By Gar Smith, Berkeley Daily Planet, March 10, 2021
Most Americans think of Agent Orange as something from the distant and disagreeable past—as dated as hippie vans and tie-dyed T-shirts. But the truth is that Agent Orange is still with us. And will be for decades to come.
In Vietnam, the Pentagon’s chemical spraying of toxic dioxin-laced chemical herbicides has left five generations (and counting) burdened with a horrific legacy of stillborn babies, deformed children, and crippled adults hidden away and condemned to lives of struggle and early death. The risk to future generations remains.
The US developed Agent Orange as a weapon of mass destruction. During “Operation Ranch Hand” (1962-1971), the US dumped 20 million gallons of herbicide over 5,5 million acres of forests and crops in Vietnam and Laos. Nearly 4.9 million Vietnamese were exposed and 400,000 have died from resulting cancers, birth defects, autoimmune diseases, skin disorders, and neurological problems. Today, one million Vietnamese suffer from the inherited after-effects of the poison—100,000 of them are children.
In the US, generations of children born to soldiers who served in Vietnam continue to bare the burden of the chemical’s toxic curse—their health compromised by more than a dozen maladies including Lou Gehrig’s disease, Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Chronic B-Cell leukemia, genetic defects, and a variety of cancers. Not to mention bizarre physical mutations (missing limbs and deformed hands) that resemble the afflictions seen in the hospital wards of Vietnam.
But, as a stunning new documentary reveals, it gets worse. It turns out that, after the war’s end, Agent Orange was quietly approved for use inside the US.
Alan Adelson’s meticulously researched film, The People Versus Agency Orange, travels to three continents and investigates 50 years of corruption and cover-up to reveal how this devastating weapon of mass destruction was quietly brought back to the US to write a new chapter in a long history of human misery.
When the war ended (with the defeat and retreat of the US military), Monsanto and Dow Chemical began looking for new markets for its powerful defoliant. Under pressure from these powerful chemical companies, the Pentagon’s stockpiles of Agent Orange were redirected for use inside the US. Under supervision of the US Forest Service—and with the approval of a succession of Republican and Democrat administrations—Agent Orange began to fall over American forests.
Get tickets for the special virtual screening here. When you visit the ticketing page, you can pick whichever one of the 38 virtual cinemas you would like to support. The Bay Area venues screening the film include Marin Country’s Smith Rafael Film Center (Friday, March 5 through Sunday, March 7: 4:00 PM) and San Francisco’s Balboa Theater (Tickets $12; streaming for ten days) and the Vogue Theater.
The People Versus Agent Orange provides emotionally wrenching perspectives from three countries: From Vietnam, where mutant children with twisted limbs and misshapen bodies are hidden away in protected wards. From a small forest community in Oregon where spray drift from government helicopters has been linked to illness, cancers, and miscarriages. From France, where Tran To Nga, an aging victim of Agent Orange (who was exposed during her days as a resistance fighter in Vietnam’s targeted forests), is heroically pursuing her legal case against 26 US-based multinational chemical companies in hopes of winning a judgment against the poison-makers before her own life comes to an end.
Tran To Nga, a French-Vietnamese journalist whose legal plea is currently before the Tribunal de Grande Instance in France, was doused repeatedly with Agent Orange in the forests of Vietnam when she was a member of the local resistance. Her first daughter died of a heart defect while her two surviving children and grandchildren all suffer from compromised health.
The other hero of this story is 80-year-old Carol Van Strum, a UC Berkeley alum who was active in the Port Chicago Vigil and other anti-war protests in the 60s. From her home on Derby Street, Van Strum worked with an “underground railroad” that helped disaffected soldiers go AWOL by crossing the border into Canada. She became a journalist, authored several books, and was, at one point, co-owner of Cody’s Books on Telegraph Avenue.
In 1974, the Van Strums relocated to a 160-acre homestead in the Five Rivers region of rural Oregon. Life was idyllic until the day a Forest Service tanker accidentally sprayed the Van Strum children while they were playing in a local stream.
