Lyndon Johnson
Lyndon Johnson; drawing by David Levine

Sometime early in 1964 the Pentagon asked the State Department to investigate and prepare a memo on the legality of the use of non-lethal gases in South Vietnam. The Pentagon’s point of view already was known: Army Field Manual 27-10, Law of Land Warfare, says “the United States is not a party to any treaty, now in force, that prohibits or restricts the use in warfare of toxic or non-toxic gases, or smoke or incendiary materials, or of bacteriological warfare.”

The State Department has traditionally been skeptical about the use of CBW agents; the United States had been one of the principals of the 1925 Geneva Conference which outlawed the use of asphyxiating, poisonous, or other gases.1 Nevertheless, the State Department eventually sent the Defense Department a memo agreeing that the non-lethal agents were legal. The State Department memo, however, contained a long list of stringent limitations on such use.

“State made a mistake,” an official familiar with the situation told me three years later, “by saying it was okay—with limitations.” So far as the men in the Pentagon were concerned, “It was either yes or no: they [the State Department] were just kidding themselves with the restrictions.” The lesson of all this, the official said, “is that when the crunch comes, the Pentagon sets the requirements and State finds the reasons why it’s legal.”

The United States apparently began equipping the South Vietnamese Army with two of its three standard riot control, or non-lethal, gases in 1962 under the existing Military Assistance Program (MAP). The agents were CN, the standard tear gas used to quell civil disorders, and CS, the newly developed super tear gas. The third riot control agent, DM (adamsite), a nausea-producing gas, apparently did not reach Vietnam until 1964.

The military’s riot control gases are described by Army field manuals as agents that “produce temporary irritating or disabling physiological effects when in contact with the eyes or when inhaled. Riot control agents used in field concentration do not permanently injure personel.” The gases are actually solids that are disseminated as aerosols via grenades. Modern military chemical research has made little contribution to this aspect of the war arsenal; both CN and DM were invented in the latter days of World War I, and CS was reportedly developed by the British in the 1950s and adapted for United States use.

CN’S chemical name is chloroacetrophenone and its formula usually is given as C6H6COCCH2C1. It has a deceptive, fragrant odor similar to that of apple blossoms. The gas is a fast-acting tear agent that is also an irritant to the upper respiratory passages. An Army manual, Military Chemistry and Chemical Agents (TM 3-215), makes these further points:

In higher concentrations it is irritating to the skin and causes a burning and itching sensation, especially on moist parts of the body. High concentrations can cause blisters. The effects are similar to those of sunburn, are entirely harmless and disappear in a few hours. Certain individuals experience nausea following exposure to CN.

CS (the S stands for super) is chemically known as o-chlorobenzalmalononitrile. Its formula is ClC6H4CHC(CN3). TM 3-215 lists the following physiological effects:

CS produces immediate effects even in low concentrations…. The onset for incapacitation is 20 to 60 seconds and the duration of effects is 5 to 10 minutes after the affected individual is removed to fresh air. During this time the affected individuals are incapable of effective concerted action. The physiological effects include extreme burning of the eyes accompanied by copious flow of tears, coughing, difficulty in breathing, and chest tightness, involuntary closing of the eyes, stinging sensations of moist skin, running nose, and dizziness or swimming of the head. Heavy concentrations will cause nausea and vomiting in addition to the above effects.

DM, or adamsite, initially developed by the Germans in World War I, is the most toxic of the riot control agents. Its chemical name is diphenylaminochloroarsine and its formula is NH(C6H4)2 ASCl. The AS in the formula is arsenic. The pepper-like gas causes these symptoms in progressive order, according to TM 3-215: “Irritation of the eyes and mucous membranes, viscous discharge from the nose similar to that caused by a cold, sneezing and coughing, severe headache, acute pain and tightness in the chest and nausea and vomiting…. At higher concentrations, the effects may last up to three hours.”

