Poison of the American War with Vietnam still lingers over 40 years later…


With revulsion, confusion and perhaps too much hypocritical moral indignation the World is coming to terms with yet another chemical weapons attack in Syria in the last few days.  But toxic chemicals have always been in the arsenals of our armies.  It is less acceptable to use them today off course but is there a good, proper or humane way to kill our enemies?  Whether it be the typhoid containing cow carcasses of the Middle-Ages, the mustard gas of the First World War trenches or the sarin gas of Saddam Hussain’s genocide, biologicals and chemicals can be used pretty effectively in giving the upper hand in the chaotic theatre of war.

Vietnam, 42 years after the end of hostilities with America, retains a burden from the chemicals poured over this county by the Americans.  It remains a stain on our humanity and, even though it remains a problem, we have too easily forgotten.  On a recent business trip to this vibrant and exciting country I wanted to be reminded of what was done all those years back.

I arrived in Tan Son Nhah Airport at Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and having stayed overnight near the airport I flew the next morning mid-way up the long thin country to Da Nang and from there transferred to Hoi An by bus.  Da Nang has a population of over one million and is pleasantly sited near the seven-mile China Beach where in the late 1960s and early 1970s American GIs took their R&R.  It was a brutal war dispatching millions of Vietnamese – some 2 million civilians died between 1965 to 1975 in the horror that is called locally the American War.   Da Nang was the home of the B52 Bombers who rained ordnance onto the mountains, cities, plains and people.  Indeed Da Nang, and a threat to its military base there, was the reason America entered the war between North and South and made it bloodier and more wicked.

Today luxury beach resorts are springing up all along the white sands that link Da Nang and Hoi An.  My hotel was fronted with the most beautiful emerald sea backed by azure sky. Visible out at sea the rocky Cham islands, home to the sea sparrow that build valuable nests harvested for food yet thankfully safe from over-exploitation since this is a major naval base for the Republic of  Vietnam one of the few remaining communist states. At the beach front bar, sipping a cocktail, it was easy to forget Collectivism remains the politics of this nation.

I take the short taxi ride to the four streets that run parallel along the Thu Bon River and make up the UNESCO World Heritage Site that is the town of Hoi An.    These 200 year old  streets of merchant houses and Chinese meeting halls have remained unchanged since Hoi An was the main trading port of Vietnam.  It was through here that the first missionaries came to the country but the missionary zeal ended when the last Americans flew out of Saigon in their helicopters in 1975.  Free to practice any religion now the population are secretive of any official religious designation.

I arrived back in Saigon to make a planned visit to the “War Remnants Museum”.  On the surface the museum seems a kitsch, poorly curated series of rooms within a modern square building.  The exhibits, mostly sepia photographs taken by myriad photo journalists, appear to be nothing more than blatant communist propaganda yet very soon I am absorbed into the brutality inflicted on, and the horrors suffered by, this mild and gentle people.

The Vietcong were hardly angels but what goes beyond propaganda in the exhibits is the unmasking of America’s hypocrisy.  As a child of the 1960s I watched on black and white TV this jungle war that was to become a check on American arrogance for the past 42 years and that a good thing.  But there was much wrong with the American War.  I came to the museum to learn more about Agent Orange.  I was quickly engrossed by the facts and figures on the use of defoliants and the legacy of the poison Tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin; better known as dioxin.  What I had not appreciated was that dioxin is an unavoidable contaminant in the manufacture of  2,4,5 T the synthetic plant hormone mixed in equal parts with 2,4 D to make Agent Orange.  So Agent Orange was not the problem; the problem was poor temperature control during manufacture in the US by Dow and other industrial giants.  This manufacturing sloppiness caused levels of dioxin as high as 60 ppm.  And when you spay 90,000 litres of the stuff over a country it’s not surprising you get toxic effects.

It was a surprise to learn that the British first used Agent Orange during the Malayan Crisis of the late 1950s but it was the Americans in Operation Ranch Hand who from 1965 to 1970 industrialised it.  What was most striking was that the personal cost is still evident in the cripples who beg on the busy, noisy, hot streets of Saigon.  Children in their thousands are born deformed today because of it.   Agent Orange was not a chemical weapon in the conventional sense but it was environmental thalidomide and it must never be used as a weapon of war again.

I am a pharmacist in Belfast.