“They didn’t even see the kids,” Van Strum recalls as the film screens a photo of her four smiling children in a family photo. That night they were not smiling. “The kids were all choking and gasping. That night they were all really sick. They had diarrhea. They had trouble breathing,” Van Strum recalls.
When she visited the riverside the next day, she found the remains of dead ducklings and fish. Within weeks, local residents witnessed an outbreak of dead and deformed birds with twisted beaks, clubfeet, and useless wings.
The US Forest Service assured the Van Strums that the chemical was “perfectly safe.” What they were not told was that the spray included 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T, which contains the deadly mutagenic compound known as dioxin.
The Forest Service granted the local timber industries permits to apply chemical sprays after a ruling against the logging industry’s practice of clearcutting forests leaving behind acres of devastated mountainsides. Repeated spraying of the already denuded land was justified as necessary to eliminate “unwanted plants and speed the growth of timber.” Somehow this argument didn’t square with the fact that the chemical spray had been created specifically to destroy forests.
When Van Strum began to ask questions of her rural neighbors, she discovered a troubling rise in miscarriages, tumors, spontaneous abortions, and birth defects had followed in the wake of the spraying.
The chemical industry’s defenders included Dr. Cleve Goring of Dow Chemical Research who blithely dismissed local concerns by claiming: “The attack is not scientific. It’s purely emotional. The public does not understand” that 2,4,5-T is “about as toxic as aspirin.”
When attempts to challenge the spraying were rebuffed, Van Strum began a personal resistance that involved collecting four decades worth of documentation—much of it secured by the persistent filing of Freedom of Information Act requests. The collection—including rare corporate documents—eventually became known as the Poison Papers (a reference to Daniel Ellsberg’s Pentagon Papers). Van Strum’s research has played a key role in Tran To Nga’s lawsuit in France.
A Grim Turn from Toxins to Terror
Halfway through The People Versus Agent Orange, the story takes on the chilling overtones of another film, the biopic, Silkwood, which tells the story of the mysterious death of nuclear power whistleblower Karen Silkwood.
Van Strum had, by now, formed a local anti-spray organization called Community Against Toxic Spray and, as CATS began to garner increased press attention, the response of the timber/chemical interests kicked up a notch.
Homes were burglarized and collections of community health surveys were stolen. Driving alone on empty local roads, activists suddenly found themselves being followed by strange cars driven by “men in suits.” Phones were being tapped. One local doctor decided to cease her work with CATS after a visit by two men who said they wanted to talk about herbicides. Once inside her home, they asked pointedly: “Do you know at all times where your children are?”
The chemical and timber companies started provocative PR campaigns targeting members of CATS and depicting them as individuals who “threaten your jobs.”
The horror peaked on January 1, 1978 when Van Strum returned from visiting a neighbor and found her home totally engulfed in flames. All four of her children were trapped inside and perished in the conflagration. The local fire marshal called the fire suspicious and potentially a case of arson but State Police ruled it “accidental in nature with the actual cause unknown.” Van Strum believes her family was targeted.
After a painful period of mourning, Van Strum retreated into a smaller building on the properly and returned to amassing more documents and testimonies.
“I can’t save the world,” she told a reporter for Our Coast Magazine, “but I’ll fight tooth and nail to save this little corner of it.” She added: “The death of our children left me with what they loved—this farm, this dirt, these trees, this river, these birds, fish, newts, deed, and fishers—to protect and hold dear. These became my anchor to windward, keeping me from just drifting away with every wind that blows.”
In 1983, Van Strum went on to write a powerful book, A Bitter Fog: Herbicides and Human Rights (revised in 2014) and, in March 2018, she was honored with the David Brower Lifetime Achievement Award at the Public Interest Environmental Law Conference at University of Oregon.
A Planet Interview with Director Alan Adelson
GS: Did the Forest Service have other excuses for continued spraying of Agent Orange on already dead mountainsides? Somehow “spraying to discourage vegetative competition to resumption of logging” doesn’t seem persuasive. We see dead vegetation being sprayed and re-sprayed. How could logging benefit from continued poisoning of the land? After all, the slogan of Operation Ranch Hand was: “Only you can prevent forests!”
