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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 to eliminate sources of food.” On April 4, Jack Wilson of the Minneapolis Tribune wrote that “crop spraying has been limited to areas dominated by the Viet Cong” in the central highlands area dominated by the Montagnard tribesmen. Wilson said that “Defense Department officials who receive regular reports on the food spraying campaign feel that the Vietnam government is conducting it with proper regard for its touchy aspects.”

The American defoliation program, ostensibly aimed solely at jungle growth, had begun modestly enough in late 1961. In November six c-123 transport planes, normally used for carrying troops, were flown to South Vietnam from Clark Field in the Philippines and outfitted with special tanks and high-pressure nozzles. Each was capable of carrying 10,000 pounds of defoliant, enough to spray more than 300 acres. Only 60 flights were flown that November and December and only 107 flights were made in all of 1962, when the program was still considered experimental. By 1967, however, the defoliation program was at least a $60-million-a-year operation involving 18 of the huge tankers. Early that year Air Force Chief of Staff John P. McConnell told Congress more than one million acres had been sprayed since the program began in 1962, including by Pentagon count, 150,000 acres of cropland out of a total of eight million foodproducing acres in all of South Vietnam. As we shall see McConnell’s statistics are suspect.

In February, 1968, the Pentagon made public a study on the effects of the defoliation program in Vietnam (to be discussed more fully later) which reported that enough herbicides and other chemicals were used in 1967 to treat 965,000 acres of land. Thus, according to the Pentagon, the total number of acres sprayed in 1967 roughly equaled the acres sprayed during the five previous years. The study added that many areas were treated more than once—and, therefore, the total number of sprayed acres “was significantly less.” The report did not specify how many acres of crop-producing land were treated.

The antifood goal of the US defoliation program did not become clear to Americans until late in 1965; perhaps that explains why it escaped critical attention for so many years. By the end of 1966 protests against Chemical and Biological Warfare (CBW) also included the use of anticrop agents. When a group of American scientists presented President Johnson with a petition against CBW in September of that year, they argued that “a dangerous precedent is being set by the current large-scale use of riot gas and anticrop chemicals by U.S. forces in Vietnam.”1

The use of defoliants to destroy even jungle is, by the military’s own definition, an act of chemical warfare. Army Manual TM 3-216, Military Biology and Biological Agents, describes the chemicals as possessing “high offensive potential for destroying or for seriously limiting the production of crops and for defoliating vegetation.” The manual continues: “There are no proven defensive measures against these compounds. By the time symptoms appear, nothing can be done to prevent damage. The compounds are detoxified in the soil after a period of several weeks to several months.”

The United States was aware of its queasy moral position regarding the use of the chemicals. Roger Hilsman, State Department intelligence chief and later Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs during the Kennedy Administration, has written that

the military headquarters in Saigon thought that these defoliants would be ideal for clearing the underbush along the sides of roads where the Viet Cong laid their ambushes and for destroying crops in areas under Viet Cong domination…. The State Department view, on the other hand, was that political repercussions would outweigh any possible gains. Defoliation was just too reminiscent of gas warfare. It would cost us international political support, and the Viet Cong would use it to good propaganda advantage as an example of the Americans making war on the peasants.

The State Department, led by Roving Ambassador Averell W. Harriman, bitterly protested a subsequent Pentagonapproved plan to test the chemicals in other Southeast Asian nations. In a manner that was to become habitual, the Pentagon went ahead with a series of highly classified tests, despite the State Department warnings. One such program was known as the Oconus Defoliation Test and involved the aerial application of chemical anticrop agents in Thailand in 1964 and 1965. “Aerial spray treatments were applied at a rate of 1/2 to 3 gallons per acre on two test sites representing tropical dry evergreen forest and secondary forest and shrub vegetables,” one classified test summary reported a year later.

