After a period of testing, on this day in 1962, President John F. Kennedy gave final approval to “Operation Ranch Hand” — a massive effort to defoliate the forests of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos with an herbicide known as Agent Orange.
It involved the spraying of an estimated 20 million gallons of powerful herbicides over rural South Vietnam to deprive Viet Cong insurgents aligned with the communist government in Hanoi of food and vegetation trail cover. To a lesser extent, areas of Cambodia and Laos were also sprayed. The U.S. Air Force flew nearly 20,000 spraying sorties from 1961 to 1971.
During the decade of spraying, more than 5 million acres of forest and 500,000 acres of crops were heavily damaged or destroyed. Some one-fifth of South Vietnam’s forests were sprayed at least once — at up to 50 times the concentration that would be deployed for normal agricultural use.
Kennedy insisted on approving individual spray runs until November 1962, when the president authorized Military Assistance Command, Vietnam and the U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam to approve them.