AA: The question is ever-so-pertinent. What we may not see on those “dead mountainsides” are young weeds beginning to sprout. The “nozzleheads” (Carol Van Strum’s term) may believe multiple sprayings are necessary to kill weeds over the long haul. A more pertinent truth is that each Douglas fir sapling can be cleared of weeds around its base by workers with mattocks and weed claws. There was an outfit called the Hoedads that did this for years in Oregon . . . .
GS: Does this kind of logger-backed spraying occur in other states or is it just practiced in the forests of the northwest?
AA: I understand it’s happening in the timberlands in Oregon, Washington State, Idaho, and California . . . . I am told that the aerial spraying of herbicides on agricultural crops is a very serious problem in Florida as well, where legal actions are being supported by the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund and other groups to stop it.
GS: After the film debuts on March 5, how long will it be available for streaming?
AA: There is the link to the “screenings” page on our website. There are “hot spots” for ticket purchases from all of the theaters. Folks can choose whatever theater they want to support. There are discounts being offered to veterans, environmental activists, seniors, students and anyone else who wants help to see the film. These discounts are being made possible by donations, which are also possible on the same ticketing forms. The discounts will continue to remain available until funds from donations run out. The links for ticketing, discounts and donations appear under the various theaters via: https://www.thepeoplevsagentorange.com/screenings-1
GS: The film includes covert footage captured Darryl Ivy, a spraying helicopter service technician. He complains about his exposure to the chemicals—burning throat, a large tumor on his tongue, et cetera. The last image of him in your film shows him holding a bedsheet spotted with blood. That’s never a good sign.
AA: Yes, lots of folks ask about Darryl. It took a good while for him to recover his health. He’s a health fanatic of sorts now. Working out in a gym many days a week, highly muscular. He wants to spread the word on how folks can live optimally free of herbicide exposure and is contemplating a book about it all.
Carol Van Strum Recalls Her Struggle
The following quotes are excerpted from a Mongabay interview conducted on March 14, 2018 following the presentation of the 2018 David Brower Lifetime Achievement Award.
There is so much new science on healthy forests in the past decade alone. Is selective harvesting of trees without herbicides still a solid approach?
If you travel or fly around the area where I live, in the central Oregon Coast Range, you can tell immediately what lands are private/corporate owned and which are national forest.
The corporate lands are effectively strip-mined, vast areas of bare soil punctuated by dead stumps here and there, the whole dead landscape sliding into creeks and rivers, not only poisoning aquatic life but silting up the spawning grounds of endangered coho and other salmon.
The national forest, by contrast, is green and thriving, with a varied canopy of hemlock, cedar, alder, maple, et cetera, as well as the commercially valuable Douglas fir. . . .
Back in the 1970s, when the USDA embraced the use of herbicides no longer allowed in Vietnam, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers amazingly criticized the idea, saying that northwest forests had evolved over millions of years to the most efficient possible use of the soil, climate, water, and geology of this area, and it was sheer arrogance to think humans could improve on that.
Fraudulent studies and corruption where the use of pesticides and herbicides are concerned — still an issue today?
Absolutely! The fraud and corruption detailed in “A Bitter Fog” are just better concealed today, as E.G. Vallianatos’s recent book, “Poison Spring,” makes abundantly clear.
Vallianatos was a research chemist at the U.S. EPA for 25 years, during the time the fraud was first uncovered. What he reveals is that the entire process of pesticide registration is a sham, as EPA simply accepts summaries of safety testing submitted by the companies, and then EPA staffers cut and paste entire portions of those summaries into a registration approval.
[According to the book], the EPA thus rubber-stamps whatever companies send them, making it extremely difficult for the public ever to see the actual studies or examine the raw data from the companies, which are not available under the Freedom of Information Act because they were never provided to the EPA.