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:
- The need to conduct defoliation experiments in heavy jungle areas.
- 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.
- 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.
The first official confirmation that the defoliation program was aimed, at least in part, at food-producing areas came in March, 1966, when the State Department announced that about 20,000 acres in South Vietnam, about one-third of 1 percent of the land under cultivation, had been destroyed. The statement was issued as a comment on the case of Robert B. Nichols, an architect who had written President Johnson asking why the United States would attempt to help South Vietnamese grow more food and at the same time attempt to destroy their crops. Nichols had gone on a hunger strike when he received what he considered a less than satisfactory response from the White House. As one critic said later, it took the potential starvation of an American citizen to evoke a clarifying statement from the Johnson Administration about its anticrop program.
A New York Times dispatch in July, 1966, noted that the spraying of enemy crops was being stepped up, and added: “The spraying, begun in 1962 [my italics], has blighted about 130, 000 acres of rice and other food plants.” Another Times story, in September, 1966, quoted Washington officials as saying that there would be no relaxation of the crop-destruction program in South Vietnam despite a series of protests. The dispatch, however, reduced the number of acres treated, quoting Defense Department officials as disclosing that approximately 104,000 acres of food-producing land had been destroyed in South Vietnam, 26,000 less than had been reported ruined six months earlier in a stepped-up program. Also in September, the Times reported that the US military, “pleased with the effectiveness of chemical-defoliation and crop-destruction missions,” was taking steps to triple the capability of those efforts.
There is evidence that the effectiveness of the defoliation program was still a moot question at that time, although anticrop techniques were highly successful. Early in 1967, Secretary of Defense McNamara told Congress that “defoliation is still a rather primitive technique…. It depends for its effectiveness on the time of the year, the type of foliage and on wind and other conditions in the area.” What McNamara meant was that, despite all the research, it still often took more than a month to strip foliage from trees in South Vietnam. Such problems didn’t exist with the anticrop agents, which stimulated plants into frenzied growth and death, sometimes within an hour. Although similar chemicals were used for both missions, the gap in effectiveness between killing a food plant and causing a leaf to fall away had not been solved by mid-1967.
Whether or not the Pentagon initially planned to have its defoliation program lead into an anticrop project really doesn’t matter; the fact is that by the end of 1966 more than half of the c-123 missions were admittedly directed at crops, and it is probable that any effort at a trebling of capability in 1967 was aimed not at the jungles of South Vietnam but at its arable crop land.
A 1967 Japanese study of US anticrop and defoliation methods, prepared by Yoichi Fukushima, head of the Agronomy Section of the Japan Science Council, contradicts the statistics on crop damage issued by the Pentagon. The study claimed that US anticrop attacks have ruined more than 3.8 million acres of arable land in South Vietnam and resulted in the deaths of nearly 1,000 peasants and more than 13,000 livestock. Fukushima said one village was attacked more than thirty times by c-123 crop dusters spraying caustic defoliants and herbicides. The Japanese scientist concluded that “appalling inhumane acts are evident even within the limited admissions officially given out by US Government leaders….” US officials have made it plain they considered such claims to be propaganda.
In April, 1966, Joseph Mary Ho Hue Ba, Catholic representative of the National Liberation Front, charged that the US use of defoliants and herbicides was killing newborn babies. The charges were made in a North Vietnamese press agency broadcast monitored in Singapore by Reuters. Its subsequent dispatch quoted the broadcast as contending that hundreds of Catholics had been seriously poisoned by the chemical destruction of crops, which was also causing widespread starvation.
WHAT, EXACTLY, are the chemicals used in Vietnam? Military manuals list five or six potential herbicides, or plant killers, but the Associated Press reported in March, 1967, that three basic types of chemicals are now in use:
Agent Orange, a 50-50 mixture of two commonly used defoliants, 2,4-D (dichlorphenoxyacetic acid) and 2,4,5-T (trichlorophenoxyacetic acid). The mixture is used against heavy jungle and crops.
