Vietnam War Pollution

The Vietnam War was the first conflict to highlight the devastating effects of modern warfare on entire ecosystems. There, U.S. forces adopted a strategy of defoliating jungle canopy, ultimately spraying "Agent Orange" and other toxic herbicides over 10 percent of South Vietnam. In addition to destroying vegetation, the public health implications of these actions—primarily birth defects, diseases, and premature deaths—have since become apparent, both in the Vietnamese population and U.S. war veterans. In his memoir My Father, My Son, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt Sr., the commander of U.S. naval forces in Vietnam, defended his order to defoliate Vietnamese river banks as

Burning oil wells in Kuwait, which were sabotaged by retreating Iraqi troops at the end of the Persian Gulf War, 1991. (©Peter Turnley/Corbis. Reproduced by permission.)

This Vietnamese infant was born with deformed arms and legs caused by his parents' exposure to Agent Orange. (©Owen Franken/Corbis. Reproduced by permission.)

tribunal committee or board appointed to hear and settle necessary to save American sailors from ambush, even though he acknowledged that it ultimately may have caused cancer in his own son, who was serving there at the time. U.S. veterans eventually were compensated for illnesses resulting from their exposure to Agent Orange, but proposals to compensate the Vietnamese victims have remained controversial.

The defoliation campaign and other U.S. tactics in Vietnam led to an international movement for treaties that specifically protect the environment during wartime. This resulted in adoption of the Environmental Modification Convention (1976), which prohibits manipulating the environment as a weapon of war, and of Protocol Additional I to the Geneva Conventions (1977), which includes a prohibition against "widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment." However, many critics have called these treaties vague and impractical, and in fact they have yet to be applied to a specific case of wartime environmental damage. The U.S. government signed both treaties, but has never formally ratified Protocol Additional I.

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