In mid-1967, another Pentagon official told me that three factors led to the decision to use defoliants in Vietnam:

  1. The need to conduct defoliation experiments in heavy jungle areas.

  2. The needs of the operational military personnel, who viewed defoliation as a means of avoiding or ending ambushes and perhaps starving out the Viet Cong.

  3. The Chemical Corps promoters who “were always overselling everything.”2

Adding to the pressure to get on with it was the fact that the defoliation was the first field program of Project Agile, a high-priority Kennedy Administration attempt to speed up research on “counterinsurgency.” More than $30 million a year was being spent on the research program by 1965. Designed to provide quick results for ending the war, it had been set up by McNamara in 1962.

Yet by the spring of 1965, the defoliation program for jungle clearing was still unpredictable and Congressmen were wondering just what its value was. “Since we have been in Vietnam,” Representative Daniel J. Flood told a general during House Defense Subcommittee appropriation hearings, “we have been experimenting with defoliants…we have had all kinds of conflicting opinions and our chemical warfare people have been very unhappy for the last four or five years about the whole program…what about this?”

Lieutenant General William W. Dick, Jr., then chief of Army Research, provided a lukewarm endorsement. “Why this was decided to be essential, I do not know, Mr. Flood…it is certainly not the answer to all of the problems in Vietnam…I have not seen where it failed to defoliate. I have seen reports that it has not solved all the problems in a given area where it has taken the foliage off.” A few moments later Dick added that “we still have requirements from the commanders in Vietnam for defoliating agents. They continue to ask for supplies of it. They continue to use it. I can only assume that they find it has an ability to perform a job they want done.”

General Dick did not tell the Congressmen that the use of defoliants for clearing brush was, at best, of questionable value. Hilsman noted, after one on-the-spot inspection of a sprayed area during a field trip to Vietnam, that

the leaves were gone but the branches and trunks remained. Even if they had not, it was not leaves and trunks that guerrillas used for cover, but the curves in the road and the hills and valleys. Later, the senior Australian military representative in Saigon, Col. Serong, also pointed out that defoliation actually aided the ambushers—if the vegetation was close to the road those who were ambushed could take cover quickly; when it was removed the guerrillas had a better field of fire.

THERE IS EVIDENCE that even during these years of experimentation the chief virtue of the defoliation program was its ability to kill enemy crops, and not its jungle-destroying powers. As early as March, 1963, US officials told Washington newsmen that a Communist campaign then being waged against the use of defoliants in South Vietnam showed that the program was interfering with the food supplies of the Viet Cong guerrillas. They added that the chemicals had been used in areas where the Viet Cong were known to be concentrated. It wasn’t until December, 1965, however, that the American public first learned that US planes were deliberately using defoliants and herbicides to destroy rice and other crops in South Vietnam. A New York Times dispatch, which said the program “began last spring,” reported that up to 75,000 crop-producing acres had been sprayed. “Crop destruction missions are aimed only at relatively small areas of major military importance where the guerrillas grow their own food or where the population is willingly committed to their cause.” The dispatch said up to 60 to 90 percent of the crops, once sprayed, were destroyed.

  1. 1

    Twenty-two scientists and doctors, including seven Nobel Prize winners, wrote a public letter to Johnson urging him to order an end to the use of chemical agents in Vietnam. The document was then sent to universities and scientists around the nation; by February, 1967, more than 5,000 US scientists, now including 17 Nobel Prize winners and 129 members of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences, had signed. The collection was bound and sent to President Johnson on February 14 after a news conference that put the protest on the front pages of newspapers across the nation.

  2. 2

    Oversell apparently is a constant problem with the CBW generals, who are avid boosters of their arsenal. One former Defense official told me he always had problems with the generals when he served in the Pentagon. He explained why: “The Chemical Corps is a cult. Those generals all have Billy Mitchell complexes to infinity. Ideas that the White House or McNamara emphasized when they boosted CBW spending would end up getting perverted by the generals.” Billy Mitchell was the Army officer whose campaign for the airplane led to his court-martial in the 1920s.

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