Army Field Manual 3-10, Employment of Chemical and Biological Agents, lists DM, CS and CN together as riot control agents, a somewhat misleading category. In Chemicals in War, a history of gas warfare written in 1937 by Brigadier General Augustin M. Prentiss of the Chemical Warfare Service, CN is listed as a simple tear gas agent and DM is listed separately as a respiratory irritant. Prentiss had this to say about DM’s toxicity:

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One is not aware of breathing this gas until sufficient has been absorbed to produce its typical physiological effects. It irritates the nose and throat in concentrations as low as .00038 milligrams per liter and causes irritation of the lower respiratory tract at a concentration of .0005 mg. per liter. A concentration of .65 mg. per liter is lethal at 30 minutes’ exposure while the lethal concentration for 10 minutes is 3 mg. per liter.

Put another way, Prentiss’s statistics mean that DM is lethal upon 10 minutes’ exposure to the gas in concentrations of 1/10,000 of an ounce per quart of air.

THE ARMY has been combining DM and CN in a grenade for use in Vietnam. “Since DM requires several minutes to produce maximum effects, it may be combined with CN to produce effects more rapidly,” explains FM 3-10. The manual adds this word of caution:

DM alone is not approved for use in riot control dispersers in any operations where deaths are not acceptable. Excessive, and possibly lethal, or completely incapacitating dosages can be developed from its use. However, it may be used in military or paramilitary operations, on counterinsurgency operations, or in limited or general war where control of target personnel by the incapacitating effects is desired and where possible deaths are acceptable.

The South Vietnamese, acting on their own initiative, used CF and CN to break up a Buddhist riot in Saigon on November 2, 1964. By the next month the South Vietnamese Army, guided by US advisers, initiated the use of DM, CF, and CN in military operations against the Viet Cong. In missions carried out in strictest secrecy, the munitions were used on December 23 in Xuyen province, on December 25 in Tay Ninh province near Saigon, and on January 28, 1965, in Phu Yen province.

On March 22, 1965, Horst Faas, an Associated Press reporter tagging along on a combat mission near Saigon, learned that the operation plans called for the use of DM if the government forces were pinned down by the Viet Cong. He was told that the agent caused vomiting and diarrhea. No enemy contact was made during the mission and Faas returned to Saigon to report what he had heard and seen. The news service carried on its teletypes the next day a story revealing that the United States was “experimenting” with gas warfare. This was subsequently confirmed in Washington and Saigon.

What Faas saw set off a worldwide protest that apparently caught US policy-makers by surprise. The White House, State Department, and Pentagon each responded to the controversy by arguing, in effect, that there was nothing unusual in the use of riot control gases. But US officials took unusually elaborate steps that March 23 to get their point across to the press and public. McNamara quickly summoned Pentagon newsmen to his office, described the three gases in detail, and made it clear that the United States had no intention of stopping their use against Viet Cong guerrillas. He emphasized that the gases were similar to those used by police forces around the world to curb civil disturbances, and listed a number of such uses. McNamara did not mention that adamsite is rarely used by police anywhere.

Secretary of State Dean Rusk made an unusual appearance at the regular daily noon briefing at the State Department to deny that the United States was embarking on the use of gas warfare in Vietnam. “We are not talking about agents or weapons that are associated with gas warfare, the military arsenals of many countries [sic],” he told the reporters. “We are not talking about gas that is prohibited by the Geneva Convention of 1925, or any other understanding about the use of gas.”

Rusk, too, emphasized that the agents used were gases available commercially, and said it was anticipated that “these weapons be used only in those situations involving riot control or situations analogous to riot control.” He admitted that the United States may have committed a major propaganda blooper, not by using the gases, but by attempting to hold back public knowledge of the new step. “It may be that there was a failure in full explanation, in briefing or reporting from Saigon on this matter,” Rusk allowed, adding that the initial AP story tended to stimulate problems “which were not present—for example the use of the word ‘experimentation’ suggested that something new and weird might be involved here. That is not the case.”

At the White House, Press Secretary George Reedy went to elaborate steps to disassociate President Johnson from the use of nausea gas. He said the President had not been consulted about its use and described adamsite as a “rather standard-type riot-control agent.” Reedy said full responsibility for its use depended on General William C. Westmoreland, commander of the US forces in Saigon.

The American use of gas was condemned throughout the world: a Frankfurt newspaper published a cartoon showing the Statue of Liberty wearing a gas mask; Mainichi Shimbun, one of Japan’s largest newspapers, carried a cartoon of Adolf Hitler’s ghost hovering over Vietnam with a bag labeled “Vietnam” in his right hand. In New York, the Times, in a sharply critical editorial, pointed out that “in Vietnam, gas was supplied and sanctioned by white men against Asians. This is something that no Asian, Communist or not, will forget. No other country has employed such a weapon in recent warfare.”