Agent Blue, a neutralized cacodylic acid sprayed over tall elephant grass and heavier crop concentrations.
Agent White, also known as Tordon 101, a weaker mixture of unknown chemicals used in areas of sizable population.
Many more lethal chemicals may be used in Vietnam, but the Pentagon has not released further data. The other chemicals listed in the manuals are backyard weed killers. When Dr. John Edsall, a Harvard professor, wrote Secretary McNamara early in 1966 to protest the use of anticrop agents, Major General Michael S. Davison, Deputy Assistant Chief of Staff for Force Development, responded. His letter said, in part, “the chemicals used, such as 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T, are those commonly used in agriculture to destroy weeds and other undesirable plants. They harm neither humans nor animals, and do no harm to the soil or water supplies in the concentrations used.”
There is much evidence to the contrary. For one thing, cacodylic acid is an organic arsenical acid composed of 54.29 percent arsenic, according to the Merck Index of Chemicals and Drugs. Arthur W. Galston, a Yale biologist, has reported that its lethal dose in dogs is one gram per kilogram body weight, administered beneath the skin. “If the same toxicity held for man,” Galston wrote in the August-September, 1967, issue of Science and Citizen, “then about seventy grams, or slightly over two ounces, would kill the average 150-pound man….”
“The Chemistry and Mode of Action of Herbicides,” a study written in 1961 by Alden S. Crafts, a University of California agronomist, notes that “cacodylic acid gives a very rapid top [plant] kill….” Crafts said in a subsequent interview that cacodylic acid would be especially effective against newly sown rice, a main target of the US anticrop attacks; he said 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T have no effect on cereals such as corn, rice, wheat, or barley, but could be used against woody plants. One serious problem with the heavy use of cacodylic acid, Crafts added, is the good chance that it will accidentally spread onto vegetables and fruits in strong enough concentrations to give humans arsenical poisoning.
The cacodylic acid and the phenoxyacetic acids used in Vietnam are described in most reference works as nonselective herbicides, i.e., they kill all vegetation present. One study of anticrop chemicals in Vietnam notes that the weed control handbook issued in 1965 by the British Weed Control Council lists 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T as having relatively short persistence in the soil with relatively low levels of toxicity to man and animals. The handbook adds that “prolonged exposure, notably to oil solutions, may cause skin or eye irritation to some individuals. Plastic gloves and light goggles should be available for personnel mixing spray materials. Also, for some types of mist spraying, a face mask is desirable to avoid prolonged breathing in of oil droplets.” It further notes that agents must be handled with caution because they “can cause serious damage if spray is allowed to drift onto nearby susceptible crops” or if liquids used for cleaning the spraying equipment are “allowed to flow into running ditches, streams or ponds.” The Merck Index of Chemicals and Drugs reports further that 2,4-D can cause eye irritation and gastrointestinal upset.
THE AIR FORCE’S c-123’s are designed to distribute their 1,000-gallon, 10,000-pound loads in four minutes over about 300 acres, a rate of roughly more than 3 gallons per acre, the maximum dosage recommended by Army manuals. The program is known as “Operation Ranch Hand.” Its lumbering, low-flying planes are said to be the most shot-at in the war. “We are the most hated outfit in Vietnam,” Flying magazine once quoted Air Force Major Ralph Dresser, head of “Ranch Hand,” as saying. The group’s slogan is “Only We Can Prevent Forests.” A detailed newspaper account of Dresser’s crew, the Aerial Spray Flight of the 309th Aerial Commando Squadron, noted that in an emergency the plane’s high-pressure spray nozzles can eject the 1,000-gallon cargo in just thirty seconds. Emergencies apparently happen quite often: the newspaper account mentioned that four planes in the squadron took a total of 900 rifle and machine-gun hits during the previous eighteen months of operation. In such cases, the net result could be a huge overdose for the cropland below.
