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WMU Professor explores history of Agent Orange


A new book by a Western Michigan University Professor delves into the history of using Agent Orange in the Vietnam War. History Professor Ed Martini also deals with the aftermath of the herbicide in his book Agent Orange: History, Science and the Politics of Uncertainty

Martini begins his book with the story of a veteran who was in Saigon for less than a day. He is eligible for Veterans Administration benefits after developing Type Two Diabetes. But Martini says children at an orphanage not far from where this veteran spent his time in Saigon have grown up with severe birth defects. They have to rely on help from Non-Governmental Organizations and other groups with nothing from the U.S. government. Martini tells WMUK’s Gordon Evans that we don’t know what Agent Orange has caused, and no one has accepted responsibility for the potential of harm from Agent Orange.

In the years since the end of the Vietnam War, Martini says there’s been a ton of research about Agent Orange’s health effects and the impact on the environment. But he says part of the lesson of the book is that there are limits to what can be learned from science and history. Martini says in the absence of scientific certainty most of the decisions have been based on politics.

Extended interview with Ed Martini

Martini’s book details the internal debates in the Kennedy administration over using Agent Orange. He says President Kennedy saw herbicides as a substitute for troops, and thought if they could flush out enemies from the jungle, they wouldn’t have to send military personnel in. At the same time, the U.S. was engaged in what was called a battle for “hearts and minds.” Martini says the state department did not want to use significant amounts of herbicide, the defense department wanted to use Agent Orange to win the war. As Martini says was often the case, the defense department won the argument. 
Martini says American scientists started paying closer attention to the effects of dioxin as the war escalated. He says the Nixon administration eventually ended the use of Agent Orange over the objections of military commanders. But the decision was largely based on domestic political considerations because of the environmental movement. 
Martini says despite extensive research, much remains unknown about Agent Orange. He says many assumptions he had about its effects turned out not to supported by science. He says that includes research about birth defects among children who have grown up in Vietnam. 

Gordon Evans became WMUK's Content Director in 2019 after more than 20 years as an anchor, host and reporter. A 1990 graduate of Michigan State, he began work at WMUK in 1996.