The Invention of Ecocide | Wilson Center

The Invention of Ecocide

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As the American public began to question the war in Vietnam, a group of scientists deeply concerned about their government's use of Agent Orange and other herbicides started a movement to ban what they called "ecocide."

U.S. Deptartment of State Historian David Zierler in his latest book entitled The Invention of Ecocide, traces this movement, from the 1940s, when weed killer was developed in agricultural circles and when 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, archival research, and recently declassified U.S. government documents, Zierler examines the movement to ban ecocide as it played out amid the rise of a global environmental consciousness.

Joining Zierler on the panel is Carl Bruch, senior attorney and co-director of international programs at the Environmental Law Institute and John Prados, senior research fellow at the National Securtity Archive.

Christian Ostermann director of the Wilson Center's History and Public Policy Program, will chair the event.

David Zierler received his Ph.D. from Temple University in 2008 and was a visiting junior scholar at Yale University while he completed his dissertation. Currently, Zierler is a historian for the U.S. Department of State, where his research focuses on U.S. policy and the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. After five years researching and writing about Agent Orange and Vietnam, he has begun his second book project on public opinion during national security crises from World War I to the Second Persian Gulf War.

Carl Bruch is a senior attorney and co-director of international programs at the Environmental Law Institute (ELI); he also co-chairs the IUCN Specialist Group on Armed Conflict and the Environment. Bruch's research focuses on making environmental law work. He has extensive experience internationally in helping countries develop and implement laws, policies, and institutional frameworks to effectively manage water resources, biodiversity, forests, and other natural resources. Bruch is an authority on the means to prevent, reduce, mitigate, and compensate for damage to the environment during armed conflict. He edited and co-edited six books, including The Environmental Consequences of War: Legal, Economic, and Scientific Perspectives, and authored dozens of scholarly articles. He holds a JD from Northwestern School of Law of Lewis & Clark College, an MA in physics from the University of Texas at Austin, and a BS in physics from Michigan State University.

John Prados directs the National Security Archive's Iraq Documentation Project as well as its Vietnam Project and is a senior research fellow on national security affairs, including foreign affairs, intelligence, and military subjects. Prados has authored numerous books, most recently Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War; the forthcoming How the Cold War Ended, as well as Safe for Democracy: The Secret Wars of the CIA; William Colby and the CIA: The Secret Wars of a Controversial Spymaster; and Hoodwinked: The Documents that Reveal How Bush Sold Us a War. His books Unwinnable War, Keepers of the Keys (on the National Security Council) and Combined Fleet Decoded (on intelligence in the Pacific in World War II) were each nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Prados' work centers on subjects including the National Security Council, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Vietnam war, and analysis of international relations, plus diplomatic and military history more generally. Prados holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from Columbia University.


  • David Zierler

    Historian, U.S. Department of State
  • Carl Bruch

    Environmental Law Institute; International Union for Conservation of Nature
  • John Prados

    Senior Fellow and Project Director, National Security Archive, The George Washington University.