Our Chemical War

Late in 1961, a Defense Department official was making his first trip to South Vietnam. The defoliation program, aimed at destroying jungle used by the Viet Cong for cover, had begun in October and the official planned to take a firsthand look. He later gave a briefing to Premier Ngo Dinh Diem. Diem “pulled out a tremendous map and began to give me a briefing on how much land the Viet Cong controlled in the South,” the official recalled. “I found out later it probably was a standard briefing he gave to all visiting officials.”

Diem’s point was that the use of defoliants to deny the enemy jungle cover was well and good, but to be really effective the chemicals had to be used against the Viet Cong’s crops. “This wasn’t what we wanted,” the Pentagon official said, “but we started using the stuff for crop killing. At first I insisted a Vietnamese officer go along to identify the target as Viet Cong-controlled, but this eventually was prostituted.” The whole incident left him disconcerted, the official said.

Early in February, 1962, the Soviet Union accused the United States of waging chemical warfare in South Vietnam. Izvestia reported that “the Pentagon has marked the beginning of the new year by an unprecedented action: the use of chemical weapons.” It said US airplanes were defoliating jungles and added: “The Air Force even started to destroy by poisonous gas the crops on the peasants’ fields in the regions where dissatisfaction is spreading.” The article added that the important thing is not the extent of US use of gas warfare, “but the fact itself that an established principle has been violated.” The New York Times subsequently reported that the United States had turned down a South Vietnamese request to starve out the Communist guerrillas by spraying defoliants and herbicides on food crops. The dispatch noted that “the reluctance to join the cropkilling program urged by the South Vietnamese is believed based on American sensitivity to the possibility that accusations would be made that Americans took part in chemical warfare.”

THE STORY was technically correct; US planes were not then directly involved in the specific spraying of food crops (although American defoliation missions against jungle growth along highways had begun). What the Times story did not say, however, is that by the end of November, 1961, according to Newsweek Magazine, American special warfare troops had begun teaching Vietnamese fliers how to spray “Communist-held areas with a chemical that turns the rice fields yellow, killing any crop being grown in rebel strongholds [my emphasis].” By early 1963, according to United Press International and the Minneapolis Tribune, the Vietnamese Air Force helicopters and planes were regularly using American defoliants and herbicides to destroy crops in Viet Cong territory.

Charles E. Smith, Saigon correspondent for UPI, wrote on March 16, 1963, that chemical defoliants and herbicides “are used in certain places in the central highlands where Viet Cong terrorists grow crops. In such cases the aim is…

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $99.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.