Agent Orange

As the U.S. began to escalate its role in the Vietnam War, the military began using “Agent Orange” and other chemical defoliants. It is now widely acknowledged that exposure to dioxin — the chemical in Agent Orange — wrought disastrous consequences for both the Americans and the Vietnamese who were involved in the war.


Agent Orange and Vietnam

Essential Question

What were the human, environmental, and economic consequences of using Agent Orange in the Vietnam War?


  • 5.D.1.a. Objective: Analyze the significance of key events during the Vietnam War, including the Tet Offensive (1968), the My Lai Massacre (1968), the publication of the Pentagon Papers, and the invasions of Cambodia and Laos.
  • 5.D.1.d. Objective: Describe the actions the United States took to withdraw from the Vietnam War, including the policy known as “Vietnamization.” How did these actions affect the Vietnamese people?
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.1 : Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, attending to such features as the date and origin of the information. (Grades 9/10)
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.2 : Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas. (Grades 11/12)
  • D2.His.1.9-12: Evaluate how historical events and developments were shaped by the unique circumstances of the time and place, as well as by broader historical contexts.
  • D2.His.4.9-12: Analyze complex and interacting factors that influenced the perspective of people during different historical eras.
  • 8.1 The United States responded to an uncertain and unstable post-war world by asserting and working to maintain a position of global leadership, with far-reaching domestic and international consequences.
    1. United States policymakers engaged in the Cold War with the authoritarian Soviet Union, seeking to limit the growth of communist military power and ideological influence, create a free-market global economy, and build an international security system.
      1. Post-war decolonization and the emergence of a powerful nationalist movement in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East led both sides in the Cold War to seek allies among new nations, many of which remained nonaligned.
    2. Cold War policies led to public debates over the power of the federal government and acceptable means of pursuing international and domestic goals while protecting civil liberties.
      1. Americans debated policies and methods designed to expose suspected communists within the United States even as both parties supported the broader strategy of containing communism.

Tips for using this module in your classroom


Documentary Clip

As students watch the film clip, have them record evidence to answer the following questions:

  • Why did the U.S. military use Agent Orange?
  • How did Agent Orange affect American veterans of the war in Vietnam?

Interview transcripts: Harry Wilt, John Collins, Eric Richstein

Close Reading Primary Source Analysis

Examine the following graphs and data demonstrating the use of Agent Orange :
  • When were the peak years of Agent Orange use?
  • How widespread was its use in the country of South Vietnam?
Conduct a close read of the Chicago Tribune’s 2009 series on Agent Orange , and ask students the following text-dependent questions:
  • What was the military strategy for using Agent Orange in Vietnam?
  • What were the human consequences of using Agent Orange, for both American soldiers and Vietnamese people? Cite at least three specific pieces of evidence.
  • What were the environmental consequences of using Agent Orange? Cite at least three specific pieces of evidence.
  • What were the economic consequences of using Agent Orange? Cite at least three specific pieces of evidence.
  • What roadblocks did Vietnam veterans face in getting compensation for illnesses related to Agent Orange exposure?
  • Why did policy makers eventually recognize and provide assistance to Vietnam veterans who were suffering from illnesses related to Agent Orange exposure?
  • Do you believe the United States government or U.S. Corporations have a significant responsibility to assist the people of South Vietnam who claim damage from Agent Orange? Why or why not?

Additional Resource

  • Vietnam Agent Orange Retro Report
    Vietnam Agent Orange Retro Report This video and lesson plan clarifies to students why the U.S. military chose to spray Agent Orange over millions of acres of Vietnam, and vividly illustrates how that decision continues to produce medical consequences for American and Vietnamese citizens.