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The Soviet Union took the issue to the United Nations, where it accused the United States of grossly violating “the accepted rules of international law and of the elementary principles of morality and humanity. The US Government is, of course, aware that the use of asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases has long since been prohibited and vigorously condemned by the peoples of the world.” Similar Soviet charges were made in a note delivered to the US Embassy in Moscow. The United States replied, in a letter to the President of the UN Security Council, that the Soviet note had been rejected because it “was based on the completely false allegation that poisonous gases are being used in South Vietnam….” The US note went on to describe the chemicals used in Vietnam as non-toxic and not prohibited by the 1925 Geneva Protocol as interpreted by the United States.

BY THIS TIME, even the United States Information Agency had protested to the White House that the use of gas in Vietnam was resulting in a substantial loss of international prestige. But the Johnson Administration was determined not to back down. Asked about the issue at a press conference on April 2, the President criticized the initial AP dispatch which he said implied that “we were using poisonous gas—mustard gas or a war gas—to kill people. And it took the government two weeks to catch up with that story….” The President then described the gases as products that could be purchased “by any individual from open stocks in this country just like you order something out of a Sears and Roebuck catalogue.” He added that he had known nothing about the gas. “No one told me that the South Vietnamese Army were going to use any tear gas any more than they told me they were going to shoot that fellow that dropped the bomb, left the bomb in his car in front of our Embassy, but there’s no reason why they should.” (He was referring to a recent terrorist bombing of the US Embassy in Saigon.) “I just wish,” the President concluded, “there was concern with our soldiers who are dying as they are [sic] with somebody’s eyes who watered a little bit….”

Thus, within two weeks of the initial press reports, all top-ranking US officials had faced press conferences at which they appeared surprised and almost baffled by the heated protests over the use of riot control agents. The substance of the official statements was that the United States did not accept any distinctions between tear gas and nausea gas, and that this country was not violating the Geneva Convention, a treaty it had not signed, by using such gases.

In fact, there is considerable evidence that American officials were well aware of the perils of the use of tear and other gases—from the White House down through other executive offices. The decision to approve the use of gas was apparently made on the highest levels of the Administration. A White House adviser told me in August, 1967, that the decision taken in 1964 had been a difficult one. “This was a problem,” he acknowledged. “We’re not overjoyed with the use of tear gas, but people have decided it represented a humane decision.” He added: “When all of the factors were weighted, we decided to use it.”

During a State Department briefing March 23, 1965, press officer Robert McCloskey was asked if State had given its approval for the use of gas in Vietnam. “Oh, I think I said pretty clearly,” McCloskey answered, “that this was supplied by the US Government and that would imply concurrence by all agencies and departments thereof.” He added that the State Department had been specifically informed that the gases had been supplied to the Vietnamese but did not know whether our high officials had been warned before the gas was used.

The intense secrecy surrounding the initial use of tear and nausea gases in Vietnam can be viewed, therefore, as an outgrowth of the many meetings, memos, and discussions that went into the initial 1964 decision to use the new weapons. Some program had apparently been prepared to advise the American public gradually of the new element in the Vietnam war, but it was not used.

The result of the March, 1965 controversy was a slowing down in the promulgation of gas warfare in South Vietnam, although the Johnson Administration had carefully built a rationale for such use. Gases were not used during the next six months. In the interim, The New York Times reported that field commanders in Vietnam had been ordered to make no further use of any type of gas—the story was attributed to “informed sources in Washington.” The newspaper later quoted an unnamed American official as saying, apparently while on an inspection trip to Saigon, that he would rather “lose the war” than authorize the field use of gas.

When gas warfare was again used in Vietnam, it was accompanied by a careful public relations program. On September 7, the US military command in Saigon announced that a Marine Battalion Commander, Lieutenant Colonel L. N. Utter, had been placed under investigation because he had authorized the use of eighteen canisters of tear gas during a small US field operation against the Viet Cong the week before. According to The New York Times version of the incident, “Colonel Utter was reported to have felt that tear gas was the most humane way to dislodge the Viet Cong suspects, who were using the women and children as a shield.” The article noted that Utter “decided against using fragmentation grenades, flame throwers or automatic weapons.”

