Kennedy Administration & Herbicides in Vietnam

A review of Into the Wind: The Kennedy Administration and the Use of Herbicides in South Vietnam, by Evelyn Krache Morris.

At the crossroads of environmental history, the history of technology, and the history of foreign relations, Evelyn Krache Morris’s dissertation tackles the role of aerial herbicide spraying in South Vietnam during the Kennedy administration. She argues in the Introduction/Chapter 1 that, by the time Lyndon Johnson ascended to the presidency, Kennedy had embedded defoliation and crop destruction in the U.S. strategy for Vietnam (two phenoxy herbicides, 2,4-D, and 2,4,5-T were used in these early spraying missions). The program was the first to use aerial defoliation against another country and it would be the first to use aerial spraying to destroy food sources as well (pp. 169-170). Seeking a panacea to a “complicated foreign policy problem” (p. 4), Kennedy and his advisors placed faith in technological innovation and quantitative data sets as alternatives to conventional troops hitting the ground. Yet a dissonance arose between the promise of herbicidal spraying and its impact on the people of South Vietnam. As Krache Morris argues, “its ramifications […] were disastrous. The use of a new, untried, and controversial weapon bound the administration, and the country, even more closely to South Vietnam” (p. 33).

In Chapter 2 Krache Morris shows that, despite Kennedy’s “New Frontier” outlook, the same ideological mindset that drove Eisenhower’s approach to the global spread of Communism also led to the perception of defoliants as a cure-all within the young president’s closest circles. Indeed, Kennedy approved the targets for what would be called Operation Ranch Hand “sparked both by a fear of Communism and a desire to take action” (p. 35). Rather than innovative foreign policy, an administration made up of tenderfoots — few actually had an expertise in Vietnam and even fewer could speak the language — turned instead to methods of quantification and new military technologies. In Chapter 3 Krache Morris places the emphasis on technology and quantitative data into the context of the Kennedy administration’s outlook for Vietnam. A telling piece of evidence comes when Deputy National Security Advisor Walt Rostow argued to Kennedy that once elections in Vietnam were completed in April 1961, “I believe we must turn to gearing up the whole Vietnam operation [… with] various techniques and gadgets” (p. 88).

Chapter 4 reveals the importance of the domestic American experiment in aerial spraying during the prior decade to its use as a military technology. Companies such as Dow Chemical promised better living through chemistry for suburbanites and farmers. Thus, not surprisingly, while research suggested that 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T might have deleterious effects on plant and animal species, chemical companies and trade publications deemed the chemicals safe for use. Perhaps as important they were not only dangerous, but also effective. In Chapter 5 Krache Morris shows that it was not only a desired solution within the Kennedy administration, but also for South Vietnamese President Ngô Đình Diệm. He had asked for a trial run before Kennedy approved aerial spraying with a November 1961 National Security Action Memorandum. Krache Morris explains in the opening paragraph of Chapter 6, “NSAM 115 was only a ratification of what was already happening in South Vietnam” (p. 155).

The program was a mess from the beginning. Chapters 6 and 7 show that aerial spraying could be both a foreign policy and logistical headache. The U.S. had to evade the regulations of the International Control Commission, which oversaw a ban on the importation of military supplies by both sides of the conflict. Once spraying commenced equipment often malfunctioned. There was little knowledge of the foreign forests and fields of South Vietnam. Bureaucratic squabbles emerged within the Kennedy Administration as to who held the right to develop and carry out the program. In food destruction missions the identification of Viet Cong crops versus those of civilians was nearly impossible. And American and international media raised questions about the safety of the program.

Krache Morris persuasively shows that ultimately “Ranch Hand’s effects on the South Vietnamese environment, and on the South Vietnamese themselves, were what undermined the project” (p. 215). Chapter 8 reveals that defoliation did not have the desired outcome. For example, invasive bamboo and Cogongrass replaced defoliated indigenous forests and thus became new cover for insurgents. Crop destruction was worse. Toxic lands and displaced peoples, many of whom became city-bound refugees, resulted from “food denial” missions. Despite these gnawing realities, with “gridded maps of missions and charts of acres defoliated and tons of food destroyed […] the military was able to offer what appeared to be definitive statements; those who had doubts about Ranch Hand could not” (p. 257). As Krache Morris concludes, it would take several more years to fully understand the ecological and pathological consequences of the program, but by the mid-1960s it was clear that the program had actually weakened both the government of the south and whatever U.S. support in the countryside existed. Yet entrenched in U.S. policy in Vietnam, spraying remained in use until 1971.

What makes Krache Morris’s argument most compelling is that she shows herbicidal spraying not only as a tool in the Kennedy administration’s foreign policy rucksack. Instead there were many defoliant stories that collided during the early-1960s. The insular focus on quantitative data and new technologies dodged the painful reality that Kennedy’s policy for Vietnam was hardly pioneering. Had he and his advisors stepped out from behind the numbers and chemical tanks they might find not only the limits of innovative technologies, but also that “defoliation and crop destruction did little to ameliorate the intractable political problems of South Vietnam” (p. 276). Seeking to avoid the fog of war, the administration instead found itself literally in the thick of it.

The lessons that Evelyn Krache Morris uncovers transcend the Vietnam War, which is the reason her dissertation is both effective and valuable. This makes her work an excellent companion to David Zierler’s recent book on scientists and Agent Orange (David Zierler, The Invention of Ecocide: Agent Orange, Vietnam, and the Scientists Who Changed the Way We Think About the Environment. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2011), David Biggs work on the Mekong Delta (David Biggs, Quagmire: Nation-Building and Nature in the Mekong Delta. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2012), and Edwin Martini’s recent book on Agent Orange (Edwin Martini, Agent Orange: History, Science, and the Politics of Uncertainty. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012). More broadly, what Krache Morris has produced, which most certainly will become an excellent book, should find a prominent place on the shelves of scholars interested in the history of technology and the environment and its connection to foreign policy and war.

Ryan Edgington
Visiting Assistant Professor of History
Macalester College
redgingt@macalester.edu

Primary Sources

The Alvin L. Young Collection on Agent Orange, National Agricultural Library, Beltsville MD
Dow Chemical Papers, Chemical Heritage Foundation, Philadelphia PA
National Security Files, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, Boston MA
Records of the Military Assistance & Advisory Group, Vietnam, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park MD
Diệm Government Meeting Minutes, Vietnamese National Archives: National Archives II, Ho Chi Minh City

Dissertation Information

Georgetown University. 2012. 296 pp. Primary Advisor: David S Painter.

 

Image: Defoliant spray run, part of Operation Ranch Hand, during the Vietnam War by UC-123B Provider aircraft. 1960s. Photograph from the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force.

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