The going rate for a 1,000-gallon cargo of crop-killing chemicals is $5,000; in 1967 the Pentagon announced the purchase of nearly $60 million worth of defoliants and herbicides, enough for 12,000 plane rides over the countryside, each of which would theoretically blanket 300 acres of crop-land. If each mission was successful, 3.6 million acres, nearly half the arable land in South Vietnam, could be covered. 3
In his letter to Dr. John Edsall, the protesting Harvard biologist, Major General Davison claimed that
great care has been taken to select [anticrop target] areas in which most harm would be done to the Viet Cong and the least harm to the local population. In some instances the local inhabitants, who have been forced to grow food for the Viet Cong, have requested that the herbicides be used. The Government of Vietnam has taken precautions to care for non-combatants whose food supplies have been affected…this is not chemical or biological warfare, nor is it a precedent for such. It is in actuality a relatively mild method of putting pressure on a ruthless enemy who has no compunctions about the murder of women and children, as well as men, and about the torture and mutilation of captives.
The Japanese study prepared by Fukushima painted a different picture of the American pressure. The report included testimony from Pham Duc Nam, a peasant, and Cao Van Nguyen, a doctor. Pham Duc Nam told of a three-day chemical attack near Da Nang, from February 25 to 27, 1966. He said in part:
Affected areas covered 120 kilometers east-west and 150 kilometers north-south. Five minutes was all that was needed to wither tapioca, sweet potato…and banana plants. Livestock suffered heavy injuries. Unlike men, who could keep clear of chemical-stricken things as food, animals had to eat just anything. Most of the river fish were found lying dead on the surface of mountain streams and brooks. The three days of chemical attack poisoned scores of people, took the lives of about 10 and inflicted a “natus” disease [with symptoms like a severe rash] upon 18,000 inhabitants.
Cao Van Nguyen’s testimony included this description of a chemical attack near Saigon on October 3, 1964:
A vast expanse of woods, approximately 1,000 hectares [nearly 2,500 acres] of crop-producing land, and more than 1,000 inhabitants were affected. A large number of livestock were also poisoned and some of them died. The majority of the poisoned people did not take any food from these crops, nor drink any of the water that had been covered or mixed with the sprinkled farm chemicals. They had only breathed in the polluted air or the poison had touched their skin. At first, they felt sick and had some diarrhea; then they began to feel it hard to breathe and they had low blood pressure; some serious cases had trouble with their optic nerves and went blind. Pregnant women gave birth to still-born or premature children. Most of the affected cattle died from serious diarrhea, and river fish floated on the surface of the water belly up, soon after the chemicals were spread.
No American reporter or witness has told of similar consequences from an anticrop attack,4 but an American attached to the United States Operations Mission (USOM) agricultural team in the Bien Hoa area just northeast of Saigon issued a bitter private report to his superiors in April, 1965, noting that:
I have repeatedly complained of the reckless use of defoliants in the Bien Hoa area. Last season drift over considerable areas of water spinach caused misshapen unmarketable stems. These stems were fed to pigs and several pigs were reported to have died…other plants were damaged. The peasants report it is affecting the health of the children…in Bien Hoa the military is engendering needless bitterness among the peasants and the government further loses the good will and support they rather desperately need. It seems to me this matter should be brought to the attention of the military liaison officer….
His complaints prompted USOM officials from Saigon and military advisers to inspect the Bien Hoa area. The visitors were optimistic in their May 4 report to Saigon, and their chief tended to downplay the report of heavy damage:
The agricultural agents said that 500 complaints or requests for damages had been filed with hamlet chiefs for transmission to the province chief…I suspect this number is an inaccurate exaggeration and that of those claims actually submitted many were for damages not associated with defoliants.
The inspection team recommended that the farmers be educated “to enable them to identify damage due to defoliants and avoid confusing it with other troubles.” The report concluded:
If a continued coordinated effort is made by all parties it should be possible to assess the damage and settle the few legitimate claims in a fair manner. Thus there should be no grounds for a hostile reaction of the farmers toward the government.