US officials told reporters that the colonel had acknowledged full responsibility for the use of the gas. The investigation was chiefly to determine whether Utter was aware of the reported ban on the use of gas: at the time, only General William C. Westmoreland had the authority to order the use of gas. Saigon officials told reporters that if Utter had asked Westmoreland for permission, “his request would have been denied.” When a reporter asked why the Marines were still being issued tear gas, he was told that it was part of the “basic equipment” of all units and was needed for riot control and self-protection.

Utter’s use of tear gas brought no significant public outcry, apparently because it was accompanied by a promised investigation. Some two weeks later, on September 22, Westmoreland asked the Pentagon for permission to use tear gas in cases in which, he said, its application would be more humane than conventional weapons. A front-page story in The New York Times noted that Westmoreland technically has such authority. “However,” The Times added, “it is known that high Administration officials have pledged not to use such gases again except perhaps in ordinary riot situations.”

At the same time, both United Press International and Associated Press sent almost identical news stories reporting that Westmoreland had asked Washington to “lift,” “relax,” or “re-examine” the ban. In response to these stories, the Pentagon announced that the United States had never foreclosed its right to use non-lethal gases. The Pentagon said:

As previously stated, the commander of the United States military command in Vietnam has the authority to use tear gas under appropriate circumstances. The use of riot control agents has always been and still is considered to be left to the commander, under appropriate circumstances.

The public clearly was being cautiously readied for more frequent use of nonlethal tear gases. None of the September statements mentioned adamsite, the nausea gas that had provoked much of the criticism in March. One reporter commented later on the Utter incident that

officials now, as opposed to last winter, are quite willing to notice a distinction between tear gas and vomiting gas and are indicating that vomiting gas is unlikely to be used in the future…that officials now are conceding a distinction does not indicate they have just gotten around to noticing it; it merely means they now find it useful to publicly notice it.

On September 25, Westmoreland announced that no disciplinary action would be taken against Lieutenant Colonel Utter, and refused to say anything more about the case. US spokesmen, who earlier had told reporters that the investigation would attempt to determine whether Utter had known of the tear gas ban, also refused to reveal the results of the investigation.

THE UTTER CASE was apparently a sham, a carefully planned trial balloon designed to make tear gas operational once again in Vietnam without public outcry. In October, 1965, researchers for Travelers Research Center in Hartford, Connecticut, a subsidiary of the insurance company, completed a private study for the Pentagon of “US Governmental Policies on Chemical and Biological Weapons and Warfare.” The unclassified document, known as “Project Puissance,” quoted one source as saying that “neither the Pentagon nor the military in Saigon ever, repeat, ever issued orders that tear gas should not be used. A brisk correspondence between Marine Corps top brass and General Westmoreland has established beyond a shadow of a doubt that there was no such order.” The study also said that General Wallace M. Greene, Commandant of the Marine Corps, confirmed in a private letter that “there never has been, nor is there now, any intention to court martial or take any other disciplinary action against Lieutenant Colonel Utter. The decision he made was fully justified.”

The Pentagon’s handling of the tear gas incident won praise in the October 11, 1965, issue of the Washington Daily News. “Little if any public protest is being voiced over renewed use of tear gas and other non-lethal gases by US troops in Vietnam,” the paper said in its lead editorial. “There is a lesson to be learned from the contrast between this quiet acceptance and the loud outcry which arose last March when it was first revealed the gases were being employed. At that time, public opinion here and abroad was totally unprepared.” “Public opinion is often wrong, sometimes foolishly so,” the editorial concluded. “But the US still has a lot to learn about what it is and how to make it work for us.”

The Pentagon remained cautious. A month after the Utter incident, it used gas in a joint operation with Australian troops near Saigon. A major effort was made to soothe public opinion. A full twenty-four hours before the battle, officials advised a number of correspondents that gas would be used and bound them to stringent secrecy. According to a Washington Post dispatch on October 8, troops of the 173rd Airborne Brigade were rigidly drilled to speak of “tear gas” and not just “gas,” in case reporters asked them questions.

