Who Ordered Agent Orange To Be Used?


James J. Alonzo

With all the illnesses, malformed babies, and suffering from Agent Orange, one could wonder who the person that ordered it to be used was. It was Elmo Zumwalt Jr., who as commander of U.S. naval forces in Southeast Asia that ordered the chemical defoliant sprayed over the South Vietnamese countryside to deprive communist troops of cover.

Elmo Russell Zumwalt, Jr. (November 29, 1920 – January 2, 2000) was an American naval officer and the youngest man to serve as Chief of navel Operations. As an admiral and later the 19th Chief of navel Operations, Zumwalt played a major role in U.S. military history, especially during the Viet Nam War.

After his selection for the rank of Rear Admiral, Zumwalt assumed command in July 1965 of Cruiser-Destroyer Flotilla Seven. In September 1968, he became Commander Naval Forces, Viet Nam, and Chief of the Naval Advisory Group, U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam.

Zumwalt’s command was not a blue water unit, like the Seventh Fleet; it was a brown water unit: he commanded the flotilla of Swift boats that patrolled the coasts, harbors, and rivers of Vietnam. Among the swift-boat commanders were his son, Elmo Russell Zumwalt III, and later future Senator John Kerry. During this time, the elder Zumwalt had an opportunity to safeguard the men who served under his command from the Viet Cong who hid in the jungle and ambushed American and ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) patrols at will.

A new group of herbicides, Agent Orange, White, and other assorted color names, could be sprayed on the foliage to remove the cover that the Viet Cong used so effectively. It was claimed at that time that the side effects on humans of long-term exposure to Agent Orange were not yet known, and the manufacturers, Dow and Monsanto, were eager to reassure potential users about its safety.

Admiral Zumwalt acted to protect not only his own son, but also his many comrades from a “clear and present danger,” but in so doing, he exposed them to chemicals now known to cause cancer. As all commanders must do, Admiral Zumwalt acted quickly and decisively on the available information; in this case, he relied on sources that were biased and unreliable, as later developments made clear.

In the end, he paid personally for his decision. Zumwalt’s son, Elmo Zumwalt III, died in 1988, aged 42;

Zumwalt’s grandson (born 1977) suffers from a congenital dysfunction that confuses his physical senses. Zumwalt’s son, prior to his own death, said in 1986 that

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“‘I am a lawyer and I don’t think I could prove in court, by the weight of the existing scientific evidence, that Agent Orange is the cause of all the medical problems – nervous disorders, cancer and skin problems – reported by Vietnam veterans, or of their children’s severe birth defects. But I am convinced that it is.” He also said he never blamed his father for his disease.

Admiral Zumwalt said he felt his son’s cancer was most definitely due to Agent Orange. He also mentioned that his grandson Russell suffered from very severe learning disabilities that could possibly be traced to it as well. However, Zumwalt said he did not regret ordering the use of Agent Orange, because it reduced casualties by making it difficult for the enemy to hide and find food.

Admiral Zumwalt, along with his son, authored a book called My Father, My Son, published by MacMillan in September 1986, where they discussed the family tragedy of his son’s battle with cancer.

After treatment in a number of hospitals, Elmo Zumwalt III went to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center inSeattle, where he received a bone marrow from his sister Mouzetta, whose tissues fortunately matched his well enough for this treatment to be feasible. Results were promising but in the end, he died in 1988.

Sadly the Zumwalt family also suffered from Agent Orange. Was it all a case of “What goes around, comes around” or for those of the eastern thought, Karma”?

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