August 10, 1961: U.S. Begins Chemical War in Vietnam

A Journal of Peoples Report

August 10, 1961. The U.S. began chemical warfare in Vietnam.
The imperialism began war in Vietnam much ago. As part of that war, imperialism began chemical warfare on this day.
Between 1963 And 1966 over 6 Million liters of chemicals were dumped over Vietnam in its attempt to defeat the Vietnamese people.
By 1971, imperialism sprayed 77 million liters of defoliants over South Vietnam, a part of today’s Vietnam. Of this amount of chemical, 44 million liters contained dioxin, which caused diseases and genetic mutations among the Vietnamese people, and in other living beings, which came to interaction with the chemicals.
Some three million Vietnamese were affected by direct contact with dioxin in that decade.

Operation Ranch Hand was the code name given to the U.S. operation that consisted deployment of the chemical, Agent Orange, in Vietnam during the Vietnam War (1962-1971)
Agent Orange is made up of two defoliants (chemical herbicides), 2,4,5 – Trimethoxybenzaldehyde (2,4,5-T), which is the main organic compound used primarily to defoliate large areas, and 2,4-Dinitrophenylhydazine (2,4-D).
The reaction of these two substances leaves harmful by-product Tetrachlorodibenzo-P-Dioxin (TCCD), the most sinister in the series.
The series is referred to commonly as “Dioxins”.
TCCD is a known carcinogen. It damages the genetic material of an organism.
The North Vietnamese government had a symbolic vial. This vial contained 80g of TCCD. If this vial was dropped into the water supply of a city like New York City, it would kill the entire population of New York.
Former Director of the UN Environment Program, a leading expert on Agent Orange, said the U.S. deployed 6 million liters of it over Vietnam, not including the shipments that were dumped in nearby rivers and waterways after unsuccessful patrols due to the regulation that allowed pilots to return only with empty payloads.
The U.S. said that it sprayed the chemical agents to strip away the vegetation that provided cover for Vietcong troops in “enemy territory.”
Reports said:
‘About 14% of the territory of South Vietnam was exposed to this toxin, causing severe consequences for the land and nature.
‘Five thousand square kilometers of mangrove forests were almost completely destroyed.
‘About 10,000 square kilometers of jungle and more than a thousand square kilometers of lowland forests were affected.
‘U.S. troops destroyed 70% of the coconut plantations and 60% of the Gewea plantations.
‘The war also changed the ecological balance of Vietnam.
‘The affected areas lost 18 out of 150 bird species.
‘Nearly all amphibians and insects disappeared.
‘The number of fish in rivers decreased, and their composition changed.
‘The microbiological composition of soils was disturbed.
‘Changes in the fauna resulted in the replacement of black rats, which are safe for humans, with other species that were plague carriers.
‘Alterations in the mosquito species composition led to the introduction of malaria-carrying ones.
‘Dioxins, once inside the human body, begin work like an HIV infection. If a person is completely healthy, they do not affect him. As soon as the human immune system weakens and any disease begins, dioxins immediately get integrated into the disease chains and start working in their own way. No one knows how it begins work. This toxic element causes cancer, damages liver, skin, respiratory system, and much more.
‘Dioxin is inherited through mother’s milk.’
Reports said:
‘More than a million and a half Vietnamese in the three postwar generations have suffered from it. For an extremely long time, for many generations, dioxins continue to be passed on from women to their children. There is no minimum permissible dose for dioxins.
‘Today, Vietnam faces the ever-present threat that children will be born with a wide variety of defects.
‘To this day, several villages in Vietnam are closed to the public, where children are born into families with various deformities. There are several specialized boarding schools where children with genetic defects live. Scientists from different countries have been studying the effects of dioxin on soil for a long time, but only in temperate and northern climates. No one has studied its impact in the tropics. There have been no studies on what happens when dioxin molecules enter the soil under tropical conditions.’
The Joint Russo-Vietnamese Research and Tropical Technology Center is the first and only one to address this issue.
According to Professor Kuznetsov of the Joint Russo-Vietnamese Research and Tropical Technology Center:
‘It was commonly believed that dioxin molecules were insoluble. Supposedly, humus binds them and they remain in the top layer of the soil. One could bulldoze or even shovel it and burn it. But it turns out that things are different in the tropics. Dioxin molecules bind with various acids in the soil, forming new dioxin-containing molecules that become water-soluble and water-permeable. They mix with rainfall streams, sink into the soil, get transported by subsurface water, and subsequently enter wells, lakes, rivers, and seas hundreds of kilometers away from where they were sprayed. This situation persists in Vietnam to this day.
‘There are several ‘hot spots’; places where, during the aggression, the U.S. stored barrels with chemical agents. When the U.S. left Vietnam, they shot these barrels with large-caliber machine guns and left them there. Among other places, this happened in Da Nang. One of the largest U.S. military bases was in Da Nang. Another place was the U.S. military base in Bien Hoa. These two former bases are still the largest and scariest hotbeds of contamination.
‘The U.S. has recently conducted a demonstrative action in Da Nang. It has been begun in Bien Hoa. They are trying to decontaminate the soil to a depth of two meters in those places where barrels with warfare agents were stored. But they do not check the level of dioxin contamination even within the radius of 200-300 meters from the storage sites. Subsurface water transports pesticides far beyond those limits.