As the operation was getting under way, Brigadier General Ellis Williamson, then Commander of the 173rd, assembled reporters and read out this portion of his orders for the morning:

Tear gas may be used on this operation if the local unit commander feels that its employment will assist in accomplishing the operation requirement with fewer casualties to friend and foe. It is anticipated that the use of tear gas will be restricted to small areas where the enemy is holed up in bunkers or trenches.

The Chicago Daily News described the operation as a test of a new “departure in US policy in the laboratory of world opinion. [The soldiers] were armed with tear gas and they specifically were authorized to use it.”

The reaction to the dispatches was positive, from the military point of view. Navy magazine reprinted an editorial in its October, 1965, issue which noted that “the reaction in the US press this time has been heavily favorable, indicating that there is now a much better understanding, at least among American editors, of the humaneness of gas compared to the deadly effects of napalm, automatic weapons fire and flame throwers.”

The Times reported on October 6 that Westmoreland had received official permission to use tear gas in military operations when it would save lives: “there was no official confirmation of the permission from Washington because the Administration has taken the position that General Westmoreland never lost his authority to use tear gas.” The Times report added that technically this was true, but in practice Westmoreland had been told not to use his authority without permission from the Administration. If President Johnson and other officials had been outflanked by Westmoreland during the Utter incident, Washington clearly had approved the well co-ordinated October tear gas attack by the 173rd Brigade.

SUBSEQUENTLY, the use of tear gas became more common in South Vietnam, although the gases were initially confined to tunnels in accordance with the official decision to permit their use in military operations only if it would save lives. In early 1966, the Army said it was using riot control agents in Vietnam “quite routinely and with great success.” Military spokesmen made clear that discretion for such use was again left in the hands of the military commanders in the field.

On February 21, 1966, however, the Administration significantly changed the role of gases in Vietnam. Helicopters dropped hundreds of tear gas grenades on a small patch of jungle 265 miles northeast of Saigon, which was believed to be a Viet Cong stronghold. Shortly thereafter, huge B-52 bombers rolled over the jungle area and saturated about 85 percent of the jungle patch with bombs. According to official estimates, 400 guerrillas were trapped in the tiny area whose widest point was only about 400 yards. After the bombing raids, two battalions of airmobile troops, equipped with gasmasks, were shuttled in to search for the enemy. The New York Times quoted Washington officials as explaining that the new tactic of the helicopter-borne tear gas attack “was designed to flush Viet Cong troops out of bunkers and tunnels before the attack by B-52 bombers.” It was further explained that past B-52 bombing missions had done little or no damage to Viet Cong troops who were usually well-protected in tunnels or bunkers. “The purpose of the gas attack,” The Times said, “was to force the Viet Cong troops to the surface where they would be vulnerable to the fragmentation effects of the bomb bursts.”

It was this projected use of the nonlethal gases, apparently, that had led the Administration to rally so vigorously to the defense of gas warfare the previous March. Thorough newspaper accounts of the February attack brought little renewed criticism of the use of gases, a factor that apparently led the Administration to move into yet another phase.

On May 8, US planes dropped twelve tons of CS gas in a jungle near the Cambodian border, “to pave the way,” according to United Press International, “for a ground assault by gas-masked US infantrymen.” Other dispatches about the attacks indicated that nausea-producing DM had been used, but the Pentagon denied such reports and said they stemmed from the fact that the CS had been used in such heavy concentrations that it caused nausea. The UPI story described the attack as resulting in “one of the largest doses of gas Americans ever have spread over enemy territory.”

Similar operations were carried out during the rest of 1966, although news accounts became more and more sketchy as the use of gases became more and more acceptable and, hence, less of a story.

