The disaster surrounding Agent Orange cannot be considered fully without the context of the Vietnam War: the war being a disaster in its own right as well as the foundational event that led to the disastrous use of toxic chemicals by the United States military. Agent Orange is a powerful chemical herbicide that was used alongside Agent White and Agent Blue, two other similar chemicals, to destroy foliage in Vietnam during the Vietnam War (Cusato 2018). Agent Orange was first deployed in 1961, six years after the beginning of the war in Vietnam (Palmer 2007). The chemicals were sprayed for roughly a ten-year period with a vast majority of the spraying ending by 1972 (Cusato 2018). The war, which lasted until 1975, was fought between the South Vietnamese with assistance from the U.S. and the communist aligned Viet Kong of North Vietnam. The U.S. involvement in the war has long been considered incredibly controversial, with some believing it to be the “most controversial of American Wars” (Appy 2018). The United States involvement in the war is often linked to the then ongoing Cold War struggle between the U.S. and the Soviet Union or in an ideological sense democracy versus communism. The controversial aspects stem from whether the U.S should have been involved at all: was this a “noble struggle” or a “tragic intervention” and was the true intention of the United States to prevent the spread of communism (Appy 2018)? 

An additionally controversial component of this war is the actual use of the Agent Orange chemicals. The disaster of Agent Orange does not refer to one instance or one event as is the case for many disasters, but rather begins in 1961 when the United States military implemented the use of the herbicide, through the present day where the country of Vietnam still faces enormous challenges due to the wide sweeping chemical exposure. The decade of spraying the chemicals causing massive destruction of both forest cover and crops (Palmer 2007). It is estimated that around fifteen percent of land in Vietnam was directly sprayed with the chemicals, as well as over 4.8 million people, and parts of Loas and Cambodia along the Ho Chi Mihn Trail (Palmer 2007). The chemicals were spread using aircrafts, hand-sprayers, boats, and trucks (Palmer 2007). Over this decade, the U.S. sprayed roughly eighty million liters of dioxin-based chemicals (Timeline). The most infamous period of spraying was from 1962 to 1972 which is referred to as Operation Ranch Hand, after which point the chemicals were mostly just used around military bases. (Cusato 2018).  

U.S soldiers who were often enlisted to spray and distribute Agent Orange were referred to as non-combatants, typically because they refused or requested not to shoot at the enemy (Timeline). Superior officers told soldiers that the herbicide would kill mosquitoes and prevent malaria, leaving the soldiers in the dark on the level of toxicity within the chemicals (Timeline). The fallout of the disaster continues to burden Vietnam generations later. Over three million people are currently facing health difficulties or physical disabilities as a result of exposure, and even this number is thought to be a massive underestimate (Timeline). Agent Orange has had a huge social impact, and having a disability related to toxin exposure carries huge stigmatization for individuals and entire families (Timeline). Due to this stigmatization, people hide away exposed children and family members refusing to even take them to hospitals in some cases (Timeline). The overwhelming number of disabled and sick people in Vietnam has also caused stagnation in the country’s ability to developed economically and fully recover from the war even decades later (Timeline). The chemical in Agent Orange, Dioxin, is now recognized as “one of the most toxic substances ever produced (Palmer 2007). Additionally, the environment from water sources, to abandoned military bases, to villages where people live remain grossly contaminated (Cusato 2018).