‘The Mission of the Joint Russo-Vietnamese Research and Technology Tropical Center has been studying the consequences of the U.S. chemical war in Vietnam since its founding. It was established precisely for this work.
‘“We were tasked with determining whether contact with dioxin leads to genetic changes in humans and has a detrimental effect on soil, flora, and fauna. Our conclusion – yes, it does. The results of our work were published and reported to the leadership of Vietnam’s Ministry of National Defense and Ministry of Health, together with our scientific and practical recommendations on combating various dioxin-related effects. At the same time, we noted that the most effective, global way to prevent dioxins from damaging people is to take maximum care of their health. That is, Vietnam needs to invest much more in health care than countries that have not been exposed to this toxic chemical. We cannot yet say when the effects of US chemical warfare will cease in Vietnam. After all, Vietnam is the first and only country to have been exposed to such massive amounts of poisonous substances,” Kuznetsov concluded.’
A report by The Guardian (Spectre orange, by Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy, 29 Mar 2003, said about Hong Hanh, a victim of the chemical war:
‘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.”’
The report by The Guardian said:
‘There are an estimated 650,000 like Hong Hanh in Vietnam, suffering from an array of baffling chronic conditions. Another 500,000 have already died. The thread that weaves through all their case histories is defoliants deployed by the US military during the war. Some of the victims are veterans who were doused in these chemicals during the war, others are farmers who lived off land that was sprayed. The second generation are the sons and daughters of war veterans, or children born to parents who lived on contaminated land. Now there is a third generation, the grandchildren of the war and its victims.
‘This is a chain of events bitterly denied by the U.S. government. Millions of liters of defoliants such as Agent Orange were dropped on Vietnam, but U.S. government scientists claimed that these chemicals were harmless to humans and short-lived in the environment. U.S. 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 U.S. 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 fully 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. As well as spraying the North Vietnamese, the US doused its own troops stationed in the jungle, rather than lose tactical advantage by having them withdraw.
‘On February 5, addressing the UN Security Council, secretary of state Colin Powell, now famously, clutched between his fingers a tiny phial representing concentrated anthrax spores, enough to kill thousands, and only a tiny fraction of the amount he said Saddam Hussein had at his disposal.
‘The Vietnamese government has its own symbolic phial that it, too, flourishes, in scientific conferences that get little publicity. It contains 80g of TCCD, just enough of the super-toxin contained in Agent Orange to fill a child-size talcum powder container. If dropped into the water supply of a city the size of New York, it would kill the entire population. Ground-breaking research by Dr Arthur H Westing, former director of the UN Environment Programme, a leading authority on Agent Orange, reveals that the US sprayed 170kg of it over Vietnam.
‘John F Kennedy’s presidential victory in 1961 was propelled by an image of the New Frontier. He called on Americans to “bear the burden of a long twilight struggle … against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.” But one of the most problematic new frontiers, that dividing North and South Vietnam, flared up immediately after he had taken office, forcing him to bolster the US-backed regime in Saigon. Kennedy examined “tricks and gadgets” that might give the South an edge in the jungle, and in November 1961 sanctioned the use of defoliants in a covert operation code-named Ranch Hand, every mission flown signed off by the president himself and managed in Saigon by the secret Committee 202 – the call sign for defoliating forests being “20” and for spraying fields “2”.’
The report said:
‘Ngo Luc, 67, was serving with a North Vietnamese guerrilla unit in the Central Highlands when he saw planes circling overhead. “We expected bombs, but a fine yellow mist descended, covering absolutely everything,” he says. “We were soaked in it, but it didn’t worry us, as it smelled good. We continued to crawl through the jungle. The next day the leaves wilted and within a week the jungle was bald. We felt just fine at the time.” Today, the former captain is the sole survivor from his unit and lives with his two granddaughters, both born partially paralysed, near the central Vietnamese city of Hue.
‘When US troops became directly embroiled in Vietnam in 1964, the Pentagon signed contracts worth $57m (£36m) with eight US chemical companies to produce defoliants, including Agent Orange, named after the coloured band painted around the barrels in which it was shipped. The US would target the Ho Chi Minh trail – Viet Cong supply lines made invisible by the jungle canopy along the border with Laos – as well as the heavily wooded Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) that separated the North from the South, and also the Mekong Delta, a maze of overgrown swamps and inlets that was a haven for communist insurgents.
‘A reporter for the St Louis Dispatch witnessed a secret spraying mission and wrote that the US was dropping “poison”. Congressman Robert Kastenmeier demanded that the president abandon “chemical warfare” because it tainted America’s reputation. Instead, William Bundy, a presidential adviser, flatly denied that the herbicide used by America was a chemical weapon, and blamed communist propagandists for a distortion of the facts about the Ranch Hand operation. Only when the Federation of American Scientists warned that year that Vietnam was being used as a laboratory experiment did the rumours become irrefutable. More than 5,000 American scientists, including 17 Nobel laureates and 129 members of the Academy of Sciences, signed a petition against “chemical and biological weapons used in Vietnam”.
