Special March 5 Screening: The True Story behind Agent Orange

March 5th, 2021 - by Greta Zarro / World BEYOND War & Gar Smith / Environmentalists Against War

Special March 5 Screening: The True Story behind Agent Orange

Greta Zarro / World BEYOND War

Starting March 5, the powerful documentary The People Vs. Agent Orange will premiere at virtual cinemas across the US. 

The film tells the story of two women, one American and one Vietnamese, who fight to hold the chemical industry accountable for the devastation caused by Agent Orange — the defoliant used in the Vietnam War. Watch the film trailer bellow to get a sneak peek of this excellent exposé.

The dioxins present in Agent Orange continue to leave a legacy of death, deformity, and disability for generations. This investigative documentary includes painstaking historical research and interviews with whistleblowers, researchers, and the people who have lived through contact with the poison in both Vietnam and the United States. 

The film follows Vietnamese activist Tran To Nga, who, in a French court, is suing the American chemical industry for poisoning her and her family in Vietnam. And in Oregon, Carol Van Strum battles to stop the ongoing spraying of toxins by the timber industry. Both women, joined in their mutual pain, resist intimidation and threats, bringing to light the ongoing, intergenerational catastrophe of chemical warfare and toxic herbicides.

Get tickets for the virtual screening here. When you visit the ticketing page, you can pick whichever virtual cinema you would like to support, whether or not you are located in that city (available to US residents only at this time).
Greta Zarro is the Organizing Director at World BEYOND War. World BEYOND War is a global network of volunteers, chapters, and affiliated organizations advocating for the abolition of the institution of wargreta@worldbeyondwar.org

The People Versus Agent Orange Review

Gar Smith / Environmentalists Against War

Most Americans think of Agent Orange as something from the distant and disagreeable past—as dated as hippie vans and tie-dyed T-shirts. But the truth is that Agent Orange is still with us. And will be for decades to come.

In Vietnam, the Pentagon’s chemical spraying of this toxic dioxin-laced chemical herbicide has left five generations (and counting) burdened with a horrific legacy of stillborn babies, deformed children, and crippled adults hidden away and condemned to painful lives and early death. The risk to future generations remains.

The US developed Agent Orange as a weapon of mass destruction. During Operation Ranch Hand (1962-1971), the US dumped 20 million gallons of herbicide over 5,5 million acres of forests and crops. Nearly 4.9 million people were exposed and 400,000 died from resulting cancers, birth defects, autoimmune diseases, skin disorders, and neurological problems. Today, one million Vietnamese suffer from the inherited after-effects of the poison—100,000 of them are children.

In the US, generations of children born to soldiers who served in Vietnam continue to bare the burden of the chemical’s toxic curse—their health compromised by more than a dozen maladies including Lou Gehrig’s disease, Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Chronic B-Cell leukemia, genetic defects, and a variety of cancers. Not to mention bizarre physical mutations (missing limbs and deformed hands) that resemble those seen in the hospital wards of Vietnam.

But, as a stunning new documentary reveals, it gets worse.

Alan Adelson’s meticulously researched film, The People Versus Agency Orange, reveals how the human impacts of this potent weapon of war were quietly brought back home. When the war ended (with the defeat and retreat of the US military), the Dow Chemical began looking for new markets for its powerful defoliant. Under pressure from the powerful corporations that created this potent weapon of war, the Pentagon’s stockpiles of Agent Orange were approved for use inside the US. Under supervision of the US Forest Service—and with the quiet approval of a succession of Republican and Democrat US administrations—Agent Orange.

The People Versus Agent Orange provides perspective from three continents: From Vietnam, where mutant children with twisted limbs and misshapen bodies are hidden away in protected wards. From a small forest community in Oregon where spray drift from government helicopters has been linked to illness, cancers and miscarriages. From France, where Tran To Nga, a single aging victim of Agent Orange, is heroically pursuing a legal case against 26 US-based multinational chemical companies in hopes of winning a judgment against the poison-makers before her own life comes to an end.

