SGM Herb Friedman (Ret.)
Note: This article was quoted by Loana Hoylman in an article titled Agent Blue: Arsenic-Laced Rainbow in THE VVA VETERAN. The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History in NYC used data from this article on a curriculum project that will be used in high school classrooms on the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam.
U.S. Aircraft Spraying Herbicide
It is interesting to note that during World War Two the Office of Strategic Services “Dirty Tricks” section was already experimenting with defoliants. The operation was named Maude Muller. I don’t think they were ever perfected. Unfortunately, they were ready to use by the Vietnam War.
This short article is not an exposé of herbicides or Agent Orange. There have been a thousand papers and a million words written about that. In this article we will look at some of the psychological operations that were designed to convince the Vietnamese people that these products were absolutely safe for human and animals.
One of the great problems for the Government of Vietnam (GVN) and its allies was that in many cases jungles and heavy plant growth grew near villages, roads and military bases. This allowed the Viet Cong insurgents to gather close to targets in complete secrecy and attack when the odds were the greatest in their favor. The obvious answer to this problem was to defoliate those areas near strategic sites and make it impossible for the enemy to hide in them. Thus, the plan to defoliate large areas of Vietnam came into being. What is interesting about this is that the United States and the GVN needed to convince the local population that the chemicals used to defoliate were no danger. A psychological operation was developed to tell the people that the chemicals were not dangerous and contaminated food and water was safe to ingest. In fact, almost a half-century after the war, it is the defoliants that are remembered for causing more deaths and injury than all the bombs dropped and bullets fired.
The start of Agent Orange is told in an unsigned article called The Chemist that gives the background of U.S. Army Chemical Officer Richard Grimes. The article says in part:
Developed as part of a British and American venture in 1943 to develop a herbicide to destroy enemy crops thus depriving them of their food supply, it was scheduled to be used in 1946 as part of Operation Downfall, the Invasion of Japan.
By 1953, Agent Orange had been assessed at the Bushnell Army Airfield in Florida, British stations in India and Australian, in Tanganyika (Zanzibar) at two locations, and over the Waturi Peninsula in Kenya. Britain used herbicides and defoliants in the Malayan Emergency which ended in 1960. US Secretary of State Dean Rusk advised Americas new President, John F. Kennedy, that the British use of herbicides/defoliants in Malaya had set a precedent for their use in warfare.
Grimes was sent to Fort McClellan, AL. He explained, We tested chemical warfare systems, and safety, always safety first Ranch Hand was Agent Orange, plain and simple. The delivery systems included artillery shells, generators pushing the chemical downwind, but the agent was usually delivered from spray tanks on helicopters or airplanes. I remember the time we were aboard a C-123 less than 100 feet from the ground, the back ramp down and the nozzles spraying Agent Orange. Grimes cautiously defended the use of Agent Orange. The side effects, of course, turned out to be atrocious, but it also saved a lot of lives. We defoliated areas around old French fortifications because the foliage covered hundreds, if not thousands, of land mines. Also, numerous American outposts bordered on dense jungle. Defoliation opened a field of fire which saved them from being overrun, and of course, denied the enemy concealment.
Grimes now suffers from neuropathy in his legs and arms, he loses balance and all feeling in his arms and legs so badly its difficult for him to go through papers, like money or mail. Lt. Col. Grimes is on 100% disability due to his exposure to Agent Orange.
The early Military history of this project is told in The Air Force and Herbicides in Southeast Asia 1961-1971, William A. Buckingham Jr., Office of Air Force History, 1982:
In 1961, President Diem of South Vietnam asked the United States to conduct aerial herbicide spraying in his country. In August of that year the South Vietnamese Air Force initiated herbicide operations with American help. But Diems request launched a policy debate in the White House. On one side were those that viewed herbicides as an effective and efficient means of stripping the Viet Cong of their jungle cover and food. Others, however, doubted the effectiveness of such a tactic and worried that such operations would both alienate friendly Vietnamese and open the United States to charges of barbarism for waging a form of chemical warfare. Both sides agreed upon the propaganda risks of that issue. At last, in November 1961, President Kennedy approved the use of herbicides, but only as a limited experiment requiring South Vietnamese participation and the mission-by-mission approval of the United States Embassy, the Military Assistance Command Vietnam and South Vietnams government.
A top-secret memorandum from the Secretary of Defense to the President dated 21 November 1961 goes into more detail. Notice they consider changing the insignia on the aircraft but decide that nobody would be fooled. The five-page letter has been edited for brevity.
President Diem has appealed for United States support of a defoliation program in Vietnam. The Country Team has recommended urgent approval of a program, including the following general types of operations which would be carried out as required to complement military plans. Each of the operations would be carefully planned and controlled to ensure discriminative target selection and execution.
The subsistence available to Viet Cong insurgents would be attacked by spraying their manioc, corn, sweet potato, rice, and other crops with commercially produced agricultural weed killer-type products (cacodylic acid and butyl 2, 4, and 5-T). Vietnamese pilots flying Vietnamese helicopters fitted with spray rigs provided by the United states would perform the actual spraying. These operations could begin as soon as required materials arrive in Vietnam.
Principal communication routes between Saigon and other key cities to include roads peripheral to Zone D (a Viet Cong Jungle base area northeast of Saigon) would be sprayed to defoliate and kill forest mantle and underbrush. Selected sections of Viet Cong bases areas, such as Zone D will be defoliated to 1mprove access and observation, and permit coordinated military actions in the area.
Use of Vietnamese aircraft is not feasible for these operations. Their helicopters do not have adequate capacity. The Vietnamese have C-47’s but this type of aircraft produces unsatisfactory distribution of the chemicals. For these operations, the United States would provide temporarily six U.S. C-123 aircraft with U.S. pilots. The chemicals employed will be 2, 4-D, and 2, 4, and 5-T. It is estimated that the entire program will cost $8-10 million.
Food denial is the aspect stressed by President Diem. It would be a continuing program, carried out concurrently with defoliation of jungle areas for tactical purposes. the use of chemicals to destroy food supplies is perhaps the worst application in the eyes of the world. There is, however, a precedent in that the British used helicopters for crop spraying in Malaya during 1953 (Operation Cyclone I). The markings of the aircraft and nationality of the pilots are significant factors. You will note that Vietnamese aircraft and crews can perform the food denial operations, but that U.S. aircraft and crews will be required for the tactical and border defoliation operations. There is the possibility of changing the plane markings to Vietnamese and employing covert air crews. However, in view of the nature of the aircraft, it is not believed that these measures would effectively disguise U.S. participation, and their use is not recommended. Immediately before the operation begins, the Vietnamese Government would announce publicly through press releases, a public statement, and a leaflet drop in areas to be sprayed that the program is under the Government of Vietnam direction and control.
Thomas L. Ahearn says in the formerly classified, CIA and the House of Ngo:
In 1962, Nhu called for more defoliation in the Central Highlands, partly to starve the VC and partly to force more Montagnards into accepting government protection.
An Official USAF Photo of the A/A45Y-1 Spray System Mounted in a UC-123K
The 1971 666-page secret report created by Robert Frank Futrell of the Office of Air Force, History Headquarters, titled The United States Air Force in Southeast Asia: The Advisory Years 1950 -1965 mentions defoliation. I have edited the report down to some pertinent statements for brevity:
On 21 October 1961, the Air Force approved six spray-equipped aircraft to Vietnam to be used for aerial defoliation and crop destruction according to the concept worked out by Project Agile, favored by President Diem, and approved by Ambassador Nolting, provided the planes would be unmarked and the crews would wear civilian clothing. President Diem approved a concept for a Ranch Hand defoliation of jungle cover along key roads on 4 December 1961. The discussion of an employment for the spray-equipped Ranch Hand aircraft brought out the fact that there was little experience as to how well defoliation would work and that Diem had not agreed to assume responsibility for such activity.
The Vietcong had a field day with the spraying: they not only claimed that the spraying constituted chemical warfare, but they encouraged the Vietnamese peasants to believe that any plant that died anywhere was due to the spraying. In the months that crop destruction remained under study, Vietcong propaganda against defoliation gave an unexpected advantage to the Government of Vietnam, especially among the Montagnard tribal people. The Montagnards had been impressed with the victory of Ho Chi Minh over the French and had not given South Vietnam much chance of success. The Montagnards were animists and were impressed with the Vietcong charges that a tree that died anywhere in Vietnam was killed by chemicals. Nhu said that the highlanders believed that a power to kill trees would permit a South Vietnamese victory, and they began to leave the highlands in numbers and present themselves for resettlement in strategic hamlets. The movement of the Montagnards deprived the Vietcong of an accustomed source of food. Reports from Vietcong prisoners captured in II Corps indicated that food was very short and that the guerrillas were having to turn from fighting to farming to sustain themselves.
Based on the herbicidal defoliation operations and the crop destruction tests conducted during 1962, the US Joint Chiefs of Staff informed President Kennedy that defoliation should be continued as necessary in Vietnam because properly applied herbicides provided a degree of military and psychological advantage that might deter an enemy from military operations.
After an analysis of defoliation and crop destruction activities, Ambassador Lodge and General Harkins recommended on 9 October 1963 that the country team should be authorized to approve chemical crop destruction based on military need, and in January 1964, US Army senior division advisors were authorized to make a wider use of aerial spray defoliation for clearing foliage from around depots, airfields, and outposts and to approve hand-spray operations against enemy crops.
Author Orr Kelly mentions the spray campaign and the warning leaflets in From a Dark Sky the Story of U.S. Air Force Special Operations, Presidio Press, Novato, CA, 1996. He says in part:
In November 1961, six C-123 transport planes were quickly modified into spray planes. Three arrived in Vietnam in January 1962. This was the beginning of Project Ranch Hand. Each plane carried a thousand-gallon tank of herbicide. Flying in a four ship formation, the planes were able to defoliate a swath of jungle a fifth of a mile wide and ten miles long in one pass.
Between January 1961 and its last mission on 7 January 1971, Ranch Hand delivered more than 18.85 million gallons of herbicide. C-47s flew ahead of them, dropping leaflets to explain the defoliation program to villagers. On some missions, flying in small U-10 utility planes, the pilots carried powerful loudspeakers that broadcast tape-recorded propaganda messages to the populace.
Speaking of leaflets, an 11 October 1962 memorandum from the Director of the Vietnam Working Group to the Deputy Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs adds:
Defoliation operations in the Delta were very successful. Six target areas are almost finished. 100,000 leaflets were dropped each time one of these operations was carried out.
John Stapleton adds in Agent Orange: the Cleanup Begins:
Agent Orange was sprayed in an operation named Ranch Hand. The motto of the sprayers was Only you can prevent a forest, a parody of the Smokey the Bear US Forestry Department's motto. The call sign of the C-123s spraying Agent Orange was Hades from the Greek word for Hell or the Underworld.