THE LACK of further protest may have prompted the Administration again to escalate the gas war. In August, 1967, officials announced that nausea gas had been used in South Vietnam: there were no world-wide protests this time. Four paragraphs distributed by UPI were printed on page nine of the August 18 Washington Post; the incident took up one paragraph in an Associated Press dispatch the next afternoon. According to UPI, the nausea gas was used on a suspected North Vietnamese stronghold south of the Demilitarized Zone in the hope that it would flush out Communist troops, but none appeared. “US forces previously have used tear gas and nausea gas to drive Viet Cong guerrillas out of tunnels and bunkers,” the UPI report continued, “but today’s action marked the first extensive use of the gas above ground in several months.” It also marked the first time the US military command in Vietnam had acknowledged nausea gases were again in use, although the January 31, 1966 issue of U.S. News and World Report acknowledged that DM had “been experimented with in Vietnam warfare in recent weeks.” The gas was used in canisters along with CN.2

By September, 1967, the CBW promoters were back at work. Ray Cromley, a columnist for the Newspaper Enterprise Association and an Army Reserve Colonel, wrote a column praising the use of tear gas for saving lives in South Vietnam; he concluded:

But there is a sad note to this story. V.C. tunnels frequently are so long and have so many curves and exits that the tear gas isn’t effective… Other non-lethal gases are available—gases, for example, which make people laugh and not care what’s going on. Some of these might be more suitable for Vietnam’s tunnels. Thus far, the men who make the decisions have been afraid to use these other gases for fear of a renewed worldwide outcry.

What Cromley did not write is that the striking similarity of all the gas attacks between December, 1964 and August, 1967 is their military failure. None of the attacks met its objective to any degree.

The first attacks in 1964, the London Observer reported, were aimed at rescuing a group of American prisoners held by the Viet Cong in the Mekong Delta. In both instances, helicopters spread a cloud of gas over the targets. “The two attempts were futile. Both times the ground troops found no Viet Cong although there was evidence they had been there. If any prisoners had been held in those sites, the Viet Cong had led them away before the troops reached the area.” An AP dispatch later told of one 1964 mission in which American helicopters laid down a gas cloud and South Vietnamese troops quickly moved into the area. Some firing came from the gassed area and, AP said, “the Vietnamese forces fled in disorder.”

The carefully publicized use of gas on October 8, 1965, by the 173rd Airborne Brigade was also a flop. US troops dropped a grenade down a cave in a jungle area believed held by the Viet Cong. “As it turned out,” The New York Times reported the next day, “there was apparently nobody in the cave in which the tear gas grenade was buried.”

The AP produced a detailed account of the failure of a gas mission in January, 1967, aimed at flushing Viet Cong out of a vast tunnel complex about twenty-five miles northwest of Saigon. “The most recent attempt to use riot control gas on a major objective in the Vietnam war apparently has failed like most of the others,” the AP story said. No Viet Cong had been flushed from the tunnels and no additional prisoners were taken, “…for the most part the use of gas in the Vietnam war has not been successful.”

The military has responded to this fact in a characteristic fashion: by gradually escalating the amount, concentration, and toxicity of the gases used.

TEAR GAS and adamsite have been widely described by Washington and Saigon officials as non-lethal agents. But what does non-lethal mean? Two Harvard doctors, writing in a 1966 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, noted that CS, CN, and DM “are incapacitating, but usually non-lethal, although they can kill under certain circumstances: extremely high concentration of agent or highly susceptible victim, such as the very young, the very old or the very sick.” Such circumstances are inevitable in South Vietnam; it is virtually impossible to deliver chemical agents at uniform dose levels in the field.

Not only the young, old, or sick can be killed by riot control gases. A Reuters dispatch reprinted in The New York Times (January 13, 1966) reported that non-lethal gases being used against Viet Cong guerrillas in tunnels north-west of Saigon killed one twenty-four-year-old Australian soldier and sent six others to the hospital. The dispatch said the soldier had died of “asphyxiation although he was wearing a gas mask.” The Australians were taking part in a US offensive.

More striking evidence of gas warfare’s potential for death was provided in a letter from a Canadian physician in South Vietnam to Dr. E. W. Pfeiffer, a Professor of Zoology at the University of Montana who has been leading a fight to get some of his colleagues to investigate the use of CBW agents in the war. In the letter, Dr. Alje Vennema of Burlington, Ontario, told of his experiences with gas victims while serving in Quang Ngai Provincial Hospital. Dated November 23, 1967, his letter said in part:

During the last three years, I have examined and treated a number of patients; men, women and children who have been exposed to a type of war gas the name of which I do not know. The type of gas used makes one quite sick when one touches the patient or inhales the breath from their lungs. After contact with them for more than three minutes, one has to leave the room in order not to get ill.

