VIETNAM: THE CHEMICAL WAR The Vietnam War (1960-75) was not just a product of Cold War politics but also of Cold War-era chemistry. Military use of chemicals such as napalm, tear gas and the herbicide known as Agent Orange not only sparked global, anti-war protests but also galvanized budding environmental movements. Especially in the aftermath of decades-long debates among veterans and Vietnamese people about “ecocide” and severe human health, the Vietnam War highlights the complex ways that post-1945 chemical industries, the Green Revolution and military priorities overlapped.
This talk by environmental historian David Biggs examines the history of the chemical war in Vietnam in three stages, beginning with the “birth” of these chemicals in World War II, the rapid escalation of their use in Vietnam in the 1960s, and a conclusion on their environmental and political “fates” since the end of the war. In a related event, we will have a screening of award-winning Trần Văn Thủy’s documentary “Story from the Corner of a Park” (1996), in which the filmmaker describes the lives of a Vietnamese couple whose children were born with massive deformities because of the various chemical toxins used on during the Vietnam War.
David Biggs received a BA with honors in American history from the University of North Carolina in 1992, where he helped develop a student environmental action coalition and worked in rural development. He left his homeland (quê hương) to become a volunteer English teacher in Vietnam and explore the other side of the world.
David returned to the United States to pursue a PhD in environmental and Southeast Asian history at the University of Washington in Seattle (1996 to 2004). His dissertation examined social and historical dimensions of water politics in the delta through periods of imperial, colonial, and wartime government. Quagmire: Nation-Building and Nature in the Mekong Delta (University of Washington, 2011) received the George Perkins Marsh Award in 2012 and led him to new collaborations with social scientists and policymakers as well as historians.
Since 2012, he has shifted his focus to the war-torn landscapes of central Vietnam near the former imperial capital, Hue. He is nearing completion of a manuscript titled Footprints: History and the Militarized Landscape in Central Vietnam, which draws on historical geographic information systems (hGIS), extensive research in aerial photography and map collections, and years of site visits to villages and former military sites.
RCC Research Project: In the Footprints of War: Environmental History, Militarization, and Landscape in Ce