The Saigon official also had a suggestion for the area around III Corps Headquarters in Bien Hoa, which had been heavily sprayed to prevent ambushes—with a considerable loss of trees and banana crops. “Since I assume that the area should remain clear for an indefinite period, the use of chemicals for soil application only may be worth considering,” his report said. “These would have a more lasting effect and drift should not be a problem if hand sprayers are used.” Soil sterilization has not been an announced part of the US defoliation program.5
ACCORDING TO newspaper reports, the defoliation missions are scheduled through what one called “a ticklish diplomatic business.” Nominations of potential targets are made by either US or South Vietnamese Army commanders who then check with the province chief. The recommendation then goes to the Vietnamese Army’s Headquarters in Saigon and, if approved, to the Intelligence Section of US Headquarters. From there, it must go to the US Embassy for final approval by the Ambassador. The setup is apparently only pro forma. Former officials have admitted that the system was quickly corrupted by both the Americans and the Vietnamese.
In September, 1966, The New York Times quoted some “American officials” as conceding that “occasionally some spray may drift from a target area, causing damage to rice crops or rubber trees. When claims are made, prompt action is taken to pay damages…. The current price for a mature rubber tree is $87.” Other available USOM field reports, this time from the fertile Can Tho area of the Mekong Delta, indicate that accidental spraying occurs more than occasionally. One report noted that on December 13, 1965, three aircraft flew over Thoi An Dong village in nearby Phong Phu district
spraying defoliant extensively. As a result, maturing watermelons, rice, vegetables and fruits…were all damaged, thus inflicting serious losses to the farmers…. Thoi An Dong village of Phong Phu district is located in a rather secure area but, according to the leaflet as dropped by the Government authority 24 hours before spraying, this village was unbelievably categorized as an area supplying food to the Viet Cong, thus shaking the faith of the rural people in the measures taken by the Government.
Two similar “accidental” sprayings of others hamlets were cited.
A field report dated January, 1966, also noted that crop damage due to the spraying ranged from 40 to 100 percent,
rendering the farmers unable to harvest their crops for profitable marketing during the lunar New Year season as otherwise expected…. The total area devastated by defoliation is believed to be much wider than those villages as mentioned, as the assumption is that quite a few farmers have not filed complaints with the local Government offices.
The field reports noted caustically that farmers were not getting their money because the reimbursements involved a seven-step process simply to get the damages certified by the Central Government and approved for local action by the province chiefs. The process broke down even further there, the report said, because many of the unscrupulous province chiefs were pocketing the damage payments.
When a Yale University biologist protested to President Johnson in September, 1966, about possible injury to civilians resulting from the attacks with anticrop chemicals, he received a reply from Dixon Donnelly, Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, assuring him that “civilians or noncombatants are warned of such action in advance. They are asked to leave the area and are provided food and good treatment by the Government of Vietnam in their resettlement area.”
The government’s request to the peasants comes in the form of pamphlets that are rained down on the target area from airplanes. One such pamphlet reads as follows:
The Government of the Republic of Vietnam has adopted the use of defoliants which will ruin your rice crop and other crop plants in the field. This has been necessary as your rice fields are located in areas supplying food to the Viet Cong. However, you should not be disappointed as the Government will compensate for all the damage done to your rice crop. Meanwhile the Government will at all times help evacuate you to other places with food, lodging and clothing provided until the next harvesting season, if you so desire.
IN AN EXCELLENT DISCUSSION of this sort of warfare in the June 29, 1966, issue of Christian Century two Harvard physicians, Dr. Jean Mayer, Professor of Nutrition, and Dr. Victor W. Sidel, noted that the stated aim of the US program is to starve the Viet Cong by destroying its food rations:
In essence, this aim is similar to that of every food blockade (such as the one imposed against the Central Powers in World War I). As a nutritionist who has seen famines on three continents, one of them Asia, and as a physician with a basic interest in preventive medicine, we can say flatly that there has never been a famine or a food shortage—whatever might have been its cause—which has not first and overwhelmingly affected the small children.