‘Eight years after the military launched Operation Ranch Hand, scientists from the National Institute of Health warned that laboratory mice exposed to Agent Orange were giving birth to stillborn or deformed litters, a conclusion reinforced by research conducted by the US department of agriculture. These findings coincided with newspaper reports in Hanoi that blamed Agent Orange for a range of crippling conditions among troops and their families. Dr Le Ke Son, a young conscript in Hanoi during the war and now director of Vietnam’s Agent Orange Victims Fund, recalls, “The government proposed that a line of runners carry blood and tissue samples from the front to Hanoi. But it was more than 500 miles and took two months, by which time the samples were spoiled. How could we make the research work? There was no way to prove what we could see with our own eyes.”
‘In December 1969, President Nixon made a radical and controversial pledge that America would never use chemical weapons in a first strike. He made no mention of Vietnam or Agent Orange, and the US government continued dispatching supplies of herbicides to the South ‘Vietnamese regime until 1974.
That year, Kiem was born in a one-room hut in Kim Doi, a village just outside Hue. For her mother, Nguyen, she should have been a consolation because her husband, a Viet Cong soldier, had been killed several months earlier. “The last time he came home, he told me about the spray, how his unit had been doused in a sweet-smelling mist and all the leaves had fallen from the trees,” Nguyen says. It soon became obvious that Kiem was severely mentally and physically disabled. “She can eat, she can smile, she sits on the bed. That’s it. I have barely left my home since my daughter was born.”
‘By the time the war finally ended in 1975, more than 10% of Vietnam had been intensively sprayed with 72 million litres of chemicals, of which 66% was Agent Orange, laced with its super-strain of toxic TCCD. But even these figures, contained in recently declassified US military records, vastly underestimate the true scale of the spraying. In confidential statements made to US scientists, former Ranch Hand pilots allege that, in addition to the recorded missions, there were 26,000 aborted operations during which 260,000 gallons of herbicide were dumped. US military regulations required all spray planes or helicopters to return to base empty and one pilot, formerly stationed at Bien Hoa air base between 1968 and 1969, claims that he regularly jettisoned his chemical load into the Long Binh reservoir. “These herbicides should never have been used in the way that they were used,” says the pilot, who has asked not to be identified.
‘Almost immediately after the war finished, US veterans began reporting chronic conditions, skin disorders, asthma, cancers, gastrointestinal diseases. Their babies were born limbless or with Down’s syndrome and spina bifida. But it would be three years before the US department of veterans’ affairs reluctantly agreed to back a medical investigation, examining 300,000 former servicemen – only a fraction of those who had complained of being sick – with the government warning all participants that it was indemnified from lawsuits brought by them. When rumors began circulating that President Reagan had told scientists not to make “any link” between Agent Orange and the deteriorating health of veterans, the victims lost patience with their government and sued the defoliant manufacturers in an action that was finally settled out of court in 1984 for $180m (£115m).
‘It would take the intervention of the former commander of the US Navy in Vietnam, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, for the government finally to admit that it had been aware of the potential dangers of the chemicals used in Vietnam from the start of Ranch Hand. The admiral’s involvement stemmed from a deathbed pledge to his son, a patrol boat captain who contracted two forms of cancer that he believed had been caused by his exposure to Agent Orange. Every day during the war, Captain Elmo Zumwalt Jr had swum in a river from which he had also eaten fish, in an area that was regularly sprayed with the herbicide. Two years after his son’s death in 1988, Zumwalt used his leverage within the military establishment to compile a classified report, which he presented to the secretary of the department of veterans’ affairs and which contained data linking Agent Orange to 28 life-threatening conditions, including bone cancer, skin cancer, brain cancer – in fact, almost every cancer known to man – in addition to chronic skin disorders, birth defects, gastrointestinal diseases and neurological defects.
‘Zumwalt also uncovered irrefutable evidence that the US military had dispensed “Agent Orange in concentrations six to 25 times the suggested rate” and that “4.2m US soldiers could have made transient or significant contact with the herbicides because of Operation Ranch Hand”. This speculative figure is twice the official estimate of US veterans who may have been contaminated with TCCD.
‘Most damning and politically sensitive of all is a letter, obtained by Zumwalt, from Dr James Clary, a military scientist who designed the spray tanks for Ranch Hand. Writing in 1988 to a member of Congress investigating Agent Orange, Clary admitted: “When we initiated the herbicide program 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.”
‘The Office of Genetic Counselling and Disabled Children (OGCDC) operates out of a room little bigger than a broom cupboard. Dr Viet Nhan and his 21 volunteers share their cramped quarters at Hue Medical College with cerebral spinal fluid shunt kits donated from Norfolk, Virginia; children’s clothes given by the Rotary Club of Osaka, Japan; second-hand computers scavenged from banks in Singapore.
‘Vietnam’s chaotic and underfunded national health service cannot cope with the demands made upon it. The Vietnamese Red Cross has registered an estimated one million people disabled by Agent Orange, but has sufficient funds to help only one fifth of them, paying out an average of $5 (£3) a month. Dr Nhan established the free OGCDC, having studied the impact of Agent Orange as a student, to match Vietnamese families to foreign private financial donors. “It was only when I went out to the villages looking for case studies that I realised how many families were affected and how few could afford help,” he says. “I abandoned my research. Children need to run before they die.”
