Named for the orange stripe lining the 55 gallon barrels containing this herbicide and defoliant, Agent Orange was one of the most widely-used “rainbow herbicides” of the Vietnam war. But it wasn’t just harmful to plants. Soon after it was deployed in Vietnam, Vietnamese citizens and US veterans alike reported crippling, life-threatening symptoms.
Agent Orange is a herbicide and defoliant chemical. It is widely known for its use by the U.S. military as part of its herbicidal warfare program, Operation Ranch Hand, during the Vietnam War from 1961 to 1971. It was a mixture of equal parts of two herbicides, 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D. In addition to its damaging environmental effects, the chemical has caused major health problems for many individuals who were exposed.
The verdict came in the Agent Orange lawsuit where 291,000 American GIs sued Monsanto and other chemical companies in 1984 and won an $180 million settlement (albeit what William Sanjour, EPA Policy Analyst describes as only a “token ‘nuisance value’ settlement'” due to false Monsanto studies which confused the issue). Monsanto was ordered to pay almost half of the amount. The number of Americans who sued and won, however, may be misleading. According to Gerson H. Smoger, a lawyer who has represented American Agent Orange victims for years. “While there was a settlement entered into in 1984, the money ran out in 1994. Of the 2.4 million Americans who served in Vietnam, only about 60,000 ever received anything from the companies… Given how long it takes to get cancer from the chemicals, virtually none of the veterans who got cancer have received any compensation from the companies”. Activist and author Fred Wilcox, in his 2011 book Scorched Earth: Legacies of Chemical Warfare in Vietnam, wrote, “With this out-of-court settlement, Dow, Monsanto, et al. [won] a monumental battle.”
Many veterans who were victims of Agent Orange exposure were outraged the case had been settled instead of going to court, and felt they had been betrayed by the lawyers. “Fairness Hearings” were held in five major American cities, where veterans and their families discussed their reactions to the settlement, and condemned the actions of the lawyers and courts, demanding the case be heard before a jury of their peers. Federal Judge Julius Weinstein refused the appeals, claiming the settlement was “fair and just”. By 1989, the veterans’ fears were confirmed when it was decided how the money from the settlement would be paid out. A totally disabled Vietnam veteran would receive a maximum of $12,000 spread out over the course of 10 years. Furthermore, by accepting the settlement payments, disabled veterans would become ineligible for many state benefits that provided far more monetary support than the settlement, such as food stamps, public assistance, and government pensions. A widow of a Vietnam veteran who died of Agent Orange exposure would only receive $3700.