‘On This Day’ 1962: U.S. Begins 9-Year Chemical Warfare Campaign Against Vietnamese People
In 1961, the United States was becoming increasingly involved in an intractable conflict inherited from the defeated French in Indochina. The number of US troops in Vietnam stood at around 3,200, up from about 900 the previous year. But all was not well, despite this early surge. It seemed that no matter which tactics the Pentagon attempted, the Vietnamese “insurgents” could not be defeated.
Washington would have done well to study Vietnamese history. The dirt-poor but proud people there had fought off one foreign invasion after another, first rising up against French colonial occupiers, then battling imperial Japanese invaders, then fighting and defeating the French following Japan’s destruction in World War II.
By 1954, Vietnam was at long last free from foreign occupation. But the country was divided between the communist north and the autocratic but capitalist south, and before the Vietnamese people could enjoy their hard-fought freedom, American military “advisers” were intervening in the nation’s civil war on the side of the South.
The South Vietnamese government was widely despised as a brutal puppet of the Americans and a communist-led insurgency gained ground as the 1960s progressed. Instead of realizing that the Vietnamese people would fight any foreign invader who attempted to occupy the country, and rather than acknowledge the widespread popularity of the leftist insurgency, the Kennedy administration decided to send more and more “advisers,”
During President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s last year in office there were less than 1,000 US military personnel in Vietnam. By the end of Kennedy’s first year there were over 3,000, and by the beginning of 1962 more than 11,000 US troops had been deployed to Indochina. But despite Kennedy’s escalation, the insurgency only grew stronger. Such is the power and motivation of a people fighting to defend its homeland from foreign aggressors.
New tactics were needed to combat the growing insurgency. To that end, President Kennedy approved a plan to use chemical/biological weapons in Vietnam. American aircraft began spraying toxic herbicides over the rain forests of South Vietnam during Operation Ranch Hand in an attempt to destroy the dense jungle used for cover by the guerrillas. American military planners also wanted to eradicate crops that were feeding the insurgents.
Of all the chemical weapons used, one stands out for the unspeakably barbaric death and destruction it caused. Agent Orange, so called because it was shipped in barrels marked with an orange stripe, was first deployed to Vietnam on January 9, 1962. Over the next nine years, the US sprayed some 13 million gallons of the stuff over more than five and a half million acres of South Vietnamese countryside. These people were supposed to be our allies, yet the US was unleashing deadly poisons against them.
Agent Orange contains TCDD dioxin, the most toxic chemical known to mankind. Exposure causes severe birth defects and deformities as well a veritable medical encyclopedia of cancers and other ailments, including: soft tissue cancer, Non Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Hodgkins Disease, chronic lymphocytic leukemia, cancer of the prostate, larynx, and trachea, multiple myeloma, acute and subacute transient peripheral neuorpathy, Type II diabetes, spina bifida, chloracne, disorders of the endocrine, cardio-vascular, gastrointestinal, metabolic, neurological and respiratory systems and skin disorders.
The US government knew all about the deadly risks posed by this horrific chemical weapon but decided that it was perfectly okay to use it against the Vietnamese people, who were, after all, just “gooks.” Said Dr. James R. Clay, a former senior scientist at the Chemical Weapons Branch of the Air Force Armament Development Lab in Florida:
“When we initiated the herbicide program in the 1960s, we were aware of the potential for damage due to dioxin contamination… 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.”
Indeed, Dow Chemical, which manufactured Agent Orange (along with Monsanto, Diamond Shamrock, Hercules, Uniroyal, Thomson Chemicals and others), called a secret meeting at its corporate headquarters in early 1965 to express alarm that the Agent Orange being brewed up was far too toxic. But nothing was done to dilute the potency of the deadly weapon.
The effects on the Vietnamese people have been utterly shocking and devastating. According to the Congressional Research Service, as many as 4.8 million people were exposed to the American chemical attacks. Some 50,000 babies over three generations have been born with horrific deformities after their parents ingested Agent Orange in their food and water, and many future babies will be born with unspeakably grotesque disfigurements. Agent Orange continues to contaminate the Vietnamese water and soil to this very day, and some 800,000 people there require constant medical care.
Tens of thousands of American Vietnam war veterans were also exposed to Agent Orange, and many of their children suffer from birth defects similar to those found in Vietnamese children. But where a federal class action lawsuit against the weapon’s manufacturers resulted in a $180 million payout for the vets in 1984, all attempts by the people of Vietnam to gain desperately needed compensation have been shot down by the US government and American courts. Not a single Vietnamese victim of America’s deadly chemical warfare has received a single penny in compensation for the unimaginable suffering they have endured.
This is even more shameful when considering that at the 1973 Paris Peace Accords that ended the war, the United States agreed to pay $3.25 billion to Vietnam, with another $1.5 billion pledged later. Not one cent of that money has ever been paid.
Agent Orange continues to make headlines to this day. On January 9, 2015, 53 years to the day after this story began, the US Institute of Medicine announced that as many as 2,100 Air Force pilots who flew C-123 after they were used to spray Agent Orange were exposed to the chemical weapon and may be at risk for developing some of the diseases and ailments listed earlier in this article. And while there have been lawsuits and settlements, many veterans exposed to and sickened by Agent Orange continue to be deemed ineligible for benefits related to their illness.
Tagged Agent Orange, Agent Orange birth defects, Agent Orange Vietnam veterans, chemical warfare, chemical weapon, Dow Chemical Agent Orange, Indochina, Kennedy escalation Vietnam War, Monsanto Agent Orange, Operation Ranch Hand, Paris Peace Accords, President John F. Kennedy, TCDD dioxin, Vietnam War