Loana Hoylman mentions the operation in an article titled Agent Blue: Arsenic-Laced Rainbow in The VVA Veteran:
Besides Ranch Hand, other defoliation operations were named Trail Dust and Pink Rose. The U.S. Air Force conducted Operation Trail Dust. In Operation Ranch Hand, C-123 cargo transport planes were used to spray herbicides. The Air Force had the responsibility for 95 percent of the program. But all branches of the military were involved, as were South Vietnamese forces.
The USAF mentions the spraying and leaflet drops in Psychological Operations and Civic Action in Special Air Warfare. The report says in part:
Defoliants were also used to eliminate Viet Cong hideouts and, in numerous instances, actually to destroy South Vietnamese crops to prevent their falling into the hands of the Viet Cong. South Vietnamese peasants usually did not distinguish among the various uses of aerial sprays and consequently the psychological act was negative: conclusion and fear produced resentment toward the government and vulnerability to communist propaganda. To allay sortie of this hostility, the military often had to use leaflet drops and other educational programs in conjunction with spraying missions. But since defoliation was often used for different purposes, communist propagandists usually held the advantage.
The defoliation campaign was also mention in the 2010 report: RAND in Southeast Asia - A History of the Vietnam War Era:
On the basis of the RAND report and MACV’s own evaluation of the crop destruction program in three major Viet Cong areas since July 1964, U.S. Ambassador Taylor recommended in his cable that the program be expanded to further deny food sources to the Viet Cong. He also recommended amending guidelines to allow crop destruction in less-remote and more-populated areas, if these areas were under strong Viet Cong control and if significant military gain could be achieved from the sprayings. Considering that the alternatives for dealing with Viet Cong-controlled areas were to abandon them, to bomb and strafe them, or to attack with ground troops supported by air and artillery strikes, Taylor believed that destroying crops to starve out the Viet Cong and the population would pose “comparatively less risk to the civilian population.” Taylor accepted that these extensive sprayings would undoubtedly cause some resentment on the part of the population whose crops were also destroyed, but he believed that this resentment could be mitigated with a stronger psychological warfare/civil affairs program to divert this resentment toward the Viet Cong and away from the Government of Vietnam.
A Ranch Hand insignia
This patch was probably unofficial and made in-country. At the center is the Chinese word for purple. This implies that the patch is early and at the time they were mostly spraying agent purple. Agent purple was chemically similar to Agent Orange, both of them contained herbicides 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T. Agent Purple had the following composition: 50% n-butyl ester 2,4-D, 30% n-butyl ester 2,4,5-T, and 20% isobutyl ester 2,4,5-T. Notice that right across the center of the lush green jungle at the center of the patch there is a brown stripe. That would be the result of spraying the defoliant. The red and yellow border remind us of the flag of the Republic of Vietnam.
Curiously the Communists were already attacking the defoliants by 1962. As early as 1962 the Viet Cong were producing voluminous amounts of propaganda leaflets. The United States Information Service in Saigon collected over 600 that year alone. They described them in a publication called National Liberation Front Propaganda. Among the major themes were anti-Americanism, anti-Diem, music, poetry, strategic hamlets and black publications, items that seemed to be a political or religious tract but were in fact pro-Viet Cong and anti- Government. None of the items were illustrated, simply briefly described. I did find this leaflet description in the booklet:This is a single page Vinh Long leaflet attacking the government defoliation campaign. The purpose of spraying, it is charged, is to destroy the peoples lands and crops, and impoverish them so that they can all be herded into strategic hamlets.
The United States was using all types of Media at the time to refute the charges:
At the direction of the Department of State, Ambassador Nolting has discussed the public relations aspects of the defoliation program with the Government of Vietnam. The Ambassador has obtained Government of Vietnam concurrence in the State Department's proposals that, at the time of the operation, the Vietnamese Government would undertake appropriate publicity in the form of press releases, public statements, and leaflet drops. The publicity would include statements that the program is under Government of Vietnam direction and control and that U.S. assistance has been requested. The defensive purpose of the program will be explained and, in addition, efforts will be made to advise the inhabitants of affected areas that the spray will have no harmful effects on humans, livestock, or the soil. In response to any press inquiries, U.S. officials would reply along the following lines:
"Noting that Communist guerrillas use roadside underbrush to ambush civilian buses, trucks, and passenger cars, making roads unsafe for daily travel by people of the country, the Government of Vietnam has asked the U.S. for assistance in a program of clearance of jungle growth along roads of Vietnam. U.S. equipment will be used. Road clearance will aid the ARVN in patrolling roads to protect people and will facilitate normal maintenance. Operation involves use of materials which are like those used every day for weed clearance along rights of way in the United States. As our people know from experience, these defoliants of the 2-4D variety are not harmful to humans, animals, or the soil. Since there are miles of jungle roads in Vietnam, U.S. planes and personnel are actively cooperating in jungle growth clearance operation."
Radio Moscow accused the U.S.-Diemist clique of ordering a chemical warfare plan to destroy food in South Vietnam. Radio Peking also mentioned the subject on 13 January 1962, and various themes have been used recently by the North Vietnamese. On 19 and 24 January 1962 Radio Hanoi broadcasts emphasized the destruction of natural resources and of crops by toxic chemical spraying. This is an intensification of Communist propaganda noted as early as 6 November 1961.
On the Together we Served Air Force site, USAF Command Master Sergeant Joseph DeLuca talked about defoliation missions:
In 1970, I was off to Viet Nam, going to the 12th Special Operations Squadron Low-Level Defoliation team. That was one hell of an outfit to be with. Twenty-Five feet over the terrain, flying fast and low 240 knots with jets and reciprocal engines going strong. I was proud to be a Ranch Hand member, and the Department of Defense told us where to spray. I flow missions over Danang, Hue, Around Monkey Mountain, Happy Valley, and the Delta. I flew 114 Missions, 440 hours in combat with 31 hits by enemy fire.
My worst mission was in Viet Nam with the 12th Special Operations Squadron Ranch Hands. Our mission that day was Happy Valley near Nha Trang AFB. After our briefing, I walked out to preflight my plane. Shortly afterwards, my pilots came out and asked me about our smoke grenades. I had ten on board. They asked me to get more. On my way back to the aircraft, I felt something was up. Sure enough, North Vietnam troops had been seen in the area. I felt this was the day we were not coming home, and I would never see my daughter again.
We had a six-ship formation on target. From the start, during descent from 3000 feet, we began to take ground fire. All six planes were spraying. We had three F-100 fighters in front laying down cluster bomb units and three behind us laying down 20-millimeter fire. On the first run, Colonel Clayton's lead pilot was hit, and we took the lead as his aircraft rose to gain altitude. It was a rough ride with all of us taking hits. We escorted his plane to Nha Trang, where Colonel Clayton was taped up and sent back to Bien Hoa. 19 July 1970 was a day we will always remember. I lost my landing gear hydraulics and auxiliary power unit. We had to shut down one engine on the way home. That was the day I was written up for the Distinguished Flying Cross
Bernard C. Nalty mentions Nixon, Vietnamization, budget cuts, and defoliation in Air War over South Vietnam 1968–1975:
Cuts in the Department of Defense budget had raised questions about the value of the defoliation program, compared with other aspects of the war effort. Although facing the prospect of a 30-percent fund reduction for buying and spraying herbicide, General Abrams sought to retain a project he considered militarily useful. He believed that spraying deprived the enemy of concealment and food crops and that the most efficient means of application was the UC–123. Without these planes, he would have to rely on helicopters, which lacked the range to destroy crops in distant communist strongholds, or hand-operated sprayers, effective only along roads or on the perimeter of fire support bases and other installations.
General Abrams endorsed spraying and wanted to keep the UC–123s, but a new consideration doomed not only the spray planes but the entire herbicide effort. In the spring of 1970, evidence appeared linking an ingredient of agent orange, the herbicide most widely used in South Vietnam, to birth defects in humans. The results of tests on laboratory animals persuaded Secretary Laird to suspend use of this chemical compound. Still in use were agents white and blue, but neither was as effective as orange against as wide a variety of vegetation. Ironically, agent blue, an arsenic-based compound, had caused misgivings during earlier spraying, but it now proved less dangerous than orange, which had formerly seemed as safe as it was effective. Because white and blue were less versatile than orange, targets for defoliation dwindled rapidly, so that after the ban, the UC–123s flew some 60 percent fewer missions than before.
Between 1962 and 1971, the United States military sprayed nearly 20,000,000 gallons of chemical herbicides and defoliants in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia as part of Operation Ranch Hand. The program's goal was:
1. To defoliate forested and rural land, depriving guerrillas of cover.
2. To induce forced urbanization, destroying the ability of peasants to support themselves in the countryside, and forcing them to move to government-controlled cities, thus depriving the guerrillas of their rural support and food supply.
Helicopter Spraying Herbicide
We should mention that small scale defoliation experiments using 2-4-D and 2-4-5-T were conducted by the British during the Malayan Emergency in 1951. Areas of jungle close to roadways were cleared using chemical defoliation to help prevent ambushes by Communist terrorists. Much of the U.S. policy (including strategic hamlets) was first tried by the British in Malaya and the United States felt that these policies that had been victorious in Malaya would also work in Vietnam. A secret British Government Memorandum by the Secretary of State for the Colonies dated 21 December 1951 says in part:
It is agreed on all hands that the risks of ambush by bandits can be greatly reduced by defoliation of roadside jungle. A certain amount of this is already being done by hand but the process is slow and costly and the vegetation quickly grows again. Chemical defoliation would, it is believed, be much more effective. Experiments on a small scale have been carried out using two recently discovered hormone weed killers (2-4-D and 2-4-5-T) with sodium trichloracetate in various combinations. Tests began on the 17 September 1951, by means of hand sprays, and within ten days the foliage was dead
110-gallon defoliant tank on a UH-1B Iroquois Helicopter 20 March 1970
184th Chemical Company - 1st Cavalry Division Phuoc Vinh III Corps
Jay Gordon Simpson mentions this program in Not by Bombs Alone Lessons from Malaya, JFQ, summer 1999:
Another helicopter role was crop spraying. Food denial became a crucial operation against the guerrillas, who turned to growing crops in the jungle. Helicopters sprayed toxic chemicals on Communist Terrorist cultivation sites. These missions started in 1952, and by the end of the next year 88 sites had been destroyed.
Sergio Miller says further in Malaya the Myth of Hearts and Minds:
The British used Agent Orange in Malaya, but for the very British reason of cutting costs The alternative was employing local labor three times a year to cut the vegetation. British stinginess over this matter in one respect helped to avoid the controversies provoked by the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam. The original intention was to crop spray but even this was deemed too expensive by the protectorate authorities. Eventually someone struck on the idea of simply hosing the jungle from the back of bowser trucks and this is what the British did, in limited areas and to no great effect. This happily amateur effort at chemical warfare undoubtedly saved future British governments from the litigation suffered by post-Vietnam US governments.