‘The walls of his room are plastered with bewildering photographs of those he has helped: operations for hernias and cleft palates, open-heart surgery and kidney transplants. All of the patients come from isolated districts in central Vietnam, villages whose names will be unfamiliar, unlike the locations that surround them: Khe Sanh, Hamburger Hill, Camp Carroll and the Rock Pile. “I am not interested in apportioning blame,” Nhan says. “I don’t want to talk to you about science or politics. What I care about is that I have 60 sick children needing financial backers. They cannot wait for the US to change its policy, take its head out of the sand and clear up the mess.”
‘He takes us into an intensive care ward to meet nine-year-old Nguyen Van Tan, who two weeks before had open-heart surgery to correct a birth defect thought to be connected to dioxin poisoning. There is no hard proof of this, but his father, who sits beside the bed, talks of being sprayed with defoliants when he fought with the Viet Cong. The area they live in was repeatedly doused during the war. Almost all of his former battlefield comrades have disabled children, he says. Nhan ushers us away. “I don’t want to tell the family yet, but their boy will never fully recover. He is already suffering from total paralysis. The most we can do now is send them home with a little money.”
‘Back in his tiny office, the doctor gestures to photocopies of US Air Force maps, sent by a veterans’ organisation because the US government refuses to supply them. These dizzying charts depict the number of herbicide missions carried out over Quang Tri, a province adjacent to the DMZ, from where almost all Nhan’s patients come. Its topography is obliterated by spray lines, 741,143 gallons of chemicals dropped here, more than 600,000 of them being Agent Orange. “I’m just scratching the surface,” he says.
‘The Vietnamese government is reluctant to let us travel to Quang Tri province. It does not want us “to poke and prod” already dismal villagers, treating them as if they are medical exhibits. We attempt to recruit some high-powered support and arrange a meeting in Hanoi with Madame Nguyen Thi Binh, who until last year was the vice-president of Vietnam. She receives us at the presidential palace in a teak-panelled hall beneath an enormous photograph of Ho Chi Minh in a gold frame writhing with dragons. “Thank you, my young friends, for your interest in Vietnam,” Madame Binh says, straightening her grey silk ao dai, a traditional flowing trouser suit.
‘She looks genteel, but old photographs of her in olive fatigues suggest she is a seasoned campaigner. As minister of foreign affairs for the Provisional Revolutionary South Vietnamese government, she negotiated at the Paris peace talks in 1973. “I must warn you, I will not answer questions about George W Bush,” she says, casting a steely gaze, perhaps conscious of the fact that, since the lifting of the US economic embargo in 1994, trade with America has grown to £650m a year. Madame Binh does, however, want to talk about chemical warfare, recalling how, when she returned after the war to her home province of Quang Nam, a lush region south-west of Hue which was drenched in defoliants, she found “no sign of life, just rubble and grass”. She says: “All of our returning veterans had a burning desire for children to repopulate our devastated country. When the first child was born with a birth defect, they tried again and again. So many families now have four or five disabled children, raising them without any hope.”
‘What should the US do? Madame Binh laughs. “It’s very late to do anything. We put this issue directly on the table with the US. So far they have not dealt with the problem. If our relationship is ever to be normal, the US has to accept responsibility. Go and see the situation for yourself.”
‘She sends us back to Hue. Over chilled water and tangerines, we talk to a suspicious party secretary who asks us why we have bothered to come after all these years. “There is no point,” he says. “Nothing will come of it.” But he opens his file all the same and reads aloud: “In Hue city there are 6,633 households affected by Agent Orange and in them 3,708 sick children under the age of 16.” He eventually agrees to take us north-west, over the Perfume river, beyond the ancient royal tombs that circle this former imperial city, towards the DMZ. We arrive at a distant commune where a handyman is sprucing up a bust of Ho Chi Minh with white gloss paint. Eventually, the chairman of the People’s Committee of Dang Ha joins us, and our political charabanc stuffed with seven officials sets out across the green and gold countryside, along crisscrossing lanes. The chairman tells us proudly how he was born on January 31 1968, the night of the Tet offensive, the turning point of the war, when the Viet Cong launched its assault on US positions. By the time we stop, we are all the best of friends and, holding hands, he pulls us into the home of the Pham family, where a wall of neighbours and an assembly of local dignitaries dressed in shiny, double-breasted jackets stare grimly at a moaning child. He lies on a mat on the floor, his matchstick limbs folded uselessly before him, his parents taking it in turns to mop his mouth, as if without them he would drown in his own saliva.
‘Hoi, the boy’s mother, tells us how she met her husband when they were assigned to the same Viet Cong unit in which they fought together for 10 years. But she alone was ordered to the battle of Troung Hon mountain. “I saw this powder falling from the sky,” she says. “I felt sick, had a headache. I was sent to a field hospital. I was close to the gates of hell. By the time I was discharged, I had lost the strength in my legs and they have never fully recovered. Then Ky was born, our son, with yellow skin. Every year his problems get worse.” Her husband, Hung, interrupts: “Sometimes, we have been so desperate for money that we have begged in the local market. I do not think you can imagine the humiliation of that.”
