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The Invention of Ecocide: Agent Orange, Vietnam, and the Scientists Who Changed the Way We Think About the Environment [Paperback]

David Zierler

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Book Description

May 1 2011

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.

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"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

“Absolutely fascinating: rich in detail, massively researched, and skillfully narrated . . . 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.”—Akira Iriye, Harvard University

“David Zierler’s important, timely book is a welcome addition to the scholarship on Agent Orange, a glaringly understudied topic. Impressively researched and well written, it should be accessible to a broad readership.”—Edwin A. Martini, author of Invisible Enemies: The American War on Vietnam, 1975–2000

“Comprehensive, well-sourced and skillfully arranged, The Invention of Ecocide takes on a subject at which too many books of the war offer only a glance.”—Asia Times

"Zierler uses Agent Orange as a case study of the relationship between ecological issues and international relations, within the context of the rise of a global environmental consciousness."—Book News

The Invention of Ecocide provides a rich blend of military and scientific history packaged in a lively narrative and is a pick for science and military holdings alike.”—Midwest Book Review

"The book is an intellectually innovative and substantively valuable interdisciplinary contribution; one that I believe advances understanding about the development and utilization of herbicides in Vietnam while telling the story of how a group of American scientists, on the right side of the evidence and, as it turns out, history, tried to prevent the tragic consequences which now envelop generations of Americans and Vietnamese in their daily lives."—Larry Berman, H-Diplo Roundtable Reviews

“David Zierler has done yeoman’s work with this book exploring Agent Orange and the use of herbicides in the Vietnam War. . . .I applaud [his] efforts and I am sure that he will prove a leader in the history of American environmental diplomacy.”—J. Brooks Flippen, H-Environment

About the Author

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

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.5 out of 5 stars  2 reviews
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars When good intentions turn bad July 8 2011
By Dr. Wilson Trivino - Published on
Agent Orange is a familiar term left over from the legacy of the Vietnam era, but most don't know the story behind this herbicide. Dr. David Zierler has written a definitive book The Invention of Ecocide: Agent Orange, Vietnam, and the Scientist Who Changed the Way We Think About the Environment.

Speaking at the Carter Center on May 18, Zierler traced the origins movement of ecocide where herbicides were used to impact the ecology spurred by Agent Orange.

The Vietnam conflict was part of a much larger American policy initiative to stamp out communism. The anti-communism intent in Vietnam roots stem back from the Eisenhower administration continued within the Kennedy years and escalated through the Johnson administration. Well documented, Zierler has a copy in the book of the original memorandum authorizing herbicidal warfare in Vietnam.

Agent Orange, as most military initiatives, was meant to save lives. In Vietnam, the US had superior weapons, military equipment, and trained solders. The Viet Cong had the jungle and the surprised ambush. Hence, Agent Orange was meant to eliminate this advantage by defoliating the jungle terrain.

What Zierler attempts to do in his book is to delve into the history of the science of ecocide and how a handful of scientist worked to prevent its usage in war.

The Invention of Ecocide: Agent Orange, Vietnam, and the Scientist Who Changed the Way We Think About the Environment is a well written condense look into a fascinating world where politics and science intersect. This seminal work also revisited a much misunderstood of American history, the Vietnam conflict.
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Herbicidal warfare helped prompt global environmentalism." Oct. 8 2011
By ROROTOKO - Published on
This book is on the Rorotoko list. Dr Zierler's interview on "The Invention of Ecocide" ran as the Rorotoko Cover Feature on August 1, 2011 (and can be read in the Rorotoko archive).

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