Agent Orange and the Burden of Proof

Included here is my review of Edwin Martini’s book on Agent Orange, originally published in Pacific Historical Review 83:1 (2014), 179-180.

9781558499751Agent Orange: History, Science, and the Politics of Uncertainty. By Edwin A. Martini. (Boston, University of Massachusetts Press, 2012. xvi + 302 pp. $24.95 paper)

In this provocative book, Edwin A. Martini provides an international history of the Agent Orange controversy.  The U.S. Air Force’s herbicide spray campaigns in Vietnam became infamous because one of the chemicals, Agent Orange, was linked to birth defects and other ailments in humans. The numbers of those who claim to have been exposed to these chemicals include veterans, the people of Vietnam, and people exposed to chemical wastes.  Some have earned compensation, some not. Martini’s perspective about these decisions is repeated early and often in the book, namely that they are “based on political rather than scientific grounds” (7).

The most interesting dimension to Agent Orange compensation was not scientific proof, Martini tells us, but rather the changing expectations of who bears the burden of that proof. In the United States, veterans, activists, and politicians managed to shift the burden away from purported victims and toward the accused. The U.S. government evacuated and bought up the entire town of Times Beach, Missouri, where routine spraying of waste oil had contaminated widespread areas with dioxin.  It also decided to compensate Vietnam veterans, even extending benefits to those whose contact with the chemical seemed implausible. Instead of demanding that victims show proof of harm, the government essentially settled, rather than face unending litigation and bad press.

Martini fleshes out the point with extensive discussion of similar episodes outside the United States. Had scientific proof been the motivation behind the veteran compensation, the U.S. government might have faced a similar massive payout to the Vietnamese (it did not).  Martini’s book integrates these political, legal, and scientific battles, showing double standards on responsibility and compensation from one area to another. Finally we have a book that discusses not just American experiences with these chemicals, but also the Australian, New Zealand, and Vietnamese contexts.

Martini also seeks to debunk the myth that the U.S. government knew Agent Orange was harmful when it began its operations.  He observes that critics (not named) have made it seem as if the military set out “to cause long-term environmental damage as well as birth defects in innocent children.” (13) For some readers, Martini’s adamant refutation of this may seem needlessly exculpatory, distracting from his analysis of how the U.S. military and chemical companies later defended their policies and sought to continue them, despite knowing that many scientists believed they were harmful.

The ultimate value of Martini’s contribution is not merely to update the story of the herbicide spraying, but to help us to see how people in many different countries have understood the legacy of Agent Orange.  Some historians might quibble with his separation of “scientific” from “political,” which seems to put science on a high pedestal, divorced from politics.  But by the end of his excellent analysis, it is clear that Martini is aware how vulnerable scientific ideas are to manipulation.  If the reader is left with a question, it is this: where should the burden of proof reside?

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