‘And this family is not alone. All the adults here, cycling past us or strolling along the dykes, are suffering from skin lesions and goitres that cling to necks like sagging balloons. The women spontaneously abort or give birth to genderless squabs that horrify even the most experienced midwives. In a yard, Nguyen, a neighbor’s child, stares into space. He has a hydrocephalic head as large as a melon. Two houses down, Tan has distended eyes that bubble from his face. By the river, Ngoc is sleeping, so wan he resembles a pressed flower. “They told me the boy is depressed,” his exhausted father tells us. “Of course he’s depressed. He lives with disease and death.”
‘This is not a specially constructed ghetto used to wage a propaganda war against imperialism. The Socialist Republic of Vietnam has long embraced the free market. This is an ordinary hamlet where, in these new liberal times, villagers like to argue about the English Premiership football results over a glass of home-brewed rice beer. Here live three generations affected by Agent Orange: veterans who were sprayed during the war and their successors who inherited the contamination or who still farm on land that was sprayed. Vietnam’s impoverished scientific community is now trying to determine if there will be a fourth generation. “How long will this go on?” asks Dr Tran Manh Hung, the ministry of health’s leading researcher.
‘Dr Hung is now working with a team of Canadian environmental scientists, Hatfield Consultants, and they have made an alarming discovery. In the Aluoi Valley, adjacent to the Ho Chi Minh trail, once home to three US Special Forces bases, a region where Agent Orange was both stored and sprayed, the scientists’ analysis has shown that, rather than naturally disperse, the dioxin has remained in the ground in concentrations 100 times above the safety levels for agricultural land in Canada. It has spread into Aluoi’s ponds, rivers and irrigation supplies, from where it has passed into the food chain, through fish and freshwater shellfish, chicken and ducks that store TCCD in fatty tissue. Samples of human blood and breast milk reveal that villagers have ingested the invisible toxin and that pregnant women pass it through the placenta to the foetus and then through their breast milk, doubly infecting newborn babies. Is it, then, a coincidence that in this minuscule region of Vietnam, more than 15,000 children and adults have already been registered as suffering from the usual array of chronic conditions?
‘”We theorise that the Aluoi Valley is a microcosm of the country, where numerous reservoirs of TCCD still exist in the soil of former US military installations,” says Dr Wayne Dwernychuk, vice-president of Hatfield Consultants. There may be as many as 50 of these “hot spots”, including one at the former US military base of Bien Hoa, where, according to declassified defence department documents, US forces spilled 7,500 gallons of Agent Orange on March 1 1970. Dr Arnold Schecter, a leading expert in dioxin contamination in the US, sampled the soil there and found it to contain TCCD levels that were 180 million times above the safe level set by the US environmental protection agency.
‘It is extremely difficult to decontaminate humans or the soil. A World Health Organisation briefing paper warns: “Once TCCD has entered the body it is there to stay due to its uncanny ability to dissolve in fats and to its rock solid chemical stability.” At Aluoi, the researchers recommended the immediate evacuation of the worst affected villages, but to be certain of containing this hot spot, the WHO also recommends searing the land with temperatures of more than 1,000C, or encasing it in concrete before treating it chemically.
‘At home, the US takes heed. When a dump at the Robins Air Force Base in Georgia was found to have stored Agent Orange, it was placed on a National Priority List, immediately capped in five feet of clay and sand, and has since been the subject of seven investigations. Dioxin is now also a major domestic concern, scientists having discovered that it is a by-product of many ordinary industrial processes, including smelting, the bleaching of paper pulp and solid waste incineration. The US environmental protection agency, pressed into a 12-year inquiry, recently concluded that it is a “class-1 human carcinogen”.
‘The evidence is categoric. Last April, a conference at Yale University attended by the world’s leading environmental scientists, who reviewed the latest research, concluded that in Vietnam the US had conducted the “largest chemical warfare campaign in history”. And yet no money is forthcoming, no aid in kind. For the US, there has only ever been one contemporary incident of note involving weapons of mass destruction – Colin Powell told the UN Security Council in February that, “in the history of chemical warfare, no country has had more battlefield experience with chemical weapons since world war one than Saddam Hussein’s Iraq”.
‘The US government has yet to respond to the Hatfield Consultants’ report, which finally explains why the Vietnamese are still dying so many years after the war is over, but, last March, it did make its first contribution to the debate in Vietnam. It signed an agreement with a reluctant Vietnamese government for an $850,000 (£543,000) program to “fill identified data gaps” in the study of Agent Orange. The conference in Hanoi that announced the decision, according to Vietnamese Red Cross representatives who attended, ate up a large slice of this funding. One of the signatories is the same US environmental protection agency that has already concluded that dioxin causes cancer.
‘”Studies can be proposed until hell freezes over,” says Dr Dwernychuk of Hatfield Consultants, “but they are not going to assist the Vietnamese in a humanitarian sense one iota. We state emphatically that no additional research on human health is required to facilitate intervention or to protect the local citizens.”
‘There is cash to be lavished in Vietnam when the US government sees it as politically expedient. Over the past 10 years, more than $350m (£223m) has been spent on chasing ghosts. In 1992, the US launched the Joint Task Force-Full Accounting to locate 2,267 servicemen thought to be missing in action in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Jerry O’Hara, spokesman for JTF-FA, which is still searching for the remains of 1,889 of them, told us, “We don’t place a monetary value on what we do and we’ll be here until we have brought all of the boys back home.”
