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.

, , , , ,

  • Peter Ryan

    Good article and thanks but “perhaps too much hypocritical moral indignation” – do you mean because we haven’t paid enough attention to the general awfulness of the Syrian conflict or because of the Vietnam experience you go on to talk about?
    The Chemical Weapons Convention only came into force in 1993, so surely this adds to the indignation level following the horrific barbarity of yesterday and other chemical attrocities in Syria.

  • Karl

    Interesting read. Hate the use of the word ordinance to describe explosives dropped from 50,000 ft designed to destroy all living things within a 500m radius.

  • Erewhon888

    You may also be interested in the little mentioned plans of the U.S. to help out the French at Dien Bien Phu with some atomic bombs. See write-ups on Operation Vulture or the book by John Prados: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Operation-Vulture-Americas-Dien-Bien-ebook/dp/B00I0FOMD8

    “The plan included an option to use up to three small atomic weapons on the Viet Minh positions in support of the French. The Joint Chiefs of Staff drew up plans to deploy tactical atomic weapons, U.S. carriers sailed to the Tonkin gulf, and reconnaissance flights over Dien Bien Phu were conducted during the negotiations. Radford, the top American military officer, gave this nuclear option his backing. US B-29s, B-36s, and B-47s could have executed a nuclear strike, as could carrier aircraft from the Seventh Fleet.” (Wikipedia)

  • SDLP supporter

    Terry, your posts are invariably interesting. The thought struck me, if one pretty horrible, but democratically elected guy (Donald Trump) bombed and got rid of Assad and his cronies, would he become something of a hero to the main stream media?

  • Korhomme

    2-4-D was, and perhaps still is, widely available as an herbicide for farmers in NI.

    And after Brexit, when we have ‘taken back control’ can we expect the dismantling of pesky EU regulations on dangerous chemicals?

  • Gopher

    Gas, or chemical and biological warfare to give its full name in nomenclature for the sixth century history student has came along way since catapulting festering carcasses over city walls to “hopefully” infect besieged cities with disease. For me the use of gas or rather lack of it in the field of strategic warfare is always interesting given to propensity for humans to resort to the most extreme measures in that form of combat. Not withstanding the use of Agent Orange which was seen as a non lethal weapon, humans oddly have by and large not used gas as a means to take warfare beyond the battlefield as they have with the bomb, the shell and the torpedo.

    In 1695 the shell or rather its delivery vehicle the cannon reached maturity in the field of Strategic Warfare with Louis XIV’s destruction of undefended Brussels by bombardment, When the delivery vechicle of the torpedo, the submarine became mature we seen strategic warfare adopt unrestricted submarine warfare. For the bomb us humans did not even have to wait for maturity, since pratically the invention of flight we have been bombing cities. Gas however remained on the battlefield in purely the tactical and operational domain and within a few years of its debut was outlawed by all the major powers.

    Now we have this incident of Gas in Syria. My reaction as a student of history is one should not let emotion run away on this and first establish the absolute facts. It is for this reason. On December 11th 1943 the Luftwaffe became aware that the Allies were that confident that they had been defeated in Italy they were not observing the blackout in ports. They were unloading ships under full illumination. The Luftwaffe command, Luftflotte 2 scrapped together whatever bombers they had left and sent them on a circuitous route to the port of Bari where there they found rich picking in the illuminated port and destroyed some 28 ships, including the liberty ship John Harvey whose cargo included a large quatity of mustard gas. The resulting cloud of gas caused unimagined injuries to soldiers, sailors and civilians of which all were ignorant of the cause, because the cargo was of course top secret. Nobody could understand the strange burns and other effects leading to treatment problems and further unnecessary deaths. The incident was hushed up by the Allied High Command, not just out of embarrassment but for genuinely pramatic reason to avoid any chance that Germany fearing she might be getting gassed launch a pre-emptive gas attack herself. The truth did not out itself until the sixties.

    So in Syria whilst I dont doubt Assad and Putin could use gas I dont doubt either that a President under pressure for his ties to Russia or inteligence services which understandly hate Russia because they have been fighting them for 60 years would be keen to apportion blame and there is no way on this earth I am taking the word of groups that use suicide bombers on an industrial scale no matter how many bodies I see. So in the absence of my trust we need independent verification on the ground, the ghosts of the John Harvey demand it.

  • Granni Trixie

    End justifying means …a slippery slope?

  • DP Moran

    Donald Trump was elected by the American people as a rejection of the interventionist neo-con foreign policy of his predecessors. If he now draws himself into a war with Syria as the Pentagon and MIC seem to be agitating for then he will have removed from power the most secular leader in the Middle East, a man who has protected the Christian people of Syria and leave them to the mercy of the Islamic fundamentalists of Al Nusra, who some in the West have the audacity to label as “moderate rebels”.

  • AntrimGael

    Watched the 20th anniversary BBC Hardtalk programme the other night. It showed footage of Tim Sebastian’s interview with an American helicopter gunship pilot who flew down over the village of My Lai and threatened to shoot his own troops if they didn’t stop massacring villagers. He was ostracised by the American military for decades for his actions. The man looked seriously affected by his experiences but more so because if the actions of his own side; powerful interview.

  • sonnychenoweth

    Good article about the terrible results of Operation Ranch Hand that applied 22 million gallons of Agent Orange over South Vietnam and a good part of Laos and Cambodia. One of the big problems was the application process. Today in America cotton farmers use Agent Orange with no apparent unpleasant side effects. And by the way, there were no B-52 bombers operating out of Da Nang. They flew out of Guam and Thailand.
    More on that here: >>> http://vietnamveterannews.com

  • Reader

    Granni Trixie: End justifying means …a slippery slope?
    The Guardian has taken to saying that something must be done about Assad. I don’t think the Guardian has offered up any workable suggestions. Maybe some sort of ribbon campaign? The alternatives seem to be centred on the Clinton proposal of a “no fly zone” i.e. threatening to shoot down any jets over Syria. I don’t think Putin would be too happy about that.

  • Gopher

    Or a slap, quite a big slap. A $93 million dollar slap. I could be wrong but 59 cruise missiles on a single target the size of an airbase could be the highest density cruise missile attack in history. Hopefully someone had the sense to mention to the Russians to remove any personel from the bas before the slap.