Chemical Warfare

As the United States is the most advanced industrial nation in world it was able to make full use of the latest developments in technology in its war against North Vietnam. B-52 bombers, that could fly at heights that prevented them being seen or heard, dropped 8 million tons of bombs on Vietnam between 1965 and 1973. This was over three times the amount of bombs dropped throughout the whole of the Second World War and worked out at approximately 300 tons for every man, woman and child living in Vietnam.

As well as explosive bombs the United States Air Force dropped a considerable number of incendiary devices. The most infamous of these was napalm, a mixture of petrol and a chemical thickner which produces a tough sticky gel that attaches itself to the skin. The igniting agent, white phosphorus, continues burning for a considerable amount of time. A reported three quarters of all napalm victims in Vietnam were burned through to the muscle and bone (fifth degree burns). The pain caused by the burning is so traumatic that it often causes death.

The US also made considerable use of anti-personnel bombs. The pineapple bomb was made up of 250 metal pellets inside a small canister. Gloria Emerson, a reporter in Vietnam, witnessed their use: "An American plane could drop a thousand pineapples over an area the size of four football fields. In a single air strike two hundred and fifty thousand pellets were spewed in a horizontal pattern over the land below, hitting everything on the ground."

The United States also experimented with the use of plastic rather than metal needles and pellets in their antipersonnel bombs. The advantage of plastic was they could not be identified by X-Ray machines. Dropped on highly populated areas, antipersonnel bombs could severely disrupt the functioning of North Vietnam. It has been claimed that the major objective of the US bombing raids on North Vietnam was not to kill its 17 million population but to maim them. As was pointed out at the time, serious injury is more disruptive than death as people have to be employed to look after the injured where they only have to bury the dead.

One of the major problems of the US forces was the detection of the National Liberation Front hiding in the forests of Vietnam. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy approved Operation Ranch Hand. This involved the spraying of chemicals from the air in an attempt to destroy the National Liberation Front hiding places. In 1969 alone, Operation Ranch Hand destroyed 1,034,300 hectares of forest. Agent Orange, the chemical used in this defoliation programme not only destroyed trees but caused chromosomal damage in people.

Chemicals were also sprayed on crops. Between 1962 and 1969, 688,000 agricultural acres were sprayed with a chemical called Agent Blue. The aim of this exercise was to deny food to the NLF. However, research suggests that it was the civilian population who suffered most from the poor rice harvests that followed the spraying.

When a report appeared in the St. Louis Dispatch about the dropping of "poison" on North Vietnam the United States denied the herbicide they were using was a chemical weapon. It was claimed that Agent Orange and Agent Blue were harmless to humans and only had a short-lived impact on the environment.

This was disputed by international experts and 5,000 American scientists, including 17 Nobel prize winners and 129 members of the Academy of Sciences, signed a petition against chemical and biological weapons being used in Vietnam. However, it was not until 1974 that the United States government stopped using Agent Orange and Agent Blue.

A baby in Tu Du Hospital suffering from the consequences ofAgent Orange being dropped on Vietnam 30 years ago.
A baby in Tu Du Hospital suffering from the consequences of
Agent Orange being dropped on Vietnam 30 years ago.

During the war about 10% of Vietnam was intensively sprayed with 72 million litres of chemicals, of which 66% was Agent Orange. Some of this landed on their own troops and soon after the war ended veterans began complaining about serious health problems. There was also a high incidence of their children being born limbless or with Down's syndrome and spina bifida. The veterans sued the defoliant manufacturers and this was settled out of court in 1984 by the payment of $180 million.

The TCCD dioxin used in Agent Orange seeped into the soil and water supply, and therefore into the food chain. In this way it passed from mother to foetus in the womb. In Vietnam the dioxide remains in the soil and is now damaging the health of the grandchildren of the war's victims.

A report published in 2003 claimed that 650,000 people in Vietnam were still suffering from chronic conditions as a result of the chemicals dropped on the country during the war. Since the war the Vietnamese Red Cross has registered an estimated one million people disabled by Agent Orange. It is estimated that 500,000 people in Vietnam have died from the numerous health problems created by these chemical weapons.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) In 1967, the journalist Martha Gellhorn visited Vietnam. Her reports were published in the Ladies' Home Journal.

In the children's ward of the Qui Nhon province hospital I saw for the first time what Napalm does. A child of seven, the size of our four-year-olds, lay in the cot by the door. Napalm had burned his face and back and one hand. The burned skin looked like swollen red meat; the fingers on his hand were stretched out, burned rigid. A scrap of cheesecloth covered him, for weight is intolerable, but so too is air.

(2) A housewife from New Jersey, the mother of six, decided to go to Vietnam and adopt three Vietnamese children. While she was there she visited several hospitals.

I had heard and read that napalm melts the flesh, and I thought that's nonsense, because I can put a roast in the oven and the fat will melt but the meat stays there. Well, I went and saw these children burned by napalm, and it's absolutely true. The chemical reaction of this napalm does melt the flesh, and the flesh runs right down their faces onto their chests and it sits there and grows there... These children can't turn their heads, they were so thick with flesh... And when gangrene sets in, they cut off their hands or fingers or their feet.

(3) In 1982 four war veterans returned to Vietnam. This group included Bob Muller, a former lieutenant in the Marines who is paralysed from the waist down after being shot through the spine in Vietnam in 1969. When they returned home they called for the United States government to pay compensation to the Vietnamese people.

