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How the Pentagon used WMDs in Vietnam

Published Jun 16, 2005 7:45 PM

On April 30, 1975, U.S. imperialism suffered its sharpest, most stunning defeat of the last century. Its “advisers” and “diplomats” in Saigon fled in desperation onto helicopters that took them away to ships waiting in the South China Sea.

Between the military reverses of its South Vietnamese puppets and the fierce and rising resistance at home, the United States had to give up. For the Vietnamese people, the year 1975 was the end of 35 years of warfare.

But this didn’t end the ravages of war for the Vietnamese people. Among the worst was widespread poisoning by the dioxins included in herbicides.

Nor did it end their struggle to gain resources to combat these ravages. These efforts have included a lawsuit in U.S. courts for damages from dioxins used during the war.

The United States had devoted immense financial and human resources to prosecuting this war against the Vietnamese people. The most pernicious weapon the Pentagon used in Vietnam was herbicides.

Recent estimates of the number of
people exposed to herbicides in Vietnam between 1961 and 1971 oscillate between 2.1 and 4.8 million, spread over 20,500 villages.

The puppet South Vietnamese regime sprayed between 1971, when the United States was forced to stop, and 1975, when their government collapsed. This regime kept no records. Approximately 18,000,000 gallons of these poisons were used.

The U.S. Armed Forces used 15.5 million tons of air and ground munitions in the war. That is about 9 million more tons than it used in World War II.

These munitions left approximately 26 million craters in the soil of Vietnam, including 21 million in the South. They of course destroyed bridges, roads, schools, hospitals, dikes and canals, as well as kil ling massive numbers of civilians and soldiers.

The munitions that didn’t explode on impact are still killing people, over 30 years since they were expended.

The United States spent roughly $300 billion to $900 billion on the war, counting all the indirect costs like interest and veteran benefits. This is about the same as it spent on World War II, which involved dozens of countries.

The United States has provided no recovery aid to Vietnam since 1975. U.S. veteran groups have provided some assistance on a people-to-people level.

The human costs of the war were very high. Some 2.2 million Indochinese people died, including over 1.9 million Vietnamese, 200,000 Cambodians and 100,000 Laotians. The war left from 3 to 5 million Indochinese either wounded or infirm.

Some 58,151 U.S. soldiers died, along with 5,000 soldiers from U.S. allies. (From Indochina Newsletter, Asia Resource Center, Special Issue 93-97—The ABC’s of the Vietnam War.)

Consequences of chemical warfare

Three generations of Vietnamese have carried the consequences of chemical warfare—which is what spraying herbicides really is—in their flesh and genes.

Vietnam still has hospitals devoted to treating children born without limbs or with severe neurological impairments.

Most of these children are born in areas where there was heavy spraying of these herbicides, variously called Agent Orange, Agent Blue, Agent White, depending on the color of their containers.

The most dangerous component of these herbicides was an industrial chemical known as dioxin, which is a byproduct of the production of many chemicals in industrial societies.

More than 20 years ago, U.S. veterans who were involved in distributing these herbicides sued the manufacturers of Agent Orange, which settled out of court for $180 million. Given the magnitude of the suffering and disabilities of these vets, which ranged from cancer to diabetes, and the number involved, this really wasn’t much money.

Later, however, Adm. Elmo Zummalt’s son died of cancer, probably due to his exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam, and his grandson was born with neurological problems. Zumwalt had been chief of naval operations from 1970 to 1974, after heading U.S. naval forces in Vietnam and personally ordering the herbicide spraying that afflicted his son.

Zumwalt campaigned to get Congress to investigate the dangers of dioxin, which led to further funds being released to aid veterans. It did nothing for the Viet nam ese he poisoned.

Vietnamese begin mass campaign

In 2003, the Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange was formed. VAVA began a mass campaign to collect funds and support for a U.S. lawsuit against the Agent Orange manufacturers. It quickly got over 8 million signatures and in early 2005 brought its case in a Brooklyn federal court.

The U.S. government compensates those who develop a number of specific conditions, including spina bifida in the children of veterans. But in March, Judge Jack Weinstein ruled that as defense contractors, the Agent Orange firms could not be held liable for the decision of the U.S. government, which has sovereign immunity, to use the defoliants.

Weinstein also ruled that international agreements in force at the time did not cover the herbicides, as they should not be considered poisons.

Professor Dr. Hoang Dinh Cau, former chair of the Viet Nam Committee for Inves tigation of the Consequences of the U.S. Chemical War in Viet Nam, told the Vietnamese News Agency that the court’s decision had denied scientific evidence that was all too clear about the consequences of Agent Orange. The United States has turned its back on the truth in saying that no chemical war happened in Vietnam.

He also quoted a recent document published by the U.S. Academy of Science that the Ranch Hand operation—the Penta gon’s name for the spreading of herbicide— had destroyed some 40 percent of Vietnam’s mangrove forests, deprived local people of conditions to earn their living, and brought about drastic changes in coastal areas. He said that even now, 30 years after the U.S. bombing, what remains in many localities are just bare hills and degraded soil.

VAVA intends to appeal the U.S. court decision, which it finds faulty on both scientific and legal grounds. The Vietnam Agent Orange Relief and Responsibility Campaign has announced plans for Fall 2005 to conduct a U.S. speaking tour of representatives of VAVA and other Agent Orange victims.

When details of the trip are known, they will be announced on http://www.vn-agentorange.org


1. A very significant book, “Agent Orange: Yesterday’s crime, today’s tragedy,” published in French in February 2005 by the French-Vietnamese Friendship Association. An English edition is expected.

2. vned.free.fr/actualites.php?r=0, the French website of “The children of dioxin in Vietnam,” has a number of reports in English.

3. http://www.aafv.org/index1.htm, which is part of the French-Vietnamese Friendship association, has a good list of sites in French, English and Vietnamese on Agent Orange and a number of other issues.