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The Invention of Ecocide

The Invention of Ecocide: Agent Orange, Vietnam, and the Scientists Who Changed the Way We Think About the Environment

Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 252
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  • Book Info
    The Invention of Ecocide
    Book Description:

    As the public increasingly questioned the war in Vietnam, a group of American scientists deeply concerned about the use of Agent Orange and other herbicides started a movement to ban what they called "ecocide." David Zierler traces this movement, starting in the 1940s, when weed killer was developed in agricultural circles and theories of counterinsurgency were studied by the military. These two trajectories converged in 1961 with Operation Ranch Hand, the joint U.S.-South Vietnamese mission to use herbicidal warfare as a means to defoliate large areas of enemy territory. Driven by the idea that humans were altering the world's ecology for the worse, a group of scientists relentlessly challenged Pentagon assurances of safety, citing possible long-term environmental and health effects. It wasn't until 1970 that the scientists gained access to sprayed zones confirming that a major ecological disaster had occurred. Their findings convinced the U.S. government to renounce first use of herbicides in future wars and, Zierler argues, fundamentally reoriented thinking about warfare and environmental security in the next forty years. Incorporating in-depth interviews, unique archival collections, and recently declassified national security documents, Zierler examines the movement to ban ecocide as it played out amid the rise of a global environmental consciousness and growing disillusionment with the containment policies of the cold war era.

    eISBN: 978-0-8203-3978-8
    Subjects: History, Environmental Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    (pp. 1-13)

    FOR THE PAST FOUR YEARS, I have followed 2,4-d (2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid) and 2,4,5-t (2,4,5-trichlorophenoxyacetic acid) through history. Plant physiologists classify these synthetic chemical compounds as selective auxins of the phenoxyacetic herbicide family. They were the first plant killers developed by scientists to target specific “weeds”—any plants useless or counterproductive to human needs.

    The discoveries that led to modern herbicides began in Charles Darwin’s laboratory. Late in his life, Darwin discovered that some internal mechanism directs plants to grow toward sunlight and sources of water. American and European scientists later called this mechanism the plant’s hormone system. On the eve...

    (pp. 14-32)

    FROM THE PELOPONNESIAN WAR to the present-day Palestinian-Israeli conflict, combatants have accused the other side of committing atrocities. It is a unique form of propaganda—a condemnation that the enemy has crossed a normative boundary whose authority supersedes the objectives of both combatants. The Latin term for this is jus in bello, or justice in war.¹ To violate this principle of justice is to commit, or stand accused of committing, a war crime. Jus in bello is a building block of the modern international system dating back to eighteenth-century Europe, and its principles were at the core of the Nuremburg...

    (pp. 33-47)

    AGENT ORANGE HAS A SPLIT LINEAGE. The history of its component chemicals, 2,4-d and 2,4,5-t, begins with one of Charles Darwin’s lesser-known biological theories. The history of the military weapon Agent Orange begins on the eve of World War II, when the demands of total war sparked one scientist’s insight that weed killers had military value. In the late 1870s, Darwin began to study the mechanisms that regulated plant growth; at the time there were no accepted answers to questions that would form the basis of plant physiology: Why do plant shoots grow upward in defiance of gravity? What causes...

    (pp. 48-66)

    THE DECISION TO LAUNCH military herbicide operations in Vietnam in November 1961 was a key component of President John F. Kennedy’s grand strategy to contain the spread of communism and roll back the global influence of the Soviet Union. Three years before Lyndon B. Johnson “chose war” against North Vietnam through sustained bombing campaigns and the large-scale introduction of U.S. ground troops, Kennedy committed the United States to a wide array of counterinsurgency tactics in an attempt to defeat the nlf, known also as the Viet Cong.¹ The nlf was a communist revolutionary organization, allied with the Hanoi government, whose...

    (pp. 67-88)

    IN EARLY DECEMBER 1961, immediately after President John F. Kennedy authorized herbicide operations, c-123 transport aircraft retrofitted with fixed-wing spray mechanisms took off from several U.S. Air Force bases. Although the merits of the term “chemical warfare” became a contentious issue in the latter part of the decade, when antiwar and environmental protestors merged to denounce the “ecocide” of Vietnam and the dubious legality of Operation Ranch Hand vis-à-vis the Geneva Protocol of 1925, administration officials used the term from the beginning. The U.S. Army referred to the defoliation program as chemical warfare well after U.S. disengagement from the conflict.¹...

    (pp. 89-111)

    THE SCIENTIFIC CONTROVERSY over Operation Ranch Hand picked up where the controversy over atomic radiation had left off. A 1964 article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists launched the decade-long scientific movement to terminate herbicidal warfare.¹ That same year, Lyndon B. Johnson declared ecological victory ten years in the making. In a nationally televised broadcast, the president celebrated the end of atmospheric testing of nuclear bombs, declaring: “The deadly products of atomic explosions were poisoning our soil and our food and the milk our children drank and the air we all breathe … Radioactive poisons were beginning to threaten...

    (pp. 112-137)

    THE AMERICAN WAR IN VIETNAM was not the first to create widespread ecological damage in that country. The Japanese occupation during World War II devastated Vietnamese forests. In keeping with Japan’s main goal to extract the maximum amount of natural resources from Indochina, Imperial soldiers clear-cut fifty thousand hectares of tropical hardwoods from South Vietnamese forests. Additional destruction caused during the period of anticolonial resistance against the French (1945–54) led one American observer before the U.S. war to liken the state of Vietnam’s forest and its human dependents to “a very sick patient which we must save and tend...

    (pp. 138-158)

    FORTUITOUS TIMING allowed the protesting scientists to help end herbicidal warfare for all time. The hac members and their colleagues found an unwitting ally in President Richard M. Nixon. By attempting to ratify the Geneva Protocol of 1925, the president aimed to showcase American global leadership to stop the proliferation of chemical and biological weapons. Fresh from their trip to Vietnam, the hac scientists and their colleagues pivoted off Nixon’s policies by demonstrating that Operation Ranch Hand made the United States not a leader but a pariah. The question came down to whether herbicidal warfare constituted chemical and antipersonnel warfare...

  13. CHAPTER NINE CONCLUSION: Ecocide and International Security
    (pp. 159-168)

    BY THE END of the 1960s, the cold war “consensus” among the Washington political establishment had collapsed.¹ In the words of Senator Mark O. Hatfield, Republican from Oregon, as the decade drew to a close, “the disposition of Congress began to shift, almost imperceptibly. National economic strains appeared, generated by the inflationary financing of the Vietnam War. The Soviet Union was recognized as approaching parity with the United States in numbers of strategic weapons. The myth of the world communist monolith had been convincingly dispelled. Slowly these facts exerted their weight on Congress and some calls for rethinking were heard.”²...

  14. NOTES
    (pp. 169-204)
    (pp. 205-232)
  16. INDEX
    (pp. 233-245)