The Invention of Ecocide
Agent Orange, Vietnam, and the Scientists Who Changed the Way We Think about the Environment

David Zierler

An environmental and diplomatic history of a man-made disaster


"David Zierler's The Invention of Ecocide is a compelling book about Agent Orange, its path of destruction, and the unflagging effort of scientists to name a new crime—ecocide. It is an aspect of the war usually referred to only in passing, but Zierler places it center stage in his powerfully written, precisely argued study. The Invention of Ecocide gives readers an entirely new perspective on Vietnam, the possibilities of determined protest, and the dangers that continue to haunt the world. It is, quite simply, a brilliant work of scholarship."
—Marilyn Young, author of The Vietnam Wars, 1945-1990

"The Invention of Ecocide is absolutely fascinating: rich in detail, massively researched, and skillfully narrated. It documents how American scientists contributed to ending 'herbicidal operations' in Vietnam. Combining the history of science with that of international affairs, the author skillfully traces the ways in which states made use of scientific discoveries to create ever more destructive weapons—and describes how scientists followed their conscience in seeking to stop such practice. The courage and perseverance of American scientists who opposed the spraying of Agent Orange over Vietnamese forests, which was justified by the government and the military on grounds of tactical benefits, eventually bore fruit. The story had a happy ending, not only as the United States (under President Ford) decided to stop the use of herbicides in war but also as the world community, beginning with the UN conference of 1972, became aware of the dangers of 'ecocide.' But these dangers remain, and anyone interested in the relationship between science and war, and between scientists and the state, would find much in this book that holds contemporary significance."
—Akira Iriye, Harvard University

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As the public increasingly questioned the war in Vietnam, a group of American scientists deeply concerned about the use of Agent Orange and other herbicides started a movement to ban what they called “ecocide.”

David Zierler traces this movement, starting in the 1940s, when weed killer was developed in agricultural circles and theories of counterinsurgency were studied by the military. These two trajectories converged in 1961 with Operation Ranch Hand, the joint U.S.-South Vietnamese mission to use herbicidal warfare as a means to defoliate large areas of enemy territory.

Driven by the idea that humans were altering the world’s ecology for the worse, a group of scientists relentlessly challenged Pentagon assurances of safety, citing possible long-term environmental and health effects. It wasn’t until 1970 that the scientists gained access to sprayed zones confirming that a major ecological disaster had occurred. Their findings convinced the U.S. government to renounce first use of herbicides in future wars and, Zierler argues, fundamentally reoriented thinking about warfare and environmental security in the next forty years.

Incorporating in-depth interviews, unique archival collections, and recently declassified national security documents, Zierler examines the movement to ban ecocide as it played out amid the rise of a global environmental consciousness and growing disillusionment with the containment policies of the cold war era.

A Friends Fund Publication

Page count: 252 pp.
Trim size: 6 x 9


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David Zierler is a historian for the U.S. Department of State. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife, daughter, and son.