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Operation Ranch Hand: Definition, Strategy & Impact

Operation Ranch Hand: Definition, Strategy & Impact
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  • 0:00 What Was Operation Ranch Hand?
  • 0:35 History of the Operation
  • 1:49 The Rainbow Herbicides
  • 2:32 The Results of…
  • 4:09 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Dr. Douglas Hawks

Douglas has two master's degrees (MPA & MBA) and is currently working on his PhD in Higher Education Administration.

The Vietnam War was a difficult fight for the U.S. military, especially because of the tactics and guerrilla enemy they faced in the Vietcong. In this lesson, we'll discuss one strategy the U.S. utilized against the guerrillas: Operation Ranch Hand.

What was Operation Ranch Hand?

Operation Ranch Hand was a U.S. military operation that took place from 1962 - 1971 during the Vietnam War. The operation involved spraying and destroying over five million acres of forest and 500,000 acres of crops with herbicides that would kill the vegetation, making it harmful to eat and turning the thick forest from a place that guerrilla fighters could hide into areas the U.S. and armies could use as highways to transport forces and weapons.

History of the Operation

In 1962, the Vietnam War had been going on for seven years, and the U.S. Armed Forces were seeing how difficult a fight it would be. The U.S. was supporting South Vietnam - resisting the spread of communism, while the primary enemy - North Vietnam and the Viet Cong, were supported by China, the Soviet Union, and other smaller communist allies. One of the most significant problems faced by the U.S. and their allies were the guerrilla tactics utilized by the Viet Cong.

Because of the thick jungle vegetation of Vietnam, the U.S. was continually falling into guerrilla warfare situations set up by the Viet Cong. The thick jungle made great cover for the Viet Cong, and as American soldiers - much less familiar with the lay of the land - would walk the trails used by people from local villages, they could easily be surprised by an attack by the enemy. This map shows the areas that both forests and crops were sprayed as part of Operation Rand Hand.

Area sprayed with ~

The problem was evident: too much coverage meant too many places the enemy could hide. It was an issue that needed to be solved, and as possible solutions were discussed, a secondary benefit of finding a way to kill the plants was that it could also potentially be used on the crops of the Viet Cong, cutting off one of their major food sources.

The Rainbow Herbicides

The U.S. Army decided to use a substance called Agent Orange. In reality, there were nine different herbicides used, each named after a color, such as 'Agent Blue' or 'Agent Pink.' Because Agent Orange was the most common, it became the generic name for the set of herbicides used. They were also sometimes called the 'rainbow herbicides' because of the different colors they dusted over large areas of land.

While these herbicides were all useful agricultural products in the United States, the military secured mixtures that were up to 50 times as concentrated as typical commercial use. This practically ensured that any plant that came in contact with the agents would not only be killed, but significantly biologically broken down.

The Results of Operation Ranch Hand

After Operation Ranch Hand began, it became clear that it did, in fact, meet the objectives of the U.S. military. It took away two primary advantages of the Viet Cong - close food sources and thick vegetation for coverage, and gave the U.S. a big advantage: the clearing of thick forest that they could then use for transportation.

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