Agent Orange: Myths, Realities and Uncertainties
ELOF AXEL CARLSON, Stony Brook University
June 26-28, 2008 in Midtown Manhattan, NY
Agent Orange was a mixture of herbicides 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T used as a chemical weapon in the Vietnam War . In this course we will discuss how the idea of plant growth substances arose from Charles Darwin’s studies of plant responses to light in the 1880s to the discovery of auxins by Frits Went in the early 20th century. American and British plant physiologists, independently and under war secrecy, conceived of wartime use of synthetic auxins for plant destruction, mostly to starve the enemy, in 1942-1944 but the war ended before they could be used. After the war these synthetic plant growth regulators were used commercially as weed-killers.
Use of herbicides for different military objectives was widely applied in Operation Ranch Hand (1962-1969). We will study how this program was developed and why it was abandoned in 1969. We will also discuss the ecological consequences of the spraying and the health effects that occurred or were claimed to arise after exposure to the spraying of these chemicals and the role of a contaminant present in them called dioxin (TCDD). This history of the Agent Orange application in war is based on documents from the Matthew Meselson collection at Harvard University. These include mostly unpublished correspondence and memorandums from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the State Department, and the White House that were formerly classified as Top Secret. They provide a different way of seeing how science is used in war. We will learn from the course why it is so difficult to get unambiguous answers to questions raised by veterans, their counselors, or scientists who work with these chemicals. This is a course for those interested in science and society issues and the interplay of science, values, and politics. Tuition $210.
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