Tran To Nga

Tran To Nga, whose legal plea is currently before the Tribunal de Grane Instance in France, was doused repeatedly with Agent Orange in the forests of Vietnam when she was a member of the local resistance. Her first daughter died of a heart defect while her two surviving daughters and grandchildren all suffer from compromised health.

The other hero of this story is 80-year-old Carol Van Strum. In 1974, the Van Strum family relocated from Berkeley, California, to a 160-acre homestead in rural Oregon. Life was idyllic until the day a Forest Service tanker sprayed her children while they were playing in a local stream.

“They didn’t even see the kids,” Van Strum recalls as the film screens an image of her four smiling children in a family photo. That night they were not smiling. “The kids were all choking and gasping. That night they were all really sick. They had diarrhea. They had trouble breathing,” Van Strum says.

When the children’s parents visited the riverside the next day they found the remains of dead ducklings and fish. Within weeks, they saw an outbreak of dead and deformed birds with twisted beaks, clubfeet, and useless wings.

The US Forest Service assured the Van Strums that the chemical was “perfectly safe.” What they were not told was that the spray included 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T—the main ingredient of Agent Orange.

Carol Van Strum

The Forest Service and the local timber industries turned to applying chemical sprays after a ruling against the logging industry’s practice of clearcutting forests and then abandoning the devastated landscape. Repeated spraying of the already denuded mountainsides were justified as necessary to eliminate “unwanted plants and speed the growth of timber.” Somehow this argument didn’t square with the fact that the chemical spray had been created specifically to destroy forests.

Van Strum began to survey her rural neighbors and discovered a troubling rise in miscarriages, tumors, spontaneous abortions, and birth defects that followed in the wake of the spraying.

The chemical industry’s defenders included Dr. Cleve Goring of Dow Chemical Research who blithely dismisses the locals concerns by claiming. “The attack is not scientific. It’s purely emotional. The public does not understand” and insisting that 2,4,5-T is “about as toxic as aspirin.”

When attempts to challenge the spraying were rebuffed, Van Strum began a personal resistance that involved collecting decades worth of documentation—much of it secured by the persistent filing of Freedom of Information Act requests. The collection—including rare corporate documents—eventually became known as the Poison Papers (a reference to Daniel Ellsberg’s more notorious Pentagon Papers). Van Strum’s research is now playing a key role in Tran To Nga’s lawsuit in France.

This is where the story takes on the chilling overtones of the film Silkwood (about the mysterious death of nuclear power whistleblower Karen Silkwood).

Van Trum had, by now, formed a local anti-spray organization called Community Against Toxic Spray and as CATS began to garner increased press attention the response of the timber/chemical interests kicked up a notch.

Homes were burglarized and collections of community health research documents were stolen. Instead of driving alone on empty local roads, activists found themselves being followed by strange cars with “men in suits.” Phones were being tapped. A local female doctor decided to cease her work with CATS after she was visited by two men who said they wanted to talk about herbicides. Instead, once inside her home, they asked pointedly: “Do you know at all times where your children are?”

The chemical and timber companies started PR campaigns targeting members of CATS as individuals who “threaten your jobs.”

The horror came home on January 1, 1978 when Van Strum was visiting a neighbor and returned to find the family home totally engulfed in flames. All four of her children were trapped inside and perished in the flames. The local fire marshal called the fire suspicious and potentially a case of arson but State Police ruled it “accidental in nature with the actual cause unknown.” Van Strum believes her family was targeted.

After a painful period of mourning, Van Strum moved back into a smaller building on the properly and returned to amassing more documents and testimonies. “I can’t save the world,” she told a reporter for Our Coast Magazine, “but I’ll fight tooth and nail to save this little corner of it.” She added: “The death of our children left me with what they loved—this farm, this dirt, these trees, this river, these birds, fish, newts, deed, and fishers—to protect and hold dear. These became my anchor to windward, keeping me from just drifting away with every wind that blows.”

In 1983, Van Strum went on to write a powerful book, A Bitter Fog: Herbicides and Human Rights (revised in 2014).

In March 2018, Carol Van Strum was honored with the David Brower Lifetime Achievement Awardat the Public Interest Environmental Law Conference at University of Oregon

Carol Van Strum Receives Brower Award