Sunday, December 5, 2010

Life Lines 65


For the past year I have been working on a book on Agent Orange and have made several trips to Harvard to read a massive collection of unpublished and declassified documents in the Matthew Meselson archive that he has generously allowed me to read. I also used the J. F. Kennedy Library in Boston, which had a number of key documents on the years 1961-1962 when the Kennedy White House explored the use of herbicides as a possible war weapon. I thought I had done most of my necessary readings when I learned at a meeting from the head of Stony Brook University’s Melville Library that they had a special collection of Agent Orange documents donated by Irving Like.

Irving Like was one of the lead attorneys involved in a 1979 case brought by American veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. They sued seven chemical companies (Dow chemical being the primary company named in the lawsuit). I went through those 25 boxes of documents and was impressed by what I found. Dow defended itself in several ways. First it initiated a counter suit against the US government for not following its warnings on the use of herbicides and not allowing the company to put such warnings on the drums that contained Agent Orange (a mixture of two herbicides known as 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T). They also planned a defense strategy by interviewing about 50 people who were involved (since the 1940s) in the manufacture and testing of these herbicides. Those depositions were summarized neatly for the lawyers in this very complex case. A third effort (the bulk of it) was devoted to challenging the jurisdiction of the courts in this case. Dow felt this should be the jurisdiction of the Environmental Protection Agency or the Veterans Administration and not for the courts to decide.

The Veterans likewise built their case with summarized accounts from an equally large number of scientists willing to testify on behalf of the veterans. There are about seven veterans who joined in this class action suit with a number of illnesses they attributed to Agent Orange exposure. Some claimed that the Agent Orange led to birth defects in their children. The Eastern District Federal Court rejected the legal arguments about jurisdiction and the two sides (both well represented from this exchange of documents from both sides) were preparing for a lengthy case in 1980 when Dow and the other companies agreed to a settlement without admitting that any harm was done by Agent Orange. The 180 million dollars was to be distributed among 500,000 veterans and an elaborate questionnaire and legal panel in several districts around the US allotted awards (the maximum was $3400 and most got $1000) which was an enormous disappointment for the veterans and their families.

Since the case never went to trial, this remarkable collection of documents was never made public and for scholars it shows us the importance of generous and thoughtful people such as Irving Like, who donate their papers to universities so that these valuable historical documents can resurrect the past.

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