Published on Sept. 27, 1962, Rachel Carson’s ground-breaking book, “Silent Spring,” ignited modern U.S. environmentalism and resulted in new laws for environmental and public health protection in the United States. Two days earlier, President John F. Kennedy signed his approval for the so-called “rainbow herbicides” (Agents Orange, White, Purple, Green, Pink and Blue, named for the colored bands on the herbicide barrels ) to be sprayed on Vietnamese food crops.
President Kennedy read “Silent Spring” in a serialized version for The New Yorker in the summer of 1962; and, like millions of others, he was compelled by her message and had Carson invited to the White House. And, yet, what Carson exposed and condemned in our environment — the indiscriminate chemical war on nature with insecticides and herbicides as weapons — did not apply to Vietnam. The preoccupation of his administration was “image” — lest the United States be seen by the world as conducting chemical warfare in Southeast Asia. As the war widened in 1965 under President Lyndon B. Johnson, spraying increased exponentially, creating intensive and widespread environmental abuse that gave rise to the term “ecocide.” Search-and-destroy tactics in rural hamlets during Johnson’s ground war years resulted in millions of refugees flooding Saigon, relegated to slums and extreme poverty — precisely the conditions in U.S. cities that he hoped to overcome with his vaunted Great Society and War on Poverty programs.
By 1966, more than 5,000 American scientists, among them Nobel prize winners, condemned the use of chemical warfare agents in Vietnam. The U.S. herbicide program ended in 1971 when Nixon’s administration was forced to disclose covered-up research data, revealing that one of the herbicides in Agent Orange caused birth deformities in lab animals.