The Rhodesians also used defoliants on contested areas in their fight with insurgents who wanted to throw out the Ian Smith ruling government. Instead of the Agent Orange used by the Americans, the Rhodesians used HYVAR-X which totally destroyed all vegetation.
In Vietnam, about 6,542 spraying missions were carried out by the USAF. As a result, many of the base crews that loaded the herbicides and air crews that flew the missions later suffered from various diseases, even though they were never actually sprayed. They continually came in contact with the chemicals. By 1971, 12 percent of the total area of South Vietnam had been sprayed with defoliating chemicals. In some areas the chemical concentrations in soil and water were hundreds of times greater than the levels considered safe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. About 28 of the former US military bases in Vietnam where the herbicides were stored and loaded onto airplanes are believed to still have high level of dioxins in the soil, posing a health threat to the surrounding communities.
The Seventh Air Force In Country Tactical Air Operations Handbook (7 AFP 55-1) mentions Psychological Warfare and Herbicides in Chapter 8. It says in part:
The employment of herbicide to expose the enemy and to deny him food has been recognized as an important weapon in this insurgency war To better administer this portion of the war effort, the U.S. Army Vietnam and the 7th Air Force have established collocated units which work in unison throughout South Vietnam. In each corps area, an Army Psywar company is responsible for the overall psychological warfare effort in support of the U.S., Free World Military Assistance, and Republic of Vietnam forces. Policy guidelines are developed by the Joint US Public Affairs Office and the MACV Psychological Directorate.
All B-52 in-country strikes are followed within four hours by a Psywar leaflet drop. These missions can be conducted by any of three types of aircraft assigned to Psywar units. The U-10 is capable of dropping 60,000 leaflets; the 0-2B, 200,000; the C-47, one million.
One air commando squadron (US-123 aircraft) is responsible for the aerial defoliation of crops There are three types of defoliation chemicals now in use in South Vietnam. None of the three types are harmful to animal or human life.
Since this report mentions the C-123 aircraft, we should add that in 2015 it was discovered that these old Vietnam era planes still contained the residue of Agent Orange. An Institute of Medicine Report stated in part:
Between 1972 and 1982, approximately 1,500 to 2,100 U.S. Air Force Reserve personnel trained and worked on C-123 aircraft that previously had been used to spray herbicides, including Agent Orange, during Operation Ranch Hand in the Vietnam War. Samples taken from these aircraft show the presence of AO residues The AF reservists would have experienced some exposure to chemicals from herbicide residue when working inside C-123s.
In 2016, the Department of Veteran Affairs finally acknowledged that Monsantos Agent Orange was responsible for the health ailments of over 2,100 Air Force servicemen. Federal officials agreed to release over $45 million in disability benefits to Air Force active duty personnel and reservists who were exposed to Agent Orange from residue off C-123 aircraft, despite never having been to Vietnam. The admission follows an Institute of Medicine study that concluded that some C-123 reservists stationed in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts had been exposed to Agent Orange residues in the planes and suffered higher risks of health problems as a result.
Agent Orange was the code name for the worst of the defoliants used by the U.S. military. It got its name from the color of the orange-striped 55 gallon drums in which it was shipped. A 50:50 mixture of 2-4-5-T and 2-4-D, it was manufactured for the U.S. Department of Defense primarily by Monsanto Corporation and Dow Chemical. The Communist Vietnam government estimates that because of the herbicide, 400,000 people were killed or maimed, and 500,000 children born with birth defects.
In 1971 the Department of the Army published the manual Tactical Employment of Herbicides. It said in regard to Agent Orange:
ORANGE is a systemic herbicide that defoliates a wide variety of woody and broadleaved herbaceous plants. It affects grasses, bamboos, and similar plants less. Agent ORANGE is absorbed by a plant at the point of application within a few hours, and the chemical is translocated. The components of ORANGE are rapidly decomposed by soil microorganisms and the chemical usually disappears from soils within 1 to 3 months following application. Lateral distribution of the agent due to volatility alone is negligible. ORANGE is low in toxicity to man, fish, and wildlife; but it will cause slight skin irritation and minor inhalation effects.
U.S. Soldier Sprays Agent Orange without Protective Gear
The US also attacked food crops primarily using Agent Blue starting in 1962. By 1965, about 42 percent of all herbicide spraying was dedicated to food crops. This forced farmers to migrate to the cities where they could be better controlled. The urban population in South Vietnam nearly tripled: from 2.8 million people in 1958, to 8 million by 1971. The Herbicide manual said about agent blue:
This agent is readily absorbed through the skin, and prolonged absorption may cause a distinct garlic odor on the breath. BLUE has a very low toxicity to animals.
Loana Hoylman adds:
Agent Blue; Agent Orange; Agents Pink; Green; White; and Purple. The Rainbow Agents. Usually, they are all listed under Agent Orange. Each agent causes varying degrees of harm to living creatures, from plants to birds to humans. Agent Orange and most of the Rainbow Agents were phenoxy herbicides contaminated with dioxin.
Agent Blue was the exception. Agent Blue was made of cacodylic acid and sodium cacodylate: arsenic compounds. Arsenic, the favored poison of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Agatha Christie and the Borgias. Everyone has heard of the lethality of arsenic, but despite the warnings of scientists and politicians, the U.S. military sprayed arsenic on rice paddies, bamboo groves, the Viet Cong, Vietnamese civilians, and its own personnel. Arsenic also is a carcinogen.
While all of the Rainbow Agents were used in defoliation, only Agent Blue targeted food crops. While the other agents destroyed broad-leaf vegetation, Agent Blue was used on narrow-leaved plants. It was used to destroy bamboo cover, but its main purpose was to kill rice and other grains. The rice paddies couldnt be burned, and the phenoxy herbicides only worked on broad-leafed plants. Agent Blue desiccated the rice plants: They wilted and crumbled. Agent Blue was first used in 1962. Spraying continued until 1971. Vietnamese rice today remains tainted with arsenic.
Other herbicides were named according to the color of the identification bands painted on the storage drums. From 1962-1964, during the early stages of Operation Ranch Hand the most commonly used herbicides were Pink and Purple. After 1964, the most common herbicides were Orange, White and Blue. By 1970, reports of the toxicity of the dioxin in the herbicides were becoming public and in 1971 the spraying was halted. What is interesting is that the chemical companies that produced the herbicides have never claimed any responsibility or liability, but they established a 180 million dollar fund for veterans who were suffering from the results of the dioxin exposure. That sounds like guilty to me.
North Vietnamese Major Tu Duc Phang after Agent Orange Spraying
Studies show that veterans who served in the South during the war have increased rates of cancer, nerve, digestive, skin and respiratory disorders. Veterans from the south of Vietnam had higher rates of throat cancer, acute/chronic leukemia, Hodgkins lymphoma and non-Hodgkins lymphoma, prostate cancer, lung cancer, colon cancer, soft tissue sarcoma and liver cancer. It is interesting to note that after years of stonewalling these problems in their search for a smoking gun, the U.S. Veterans Administration now just assumes that veterans who served in Vietnam and have these diseases (and a host more) got them from defoliants and the approval of payment is automatic. One does not need to show proof that he was sprayed, just showing that a soldier was in Vietnam is now considered presumptive proof.
In 2016, the Oregon National Guard published a booklet with a listing of what maladies are recognized as being caused by Agent Orange. For decades the Veterans Administration refused to see a connection between herbicides and disease. The answer was there is no smoking gun. Now with proof of being deployed to Vietnam the diagnoses and treatment is automatic. Here is the preamble and the list of diseases:
Veterans who served in the Republic of Vietnam between 9 January 1962, and 7 May 1975 are presumed to have been exposed to Agent Orange and other herbicides used in support of military operations. If a Vietnam veteran has any of the following conditions, the VA will presume that the condition was caused by exposure to Agent Orange:
Chloracne or other Acneform Disease similar to Chloracne
Porphyria Cutanea Tarda
Acute and Subacute Peripheral Neuropathy
Diabetes Mellitus (Type II)
Spina Bifida (for the children of Vietnam Veterans)
B Cell Leukemias,such as hairy Cell Leukemia
Ischemic Heart Disease
The 6 August 1967 PSYOP Guide prepared by the Office of the Psychological Operations Directorate of the United States Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, mentions defoliation:
The Defoliation Program provides security for lines of communication by removing dense vegetation that could be used to conceal ambush sites, remove jungle cover from enemy base areas and infiltration routes, and provide increased visibility around friendly installations. PSYOP programs can minimize any adverse psychological impact of defoliation and reduce the effect of enemy propaganda by providing the population with timely information. The defoliant used in Vietnam is particularly effective against broadleaf vegetation and is harmless to men and animals.
Similar comments are found in the August 1969 working paper; A Review of the Herbicide Program in South Vietnam.
The herbicide PSYWAR effort which is an important part of the overall program has been accelerated in 1967. Both aerial loudspeakers and leaflets are used to explain necessity of the program to the people, to emphasize the non-toxicity of chemical defoliants to humans and animals, and to gain understanding and support from the civilian population. Procedures to reimburse civilians for inadvertent losses are also provided.
The PSYOP Newsletter of January 1968 lists some official publications that are to be consulted in connection with propaganda mentioning Herbicides:
The following references provide guidance to PSYOP personnel in connection with the use of herbicides and defoliants:
HQ MACV Directive 525-1. 22 November 1967.
JUSPAO Guidance #31. 25 February 1967.
Appendix 7 to Annex H, to Combined Campaign Plan 1968. 11 November 1967
The Military Assistance Command - Vietnam directive basically tells who is responsible for what action, how requests should be received and forwarded, and what reports should be forwarded on a regular basis. It points out that:
MACV exercises command supervision, coordination, liaison, and control of all U.S. armed forces in support of defoliation and chemical crop destruction operations in the Republic of Vietnam.
The Joint United States Public Affairs Office prepared a publication on the subject, JUSPAO Guidance Number 31 PSYOP Aspects of Defoliation dated 25 May 1967. It said in part:
Enemy propaganda has depicted and continues to depict the aerial and ground spray herbicides used in defoliation in RVN as harmful to humans and livestock. Both overt and whispering campaigns are employed by the VC to spread fear and arouse hatred among the rural population of what is called the poison that destroys the peoples livelihood. Even school primers in Viet Cong-controlled areas inculcate this attitude. For example, a captured Viet Cong grammar school text includes among its nursery rhymes: We children hate Americans who are cruel. They scatter poison to destroy our paddies and vegetables.
The Guide continues:
The type of chemical spray applied to vegetation in RVN is absolutely harmless to men and animals. It has been used for more than twenty years by advanced agricultural countries without any cases of harm or injury caused to humans or livestock There is no residual effect on the soil or future vegetation from the herbicide treatment. Re-growth will occur almost immediately and will again impair visibility under normal conditions.
