DA NANG, Vietnam — James R. Clary was a young Air Force officer and scientist who designed the spray tank for the C-123 cargo planes that dispensed Agent Orange and other herbicides during the Vietnam War.
Thirteen years after the conflict ended, with serious concerns being raised in Congress about the effects of defoliants on veterans’ health, Clary dropped a startling bombshell: Military scientists had known that herbicides shipped to Vietnam were contaminated with dioxin and had “the potential for damage” to human health.
“However, because the material was to be used on the ‘enemy,’ none of us were overly concerned,” Clary wrote to then-Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D. “We never considered a scenario in which our own personnel would become contaminated with the herbicide.”
Agent Orange was produced primarily by the Monsanto Corp. and Dow Chemical. Both companies say the defoliant was made according to strict military specifications. “The government specified the chemical composition of Agent Orange and when, where and how the material was to be used in the field, including application rates,” Monsanto says.
But a 1990 report compiled by Adm. Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr. for the Department of Veterans Affairs that recommended compensation for ailing veterans who’d been exposed to Agent Orange also detailed evidence that Dow Chemical knew as early as 1964 that dioxin was a “byproduct of the manufacturing process” and that the dangers of exposure were clear.
That report cited an internal company memo warning that exposure could result in “general organ toxicity,” in addition to “psychopathological” and “other systemic” problems.
In 1965, according to another memo that’s became public in federal court documents, Dow warned Monsanto and other Agent Orange makers that industry “had to resolve the (dioxin) problem before the government found out.”
Monsanto and other companies ignored this warning and continued to make Agent Orange with high levels of dioxin. Dow changed its manufacturing process so that its product contained much lower levels of the contaminant.
Dow officials later admitted in federal court and in congressional testimony in the 1980s that they didn’t inform the U.S. government about dioxin contamination in Agent Orange until 1969 at the earliest.
Despite these revelations, the federal courts have consistently shielded Dow, Monsanto and other manufacturers from liability because they produced Agent Orange under government contract.
Neither Dow Chemical nor Monsanto responded to email and telephone requests for comment for this article. Both companies have publicly absolved themselves of any responsibility in the matter.
“All historic wartime issues, including the use of Agent Orange, are appropriately a matter of resolution by and among the governments of the United States, Vietnam and the allied forces,” Dow Chemical says on its website.
Today, Clary stands by the original concept of Operation Ranch Hand, as the U.S. Air Force defoliation program was known, as a “sound and benign program,” but he regrets that herbicides with high levels of dioxin were used in the war.
“I would like to point out that the science 50 years ago did not indicate the kind of long-term effects of dioxin that we’re seeing today,” he said in an email. “I would like to believe that if we had the science then that we have today that the government would not have used (Agent Orange) with high dioxin content.”
Clary said he thought the United States had “a responsibility to help the Vietnamese people” deal with the legacy of Agent Orange.
“We have a history of rebuilding and assisting our former enemies after the wars are over,” he said, citing the examples of Germany and Japan after World War II. “The precedent is there; only the moral will is needed.”
Brown is a McClatchy special correspondent.