The process, the authors said, begins with the death from starvation of small children first, then older children, and then the elderly. Adolescents are likely to survive and adult men are far less affected. “Thus the bands of armed men who make up the Viet Cong are not likely to starve; being unhampered by family ties with people in the communities where they rove, they feel entirely justified in seizing any available food in order to have the strength to continue to fight.” The point is “not that innocent bystanders will be hurt by such measures but that only innocent bystanders will be hurt.”
The use of chemicals in unprecedented dosage also threatens the natural balance of the land itself, with devastating longrange results. Many scientists have argued that the defoliants and herbicides, besides causing immediate harm to the people and property in the sprayed area, will trigger changes in ecology that may permanently reduce once-fertile crop fields to dust bowls. The Pentagon, in an effort to counter this kind of criticism, released in February, 1968, a 369-page Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) report entitled “Assessment of Ecological Effects of Extensive or Repeated Use of Herbicides.” The report, prepared by the Midwest Research Institute of Kansas City, Missouri, optimistically concluded that there was no clear evidence that the chemical anticrop program would cause permanent damage to treated areas in South Vietnam. The report also concluded that the possibility of lethal toxicity to humans or animals by use of the herbicides “is highly unlikely and should not be a matter of deep concern.” Similarly, the assessment said it “is impossible” to draw any conclusions about the effect of the chemicals on water quality in South Vietnam.6
The four-and-one-half-month study had some glaring loopholes. For one thing, critics noted, the report had been prepared solely on the basis of interviews and the researching of scientific literature. No on-the-spot investigations or field trips were made by personnel from the Kansas City research firm. The firm’s final report noted early in the text that “the long-term ecological effects of the use of herbicides are difficult to predict.” At a later point, the study said that “The use of herbicides in the Southeast Asia theatre represents the most widespread application of herbicides that has ever been undertaken in a brief time interval.” The report also noted a lack of information concerning cacodylic acid, and suggested further investigation into its effect “would be advisable…before [its] use in a single area is continued for a prolonged period of time.” The net result of the Pentagon report was, as one science writer said, “to leave up in the air the seriousness of effects from U.S. defoliation activities.” There was nothing in the Pentagon study to seriously challenge Arthur W. Galston’s conclusion in Science and Citizen that
We are ignorant of the interplay of forces in ecological problems to know how far-reaching and how lasting will be the changes in ecology brought about by the wide-spread spraying of herbicides in Vietnam. These changes may include immediate harm to people in the sprayed areas and may extend to serious and lasting damage to soil and agriculture, rendering more difficult South Vietnam’s recovery from war, regardless of who is the “victor.”
Along with the chemical anticrop program, the United States and South Vietnamese troops have made it a deliberate policy to mutilate arable land suspected of being under Viet Cong control. Often Vietnamese farm laborers are taken from the fields and placed in refugee camps, leaving harvests to rot. Thousands of tons of harvested rice found in Viet Congdominated areas have been dumped into rivers, burned, scattered, smeared with repellent, etc. The military also has put into use a device known as the Rome plow, a sharpened 2,500-pound bulldozer blade that has been commercially used in the United States for ground-clearing operations. Army engineers have stripped hundreds of thousands of acres of jungle and brush in an attempt to locate Viet Cong food storage areas and prevent ambushes.
In some cases, herbicides are applied in cleared areas to prevent future growth. Between July 1 and December 3, 1967, according to The New York Times, Army crews in the III Corps (north-central) area of South Vietnam cleared 102,000 acres of all plant life. One plow is capable of clearing about 2,700 yards of trees, shrubs, etc., per hour. As a consequence of this and similar operations, South Vietnam, which exported fortynine million metric tons of rice in 1964, may have to receive as much as 800,000 metric tons of US-supplied rice in 1968, according to a Department of Agriculture estimate.
