmental destruction was the point of Agent Orange and herbicidal warfare. Engineered across the backdrop of an unpopular war, the spray program became what I see as the tipping point by which environmental thinking and politics assumed an international scope.
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.
“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.”
I come from a generation of younger historians who believe that the process of documenting and explaining change over time cannot be confined to any single sub-discipline of history. The world is simply too complex to fit into such neat compartments.
I think that The Invention of Ecocide exemplifies the point: by following Agent Orange over the decades, and in such varied sites as academic laboratories, war planning boards, and from the Vietnamese jungle and into the bodies of gravely ill U.S. servicemen, I have attempted to demonstrate that the process of “doing history” is about following the topic and its sources wherever they take you, no matter the implications of whether or not the final product will land in this or that course catalog or reading list.
The result, so far, has been rewarding. I have been gratified to learn that readers interested in many diverse disciplines have found value in the book. The lesson I take away from this is that when a historian conceives of a new project, he or she should not self-limit their ensuing historical exploration once they have posed the basic research question.
The views expressed in the interview do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of State or the U.S. Federal Government. All information is based on open-source or fully declassified materials.
David Zierler is an Historian for the U.S. Department of State, where his research focuses on U.S. policy during the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. He received his Ph.D. from Temple University and was a visiting scholar at Yale University while completing the dissertation. Besides The Invention of Ecocide, featured in his Rorotoko interview, David is the author of numerous essays and articles, and he is now at work on a new book project on foreign policy and journalism from World War I to Persian Gulf II. He lives in Washington, D.C. with his wife and daughter.