PSYOP personnel should be prepared to counter VC and VC-inspired allegations that herbicides used in the RVN are poisonous and bring harm to humans and animals that come in contact with them. Wherever herbicide operations are undertaken as a part of the tactical mission, PSYOP personnel may produce or generate local area leaflets and other media products giving the reasons for defoliation as a defensive measure to deny the enemy cover and concealment Our output should make the points that: Defoliants used in Vietnam are non-poisonous; even food and water affected by the spray can be consumed without danger Defoliation has been conducted in Vietnam, where required, since 1961 without any adverse effect whatever on either civilian or military personnel in the affected area. Nor have domestic animals been harmed by the spray.
Ex-PSYOP Trooper Mervyn Edwin Roberts III, PhD, mentions the American belief in the safety of the sprays in: The Psychological War for Vietnam, 1960-1968: University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas, 2018:
JUSPAO issued guidance on defoliation operations. It stressed the use of similar herbicides in the U.S., Great Britain, the USSR and many other countries employing scientific methods of agriculture, and that the agents left no residual effect on the soil or future vegetation from the herbicide treatment. Per the guidance, Defoliants used in RVN are non-poisonous; even food and water affected by the spray can be consumed without danger. It noted the chemicals were used on more than 400,000 acres annually in the United States. At the time this guidance was issued, scientists thought it was true. However, by 1969 evidence of potential problems emerged and the military phased out use of Agent Orange by 1971. The then unknown factor was PCB contamination of the agent introduced during production. In the meantime, the National Liberation Front continued the widespread use of this increasingly credible theme.
The Americans were clearly wrong with their beliefs about the safety of the agents. I would like to think that they were just mistaken and not printing what they knew to be a lie.
Vietnamese Army Political Warfare Training Center Patch
Many of the leaflets that we will depict here are found in the Leaflet Catalog Psywar Training booklet produced by the Vietnamese Army Political Warfare Training Center. The Vietnamese had their own PSYOP units just as the Americans did. They worked closely together. For instance, The Vietnamese 10th Political Warfare (POLWAR) Battalion worked in I Corps with the U.S. 7th Psychological Operations Battalion. They shared the same compound in Da Nang and their printing facilities were integrated. Each PSYWAR Company contained five Civic Action teams, one intelligence team, and one indoctrination team. The first priority of the POLWAR Battalion was command information; informing and indoctrinating friendly military forces. The second priority was winning over the civilian population, and the third was PSYOP efforts aimed at the enemy.
A group of Nationalist Chinese PSYOP specialists initiated POLWAR courses to Vietnamese officers in 1960. In 1964, the South Vietnamese POLWAR program was launched and directed by Chinese advisers in association with the new POLWAR Division, US Military Assistance Command, Vietnam.
Credibilis, the 4th PSYOP Group monthly Journal said about the Vietnamese POLWAR units:
There is one POLWAR Battalion assigned to each of the Corps Tactical Zones. The 10th Battalion is in I Corps at Da Nang. The 20th Battalion is in II Corps at Pleiku, the 30th Battalion in in III Corps at Bien Hoa, the 40th Battalion in in IV Corps at Can Tho and the 50th Battalion is in Saigon.
The booklet is a bit odd in that the first 58 pages depict early American Joint U.S. Public Affairs Office (JUSPAO) leaflets from SP-38 to SP-73. The remaining 62 pages depict leaflets produced by the Vietnamese. The book gives examples of leaflets considered valuable and effective so that new PSYOP troops can use the images and the text when writing their own leaflets. My copy contains a note from Lieutenant Colonel Eldon R. Davis, Chief of Psywar, dated 11 May 1964 that says:
Attached are documents ordered from U. S. Army Broadcasting and Visual Activity, Pacific, (USABVAPAC) and designed here. The catalog is a collection of leaflets found effective to assist the leaflet writers in the field with future copy.
Note: USABVAPAC was disbanded 20 October 1965 and reorganized at the 7th PSYOP Group.
I suspect that the subject of defoliation and the loss of crops and farm animals were considered so delicate and sensitive that the Vietnamese were tasked with writing and disseminating the early leaflets on the subject. Later, those leaflets were placed in the training booklet and sent to other Vietnamese and American units to help them in the wording and discussion of the theme in their own leaflets.
The United States seems to have gone to some pains to make the defoliation seem a Vietnamese project. Although for the most part the aircraft and chemicals were American, MACV Directive 525-1 states that the use of herbicides for defoliation and crop destruction was primarily an operation of the government of South Vietnam, supported by U.S. assets and expertise. All requests for fixed-wing aircraft defoliation and for fixed-wing, helicopter, and ground spray crop destruction originated at the Vietnamese district or province level. These requests were processed through ARVN division and corps tactical zones to the joint General Staff of the Republic of Vietnam armed forces. Simultaneously, U.S. commanders and advisers involved in the project were submitting their views through channels to MACV's J-3 (Operations). The US approval process involved representatives from MACV's J-3, J-2 (Intelligence), and Psychological Operations section and from Operation RANCH HAND, Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS), U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Joint U.S. Public Affairs Office (JUSPAO), and the American Embassy.
If approved, the joint General Staff was notified, and a coordination meeting was held in the capital of the province concerned. The province chief who sponsored the meeting was joined by the U.S. province and corps advisers, MACV's Chemical Operations Division action officer, joint General Staff representatives, and RANCH HAND personnel. The Joint General Staff then published an operation order for the project and established target priorities. They requested that U.S. support be provided on order. Details of the co-ordination of U.S. support were provided by the Chemical Operations Division to the commander of the Seventh Air Force and to the 12th Special Operations Squadron. I should mention that some of the US aircraft had removable insignia.
A classified secret 1965 document from General Westmoreland to General Wheeler in Washington D.C. mentions the program and the problems. It says in part:
We are under no restrictions from Washington with respect to defoliants or herbicides.
We now have seven spray aircraft in country. Our emphasis has been on crop destruction in as much as we have considered this to be the most productive in the long run. However, we have undertaken defoliation operations in critical areas on a number of occasions The fact is that we do not have the capability to defoliate by spray aircraft all of the areas which might be desirable in view of the priorities which we have set ourselves There are 500 to 1000 tactical locations in South Vietnam on which the jungle constantly encroaches which are cleared by hand or by hand spray for this is the nature of the problem faced in this part of the world.
Walter J. Boyne discusses the clandestine portion of the operations in Ranch Hand, Air Force Magazine, August 2000:
The sensitivity of herbicidal warfare became apparent. Despite urgent pleas from the field, officials debated at length whether the C-123s should be disguised with South Vietnamese insignia and flown by USAF crews in civilian clothes. As the origin of the aircraft could not be denied, this idea was abandoned.
An Official USAF Photo of a Vietnamese Officer and U.S. Crew Member Operating the Herbicide Pump on a C-123
According to authors Stellman, Christian, Weber and Tomasallo writing an article entitled The extent and patterns of usage of Agent Orange and other herbicides in Vietnam, Nature, 17 April 2003, the idea was not abandoned.
US policy emphasized that its forces were assisting the RVN in the herbicide program. C-123 aircraft carried out the missions camouflaged and equipped with removable identification insignias. Crop destruction aircraft bore South Vietnamese markings and were accompanied by a Vietnamese crew member under a State Department/Department of Defense concept known as Farmgate. Flight crew wore civilian clothing.
So, although the chemicals were made by American companies and dropped by American aircraft, there seems to be a deniability built into this operation. I found very few American leaflets that mention defoliation although they clearly exist. For instance, U.S. Army FM 33-1 Psychological operations U.S. Army Doctrine, June 1968, admits that there are propaganda messages that promote defoliation:
Populace and Resources Control. Populace and resources control operations often are unpopular because they usually consist of restrictions imposed upon the local populace. PSYOP exploits the positive gains realized through populace and resources control measures These PSYOP Promote defoliation operations which are employed to clear areas for observation, crop production, and fields of fire.
The earliest U.S. defoliation leaflet seems to be this Joint U.S. Public Affairs Office (JUSPAO) leaflet (identified by the SP in the code which indicated Special project). This leaflet depicts small aircraft spraying herbicide over Vietnam to rid the area of Viet Cong hiding places. The back is all text. The text on the front is:
The government destroys Viet Cong hiding places in order to protect the people's food supplies.
Another government effort to restore peace to our country.
This leaflet depicts a squad of Viet Cong well hidden among lush jungle foliage at the top; and below the same Viet Cong being strafed by American aircraft as they run through trees barren of leaves. The message is very clear; we will take away your hiding places and kill you. JUSPAO leaflet 2507 was the standard 3 x 6-inches in size and prepared for use after herbicidal operations designed to destroy tactical cover in contested areas; addressed to the enemy in those areas. The text above the two pictures on the front is:
BEFORE THE SPRAY YOU HAD CONCEALMENT
AFTER THE SPRAY YOU ARE EXPOSED TO THE MIGHT OF THE GOVERNMENT
The text on the back is:
To the enemies of the Republic of Vietnam seeking safety in the gloom of the forests: Leaf-killing chemicals have been sprayed in this area, so your cover will soon disappear. You have used these forests for cover in ambushes, for your camps and supplies, and to hide during the days so that you can come out at night and intimidate or harm the friends of the Government.
But now the leaves will fall and before they grow back on the trees, you will be exposed and forced to fight for your lives or flee deeper into the forests. But wherever you flee, you will be exposed to fight again and again
THERE ARE THREE CHOICES LEFT TO YOU. YOU MAY RETURN TO THE GOVERNMENT AS A HOI CHANH, OR YOU MAY SURRENDER AS A PRISONER OF WAR, OR YOU MAY DIE IN BATTLE.
And when the leaves of the forest grow on the trees again, they will hide forever your unknown grave
The Photo at the top of this article on defoliation has three U.S.A.F. planes flying in a close formation to spray defoliants over Vietnam. The code HQ at the bottom of the leaflet indicates the headquarters of the 6th Battalion, later the 4th Group for leaflet use in South Vietnam. The year of course was 1967. This leaflet could be exactly what it claims to be, but usually mosquitos were attacked over water and swamps. I cannot help wondering if defoliants were being dropped and the United States was just being mum on the subject. They are probably telling the truth. How could they explain thousands of acres of dead foliage after spraying for mosquitos? The text is:
Eradication of mosquitoes as a mean to protect the public health is a humanitarian action of the Government. Aerial sprayed chemicals can only kill mosquitoes. They are harmless to people, crops and livestock"
Mosquitoes are a very dangerous species. They transmit malaria and make people sick. The Government had sent malaria elimination teams to hamlets in this area before to spray mosquitoes-killing chemicals.
You should not be afraid. The aerial sprayed chemicals can only kill mosquitoes. They are harmless to your health. They are harmless to crops and livestock as well.