A report on medical problems in South Vietnam, in January, 1967, by the Boston-based Physicians for Social Responsibility, noted that malnutrition, even before the use of anticrop chemicals, was a serious problem in the nation, with the average Vietnamese consuming about 20 percent of the food eaten daily by a North American. “Beri-beri and night blindness are leading nutritional diseases among patients in many hospitals,” the report said. “Anemia is widespread and there is a high incidence of infectious and inflammatory diseases of the mouth…one American physician observed that teeth are poor in all age groups and both baby and permanent teeth rot quickly. Endemic goiter is found in many parts of the country.”
Military men maintain that the use of defoliants serves two functions: taking the enemy’s food and conserving man-power. “What’s the difference between denying the Viet Cong rice by destroying it from the air or by sending in large numbers of ground forces to prevent the enemy from getting it?” The New York Times quotes one officer as asking in 1966. “The end result’s the same; only the first method takes far less men.”
But by early 1967 Presidential advisers had a different reason for using herbicides, one that wasn’t directly linked to cutting off Viet Cong food supplies. The rationale was presented to a group of scientists who met in February with Donald Hornig, President Johnson’s chief scientific adviser, to protest the use of anticrop chemicals. According to one scientist who attended the session, Hornig explained that the anticrop program was aimed chiefly at moving the people. The source quoted Hornig as explaining that when the United States found a Viet Cong-supporting area, it was faced with the alternatives of either bombing, bulldozing, and attacking it or dropping leaflets telling the people to move because the herbicides were coming. As Hornig expressed it, “it’s all geared to moving people.”
(This is the first of two essays on chemical and biological warfare in Vietnam.)
April 25, 1968
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. ↩
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. ↩
The heavy military purchases of commercial defoliants have vastly outstripped existing production capacity in the United States and a shortage of the chemicals is anticipated, Business Week magazine reported in April, 1967. The magazine said some industry sources believe the military demand for 2,4,5-T to be four times production capacity. In 1965 the chemical industry produced nearly seventy-seven million pounds of 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D. Business Week said the commercial shortage would hit ranchers, farmers, and utilities the hardest; it added that the Business and Defense Services Administration has been ordered to assure that military orders will be met in full. ↩
Reuters reported from Saigon early in 1967, however, that “Chemical sprays have played havoc with bird life, destroying vegetation and the insects on which birds feed. Monkey and deer have also been affected.” No American news agency has said as much. The military seems to have developed an excellent gambit to combat such stories: both the Christian Science Monitor and Flying magazine have filed approving dispatches on the defoliation program telling how, at one point, an officer being interviewed suddenly reached out and dabbed some of the chemical on his tongue. The officer’s point seems to be that the chemicals are not harmful to human life. ↩
Still, sterilization plays a big role in US planning. The anti-infiltration barrier between North and South Vietnam, announced by Defense Secretary McNamara on September 8, 1967, calls for the use of soil killers. “The soil poisoners are required,” the Associated Press explained the next day, “because military commanders have found that thriving vegetation starts growing back almost as quickly as bulldozers clear a strip” in the Demilitarized Zone. Some soil killers, such as sodium arsenate, can leave the ground arid for up to ten years. When the American scientists presented their anti-CBW petition to the White House early in 1967, the Pentagon said there were no plans to use soil sterilants. ↩
The study did caution, however, that the use of chemical anticrop agents may result in the conversion of the rich jungle soil in South Vietnam into rocky laterite, which is useless for agriculture. The process of conversion, known as laterization, occurs in tropical regions when the organic material and chemicals that normally enrich the soil are washed away because of lack of protective growth. The result is a reddish soil which bakes to a brick-like consistency upon exposure to sunlight. The process has begun in some areas of Vietnam where villages once existed, the study noted. The villagers cleared the jungle, cultivated the land, and exhausted its fertile soil before moving on. The Kansas City study stated: “We are not aware of any instance where this final and irreversible stage of the laterization process has occurred because of its acceleration by herbicidal destruction of vegetation.” It warned however, that “Although no related evidence for irreversible changes exists, it is a point that deserves further consideration.” ↩