Agent Orange: Last Chapter of the Vietnam War

The use of the defoliant Agent Orange during the Vietnam War continues to cast a dark shadow over both American veterans and Vietnamese citizens.

During the war, the U.S. military sprayed Agent Orange over millions of acres to defoliate jungles, deprive its enemy defensive cover, and save the lives of American soldiers.

But dioxin, a contaminant in Agent Orange, has since been blamed for creating a range of crippling health problems – from cancers to birth defects – among American vets and the Vietnamese.

Now, more than forty years after the end of the Vietnam War, Agent Orange is back in the headlines as the United States and Vietnam partner to clean up sites in Vietnam still contaminated with dioxin. At the Danang Airport, where Agent Orange was once stored, contractors have built a “concrete oven” the size of a football field. The dioxin-laced soil, which over the decades has seeped into the water, and continued to afflict the Vietnamese, will be “cooked” under immense heat for several months. Scientists say the process will finally render the dioxin harmless. The containment was switched on April 19, 2014.

The question is how well it will work?

Related: Agent Orange’s Long Legacy, for Vietnam and Veterans by Clyde Haberman

For teachers
  • Producer: Sandy Northrop
  • Sr. Producer: Kit R. Roane
  • Editor: Carol Slatkin
  • Associate Producer: Olivia Katrandjian

For Educators


This 10-minute video clarifies to students why the U.S. military chose to spray Agent Orange over millions of acres of Vietnam, and vividly illustrates how that decision continues to produce medical consequences for American and Vietnamese citizens. Useful as a starting point for any discussion about the ongoing effects of the Vietnam War, the video helps students draw a direct line between decisions made 50 years ago and problems that people are facing today. The video can be used to set up a discussion about the broader question of how Americans make decisions about whether to go to war, how war should be waged, and how the true costs and consequences of military conflict are counted.

Background reading

In the 1960s, when the U.S. became involved in the Vietnam War, backing South Vietnam against communist North Vietnam, U.S. military planes sprayed a defoliant chemical called Agent Orange over millions of jungle acres in Vietnam, depriving the enemy Viet Cong of protective cover.

The U.S. maintained that the spraying was harmless, but by 1970 North Vietnam claimed the defoliant chemical was responsible for many miscarriages and birth abnormalities among Vietnamese citizens who had come in contact with it.

After the war, concern grew as thousands of Vietnam veterans said their wartime exposure to Agent Orange had led to deadly cancers and other illnesses.

The government denied them compensation, saying there was insufficient proof that Agent Orange was to blame.

But in the 1980s, the veterans reached a multi-million dollar settlement with several chemical companies that manufactured Agent Orange, after it was revealed those companies knew about problems with the defoliant as far back as 1965.

By the 1990s, the Veterans’ Administration decided to compensate veterans who suffered from a rare cancer that may have been caused by Agent Orange.

Today, most veterans have medical coverage for 14 illnesses presumed related to exposure to Agent Orange. In Vietnam, land remains contaminated with the herbicide and the U.S. is helping to remediate affected areas. The Vietnamese say there remain thousands of people with birth abnormalities.

Lesson Plan 1: Vietnam War: Agent Orange

Students will learn why the U.S. military decided to spray a defoliant chemical called Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, and the lingering effects of that decision decades later.

  • Why the U.S. military chose to spray Agent Orange over millions of acres of land in Vietnam.
  • How Agent Orange continues to affect the lives of American and Vietnamese citizens.
  • How Vietnam veterans have used public advocacy and the legal system to win recognition and compensation, and how the U.S. government in recent years has undertaken efforts at ecological remediation of the most heavily affected areas in Vietnam.
Essential questions
  • What was Operation Ranch Hand? How was it linked to American military strategy in Vietnam?
  • How has Agent Orange affected American veterans? How has it affected people in Vietnam?
  • What was the response of the U.S. government and Dow Chemical to the concerns expressed by American veterans and the Vietnamese government?
  • What steps have been taken to clean up Vietnam?
  • Common Core State Standards
    • CCSS.ELA.LITERACY.RI.11-12.3:Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequences of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact or develop over the course of a text.
    • CCSS.ELA.LITERACY.RH.11-12.7:Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.
  • National Council for the Social Studies C3 Framework
    • D2.His.1.9-12.Evaluate how historical events and developments were shaped by unique circumstances of time and place as well as broader historical contexts.
  • AP U.S. History
    • Topic 8.8: Vietnam War

      Skill 1.B: Explain a historical concept, development, or process.

      Theme: America in the World (WOR)