This colorful leaflet depicts a USAF C-130 Hercules aircraft spraying insecticide. The code tells us that it was the 702nd leaflet produced by the U.S. Army 8th PSYOP Battalion in 1970. The 8th was headquartered in Nha Trang and supported a dozen combat units including the 173rd Airborne Brigade. According to 4th PSYOP Group records, by April 1970 the Battalion had printed 32,115,000 leaflets on hundreds of different themes. Many of their leaflets were dropped by the USAF 9th Air Commando Squadron. Above the C-130 on the front of this leaflet is the comforting text:
Insecticides kill only the insect larvae that destroy crops.
The back is all text and seems to be in response to Communist charges that the spray may be lethal. It says:
People of Binh Dinh!
To kill the insect larvae that destroy your crops, the U.S. 173rd Airborne Brigade sprays insecticide on rice-paddies located in areas of thick jungle that are the home to large numbers of mosquitoes, flies, and insects in order to help improve your harvest and to prevent the spread of disease.
The insecticides will not harm your buffalo, cattle or other livestock. Therefore please respond by helping to dispel the lies and distortions being spread by the communists.
Although I have not seen the actual leaflet, the 7th PSYOP Leaflet Catalog (Da Nang) dated 1 July 1969 lists a 1968 leaflet: 7-487-68 - Explanation of Chemicals. I assume that this leaflet was on the subject of defoliants.
Stapleton mentions 1969 and points out that four South Vietnamese newspapers printed stories that year with pictures of deformed children of women sprayed with Agent Orange. The South Vietnamese Government rejected their statements and blamed the deformities on venereal disease in the women and President Thieu promptly closed the newspapers down for Interfering with the war effort.
The U.S. was aware of some problems with the program already and a Lessons Learned, number 74, dated 15 September 1969, was titled Accidental Herbicide Damage.
The paper listed several areas were shade trees or garden plots were dead or dying. In a second case dying crops were noted. In both cases the MACV stated that the problems were minor errors of the 55-gallon empty drums still containing some liquid and fumes, and a warning, such as “Danger - Vapor from contents of these drums can damage plants and trees,” should be posted at storage sites and stenciled in Vietnamese on each drum. In addition, it was noted improper hand spraying techniques and improper handling and storage of herbicide drums had caused some minor damage.
The U.S. still claimed that the herbicide was no danger. One comment was made that in hindsight seem particularly incorrect:
All these herbicides present low risks to humans and animals. They have been widely used in the US for more than 20 years on food and other crops, rangeland, and forests. No special precautions are needed by air or ground crews and friendly troops are often sprayed without ill effects.
NAM IS CONCERNED
The United States produced a number of leaflets defending the defoliation program to the Vietnamese people and explaining how much safer they would be once the local flora was dead and gone. We now know what a horror Agent Orange was and that thousands of Americans, and perhaps millions of Vietnamese were harmed by it. The result is still seen today as the children and grandchildren of those who came in contact with the defoliants continue to suffer various medical maladies. This leaflet depicts four cartoons on the front and three on the back. The story starts with young Nam realizing that the Viet Cong hide in thick bushes. He tries to avoid them by going home by boat, but again, Viet Cong in bushes along the canal rob him and kill his cousin. The government then defoliates the land and Nam and his friends live happily ever-after. The text on the front is:
NAM IS CONCERNED ABOUT THE DEFOLIATION CHEMICALS
Nam notices that the Viet Cong usually look for thick bushes to hide in to facilitate their terrorizing and killing acts committed on our countrymen.
Once, on his way to the countryside to visit his mother, Nam and other passengers were plundered by the Viet Cong who jumped out of bushes along the road to stop Nams bus.
The following visit, Nam changed his mind and instead of riding in a bus, he went home by boat, hoping that this would be a safer means of travel. But, that time again, he was attacked by Viet Cong who were hidden in the bushes along the canal. Besides seizing a number of goods, the Viet Cong also killed Nams cousin on the very spot.
To protect peoples lives and properties, the Government believes that it is necessary to use defoliation chemicals to destroy thick bushes where the Viet Cong hide.
The text on the back is:
Because of the distorted Viet Cong propaganda, Nam is worried about the defoliation chemicals used by the government.
Dear Friend, what if the defoliation chemicals cause any damage to human beings, animals, land and water?
Hello Nam, how are you? The defoliation chemical is used for the purpose of drying trees and striping off their leaves. It does not harm human beings, animals, land or water at all. As for me, dont I look strong and healthy? Every day, because of my work, I have to breathe the defoliation chemicals, and as you can see, I am not a sick man.
Your explanation sounds plausible, but what would happen if our crops are damaged?
If by misfortune, your crops are damaged by the defoliation chemicals, the government will indemnify you...
Now, I finally understand and I am no longer concerned about the defoliation chemicals.
From now on, like everyone else, Nam remains calm and will not listen to the distorted Viet Cong propaganda.
Notice that in the cartoon the Viet Cong are portrayed as ugly murderers. I noticed their facial expressions because the PSYOP Newsletter of 18 August 1967 warned about showing the VC in a bestial way:
In PSYWAR output, never portray the Viet Cong as devils, monsters or oafs. Artists drawings that make the Viet Cong look bad are resented by would-be ralliers. They say they make them look like apes and they take this personally. Photographs avoid this danger of caricaturing and are also trusted more.
A Second Nam is Concerned Leaflet
This leaflet also appears in a slightly changed format with the code A8V4 on front and back. The front of this small 4 x 5.25-inch leaflet is exactly the same with the four panels. The back has just two panels, and does not depict the hand offering money to the farmers and definitely does not say: If by misfortune, your crops are damaged by the defoliation chemicals, the government will indemnify you. Perhaps someone thought about the actual cost of all this defoliation and decided to take the offer of cash for destroyed crops off the table.
A Fourth Nam comic leaflet
Apparently our friend Nam was very popular. Here is a fourth comic leaflet using him to tell the people about the evil Viet Cong hiding in the bushes. Notice that the Viet Cong are always shown with a thuggish monkey-like face. This leaflet is uncoded. The text is:
The Viet Cong always say that the Army of the Republic of Vietnam sprays poison on your fields in order to kill people, but...
Once, while he was traveling to see his mother, Viet Cong hiding in thick vegetation along the sides of the road jumped out and stole his possessions and the possessions of the other passengers. They did not let the passenger keep a single thing of theirs.
The next time, Nam decided to travel by boat because he thought it would be safer. However, Viet Cong hiding in thick bushes along the sides of the canal attacked the boat. In addition to the property that they stole, they also killed his cousin.
Nam also heard that Viet Cong hiding in thick vegetation along the sides of the tracks planted mines to destroy trains and to steal the people's possessions.
The two posters seen in the fourth panel say:
The Army of the Republic of Vietnam Kills Communists
Viet Cong Crimes
An American PSYOP policy statement adds:
PSYOP personnel should be prepared to counter VC and VC-inspired allegations that herbicides in the RVN are poisonous and bring harm to humans and animals that come in contact with them.
Our output should make the point that defoliants used in RVN are non-poisonous; even food and water affected by the spray can be consumed without danger.
Specialist Fifth Class Paul Merrell was stationed in Vietnam from April 1968 until August 1970. He was a member of the 8th PSYOP Battalion of the 4th PSYOP Group trained as an 83F20 offset press operator. During his three tours in Vietnam he worked in both HQ and the field in a number of diverse operations and positions. We talked about the defoliation campaign and he told me:
An unusual mission was occasionally following up "Operation Ranch Hand" missions telling villagers that the defoliants were perfectly safe, and that the Viet Cong were lying to them about health effects because they didn't like the intended result of removing enemy vegetative cover. We dropped leaflets and played a recorded message, as we did with many other missions. The only thing I recall clearly was that on one mission we got a big whiff of the herbicide smell over what was a quickly dying strip of jungle. I wound up years later feeling that I deserved the delayed effects of Agent Orange I still live with because of what turned out to be a lie. I'm currently service-connected for chronic colitis, type II diabetes, ischemic heart disease with damage to my brain's hypothalamus and PTSD.
After my discharge I became a lawyer and was on the board of directors of the National Veterans Task Force on Agent Orange, an umbrella organization for the coalition of groups that eventually succeeded in persuading Congress to mandate treatment and disability compensation for veteran Agent Orange disabilities. My legal career was devoted to suing chemical companies for discharge of toxic pollutants, with a specialty in dioxin cases. I could write a pretty thick book on the history of the herbicides now. What the chemical companies knew about the human health effects of the herbicides in Agent Orange on their own workers many years before its use in Viet Nam is a pretty sordid story. It begins clear back in the 1890s when masses of workers were poisoned by very closely-related compounds.
Before the use of Defoliation Chemicals
Another rather crudely drawn leaflet depicts Viet Cong ambushing boats in a narrow canal on one side and boats sailing smoothly on the other. Some of the text on the front is:
BEFORE THE USE OF DEFOLIATION CHEMICALS, WHEN TREES AND BUSHES ALONG THE CANAL GREW WILD
1. The Viet Cong took advantage of the thick bushes to terrorize, to kill and plunder our countrymen
2. Business, transportation, and supplies were stopped or delayed.
3. It was difficult for the Army to control and sweep away the Viet Cong.
After the use of Defoliation Chemicals
The text on the back is:
AFTER THE USE OF DEFOLIATION CHEMICALS, WHEN TREES AND BUSHES ALONG THE CANAL HAVE BEEN DEFOLIATED
1. The Viet Cong have nowhere to take shelter and plunder, terrorize or kill our countrymen.
2. Business, transportation, and supplies can continue in security.
3. The Army can easily eliminate the Viet Cong in order to bring security to our relatives and friends.
The High Voltage Power line
Another leaflet shows modern power lines on the front. The text is:
The high voltage power line is the reconstruction work of the Government. The purpose is to develop industry and to provide light to rural areas.
The back is all-text and written in both Vietnamese and a local tribal dialect. The text says in part:
The Government is using chemicals to clear lands along the high voltage power line.
Trees will be defoliated and consequently the installation and protection of the power line will be easier.
The chemical is not a poison and does not cause any harm to human or animal health. It doesnt spoil drinking water or your lands.
This power line will assist our industrial development and raise the living standards of the population.
The Danhim power line is our public property and therefore it is our duty to protect it.
Be calm and be careful of the Viet Congs distorting propaganda.
In case this defoliation causes any damage to your crop, you are requested to contact the territorial administration for a damage claim.
A South Vietnam postage stamp showing the Danhim Hydroelectric Station
Note: In 1964 Vietnam prepared a postage stamp commemorating the power station and Danhim so it is apparent why the high voltage line was built there. The defoliation is mentioned in a 30 July 1963 letter from the American Embassy in Saigon to the State Department.
One additional defoliation operation, Danhim power line, was completed on July 27. Approval for three additional defoliation (including defoliation of road and road right of way Zone D) and two crop destruction operations has been requested by the Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces.