The patient usually gives a history of having been hiding in a cave or tunnel or bunker or shelter into which a canister of gas was thrown in order to force them to leave their hiding place. Those patients that have come to my attention were very ill with signs and symptoms of gas poisoning similar to those that I have seen in veterans from the First World War treated at Queen Mary. Veteran’s Hospital in Montreal. The only difference between the cases was that these Vietnamese patients were more acutely ill….

Patients are feverish, semi-comotose, severely short of breath, vomit, are restless and irritable. Most of the physical signs are in the respiratory and circulatory systems… The mortality rate in adults is about 10 per cent while the mortality rate in children is about 90 per cent. I have kept accurate records of the number of such cases that I have seen only since June, 1967. Since then I have seen seven cases of which:

—There was one child of six years of age who died.

—There was one child of fifteen years of age who survived.

—There was one lady of approximately 40 years of age who died.

—There were four other adults who survived.

Dr. Vennema left the Quang Ngai Hospital shortly after writing his letter; the gas he was writing about apparently was adamsite (DM).

As I have noted, military manuals have careful restrictions on DM, warning that it should only be used where possible deaths are “acceptable.” In Special Publication 2-31, published in 1960 by the Army’s main chemical warfare center, the Edgewood, Md. Arsenal, a researcher named Bernard P. McNamara discussed the medical aspects of chemical warfare:

Very severe exposures to tear gas or adamsite can produce damage to the respiratory tract. Adamsite is arsenical and, although remote, there is the possibility of systemical arsenical poisoning. This may be recognized and differentiated from effects of tear gas by marked nausea and vomiting which may persist for an hour or more after poisoning.

The failure, thus far, of riot control gases appreciably to affect enemy troops in Vietnam has apparently started some officers to think about a further escalation—this time to the incapacitants. During House appropriation hearings in March, 1967, General Betts, head of Army Research, was asked if the protests at the University of Pennsylvania against CBW research had hindered any of the Army’s work. Betts replied: “I know of no impact that they have had on our efforts to date, other than harassment. I do feel that some of our policy concern with regard to pushing the use of incapacitating agents may be a reflection of these pressures. I just do not know.”

JUST WHAT Betts was referring to isn’t clear. On January 5, 1966, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Joint Chiefs of Staff were considering a proposal to “expand” the use of non-lethal chemicals in South Vietnam. The Chiefs “are expected to favor and forward the idea to President Johnson within the next few weeks,” the Journal said. “The decision is up to him.” As I have pointed out, by early 1966 the military was again given free rein to use riot control and nausea gases again in the war. If the Chiefs were urging approval of incapacitating agents which would have expanded the chemical arsenal, that proposal apparently was turned down.

BZ is currently the only incapacitating chemical agent in the military stockpile. Its use in Vietnam has been reported by Pierre Darcourt of L’express, who described in some detail an attack by the 1st Airmobile Division, involving BZ hand grenades, which took place in March, 1966. Darcourt said only 100 guerrillas of the 350- to 500-man Viet Cong force under attack escaped after exposure to the chemical. US officials in Saigon and Washington have repeatedly denied that BZ has been used in Vietnam, although the agent is available in a field dispenser and a 750-pound bomb. It is not, however, available in hand grenades, according to Chemical Reference Handbook of the Department of the Army, published in January, 1967. Still, the record does not offer great hope of any permanent limitation on its use.

SOME CRITICS of the Vietnam war have charged that the United States is already waging a subtle form of germ warfare—simply by not doing everything possible to stem the increasing number of naturally occurring cases of bubonic plague. In 1961 eight cases of plague were reported in South Vietnam; by 1965 the number was estimated at 4,500. The London Times reported in late 1966 that “the increase [of plague] has been relentless. In 1961 only one province in the combat zone was affected. Today, 22 out of 29 provinces north of Saigon have been hit by the plague.”3 Time Magazine has reported that “plague has no significant effect on US troops, since every man received two shots before arriving in Vietnam and boosters every four months. For Vietnamese living under Government control, vaccine and treatment are almost always nearby. But for the enemy Viet Cong, North Vietnamese troops, and those living in VC-held areas, the plague may well become a more deadly killer than either side expected.”

