Lesson Plan

Vietnam War: Agent Orange


This 10-minute video clarifies to students why the U.S. military chose to spray Agent Orange over millions of acres of Vietnam, and vividly illustrates how that decision continues to produce medical consequences for American and Vietnamese citizens. Useful as a starting point for any discussion about the ongoing effects of the Vietnam War, the video helps students draw a direct line between decisions made 50 years ago and problems that people are facing today. The video can be used to set up a discussion about the broader question of how Americans make decisions about whether to go to war, how war should be waged, and how the true costs and consequences of military conflict are counted.

Content Advisory:

The video contains images of children with birth abnormalities and one instance of profanity.


  • Why the U.S. military chose to spray Agent Orange over millions of acres of land in Vietnam.
  • How Agent Orange continues to affect the lives of American and Vietnamese citizens.
  • How Vietnam veterans have used public advocacy and the legal system to win recognition and compensation, and how the U.S. government in recent years has undertaken efforts at ecological remediation of the most heavily affected areas in Vietnam.
  • Social Studies
  • U.S. History
  • World History
  • Environment
  • John F. Kennedy
  • Lyndon Johnson
  • Richard Nixon
  • The Vietnam War
  • U.S. Foreign Policy
  • 1960s America
  • 1970s America
  • 1980s America
  • 1990s America
  • 21st Century
  • Communism
For Teachers

Introducing the Lesson

In the 1960s, when the U.S. became involved in the Vietnam War, backing South Vietnam against communist North Vietnam, U.S. military planes sprayed a defoliant chemical called Agent Orange over millions of jungle acres in Vietnam, depriving the enemy Viet Cong of protective cover.

The U.S. maintained that the spraying was harmless, but by 1970 North Vietnam claimed the defoliant chemical was responsible for many miscarriages and birth abnormalities among Vietnamese citizens who had come in contact with it.

After the war, concern grew as thousands of Vietnam veterans said their wartime exposure to Agent Orange had led to deadly cancers and other illnesses.

The government denied them compensation, saying there was insufficient proof that Agent Orange was to blame.

But in the 1980s, the veterans reached a multi-million dollar settlement with several chemical companies that manufactured Agent Orange, after it was revealed those companies knew about problems with the defoliant as far back as 1965.

By the 1990s, the Veterans’ Administration decided to compensate veterans who suffered from a rare cancer that may have been caused by Agent Orange.

Today, most veterans have medical coverage for 14 illnesses presumed related to exposure to Agent Orange. In Vietnam, land remains contaminated with the herbicide and the U.S. is helping to remediate affected areas. The Vietnamese say there remain thousands of people with birth abnormalities.

Essential Questions

  • What was Operation Ranch Hand? How was it linked to American military strategy in Vietnam?
  • How has Agent Orange affected American veterans? How has it affected people in Vietnam?
  • What was the response of the U.S. government and Dow Chemical to the concerns expressed by American veterans and the Vietnamese government?
  • What steps have been taken to clean up Vietnam?

Lesson Procedure

  • The true cost and total effects of a war often aren’t clear until a war is over. What are some examples from other wars, of costs or effects that became evident years later?
  • In your opinion, has the U.S. government paid adequate compensation for the effects of exposure to Agent Orange?
  • Ongoing medical issues related to Agent Orange is one lingering effect of the Vietnam War. What are other ways that the Vietnam War continues to affect American culture and politics?

Additional Resources

Transcript for "Agent Orange: Last Chapter of the Vietnam War"Retro Report
“Vietnam’s Long Legacy, for Vietnam and Veterans” Retro Report

Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequences of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact or develop over the course of a text.

Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.

Evaluate how historical events and developments were shaped by unique circumstances of time and place as well as broader historical contexts.

Skill 1.B: Explain a historical concept, development, or process.

Theme: America in the World (WOR)

Questions? Tips? Concerns? Reach out to our Director of Education, David Olson: dolson@retroreport.com