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Issue #1915      May 18, 2020


The US commitment kept climbing and by 1965, had 184,300 military personnel in Vietnam. The US Air Force launched Operation Rolling Thunder as the first combat troops arrived. On Christmas Day, Operation Rolling Thunder was suspended for one month and then resumed. Cambodia broke off diplomatic relations with Washington. By New Year’s Eve, 1966, there were 385,300 US military personnel in Vietnam with 6,644 killed in action. Not enough apparently. General Westmoreland asked for “fresh manpower.” In August 1966, Operation Rolling Thunder was said to be closing in on Hanoi. This was followed by Operation Tiger Hound and Operation Masher/White Wing, which caused 2,389 “known enemy casualties.”

By 1967, there were 485,600 US military personnel in Vietnam with 16,021 killed in action, but by early 1968, the numbers had ballooned out to more than half-a-million with 30,610 killed in action, fuelling the anti-war movement with thousands chanting, “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” But General Westmoreland ignored them: “we have reached an important point where the end begins to come into view,” he said, but that was before the Tet Offensive, a traditional Vietnamese holiday when there was normally a cease-fire. Not this time.

In a tactical coup-de-force, some 85,000 North Vietnamese attacked more than 100 South Vietnamese towns. President Johnson announced he would not stand for re-election, Robert Kennedy, brother of John, was assassinated, and Richard Nixon made a come-back and returned as President of the United States.

In March 1971, Lieutenant William Calley was convicted of premeditated murder for the butchery at My Lai. Calley had led a platoon of 30 men into the Vietnamese hamlet, known as “Pinkville,” where between 200 and 500 unarmed villagers were brutally slaughtered and girls as young as five were raped – one of many such massacres. It was disclosed by journalists after being suppressed by the Pentagon for more than a year. During Christmas 1972, for 12 days and nights, Nixon ordered the bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong when more than 40,000 tons of high explosives were dropped on the people trying to force concessions at the Paris Peace talks. It failed.

The withdrawal of Australia’s forces began in November 1970 under the Gorton government when eight Royal Australian Regiments who had completed their tour of duty were not replaced. A phased withdrawal followed and when Whitlam was elected in December 1972, he immediately abolished conscription and pulled Australia out of the war and by 11th January 1973, our involvement was over. Approximately 60,000 Australians served in the war, including ground troops, naval forces and airmen, with 521 killed and 3,000 wounded.

But for the Americans, the war dragged on until 1975 with its ignominious defeat. Estimates of US military personnel who served in Vietnam vary from 2.6 to 3.8 million. There are 57,939 names of those who died or are missing as a result of the war written on Washington’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial. It was a war Washington never forgot nor forgave, considering it an insult to its national pride. As a consequence, Vietnam was punished by a trade blockade and by political and economic isolation which lasted for more than two decades. It was also being punished – like Cuba – for not having a full-scale capitalist parliamentary charade.

We are now seeing a rewriting of the history of that wicked war, an attempt to erase from our memories Washington’s merciless bombing of civilians in Laos and Cambodia, its use of napalm and defoliants, the rapes and tortures by crazed GIs in hamlets like My Lai, because the war has been recognised – even in America’s heartland – as an obscenity they would prefer to forget, making it imperative to remind people of what actually happened.

PROJECT 100,000

This was a draft programme outlined by Secretary of defence Robert McNamara in 1966. Of the first 240,000 inducted into the military between 1966 and 1968, forty per cent were below 6th-grade education level; forty-one per cent were black; seventy-five per cent came from low-income families, and eighty per cent had dropped out of high school. “The poor of America have not had the opportunity to earn their fair share of this nation’s abundance,” McNamara mouthed, “but they can be given an opportunity to serve in their country’s defence.”


Between 1961-71, the US military sprayed more than 21 million gallons of lethal defoliants and herbicides across 4.5 million acres of South Vietnam in a defoliation programme called “Operation Ranch Hand,” which affected almost five million Vietnamese civilians living in the sprayed area, figures that do not include the Vietnamese soldiers serving on both sides of the conflict. Launched by President Kennedy on 4th December, 1961, to test its “effectiveness,” in August 1962 he gave the nod for “Ranch Hand” to be substantially upgraded: to remove foliage along thoroughfares used as a cover for ambushes, to defoliate trees and plants to improve aerial visibility and to destroy subsistence food crops. The number of missions increased sixteen-fold from 107 in 1962 to more than 1,600 in 1967.

Five million acres of mangrove and upland forest were defoliated and 500,000 acres of crops were destroyed, approximately twelve per cent of southern Vietnam. Today, 2.1 million acres are still barren and unproductive and it is estimated that it will take more than 100 years of intensive replanting to bring the forests back to their original state. In addition, almost 1.6 million gallons of herbicides were dropped or sprayed on roadways and railway and communication lines. Cambodia was also sprayed, along with Laos, although little is known about the extent of spraying in Laos during the CIA’s “secret war”, except it was a huge amount.