Dear Countrymen Code 235
An all-text leaflet says in part:
Up to now, the Viet Cong often took advantage of the bushes to hide themselves in order to ambush and attack buses, or to organize murders and terrorize people. In some localities they even mine the roads killing many innocent countrymen.
To guarantee security to the people, today the Government is using some special chemicals to defoliate thick trees and bushes, where the Viet Cong used to take shelter to attack buses, to mine roads and to murder good people.
This chemical dries out trees and bushes in the areas sprayed only, and will not cause any damage to the people or animals. Even if this chemical sticks to your body or is mixed with your food and drink, your life will not be endangered.
In modern countries of the world, this defoliation chemical is commonly used in large areas covered by thick trees and grass.
When roads and thick bushes are cleared, thanks to the defoliation chemical, the Viet Cong can no longer take shelter to carry out their sabotage work and attack buses like before. Then with convenient and easy means of communication, our countrymens business will be more prosperous. Their lives and property will be protected. Later, they could exploit and cultivate those former wild areas to earn more income for their families.
Do not listen to the Viet Cong distorting propaganda. Continue to combine our efforts with the authorities and the Army in the destruction of Communists.
Another all-text leaflet says on the front:
The Viet Cong gangs used to hide in bush areas to plunder your property and rice, to destroy our villages and murder our people
As a consequence the government has decided to use chemicals to undertake the defoliation to uncover their masks.
Be calm before the distorting propaganda of the Viet Cong because the chemicals are not poison and never harm the lives of humans or cattle.
The message on the back is:
Remain calm! The Government and Army are using chemicals to clear land in order to protect our peoples lives and property.
Be calm before the distorted and slanderous propaganda of the Viet Cong.
The effect of the chemicals is to defoliate trees and clear the bushy areas so they will no longer offer good hideouts for the Viet Cong to hijack and terrorize you. These chemicals do not harm the lives of humans or cattle.
Dear Countrymen! Code A 3 M 17
A third all-text leaflet has a similar message:
For a long time the Viet Cong used to hide behind the thick bushes of both sides of the rail roads to spring the mines, attack the trains and pillage travelers. Due to this, the Government has decided to use defoliation chemicals to destroy all the bushes.
The defoliation chemical is not a poison. The defoliation chemical is used to fade the trees and cause the leaves to drop. It does not provoke any injury to man, animals or the drinking water of the population.
Countrymen dont lose your temper; dont listen to the Viet Cong propaganda distorting the truth.
In case of the defoliation chemical causes damage to your crops, you must contact the local administration and ask for indemnification.
The Viet Cong seem to have not feared the herbicides. I found a report of the 1967 interrogation of North Vietnamese Army Company commander Nguyen Luu Thanh. He stated that he always received a one-hour warning before any aircraft were sent to his area on defoliation missions. This indicates that their intelligence or spies among the Vietnamese officers were very good. The VC soldiers covered their eyes with a nylon cloth. They breathed through a canvas or gauze cloth impregnated with chemicals and charcoal. Thanh said that these protective items were completely effective and men using them suffered no ill-effects. The VC seemed to have no fear of the defoliation chemicals. Of course, it should be pointed out that this interview occurred in 1967 and although Thanh thought he was fully protected, many of the symptoms of Agent Orange and other defoliant poisons would not show up for another 10 or 20 years.
An Improvised Viet Cong Gas Mask
A U.S. paratrooper of the 173rd Airborne Brigade tries on a captured Viet Cong improvised gas mask. It is made from a plastic bag with a square piece cut out for the nose and mouth. What appears to be a gauze bandage is placed over the hole.
AP Photo - Saigon
Several Viet Cong improvised masks are depicted in the VC-NVA CBR Equipment Identification
Guide – TIS 5 (1-69), distributed by the Combined Intelligence Center Vietnam.
According to the Air University Review, January-February 1970 it was not quite so easy:
The enemy has testified to the effectiveness of Ranch Hand operations. A Viet Cong prisoner of war observed that after a base area had been sprayed the camp would be moved. Each man would pick up his hammock and backpack and walk about three hours to a new camp site. Another POW stated that defoliated areas hampered the Viet Cong in moving and stationing troops. These areas had to be avoided for nearly a year before they could be reused.
To the Citizens:
This uncoded leaflet appears in the 244th PSYOP Company Leaflet and Poster Catalog of 1967. The leaflet was a stock item available for any unit to use. The text on the front of this leaflet is:
To the Citizens:
The Army of Vietnam uses chemicals to destroy trees, bushes and all types of vegetation. Because of this, the Viet Cong do not have a concealed place to live, thus making the conduct of guerrilla operations limited.
This chemical will not harm people, now will it harm animals such as cattle.
After the deforestation and defoliation period, the ground will be richer and more fertile.
There is more good news for the farmer on the back:
Do not believe the Viet Congs invented propaganda that these chemicals are very poisonous because it is a trick.
The Army of Vietnam has made sure that these chemicals are not poisonous. They will not harm people or animals, but will only destroy vegetation.
After the vegetation is destroyed, the Viet Cong will not have a place to hide and sabotage. Then the people will live in peace.
At the same time, The Marine Command Chronology for April 1967 mentions working with the 244th PSYOP Company. It mentions defoliants:
A request had gone into Division for Liberty Road to be sprayed with defoliants. The plan was to deny cover for the Viet Cong who planted mines and booby traps along the road. The action along with Ranch Hand missions would cause many Marines to get cancers and other illnesses from Agent Orange. Many of these Marines have since died due to the use of defoliants.
I thought I would end this section with a poster that may or may not be defoliation propaganda. This poster was developed in April 1968 in support of the New Life Hamlets with the theme of the development of farming. We see a woman by a water pump, a man irrigating a rice crop, a farmer tilling, and what is most interesting is a man with a pump filled with an unknown spray. Americans would probably assume it was some kind of insecticide, but it might have been used to support the American spraying of defoliants which were always said to be harmless. It might have a PSYOP value in the poster to assure the Vietnamese that the defoliants were safe and helpful to their way of life and not poisonous as the Viet Cong claimed. The text is:
ONE OBJECTIVE OF THE NEW LIFE HAMLET
The development of farming aims at providing people with the necessary means so their income and standard of living shall be raised.
THE VIET CONG STRIKE BACK
Stop Spraying Noxious Chemicals
This enemy South Vietnam National Front for Liberation leaflet mentions noxious chemicals. Now to be honest, I dont think that in this case they are talking about chemicals like dioxin. More likely, they mean the various irritants like tear gas (CS) or CR gas (dibenzoxazepine), an incapacitating agent that was often sprayed down the Viet Cong spider holes to drive the guerrillas out into the open.
IN THE NEW YEAR, WE ARE DETERMINED TO EARN NEW VICTORIES
This February 1966 Viet Cong leaflet that was filed by American Intelligence as 00537 is on a terrible red paper that makes the text hard to read. It is a reminder that the Viet Cong printing many of these in the bush had to use any paper that they could find. The American description is:
The leaflet contains some slogans to urge the people in the urban areas to rise up and join the struggle. The slogans are about the high cost of living, general mobilization of college and high school students, release of political prisoners, the security of the people, pay raises for Government of Vietnam personnel, and the use of chemical poisons to destroy crops.
The text on the front is:
IN THE NEW YEAR, WE ARE DETERMINED TO EARN NEW VICTORIES. EVERY BRETHREN OF THE TOWNS AND OF THE COUNTRYSIDE, UNITE TOGETHER AND RAISE YOUR VOICE FOR THE STRUGGLE:
- Protest against the high prices, against raising [unreadable], against raising the tax and the [unreadable]
- Protest conscription, militarizing the students, the youth and the clerks.
- Request that the US and their henchmen/underlings release political prisoners, and allow their families to freely visit them during the Tet holiday and during martial law.
- Protest against terrorist operations, detaining people without reason, and request a guarantee of security for the people.
The text on the back is:
- Request pay increases for factory workers, enlisted men and clerks.
- Show disfavor against the invading United States and their henchmen in spreading chemical poisons, and destroying the people's crops in the countryside.
- Money cannot make up for people's lives; request an immediate stop to the spreading of the chemical poisons, the ones that destroy the people's crops.
- Request an immediate stop to raids, bombing, and artillery strikes so that our people can safely work in the fields.
- The invading United States is the enemy of our people.
- The imperialist United States should get out of the southern region of Vietnam
The South Vietnam National Front leaflet was found in Vinh Long and forwarded to U.S. Intelligence in July 1966. The title is U.S. AND ALIEN OFFICERS AND MEN BEING SENT TO SOUTH VIETNAM BY THE U.S. IMPERIALISTS. For the purpose of this article I only mention the propaganda on the back which mentions the defoliants. Notice this run-on sentence with 70 words without a period:
Oppose the direct taking part in the instigating, coercing, encouraging of the raids of terror, repression, massacre of the South Vietnamese people, the raping of women, killing of children, the concentration into camps so called strategic hamlets, the setting fire of peoples houses more particularly opposing the U.S. imperialists use of noxious chemicals to destroy the peoples crops and property and generate death, wounds, infirmities to the South Vietnamese population.
Ernie Chamberlain, a 36-year Australian Army Veteran who served in Vietnam and Cambodia wrote an article titled, Vietnam War: Communist Views of the 1st Australian Task Force. He points out that it was not only the Americans that were accused of using poison gas:
In June 1967, the VIETNAM COURIER in Hanoi reported: “On May 30 and 31, the BBC and AP reported that aircraft of the Australian forces had dropped many toxic gas canisters on many areas of the Ba Ria province [or Phuoc Tuy] to massacre the local people. This savagery listed a new bloody crime for the Australian mercenary troops against the South Vietnamese people. The use of toxic gas in war has been strongly condemned by world opinion. … The use of toxic gas to massacre the South Vietnamese people is a crime committed in a systematic way by the Australian satellite troops.
PFC Brian Heidtman, Chemical Storage Specialist, 266th Chemical Platoon, 1st Infantry Division, loads BR1A's into a UH-1D helicopter. Di An, Vietnam, 27-30 May, 1968. The red stripe on the cans indicate CS gas.
Photo by: SP5 Thomas L. Larson, USA Special Photo Detachment
It has been reported that thousands of tons of CR gas were used by the U.S. forces in Vietnam to bring Viet Cong into the open. It was also used by the North Vietnamese forces in some battles like Hue in 1968 or during the Easter Offensive in 1972. Still, the leaflet mentions it in two places. At the start of the leaflet they specify suffocating gas and this would clearly seem to be an irritant, down below they say noxious chemicals and this could in fact be herbicides and Agent Orange.
