Vietnam: The Chemical War

Next month I’ll be speaking at UNC-Greensboro on October 18th at 7:30pm on the subject of chemicals and the Vietnam War. The talk is part of a year-long series of talks organized to reflect on the 1960s, and I’ll talk about recent research completed as part of my new book Footprints of War: Militarized Landscapes in Vietnam but I’m also hosting a rare film showing from one of Vietnam’s greatest living documentary filmmakers, Trần Văn Thủy. The film we will see is one that received very little attention, “Story from the Corner of a Park” about a war veteran struggling to make a living taking pictures in Hà Nội’s central Lenin Park. Its a wonderful, anachronous piece for two reasons: (1) a growing number of Vietnam War veterans are passing on, leaving only stories and, in some cases, children with illnesses associated to chemical exposures (2) the urban landscapes of Hà Nội have changed so much from this early 2000s film.

For those more familiar with American soldiers’ experiences with the war and especially concerns about Agent Orange, the film is a little-publicized mirror from the Vietnamese side. For details on the pre-talk film showing, please contact Prof. James Anderson at

David Biggs Lecture “Vietnam: the Chemical War”

The talk draws in part from an op-ed in the New York Times that I wrote to address a slightly different issue: the total chemical footprint of the 1960s war extending beyond just the one infamous chemical Agent Orange to  include a host of others such as CS, napalm, now-banned insecticides, carcinogenic solvents, and others. I encouraged reader to check out the “readers pick” comments. Here we see not just the range of emotionally and ethically charged responses from readers but many more detailed comments by former chemical platoon helicopter pilots, doctors performing plastic surgery, policymakers and others. 

Shortly after the op-ed published, an official from the US Embassy in Cambodia emailed me. He’d read the article and wondered if I knew anything about recent Cambodian claims of buried American chemical waste.  I shared my archival data on chemical missions involving CS and even put him in touch with the chemical platoon helicopter pilot who’d commented on the NYTimes site.  The US continued the painstakingly long process of decontaminating sites and working with SE Asian governments to remove unexploded ordnance, contaminated soils, and other remains.

Given the recent discussions about the Syrian government dropping barrel bombs on civilians, I this image from the National Archives shows that they were not the originators of this practice. The image below shows the practice what I think is a “bulk flame drop” – a drop of 55-gallon drums of napalm –  per official U.S. Army photographs. “Bulk smoke drops” of CS involved pushing fused barrels out the cargo bay of the CH-47 “Chinook”. Army Chemical Corps soldiers netted the napalm to hang from below since it was a payload of gelled gasoline (!). The barrels dropped a few thousand feet before jet strafing fire ignited them just over the target, often networks of tunnels or bunkers. The aim was to incinerate or asphyxiate enemy combatants (and anyone else) below.

Source: US National Archives, RG 472, United States Army Vietnam, Chemical Units, 184th Chemical Platoon, Organizational History, 1960 thru 1971, Box 5.