Agent Orange was the most commonly used defoliant, a liquid compound that was made up of an equal mixture of the herbicides 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T. Toxic for only about a week before they broke down, during the manufacturing process the herbicides were contaminated by a lethal by-product, dioxin, arguably the most dangerous chemical known to science. Dioxin leached into people’s bodies, their food, and their groundwater, sentencing millions to mutilation, starvation, miscarriages, deformities and cancer. US and allied veterans – and their children and grandchildren – who were exposed during the period of heaviest usage also had elevated rates of various cancers. The toxin is lethal for at least 100 years.

The defoliants came in fifty-five gallon drums, the barrels of which were often re-used by the military and civilians for showers, BBQs and water storage – further contaminating the users with the traces of dioxin that remained in the barrels. The herbicides were provided to the US military by Dow, Monsanto, Diamond Shamrock, Occidental, Hercules and other American chemical companies. The companies were well aware of methods that would have reduced their toxicity, but they ignored standard manufacturing guidelines. As a result, dioxin levels averaged thirteen ppt.


Despite its horrific history, napalm – a word formulated by mixing naphthenic and palmitic acids with gasoline – played a major role in the war in the air and on the ground. It was created by a top-secret collaboration between Harvard University and the US government in 1942 and used to devastating effect in Europe and the Pacific during WW2, especially in Japan, where napalm destroyed sixty-four of its largest cities. On 9th March 1945, 330 bombers dropped 690,000 pounds of napalm over Tokyo in one hour, bathing it in a firestorm, incinerating more than 87,500 people. As the appalling US General Curtis LeMay, who directed the Tokyo bombing and the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, stated: “we scorched and boiled and baked to death more people in Tokyo on that night than went up in vapour at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.” Arguably the greatest cataclysm in the history of war.

After 1945, it was used extensively in Korea and Vietnam. In Korea, the US Army claimed that napalm was “the most outstanding weapon,” even though its consequences were among the most inhumane and brutal, but having been pronounced as the war’s winning weapon, napalm became part and parcel of the US arsenal from the beginning of its hostilities in Vietnam. The last time it was used – as far as we know – was during America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003.

In the decade between 1963 to 1973, 388,000 tons of napalm were dropped on Vietnam, ten times the amount dropped on Korea. First it was used via flamethrowers to clear out bunkers, foxholes and trenches and even if the flames could not penetrate the entire bunker, it consumed all the oxygen and suffocated everyone inside. Its use was then extended to destroy “enemy villages” full of civilians. Later in the war, US bombers dropped napalm bombs, which proved to be even more destructive than the flamethrowers, leaving an area of 2,500 square yards engulfed in unquenchable fire with an even higher numbers of civilian casualties. Not surprisingly, its use became a potent psychological weapon as its use created sheer terror.

The brutality of napalm was exposed by the media in all its horror. Thousands of pictures and videos about napalm’s devastation were reported daily in the press and on television and gradually became a symbol of the barbarity of the Vietnam War. One of the most indelible pictures about its cruelty was the photograph of a nine-year old girl and group of children running down the road after a napalm attack on their village. The girl was naked and screaming because napalm was burning deep within her body.

Out in the open, napalm causes severe burns everywhere. Human skin becomes covered with a viscous magma that resembles tar and causes wounds that do not heal. In contact with humans, it immediately sticks to the skin and melts the flesh, with no way to extinguish the fire without causing unbearable pain. In panic, many victims try wiping it off, which only causes the fire to spread, expanding the burns area. And yet, in 1952, the US Patent Office issued a certificate for “Incendiary Gels,” making napalm’s formula available worldwide.

The use of napalm against a “concentration of civilians” was banned under Protocol 111 of the 1980 United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons and at present, 106 states have adopted the protocol. President Obama signed it when he assumed office, almost three decades after it was adopted by the UN General Assembly, but America’s ratification is subject to a diplomatic reservation that says it can “disregard the treaty at its discretion if doing so would save civilian lives”, which seems one hell of a cop-out.

In 1984, after years of court battles and official denials, seven American chemical companies paid a measly $US180 million to settle a class action by US war veterans who claimed that Agent Orange had caused their cancers, birth defects and other health problems. Not surprisingly, the companies chose this slap on the wrist rather than have the court find them guilty and thereby set a precedent.

Years later, a reminder of democracy-US style, came out in the form of a book called The Phoenix Program by Douglas Valentine. It exposed the depravity of this super-secret American operation set up during the Vietnam War, which used murder, torture, rape, kidnapping, blackmail, psychological warfare, disinformation and a complete denial of democratic processes for civilian detainees, apparently happy to rely on a computerised blacklist based on unreliable reports by anonymous informers. In 1968, there was even a monthly quota of 1,800 “neutralisations,” CIA newspeak for assassinations. Phoenix ran from 1967, when it was given final approval by a White House Committee that included Dean Rusk and Richard Helms, until Saigon fell in 1975.

Australian Defence Minister Killen admitted in Parliament that members of the Australian Army had taken part in Operation Phoenix.


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