The 10th PSYOP Battalion warns the people of gas in this 10 May 1968 leaflet. 200,000 copies were printed, and air dropped with the theme, “Gas used to help the people.” The Vietnamese 9th Infantry Division requested this leaflet. The leaflet was to be dropped immediately after a gas attack. Some of the text on front and back is:
The cruel Viet Cong have used your hamlets as a shelter to harass and shoot the Republic of Vietnam armed forces and to cause much mourning and suffering to the people. Because of the goal to protect you lives, our soldiers must destroy the cruel Viet Cong…To avoid bloodshed and to protect your lives the government and the Allied Forces will use a new weapon, GAS.
This kind of bomb has no strength and no poison to harm your health or your lives. It only causes eyes to water and coughing. The gas is only used when the Viet Cong use your hamlets to fight the government forces and to cause pain to innocent people. The Province Chief himself must order the troops to use this gas to save the people from the cruel Viet Cong.
Several tapes were prepared to warn the people when gas was being used. Some examples are:
December 1969, code 168, 31 seconds. Compatriots, listen to this. Communist soldiers are hiding in your area. For the Army of South Vietnam to protect you, we will be using tear gas to stop the Communist soldiers. Tear gas is not harmful, it will only cause irritation to your eyes.
October 1968, code 169, 25 seconds. Compatriots, listen to this. The Army of South Vietnam is using tear gas in this area. Tear gas is not harmful to human life. It is being used to help combat the Communists in this area. Do not worry.
October 1968, code 170, 32 seconds. Dear Compatriots, Your Eyes will be irritated. Listen to this. Tear gas is being used. Your eyes will be irritated, but only temporarily. Turn your face into the wind and use a handkerchief to wipe away the tears. Do not rub your eyes.
Many Communist leaflets attacked the spraying program. Another leaflet with the title Why and for Whom are you Ten Thousand Miles from Home? was found by a member of the U.S. Armys 25th Infantry Division in 1968 and says in part:
Nobody could believe that the USA, such a big and strong and prosperous country, is defending justice and freedom with the use of toxic chemicals, B-52s to devastate villages and land, to massacre the peace-loving people of Vietnam.
The Viet Cong did discover a way to make some money out of the defoliation program. They told the farmers in some locations that the spraying caused sickness and the spitting of blood if it was inhaled. They then sold nylon face masks to the farmers for 15 to 20 piasters, just like a good American capitalist.
Although I cannot swear to the accuracy of the numbers, the website Dioxinvn.com mentions the chemicals dropped on the Vietnamese people. One article says:
During the Vietnam War, the United States army dropped a lethal dioxin called Agent Orange on 3,800 Vietnamese villages. The American troops goal was to defoliate the land to expose the position of the Vietnamese guerrilla fighters and destroy their food supply. An estimated six pounds per person of Agent Orange was dropped over entire village areas. Today, the third generation of Vietnamese suffer the ghastly legacy left by the Americans. Thousands suffer from diseases caused by exposure to dioxin and more than a dozen regions around the country remain contaminated with hazardous levels of Agent Orange.
Another writer adds:
Between 1962 and 1971, at airports and American operations centers throughout South Vietnam, the U.S. military stored, mixed, handled and loaded onto airplanes more than 20 million gallons of herbicide. The spraying campaign ravaged 5 million acres of jungle and forest, and destroyed crops on another 500,000. Various chemical companies, including Dow, Monsanto, Diamond Shamrock, Occidental and Hercules, supplied the herbicides. Early on, U.S. planes dropped pamphlets written in Vietnamese, assuring farmers that the chemicals were harmless to humans and animals.
The Vietnamese government pays monthly subsidies amounting to $50 million a year to victims who are ill or born with birth defects as a result of the herbicide, according to the association for victims. The group says dioxin has continued to cause birth defects in children a third generation removed from the actual spraying.
John Stapleton adds:
Dioxin is regarded as one of the most toxic, if not the single most toxic of all the compounds known to have been synthesized by man. It is dangerous at even 10 parts per trillion or more. It is tested for in parts per quadrillion In total, some 20,000,000 gallons of defoliant were sprayed from some 20,000 sorties from January 1962 to February 1971...The Vietnamese Red Cross estimated that three million of their countrymen are suffering from the impacts of agent orange.
Loudspeaker tapes were prepared that were almost identical to the messages on the propaganda leaflets. One said in part:
The Viet Cong takes advantage of dense and lush terrain and its thick growth to place mortars and bombs to kill honest people and infiltrate provincial capitals to conduct barbarous actions against innocent people.
The Government of Vietnam sees that it is necessary to spray chemicals to make the leaves fall and so destroy the jungle and thick leaves to prevent the enemy from using them as hiding places. Set your mind at ease. These chemicals do not harm your health or lives.
In War of Ideas, Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado, 1981, author Robert W. Chandler adds:
Such explanations probably fell on deaf ears, since the populations doubt was based more on emotion than on reason. Some illnesses were reported a result of the herbicides, but Americans diagnosed these symptoms as associated with hysteria and suggestive in origin.
Note: About two decades later, military doctors used exactly the same argument in their fight against Gulf War Syndrome in American soldiers returning from Kuwait and Iraq. They could not find a smoking gun and therefore decided that no disease existed. Because of the experience of the Vietnam War, the government was convinced much more quickly that a disease did exist and needed to be treated.
The National Liberation Front enjoyed substantial success fanning fear and indignation over the defoliation undertaking. Overt and whisper campaigns were common alleging the herbicides were harmful to people and livestock.
When I asked my Australian friend Sergeant Derrill DeHeer, who was a member of the Australian 1st Psychological Operations Unit if he had been involved in any leafleting or operations that mentioned herbicides he told me:
No we didnt do any leaflets about Agent Orange. When I was around the villages they talked about Agent Orange on their crops from information given to them by the Viet Cong; however 1969 was a drought year and that was why the crop harvest was slightly lower than other years. However, its hard to convince the farmers about what has caused bad crops once an idea has been planted in their head by the enemy.
Derrill later sent me his Masters dissertation Victoria per Mentum: Psychological Operations Conducted by the Australian Army in Phuoc Tuy Province South Vietnam 1965 1971. He mentioned defoliants in his paper:
Agent Orange is the best known of the chemical contained as an agent in the defoliation program to destroy jungle cover, hidden crops and other vegetation during the war. Between 1962 and 1964 the US military experimented with Agent Green, Agent Pink and Agent Purple. In 1965, Agent Orange and Agent White replaced the previous agents and the Americans began to use herbicides in larger amounts as the war escalated. Agent Blue, the only agent not derived from phenoxyacatic acid was used in all phases of the war. All these herbicides were named after the color-coded bands around the 55 US gallon (Australian 44 gallon) drums which contained them When some seasons were dryer, the peasant farmer declared that their lack of production was due to the Americans spraying Agent Orange. These complaints by the peasantry were capitalized on by the Viet Cong and they produced propaganda aimed at discrediting the American imperialists. These complaints had to be dealt with by the Australian intelligence, civil affairs and PSYOP ground team commanders. No direction or policy was given to PSYOP personnel as to what they may say other than that it was a drought year.
One 1969 MACV document mentioned the various colors:
ORANGE is used against broadleaf plants. After spraying, plants show discoloration in seven to ten days and defoliation is at its peak effectiveness after four to six weeks. It will remain effective for about 12 months.
WHITE is similar to ORANGE but is slower acting and takes from 10 to 14 days for discoloration and six to eight weeks for effective defoliation.
BLUE is used against narrow leaf vegetation, such as rice, bamboo, banana, or grass. Discoloration occurs within 24 hours and leaves wilt in two to four days.
When you look at 1969 military reports you see defoliation mentioned very casually. For instance, the Operational Report of the 1st Infantry Division for the period Ending 31 October 1969 mentions that "a total of 41 C-123 aerial defoliation sorties were flown in the division during the months of August and September. A total of 4,920 hectares were defoliated by spray." Fire was also used to burn vegetation. The same report adds that "the burning of vegetation using diesel fuel continued throughout the reporting period. Approximately 122,000 gallons of diesel fuel was dispensed by ground spray equipment on the perimeters of three base camps, two fire support bases and along the sides of highway 13 north of Lai Khe base camp." And flames were also used against the Viet Cong. "One hundred and seventeen, 55-gallon fougasses were emplaced at fire support bases during the month of October."
The MACV booklet Evaluation of Herbicide Operations in the Republic of Vietnam (September 1962 September 1963) adds in part:
Thousands of chemical spray leaflets were disseminated in target operations From the beginning of the operational phase of the Republic of Vietnam defoliation program, psychological operations support has been a required part of every Vietnamese armed forces request. Difficulties have been encountered in inculcating Vietnamese armed force planners with the U.S. viewpoint that this is a vital part of ach herbicide operation In planning, the U.S. requirement for PSYOP has been stylized consistently to the demand for leaflets and loudspeaker broadcasts with supplementary ground PSYOP teams.
There is evidence that the Viet Cong avoid defoliated areas: the greater visibility by air and ground increases their visibility; their own propaganda about its poisonous effects may have a boomerang effect on Viet Cong personnel Captured Viet Cong documents indicate instructions to personnel for defense against chemical attack
Colonel Hoang Ngoc Lung
As we near the end of this report we should mention the comments on defoliation by Vietnamese Colonel Hoang Ngoc Lung, who wrote a monograph titled "Strategy and Tactics" for the U.S. Army Center of Military History in 1983:
Defoliation was introduced into the Vietnam War at the end of 1960. This was the time when Communist military activities in the South had begun to intensify. Each passing day saw more snipers, mines, ambushes, and assaults on outposts. Most of these incidents occurred in areas where dense vegetation provided excellent concealment for the enemy.
During this period, the Communists began to reorganize their bases where they grew rice and vegetables for their troops. ARVN operations into enemy zones such as the famed Do Xa Zone in Military Region 2 uncovered vast farms, but the ARVN units had no way to destroy the crops. In consultation with U.S. advisors, South Vietnamese military leaders conceived a plan in 1959 for employing chemical defoliants for-this purpose. The U.S. supplied the chemicals, and the delivery means.
Until 1965 defoliation was largely unnoticed although the National Liberation Front protested for the first time in 1963. When U.S. forces began participating in combat operations in 1965, defoliation increased by leaps and bounds, partly because of the need to establish new military bases and airfields in densely vegetated areas.
In the final analysis, the crop interdiction program, although it affected the enemy’s food supply to the point of creating shortages in a few units, had only short-lived effects. Units in short supply were resupplied by rear base service troops with rice from Cambodia, the Mekong Delta, or if they were in Military Region 1, from North Vietnam. Crop destruction by defoliation thus caused popular opposition to the government without any demonstrable advantage; this opposition far eclipsed any real military gain. This fact was eventually recognized by MACV and the government and from 1971 on, defoliation of crops was prohibited.