Peace News, a London anti-war weekly newspaper, noted in October, 1966, that the filth, garbage, and rubble that accompany war are natural breeding grounds for the rats and other animals that carry plague fleas. “Under modern hygiene, speedy diagnosis, and prompt treatment, plague can be isolated, contained, and eventually eradicated,” the newspaper said. “But these conditions do not apply in Vietnam today.” Further evidence of this came on January 29, 1968, when the World Health Organization reported that the plague had spread in South Vietnam in “epidemic proportions,” accounting for 330 deaths and more than 5,000 illnesses in less than eleven months of 1967. The threat that the disease might begin spreading to other nations had aroused worldwide apprehension, WHO said.

The plague situation steadily worsened during the first three months of 1968, although that fact was not reported by most American newspapers. Only the London Times revealed, on March 26, that Saigon itself was threatened by a major outbreak of plague in Tay Ninh Province, fifty miles to the north. The Times said that about 150 cases had been reported and the province placed in quarantine, with police supervising the vaccination of travelers at roadblocks. Moreover, cases had been reported from neighboring provinces closer to Saigon:

The danger is that the disease may spread to Saigon, with its huge rat population and insanitary, crowded conditions, and be carried to other countries in merchant ships, or spread across the border from Tay Ninh into Cambodia.

The day after the Times report, US embassy officials in Saigon told Reuters that the outbreak of plague was far worse than anyone had admitted. South Vietnamese health officials had reported only eight deaths from plague in the first eleven weeks of 1968, but the US officials said the true figure was fiftysix deaths, with more than 700 suspected cases reported between January 1 and March 16. Moreover, according to Reuters, American and South Vietnamese Army doctors had averted what could have been a serious epidemic in mid-March in the Long Khanh Province forty miles northeast of Saigon by a huge program of inoculation of vaccines and antibiotics. These medical efforts, however, were not made until six civilians had died from the disease.

The plague traditionally is endemic to South Vietnam, but WHO officials told the Manchester Guardian (March 27) that, because of the war, conditions for the spread of the disease were ideal. The Viet Cong’s successful Têt offensive and the savage US response, which included the bombing of widespread residential areas in Saigon’s Cholon sector, had disrupted the WHO’s effort to improve sanitary conditions and starve out the city rats. Ironically, the heavy American use of defoliants and herbicides in the Viet Cong-held areas near Saigon may have added to the rat population in Saigon; food now is much more plentiful in the city gutters than in some parts of the countryside.

The Guardian described South Vietnam as having “for some months been in the grip of an epidemic…[of plague].” If there was some urgency in the British reports on the situation, there was no sign of it in US newspapers or in Washington. Early in April I inquired at the Pentagon about the spread of plague, and found an air of mystification. There were no statistics available, no officers who knew anything about it, and no mention of the outbreak of the disease in the voluminous twice-daily press briefing reports that are filed to Washington from Saigon. It seems that, so far as the US military is concerned, plague in South Vietnam is not the white man’s burden.

IN TRESE ESSAYS I have tried to show how the American military machine is making use of chemical warfare, with secrecy and in a war in an unsophisticated country 8,000 miles away—the kind of war that enables military men to talk about Vietnam as a playground for developing new war concepts and revitalizing the old. What about the future, now that the use of highly toxic chemicals and gases has become a standard fixture in the American arsenal? If adamsite can be used with impunity today and found wanting, what about nerve gas and biological warfare agents such as anthrax, tularemia, and brucellosis? The United States has violated a long-standing and respected Geneva agreement—which stood throughout World War II and the Korean War—by its use of chemicals and gases in South Vietnam. It has set a dangerous precedent, which was followed by Egypt when it used nerve gas against the Royalists in Yemen, early in 1967. Beyond that, the new American gas arsenal is being put to use as a riot control device almost every day in the United States, with the development of such chemicals as MACE. That America had so readily accepted the widespread use of gas and chemicals is ominous; it reflects the lack of information about gas and chemical warfare in Vietnam. For in Vietnam, as we have seen, when chemicals fail to meet their military objectives, new and more potent ones are used. Today we use chemicals to make both Vietnamese civilians and American protestors suffer with tears, nausea, and wracked lungs; tomorrow we may systematically start to give them the plague.

(This is the second and concluding essay on chemical and biological warfare in Vietnam.)

© 1968 by Seymour M. Hersh

This Issue

May 9, 1968