‘So it is that America continues to spend considerably more on the dead than it does on the millions of living and long-suffering – be they back home or in Vietnam.
‘The science of chemical warfare fills a silent, white-tiled room at Tu Du hospital in Ho Chi Minh City. Here, shelves are overburdened with research materials. Behind the locked door is an iridescent wall of the mutated and misshapen, hundreds of bell jars and vacuum-sealed bottles in which human foetuses float in formaldehyde. Some appear to be sleeping, fingers curling their hair, thumbs pressing at their lips, while others with multiple heads and mangled limbs are listless and slumped. Thankfully, none of these dioxin babies ever woke up.
‘One floor below, it is never quiet. Here are those who have survived the misery of their births, ravaged infants whom no one has the ability to understand, babies so traumatised by their own disabilities, luckless children so enraged and depressed at their miserable fate, that they are tied to their beds just to keep them safe from harm.’
A report by The New York Times (Vietnam: The Chemical War, by David Biggs, Nov. 24, 2017, said:
‘Just before dawn on Nov. 18, 1967, the men of the Army’s 266th Chemical Platoon awoke to reveille and assembled in formation. The platoon was attached to the First Infantry Division, and the men were stationed at the division’s base, deep in the red-clay hills north of Saigon.
‘The men had a typically busy day ahead of them. Their tasks included obtaining 15 drums of Agent Orange to defoliate the base perimeter, firing mortars at an area just outside the base for an evening chemical drop, working at the bomb yard to prepare 24 drums of CS tear gas, making 48 white phosphorus fuses to detonate the drums, loading the drums onto a CH-47 cargo helicopter, and finally, that afternoon, dropping 24 drums of the gas from the helicopter’s rear hatch onto a target site. It was, by 1967, just another day in the life of the 266th Chemical Platoon, and in the American war in Vietnam — a war that was, in many respects, a chemical war.
‘It didn’t start that way. But as the conflict deepened, it became obvious that chemical weapons could play a critical role. In the case of the First Division, that realization came as the Viet Cong dug in north of Saigon with a network of underground bunkers and tunnels that were forbidding, dangerous spaces where conventional weapons would have limited effect. That fall, the 266th and other chemical platoons began training to use CS and other chemicals to support combat operations.
‘CS wasn’t the only tool in the platoon’s arsenal, and going after tunnels wasn’t its only mission. It handled anything related to chemicals, from spraying for mosquitoes to burning trash. It sprayed defoliants like Agent Orange and prepared napalm. Chemicals were everywhere, and their proliferation in the American war effort raised concerns that the United States was crossing a line in Vietnam, violating the 1925 Geneva Protocol’s prohibition against the first use of chemical weapons in war.
‘Chemical weapons didn’t suddenly appear in America’s Vietnam arsenal. In 1918, in response to German gas attacks in World War I, the military created the Chemical Warfare Service (renamed the Chemical Corps in 1947) to develop gas and biological weapons as a response to enemy attacks. They developed defensive measures to protect soldiers from chemical, biological or radioactive weapons via decontamination agents. The armed forces also developed nonmilitary uses of nonlethal chemicals. It supplied tear gas (xylyl bromide) to police forces in the 1920s and ’30s to disperse angry mobs. (British military scientists developed CS as a more potent replacement in the 1950s.)
‘During World War II, the military played a pivotal role in pioneering new chemicals that were both horrifically destructive and lifesaving. After successfully testing gelled gasoline on Harvard’s soccer field, the military coordinated production of napalm in incendiary grenades, flamethrowers and the bombs dropped over cities such as Tokyo and Dresden, Germany. Chemical units spread a newly discovered insecticide, DDT, across Italian towns and in soldiers’ sleeping bags to control mosquitoes and ticks that carried malaria and typhus. In 1943, the military opened a chemical and biological weapons lab at Fort Detrick, Md., to centralize research.
‘It was there that scientists in the Crops Division tested combinations of herbicides, including a precursor to Agent Orange made with a blend of the herbicides 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T. Scientists in the 1930s had discovered that those chemicals mimicked a plant’s growth hormone, but they had been unsuccessful in harnessing its growth-inducing powers. Then in 1943, a botanist notified the Army that increased dosages turned the chemical into a plant killer, and the synthetic organic herbicide was born. Scientists at Fort Detrick tested the herbicides for possible use over the tropical vegetation covering Japanese-held islands in the Pacific, but the war ended before they could ramp up production.’
The report by The New York times said:
‘While the Chemical Corps continued to test all chemicals for military uses in the 1950s, it did so amid a postwar economic boom during which many of the same products became commercially available. Farmers, gardeners and groundskeepers used the newly available chemicals in their domestic “wars” against pests.
‘The two herbicides in Agent Orange, 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T, were not secrets; rather, they were two of the most popular, widely available herbicides on the market. The government declassified its research on pesticides almost immediately in 1945, opening development for commercial markets. In May 1945, a chemist at the American Chemical Paint Company near Philadelphia received a patent simply titled “Herbicides,” listing over a dozen preferred chemical formulas including a 50-50 mix of 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D similar to Agent Orange. (He later claimed that he developed this blend to kill poison ivy, as his son was acutely allergic.) In 1948, the Department of Agriculture registered those new herbicides and insecticides as “economic poisons” and sales quickly took off. Because of this crossover identity in the 1960s, their use as offensive weapons in Vietnam drew little public reaction.