Defoliation of jungled areas was a different matter. Several dense areas which had been enemy bases for many years no longer provided him sufficient concealment. In many formerly dense areas that had been hit by defoliants, enemy activity sharply decreased because of the exposure. Ambushes and land mines along lines of communication abruptly decreased after dense vegetation had been killed by herbicides. Military bases enjoyed greater security as defensive belts were cleared.
Vietnam Herbicide Map
In ending. I thought we should mention that it did not always take defoliation to clear an area of tall grass and trees. As the Western United States knows, this can also be accomplished through wildfire. It is far cheaper than using chemicals and less damaging to those who start the fire. Well-planned incendiaries can remove miles of brush very quickly and besides leaving the Viet Cong without a hiding place, it might also kill them. How so we know this? In June 1970, a secret report titled Forest Fires as a Military Weapon was published by the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service. This report could only be distributed to certain people with prior approval. The 73-page report with three appendices totaling another 87 pages, mentioned the requirements for successful forest burning, vegetation types, climatic types, fuel characteristics, ignition techniques, and a host of others. It went into some depth on a fire in Vietnam in the U Minh Forest from 10 March to 29 April 1968. It says in part about that fire:
The U Minh Forest Fire
When considering forest fires as a potential weapon. certain advantages and limitations must be kept clearly in mind. The greatest single superiority factor of fire as opposed to other damage-causing agents, is that under the proper circumstances fire is self-propagating. A relatively large area can be covered with a minimum expenditure of ordnance. The burning of the U Minh Forest in March and April 1968 resulted in a burned-over area of more than 1000 square miles from an expenditure of 20 aircraft sorties and 36 naval gunfire support missions. The damage caused by this fire was equivalent to that of a 20-megaton nuclear device. On the other hand, the greatest single disadvantage to the use of forest fires as military weapons is that they are totally weather dependent. The overwhelmingly important result of forest fires from a military point of view is visibility enhancement and cover denial.
It is not known precisely how the fire began although several explanations have been presented. CORDS personnel suggest that it began after a group of irate fishermen, who were denied access to the area by the Viet Cong, started several fires at approximately as a means of retaliation. Regardless. the fire reportedly spread rapidly from this area to the southwest through the aid of thirty knot winds from the northeast, extremely dry conditions in the entire area, and the ignition of a large ammunition dump located within 200 meters of the original fire.
Nowhere in this report does the U.S, imply that it has ever used forest fires as a weapon, but it did a lot of research on it and was clearly ready to give it a go if required.
This ends the technical part of this article. We have depicted the leaflets and told the story. I wanted to add a personal and human touch so I asked a few friends to tell me about their problems after being sprayed with herbicides in Vietnam. Most did not want to talk about it. A few did.
Sergeant Mike Pinto
Sergeant Michael E. Pinto of the 101st Airborne Division served two tours in Vietnam and told me:
I got in-country in 1968. I made Staff Sergeant just before getting wounded in May of 1971, and came out of the Hospital in August of 1971 ending my stay in Vietnam. In 1969, I was in A Company/Headquarters and headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion of the 502nd Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. Camp Eagle was the base camp.
I can remember the spray coming down like rain, covering everything, running into our eyes and mouth as we moved. We thought nothing of it back then. We were young and thinking only of being killed by bullets, punji sticks, snakes and all the other obvious threats. No one thought they would live to see thirty, let alone go home again. I was more worried about a rot that was festering between my legs and feet at the time. I went on to serve my tours, went back home, and retired from the Army. Today I have type-two Diabetes and I have had three heart attacks with eight stints in my heart with two valves not closing. I have a skin condition that breaks out in bumps all related to Agent Orange. Plus, they just removed a cancer tumor out of my bladder and one out of my rear both caused by Agent Orange. A nice reminder of my military service back then so long ago, and how long it took for the U.S. government to realize and admit what a danger Agent Orange was.
Captain Ed St. Clair served as a Senior Engineer Advisor in the Military Assistance Command - Vietnam, 21st Infantry Division, IV Corps, in Bac Lieu, Ca Mau, Rach Gia, Can Tho, Vinh Quoi, and Soc Trang during the years 1968-1969. He told me:
The area immediately southwest of the Soc Trang Army Air Field was sprayed during 1968. I have had continuous medical problems since I returned home from Vietnam. Some of the more dangerous one that the Veterans Administration attributes to exposure to Agent Orange are: Glaucoma; Cataracts; Heart Attack; High Blood Pressure; Diabetes and Neuropathy (disorder that occurs when nerves of the peripheral nervous system, the part of the nervous system outside of the brain and spinal cord, are damaged). In addition, my son suffers from Sotos Syndrome (a rare genetic disorder characterized by excessive physical growth during the first few years of life), and there is some reason to believe this is also attributed to my exposure to Agent Orange.
A former Marine told me that he served in Vietnam from 1969 to 1971. He was a Combined Action Program (CAP) Marine that lived in the villages with the Vietnamese people. He has suffered from Agent Orange contamination since his return to the United States. He told me:
The worst medical problem was jaw cancer which required 150 to 180 stitches and clamps to restore my mouth, neck, lymph nodes and jawbones. In addition, I suffer from plaque psoriasis (the skin is red and covered with silvery scales and is inflamed) and chloracne (acne-like eruption of blackheads, cysts, and pustules) on my face, elbows, knees and feet. I feel that I am luckier than a lot of other vets who have it much worse.
Another Marine veteran added:
I was diagnosed with type II diabetes and was granted a 30% VA benefit. It is a presumptive disease associated with exposure. My case is moderate and under control with oral medication and a little diet diligence. By the way the big news in type II treatment nowadays is that a gastric bypass can reverse the disease and return you to normal blood sugar levels in a matter of just a few days to a couple weeks but again that is a drastic step and if you are not overweight enough to qualify otherwise it has not been approved just to treat the type II diabetes. Probably 10 years from now they will find out why the surgery works and be able to duplicate the results with medication and a lot of people will be spared dealing with it.
Sergeant Don Thompson, Lima Site 36, Laos
Former USAF Sergeant Don Thompson who was stationed in Laos during the war told me:
My type II diabetes isn't under control. I am taking the maximum dose of Metformin and am walking a mile a day now. I watch my diet and still my fasting glucose level is over 150. It went uncontrolled when I quit smoking and gained 60 pounds in 3 months. I have lost 20 of those 60 pounds. Then I had a mini-stroke that killed my left ear. They put me on 80 milligrams a day of Prednisone and that really messed up my sugars. I'm off that now but my sugars haven't come down yet. Now the ear, nose and throat guy says that the MRI for the tumor in my brain didn't find the tumor where they thought it was but that they saw something else and I have to have another MRI. Getting old scares the shit out of me.
Captain Jim T. Dean Jr.
Captain Jim T. Dean Jr. died 23 March 2016 due to complications from his exposure to Agent Orange. Jim arrived in Vietnam in 1968 just in time for the TET offensive. As a Field Artillery Forward Observer he travelled through III Corps and War Zone D, the Iron Triangle. He was in some of the heaviest herbicide sprayed areas. He spent 19 months in Vietnam. Jim suffered from rashes for several years. They came and went at will. Then basal cell skin cancers appeared. They eventually turned into squamous cell skin cancers that were removed leaving deep scars on his arm and neck. He also suffered from deep cysts, some of which had to be removed by surgery. His blood sugar at the time he was diagnosed was 800 (normal is 80-120). Oddly, he never considered his Vietnam tour as the cause of these problems.
In 2010, Jim told his wife that His urine was stained with blood. He saw a doctor that same day, was referred to specialists and was told that he had Stage Four bladder cancer with an estimated one year to live. He went through a nine and one-half hour surgery to remove his bladder, prostate, and lymph nodes from his groin to his navel and to prepare an ostomy bag to hold his urine. The surgery was partially successful and Jim lived 5 years and 8 months after that operation. He constantly suffered from painful neuropathy in both legs. He died a terrible death with atrial fibrillation with a resting heart rate of up to 160 beats per minute, gasping for air and totally exhausted. His wife shared his medical problems. Over the years of Jims illness his wife Carla had four miscarriages; the last one causing severe hemorrhaging that almost killed her.
I could have filled this article with Agent Orange horror stories. I have added just a few from friends who were willing to talk about their medical history.
It does appear that the United States is accepting some responsibility for the spraying of defoliants on Vietnam. In August, 2012, the British Broadcasting Corporation said:
The US has begun a project to help clean up Agent Orange contamination at one area in Vietnam - the first such move since the war ended in 1975. The work is taking place at the airport in the central city of Danang. The US sprayed millions of gallons of the toxic defoliant over jungle areas to destroy enemy cover. Vietnam says several million people have been affected by Agent Orange, including 150,000 children born with severe birth defects.
The US government is providing $41 million dollars to the clean-up project, which is being carried out by two American companies in co-operation with the Vietnamese defense ministry. The US has in the past helped fund some social services in Vietnam, but this is its first direct involvement in clean-up work.
Stapleton agrees and says that high levels of dioxin contamination were found at Bien Hoa and Da Nang Air bases. Da Nang was one of the three worst spots in Vietnam. It was where American soldiers decanted, mixed and reloaded Agent Orange. In fact there were a large number of former US bases that are contaminated and 25 to 27 further locations are on the list to be assessed.
Some friends from my old group have started an Agent Orange Awareness organization. They point out that three and a half decades after Vietnam some 2.6 million veterans are thought to have medical problems caused by defoliants such as Agent Orange. In addition, their children and grandchildren are sometimes affected. Although for many years the veterans Administration either refused to recognize many diseases as agent-orange connected, they now have a list of presumptive diseases. That means that if you were in Vietnam and suffer from one of the following, you automatically receive benefits without the requirement for hundreds of pages of proof. It took a while, but the VA eventually woke up and smelled the roses. Some of the 43 presumptive diseases are: AL Amyloidoses; Acute and Sub-acute Peripheral Neuropathy; About a dozen different Sarcomas; Adult Fibrosarcoma; B-Cell Leukemias; Chloracne; Diabetis Mellitus Type II; Hodgkins Disease; Ischemic Heart Disease; Malignant Granular Cell Tumor; Multiple Myeloma; Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma; Parkinson's Disease; Prostate Cancer and Respiratory Cancer. The most awful thing about this list is that it is continually growing as more diseases are found to be a direct result of exposure to Agent Orange.
The Vietnam Memorial in Rochester, New York
The bronze figure was carved by Wayne Williams, installed in 1996.
The photograph is by Richard Margolis as part of the Rochester Public Art web site.
Vietnam veterans with illnesses caused by Agent Orange, continue to march into the Vietnam Wall to join their fallen brothers. These men and women will not be remembered as fatalities of the Vietnam War. Their names will not be engraved into the Vietnam Wall...yet they are still victims of the Vietnam War. These veterans have died slow painful deaths and will not be remembered as dying for their country.
This ends our short look at the propaganda of the defoliation program in Vietnam. Readers with comments or questions are encouraged to write the author at email@example.com.