Health issues arising from Agent Orange exposure during the Vietnam War have altered ideas about war wounds and the cause of birth defects, says U. of I. history professor Leslie Reagan, who specializes in medical history. Her future book on the subject will examine the history of the herbicide’s effects upon human health, as well as the political and cultural movements that arose as a result, in both the U.S. and Vietnam.

The Vietnam War was at its height 50 years ago and is getting renewed attention, in part through a new PBS series coming this month. The herbicide Agent Orange was part of the war, with over 12 million gallons sprayed over a decade to kill forests hiding enemy troops and the food crops that fed them. University of Illinois history professor Leslie Reagan is researching a book on the consequences of its use for the Vietnamese, American veterans and their children. She spoke with News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.

Wounded soldiers and disability have always been a legacy of war, but what made Agent Orange unique?

The image of the wounded veteran since World War I has been of a man who lost an arm or a leg. Even this image obscured the truths of brain injuries or psychological wounds. Agent Orange was different though, because the wounds that it caused were not immediately visible, and – especially important – veterans asserted their wartime exposure had caused miscarriages, birth defects and disabilities in their children.

When the U.S. military sprayed the dioxin-containing herbicide across Vietnam, and secretly in Laos and Cambodia, Vietnamese complained of respiratory problems, blisters, miscarriages and malformed stillbirths. But the U.S. government dismissed it as “communist propaganda” and declared that the herbicide was harmless. Pilots even drank it to prove the point.

Official recognition of harm was destined to be difficult. It did not fit what the Veterans Administration expected in terms of “traditional” wounds. The government had denied any danger. The health problems were varied and could take years to develop. And finally, as with other diseases and conditions caused by environmental exposure, those health problems could be naturally occurring.

How did concerns arise among veterans and what was their response?

Their concerns came from several directions. In 1977, one young veteran learned that he had stomach cancer – to his utter amazement. He concluded that it was because of Agent Orange. As Paul Reutershan said of his exposure, “I died in Vietnam and I didn’t even know it.” He started a class-action suit against the chemical companies that produced the herbicide, before his death in 1978.

At the same time, veteran and VA clerk Maude deVictor noticed veterans’ applications and denials for disabilities. She started collecting her own data, which she brought to a Chicago journalist. Vietnam Veterans Against the War, already focused on demanding better care from VA hospitals, began educating veterans about their Agent Orange exposure and agitated for the VA to treat it.

The earliest media coverage focused on men dying of cancers at a young age, but many families were especially concerned about the herbicide’s reproductive effects. Veteran families brought their children with disabilities to congressional hearings and courtrooms, and emphasized their anomalous bodies – sometimes dramatically wheeling them in in their wheelchairs. Unfortunately, this reinforced damaging stereotypes about people with disabilities – at the same moment that the disability rights movement was developing.

Agent Orange also changed perceptions, you note, about the cause of reproductive problems and birth defects. How so?

For centuries, mothers were blamed for the birth of a “monstrous” baby – the commonplace term in the 17th and 18th centuries for a child with an unusual body. In the 19th century, scientists and ordinary people alike believed that such a child revealed the mother’s bad thoughts or illicit sexual behavior. Even in the mid 20th century, miscarriages and birth defects were often blamed on mothers for failing to see a doctor or not eating the right foods.

Male Vietnam War veterans made the startling claim that they, as fathers, were biologically responsible for miscarriages and their children’s disabilities. Their wartime chemical exposure, they contended, had damaged them and, through their semen, their own children. One former Green Beret asserted, “We’re not the veterans. Our kids are the veterans.” When veteran-parents sought disability benefits for their children, they redefined disabilities and veteran status. Some argued that their children’s names should be etched on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall.

Following lawsuits, mass organizing and congressional intervention, the VA today recognizes associations between herbicide exposure and a long list of health effects. It also awards benefits to a few children whose congenital conditions are associated with the Agent Orange exposure of their veteran parent – but only veteran mothers. The VA does not recognize any association between male exposure and miscarriage or birth defects.

How does Agent Orange figure into the history of the war told in Vietnam versus the United States?

Agent Orange happened to Americans. But it is essential to remember that most of those exposed and harmed by these herbicides were the Vietnamese, as well as Laotians and Cambodians in “secret” wars.

Agent Orange is highly visible in Vietnam’s museums. The War Remnants Museum, the major historical museum in Ho Chi Minh City (previously Saigon), devotes several rooms to the topic – all painted orange – with walls covered with photographs and information. It would be hard for any museum visitor, whether Vietnamese or foreign tourist, to miss the story of the American military’s use of herbicides and of the disabling consequences. The museum is high on the official list of tourist attractions, along with Saigon’s Notre Dame Cathedral and the French colonial post office.

Based on my viewing and conversations around these exhibits, there are two main messages about Agent Orange. First, the U.S. caused destruction to the environment and human health, and should acknowledge its responsibility to address it. Second, the exhibits highlight the humanity of people with disabilities, and by showing the horrors of war, hope to promote a sense of shared humanity and peace.

In the U.S., in contrast, Agent Orange does not appear in American national and veteran museums. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History has a smart section on the Vietnam War, but nothing on Agent Orange. Veterans’ struggles are instead remembered through private veteran events, documentary films and the traveling Quilt of Tears.

Vietnamese and American veterans and peace activists carry the same orange and black flag symbolizing their shared exposure, shared struggles and their countries’ shared legacies of war.