‘Although the consequences of using herbicides like Agent Orange later became clear, they were always intended as nonlethal chemical weapons. The line was less clear with CS gas. Though it was officially intended to flush out tunnels, those caught inside were often asphyxiated, and even survivors suffered respiratory lesions.
‘And there was no blurring of lines when it came to napalm.
‘Men from the 266th platoon would net a dozen or more barrels of the gelled gasoline under a helicopter, which then flew several thousand feet above a target such as a bunker or camp. Once on target, the crew released the barrels. Fuses or strafing from nearby jets ignited the barrels just above the ground, releasing a giant fireball. Anything or anyone within several hundred yards was instantly incinerated while the firestorm sucked the oxygen out of tunnels and bunkers below. Chemical platoons began training in this new form of “combat support” in 1967, but after the Tet offensive in 1968 they were igniting thousands of gallons in “flame drops” every day. They had crossed the line.
‘This rapidly intensifying use of chemicals in combat brought widespread international criticism, first from Communist countries but increasingly from American allies and eventually officials in the United States. Criticism had been building for years: When South Vietnamese helicopters began using 2,4,5-T to kill crops in Communist-controlled areas of the Vietnamese highlands in 1963, North Vietnam’s Liberation Radio accused the United States of violating the 1925 Geneva Protocol and likened the “poisonous spray” to Nazi gas chambers. But American leaders and their allies abroad paid little attention to these “poison” protests; military leaders countered the radio propaganda with South Vietnamese broadcasts explaining that the herbicides were harmless to humans and used commercially around the world.
‘The international response, however, grew more serious with the CS drops. In 1966, a delegate from Hungary at the United Nations complained that the tactical use of the herbicides and CS in Vietnam was a blatant violation of the Geneva Protocol; he also noted that the United States had yet to join the protocol. With the advent of flame drops in 1968, the charges of chemical warfare continued to amplify and rattled the newly elected President Nixon. In November 1969, he pushed the Senate to ratify America’s commitment to the protocol, and he renounced first use of lethal chemicals (except napalm on military targets).’
The New York Times report added:
‘While Nixon tried to assure the American public that napalm was not falling on civilians and that the herbicides in Agent Orange were safe, a report had surfaced in 1968 suggesting that the herbicide 2,4,5-T was highly toxic to animal fetuses. (Later research determined the toxicity stemmed from traces of the contaminant dioxin.) While chemical platoons continued pushing thousands of drums of CS and napalm out of helicopters in Vietnam, Nixon moved quickly to stem what he feared would be a domestic and international protest over a potentially toxic herbicide. The White House announced a partial ban on 2,4,5-T on April 15, 1970, and the Defense Department followed suit, banning all Agent Orange missions in Vietnam.
‘Thousands of drums of the herbicide piled up at ports in the United States, at air bases in Vietnam and in small quantities at the drum yards of chemical platoons at Army camps. The military transferred the stockpile of Agent Orange in Vietnam, more than 25,000 drums, to Johnston Island in the Pacific in 1972, but the fate of CS and other chemicals at the camps was less clear. When American forces evacuated their camps and firebases at the war’s end, they again followed disposal manuals of the day: burning or burying unused or corrupted chemical stocks including CS, decontaminating agents, solvents and pesticides.
‘The American military has never again used chemicals as extensively as it did in Vietnam. American military units no longer burn or bury chemical waste. But the legacy remains. Agent Orange destroyed the lives of thousands of Vietnamese and Americans. The international response to CS drops and flame drops set off heated discussions about the nature of chemical war that continues with debates over red lines, incendiaries and barrel bombs today. And caches of chemical weapons remain buried around Vietnam and on disused American sites around Southeast Asia and in the Pacific. America and Vietnam may be allies today, but few people on either side are willing to tackle the war’s total chemical footprint.’
A report by The Conversation (Agent Orange, exposed: How U.S. chemical warfare in Vietnam unleashed a slow-moving disaster, by Jason Von Meding and Hang Thai T.m., October 4, 2017, said:
‘Using a variety of defoliants, the U.S. military also intentionally targeted cultivated land, destroying crops and disrupting rice production and distribution by the largely communist National Liberation Front, a party devoted to reunification of North and South Vietnam.
‘Some 45 million liters of the poisoned spray was Agent Orange, which contains the toxic compound dioxin. It has unleashed in Vietnam a slow-onset disaster whose devastating economic, health and ecological impacts that are still being felt today.
‘This is one of the greatest legacies of the country’s 20-year war, but is yet to be honestly confronted. Even Ken Burns and Lynn Novick seem to gloss over this contentious issue, both in their supposedly exhaustive “Vietnam War” documentary series and in subsequent interviews about the horrors of Vietnam.’
It said:
‘More than 10 years of U.S. chemical warfare in Vietnam exposed an estimated 2.1 to 4.8 million Vietnamese people to Agent Orange. More than 40 years on, the impact on their health has been staggering.

