January 12 1962 - Operation Ranch Hand begins, Contaminating Millions

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Starting in 1962 and ranging through 1971, the U.S. military began Operation Ranch Hand, part of the overall chemical warfare program called "Operation Trail Dust", during the Vietnam War.

Over the course of nearly 10 years, in an effort to deprive the Viet Cong of both food and the vegetation cover of the forest, the U.S. dropped nearly 20 million gallons of defoliants and herbicides over South Vietnam, and over Laos and Cambodia to a lesser extent.

The motto for the operation was "only you can prevent a forest" - and they lived up to that. Over 5 million acres of forrest and 500,000 acres of crops were damaged or destroyed.

One of the most common herbicides was Agent Orange, one of the many "Herbicide Rainbow" poisons that were sprayed down on Vietnam. One of the ingredients in Agent Orange is dioxin, an extremely dangerous poison.

Though initially said to be harmless to humans and not long-lasting in the environment, this has proven to be false. There have been long-term effects of the chemicals in both U.S. and Vietnamese soldiers ranging many generations, and lasting ecological effects.


The ultimate goal was to achieve an advantage in the jungle, and thus, wiping out the trees would help. The first aerial test spraying occurred on August 10, 1961. Though the State Department, Pentagon and White House weren't sold on the efficacy, Operation Ranch Hand began on January 12, 1962. (1)

Initially, each individual spray required sign-off from President John F. Kennedy himself, until November 1962 when most were approved through Military Assistance Command. (1)

There was concerns that this tactic violated the Geneva Protocol, but the Secretary of State ultimately determined that it was a fair tactic of war and didn't violate any existing internal laws. (1)

The Pentagon signed contracts with 8 different chemical companies, totaling $57 million, for all of the herbicides. When the scientific community in the U.S. got wind of their intended use, they disagreed: Over 5,000 American scientists signed a petition against chemical and biological weapons used in Vietnam. (1)

By the end of the war in 1975, 72 million liters of chemicals had been dropped... But there could be more. There was a rule that planes carrying the chemicals had to return empty, so allegedly, in situations where a mission was aborted, the contents were dumped out in the reservoir. (2)

Studies in hindsight indicate that the amount of dioxin released may have been at least two times more what was estimated. Data also indicates that the U.S. military directly sprayed millions of Vietnamese people. (1)


It is estimated that 400,000 Vietnamese were killed or maimed by the toxic effects of Agent Orange. A wide range of health problems have been reported by Vietnam veterans and their families, including: rashes, skin irritations, miscarriages, psychological symptoms, diabetes, birth defects, Hodgkin's disease, prostate cancer and leukemia. (3)

A 2003 article from The Guardian goes into depth on a few people who were still feeling the effects of Agent Orange in their health. Hong Hahn, 19 years old at the time, was dying: Her skin coming off, unable to walk. An there were an estimated 600,000 more like her. (2)

A young child named Kiem, who's father was part of the Viet Cong, can only eat, smile and sit. (2)

These families are not alone. Many people in Vietnam are still suffering: Some from visible skin lesions and defects that are visible, and some from internal problems such as diabetes, cancer or miscarriages. (2)

A quote from the article in The Guardian says:

"The women spontaneously abort or give birth to genderless squabs that horrify even the most experienced of midwives.” (2)

When Ngo Luc, serving with the North Vietnamese guerrilla unit, saw the planes overhead, he didn't expect mist, he expected a bomb. He didn't expect all of the trees to die in the next few days. He probably didn't expect to be one of the only surviving members of his unit years later. He probably didn't expect to have 2 grandchildren born partially paralyzed. (2)

It started with the soldiers fighting in the war. It transferred to their children. And now, its their grandchildren who are still experiencing horrific health issues because of it. (2)

Throughout the years after the war, evidence emerged that the U.S. actually knew of Agent Orange's potency, but continued to use it anyway. And, at least some of the people behind the operation, they didn't care because it would only effect the enemy. (1)

In 1988, Dr. James Clary, an Air Force researcher who worked with Operation Ranch hand, wrote:

"When we initiated the herbicide program in the 1960s, we were aware of the potential for damage due to dioxin contamination in the herbicide. However, because the material was to be used on the enemy, none of us were overly concerned. We never considered a scenario in which our own personnel would become contaminated with the herbicide." (1)

There are 2 major issues with that statement. First, their enemy was the army who was fighting against them. Not Vietnamese civilians. Not their children. Not their grandchildren. Not the environment that still has traces of Dioxin in it to this day. In attempt to take out their enemy, generations of Vietnamese people have suffered.

But beyond that, its own personnel was contaminated. The U.S. military personnel who handled the chemicals and those around the drop zones were contaminated as well. If you incorporate their families and children who were exposed, it is estimated that nearly 2.8 million Americans have died or face chronic health conditions because of the contamination. (2)

After the war, veterans began reporting conditions such as skin disorders, asthma, cancer and diabetes. Babies were being born without limbs, with spina bifida, with Down's Syndrome. (2)

Even now, 58 years later, many people both in Vietnam and the U.S. are feeling the effects of this brutal war tactic. And, as we enter a time where war is at the forefront of many conversations, we should remember who our "enemies" are. They are not millions of civilians, now or 58 years from now.


1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Ranch_Hand

2. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2003/mar/29/usa.adrianlevy

3. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/operation-ranch-hand-initiated

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