In Ho Chi Minh City we visited two hospitals which house the deformed children thought to be victims of Agent Orange. Since the dumping on Vietnam of some 11 million gallons of Agent Orange there has been a huge increase in the frequency of genetic malfunctions. Children have been born without eyes, with twisted, mangled limbs, even without brains. In the main hospital in Tay Ninh, a quarter of all births are miscarriages... Hydrocephalus, or water on the brain, is thought to be one of the many malformations attributable to Agent Orange. At the Tu Do Hospital, doctors need to perform some 100 operations a year on hydrocephalic babies. The operation required is a relatively simple one, frequently performed in the West, using a special silicone tube. But the Vietnamese doctors cannot carry out the operations because they have no silicone tubes... The tubes are manufactured in the US and America has imposed a complete embargo on exports to Vietnam.

(4) Joseph Buttinger attempted to document the effect that the war had on the people of Vietnam in his book A Dragon Defiant (1972).

The total tonnage of bombs dropped between 1964 and the end of 1971 was 6.2 million. This means that the US has dropped 300 pounds of bombs for every man, woman, and child in Indochina, and 22 tons of bombs for every square mile. Enormous craters dot the landscape in many regions covering dozens of square miles. Hundreds of villages were totally destroyed by bombs and napalm, forests over vast areas defoliated, making the land infertile for years, and crops destroyed, with little or no consideration for the needs of the people, merely on suspicion that some of the crop might benefit the enemy... The total number of people made refugees is more than 5 million... The rise of the refugee population in South Vietnam was partly due also to the past American policy of removing from countless villages, for strategic reasons, the entire population, and of putting these unfortunate people in what were called refugee camps or relocation centres.

(5) Michael Parris, The American Film Industry and the Vietnam War (1987)

The American film industry can hardly be accused of ignoring the Vietnam War. But what it has ignored are some of the more unpleasant aspects of that conflict. No film has yet presented any real justification for Americans going to South East Asia other than in the most vague terms such as "treaty obligations". No American feature has dealt with the end of the war, the withdrawal of American troops in 1973 or the subsequent fall of Saigon in 1975. It appears that Americans have yet to come to terms with defeat and it seems fashionable to soften the truth with phrases like "the war that nobody won"... All of which diverts attention from the harsh reality - that America suffered a costly military defeat. Other aspects of the war have also been ignored in the cinema's view of events. There has been no mention of the defoliation programmes or reference to other chemical weapons; nor of the massive bombing campaigns against North Vietnam or Laos.

(6) Dr. James Cary, a military scientist involved in Operation Ranch Hand, was interviewed by a Congress Committee investigating Agent Orange in 1988.

When we initiated the herbicide programme in the 1960s, we were aware of the potential for damage due to dioxin contamination in the herbicide. We were even aware that the military formulation had a higher dioxin concentration than the civilian version, due to the lower cost and speed of manufacture. However, because the material was to be used on the enemy, none of us were overly concerned.

(7) Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy, Spectre Orange, Sunday Times (29th March, 2003)

Hong Hanh is falling to pieces. She has been poisoned by the most toxic molecule known to science; it was sprayed during a prolonged military campaign. The contamination persists. No redress has been offered, no compensation. The superpower that spread the toxin has done nothing to combat the medical and environmental catastrophe that is overwhelming her country. This is not northern Iraq, where Saddam Hussein gassed 5,000 Kurds in 1988. Nor the trenches of first world war France. Hong Hanh's story, and that of many more like her, is quietly unfolding in Vietnam today. Her declining half-life is spent unseen, in her home, an unremarkable concrete box in Ho Chi Minh City, filled

with photographs, family plaques and yellow enamel stars, a place where the best is made of the worst.

Hong Hanh is both surprising and terrifying. Here is a 19-year-old who lives in a 10-year-old's body. She clatters around with disjointed spidery strides which leave her soaked in sweat. When she cannot stop crying, soothing creams and iodine are rubbed into her back, which is a lunar collage of septic blisters and scabs. "My daughter is dying," her mother says. "My youngest daughter is 11 and she has the same symptoms. What should we do? Their fingers and toes stick together before they drop off. Their hands wear down to stumps. Every day they lose a little more skin. And this is not leprosy. The doctors say it is connected to American chemical weapons we were exposed to during the Vietnam war.

This is a chain of events bitterly denied by the US government. Millions of litres of defoliants such as Agent Orange were dropped on Vietnam, but US government scientists claimed that these chemicals were harmless to humans and short-lived in the environment. US strategists argue that Agent Orange was a prototype smart weapon, a benign tactical herbicide that saved many hundreds of thousands of American lives by denying the North Vietnamese army the jungle cover that allowed it ruthlessly to strike and feint. New scientific research, however, confirms what the Vietnamese have been claiming for years. It also portrays the US government as one that has illicitly used weapons of mass destruction, stymied all independent efforts to assess the impact of their deployment, failed to acknowledge cold, hard evidence of maiming and slaughter, and pursued a policy of evasion and deception.

Teams of international scientists working in Vietnam have now discovered that Agent Orange contains one of the most virulent poisons known to man, a strain of dioxin called TCCD which, 28 years after the fighting ended, remains in the soil, continuing to destroy the lives of those exposed to it. Evidence has also emerged that the US government not only knew that Agent Orange was contaminated, but was rally aware of the killing power of its contaminant dioxin, and yet still continued to use the herbicide in Vietnam for 10 years of the war and in concentrations that exceeded its own guidelines by 25 times.