Aerial spraying in central and southern Vietnam. Credit: Wikimedia

‘This dispersion of Agent Orange over a vast area of central and south Vietnam poisoned the soil, river systems, lakes and rice paddies of Vietnam, enabling toxic chemicals to enter the food chain.

‘Vietnamese people weren’t the only ones poisoned by Agent Orange. U.S. soldiers, unaware of the dangers, sometimes showered in the empty 55-gallon drums, used them to store food and repurposed them as barbecue pits.

‘Unlike the effects of another chemical weapon used in Vietnam – namely napalm, which caused painful death by burns or asphyxiation – Agent Orange exposure did not affect its victims immediately.

‘In the first generation, the impacts were mostly visible in high rates of various forms of cancer among both U.S. soldiers and Vietnam residents.

‘But then the children were born. It is estimated that, in total, tens of thousands of people have suffered serious birth defects – spina bifida, cerebral palsy, physical and intellectual disabilities and missing or deformed limbs. Because the effects of the chemical are passed from one generation to the next, Agent Orange is now debilitating its third and fourth generation.’

The report added:

‘During the 10-year campaign, U.S. aircraft targeted 4.5 million acres across 30 different provinces in the area below the 17th parallel and in the Mekong Delta, destroying inland hardwood forests and coastal mangrove swamps as they sprayed.

‘The most heavily exposed locations – among them Dong Nai, Binh Phuoc, Thua Thien Hue and Kontum – were sprayed multiple times. Toxic hotspots also remain at several former U.S. air force bases.

How U.S. chemical warfare in Vietnam unleashed an enduring disasterMangrove forests before and after spraying. Credit: Wikimedia

‘And while research in those areas is limited – an extensive 2003 study was canceled in 2005 due to a reported “lack of mutual understanding” between the U.S. and the Vietnamese governments – evidence suggests that the heavily polluted soil and water in these locations have yet to recover.

‘The dangerous quantity of residual dioxin in the earth thwarts the normal growth of crops and trees, while continuing to poison the food chain.

‘Vietnam’s natural defenses were also debilitated. Nearly 50 percent of the country’s mangroves, which protect shorelines from typhoons and tsunamis, were destroyed.

‘On a positive note, the Vietnamese government and both local and international organizations are making strides toward restoring this critical landscape. The U.S. and Vietnam are also undertaking a joint remediation program to deal with dioxin-contaminated soil and water.

‘The destruction of Vietnamese forests, however, has proven irreversible. The natural habitat of such rare species as tigers, elephants, bears and leopards were distorted, in many cases beyond repair.

‘In parts of central and southern Vietnam that were already exposed to environmental hazards such as frequent typhoons and flooding in low-lying areas and droughts and water scarcity in the highlands and Mekong Delta, herbicide spraying led to nutrient loss in the soil.

‘This, in turn, has caused erosioncompromising forests in 28 river basins. As a result, flooding has gotten worse in numerous watershed areas.

‘Some of these vulnerable areas also happen to be very poor and, these days, home to a large number of Agent Orange victims.

‘U.S. propaganda about Agent Orange was so effective, it fooled American troops into thinking it was safe, too.’

The report by The Conversation said:

‘During Operation Ranch Hand, the U.S. and South Vietnamese governments spent considerable time and effort making the claim that tactical herbicides were safe for humans and the environment.

‘It launched a public relations campaign included educational programs showing civilians happily applying herbicides to their skin and passing through defoliated areas without concern.

‘One prominent comic strip featured a character named Brother Nam who explained that “The only effect of defoliant is to kill trees and force leaves to whither, and normally does not cause harm to people, livestock, land, or the drinking water of our compatriots.”

‘It’s abundantly clear now that this is false. Allegedly, chemical manufacturers had informed the U.S. military that Agent Orange was toxic, but spraying went forward anyway.

‘Today, Agent Orange has become a contentious legal and political issue, both within Vietnam and internationally. From 2005 to 2015, more than 200,000 Vietnamese victims suffering from 17 diseases linked to cancers, diabetes and birth defects were eligible for limited compensation, via a government program.

‘U.S. companies, including Monsanto and Dow Chemical, have taken the position that the governments involved in the war are solely responsible for paying out damages to Agent Orange victims. In 2004, a Vietnamese group unsuccessfully attempted to sue some 30 companies, alleging that the use of chemical weapons constituted a war crime. The class action case was dismissed in 2005 by a district court in Brooklyn, New York.

‘Many American victims have had better luck, though, seeing successful multi-million-dollar class action settlements with manufacturers of the chemical, including Dow, in 1984 and 2012.

‘Meanwhile, the U.S. government recently allocated more than US$13 billion to fund expanded Agent Orange-related health services in America. No such plan is in store in Vietnam.

‘It is unlikely that the U.S. will admit liability for the horrors Agent Orange unleashed in Vietnam. To do so would set an unwelcome precedent: Despite official denials, the U.S. and its allies, including Israel, have been accused of using chemical weapons in conflicts in GazaIraq and Syria.

‘As a result, nobody is officially accountable for the suffering of Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange. The Burns and Novick documentary could have finally raised this uncomfortable truth, but, alas, the directors missed their chance.’

The United States Vets

A report by The Vietnam War (Chemical Warfare : America’s Use Of Chemical Warfare In The Vietnam War, said:

The chemical agent also interacted with the U.S. soldiers stationed near areas of attacks.

‘In 1979, The First Agent Orange Class Action was filed by the Agent Orange Victims International (AOVI) on behalf of its founder Paul Reutershan, a Vietnam veteran. He passed away in December 1978.

‘Reutershan believed that the damage from Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam had caused his chloracne and abdomminal cancer.

‘He attempted to file a personal injury lawsuit against three of the eventual six companies that were part of the defendants in the eventual class action. These companies are Dow, Monsanto, Hercules, Northwest Industries, Diamond Shamrock and North American Phillips These companies agreed to a $180 million out of court settlement so long they did not have to admit liability.

‘An Example Of The Diseases And Serious Illnesses Are As Follows:
 – Chronic B-Cell Leukaemia
 – Chloracne
 – Diabetes Mellitius Type 2
 – Hodgkins Disease 
 – Ischemic Heart Disease
 – Multiple Myeloma (Bone Marrow Cancer)
 – Parkinson’s Disease
 – Prostate Cancer
 – Respiratory Cancers
 – Soft Tissue Sarcomas
 – Spina Bifida, and multiple other birth defects in children.’


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