The other evil but forgotten war

The war that the US waged against Vietnam was a monstrous war crime that inflicted immense death and destruction from the air on a defenseless people, using defoliants like Agent Orange as chemical weapons and napalm and all the other horrors that the military managed to think up to inflict on a backward nation that was trying to shake off the yoke of colonialism. It was understanding the true nature of this war that radicalized me personally.

Bruno Jantti describes the massive scale of the destruction that the US unleashed on that hapless country.

The U.S. air force dropped more bombing tonnage solely in South Vietnam than the total bombing tonnage of every single aerial bombing campaign by all sides in WWII put together. The total amount of U.S. bombings during the Vietnam War was more than twice the size of all the bombings in WWII.

12 million acres of forest and 25 million acres of farmland, at the bare minimum, were destroyed by U.S. saturation bombing. The U.S. sprayed over 70 million liters of herbicidal agents to Vietnam.

Reflecting the fundamental defects of the conventional narrative on the matter, the death toll of the Vietnamese caused by the U.S. military onslaught is routinely debated in hundreds of thousands, sometimes in millions. According to Robert McNamara, for example, 3,6 million Vietnamese were killed in the war.

Among the most comprehensive studies on the matter was published in 2008 by Harvard Medical School and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington. They put the Vietnamese death toll at 3.8 million. According to Dr. Nick Turse, an American historian and investigative journalist who has conducted pioneering research on the Vietnam War, even the “staggering figure” of 3.8 million “may be an underestimate”.

Furthermore, the U.S. attack wounded 5,3 million Vietnamese civilians and up to 4 million Vietnamese fell victim to toxic defoliants used by the U.S. against large parts of the country. The U.S. assault created 200,000 prostitutes, 879,000 orphans, 1 million widows and 11 million refugees.

But sometimes forgotten is that Laos and Cambodia were also targeted by the US for a massive bombing campaign. These were the infamous ‘secret bombings’ that were no secret at all for the people in those countries who were being terrorized by the US. It was only a secret in that the US government carefully hid it from the American people and the media here made little attempt to inform them.

Matteo Fagotto writes says that Laos still suffers from the aftermath of that massive bombing campaign, with unexploded explosives continuing to cause deaths and injuries, especially to children.

It is 50 years since the first US combat troops entered Vietnam in March 1965. During that notorious conflict, the US dropped more than 270 million bombs in Laos as part of a CIA-run, top-secret operation aimed at destroying the North Vietnamese supply routes along the Ho Chi Minh trail and wiping out its local communist allies.

One-third of the bombs failed to explode on impact and have since claimed an average of 500 victims a year, mainly children and farmers forced to work on their contaminated fields to sustain their families. Despite tens of millions of dollars spent, only 1% of Laos territory has been cleared so far.

The legacy of the Secret War, as the American operation is now known, is clearly visible in this idyllic landscape of rolling hills and lush tropical forest. Scarred by thousands of explosion craters, the contaminated area is estimated to be 87,000 sq km , more than one-third of Laos’s territory.

In Xieng Khouang, the most affected province, UXOs [unexploded ordnances-MS] are found in forests and school buildings, roads and rice fields. Tim Lardner, the chief technical adviser of UXO Laos – the local company given the task of clearing the country – said: “I have been in this business for 25 years and I have worked in dozens of UXO-affected countries. When I go out on the field, my breath is taken away by the scale of the contamination. It’s like nothing anywhere else.”

According to Kingphet Phimmavong, the company’s provincial coordinator, 85% of UXOs found in Laos were left by the Americans.

For survivors of the war, such as 84-year-old Kampuang Dalaseng, memories are still vivid. “I hate Americans to this date. They bombed, burned and destroyed everything. If their president was here, I would slap him in the face.” A former professor of French, he was forced to flee the bombardments, abandoning the village of Bat Ngot Ngum in 1964 and taking shelter in a forest cave with his family and fellow villagers.

UXOs affect not only the daily life of millions of people but the long-term development of the country by delaying the construction of clinics, schools and factories. At the current pace, it will take more than two millennia to clear the country.

Around 40% of the victims are children, who are often attracted by the toy-like shapes of the unexploded cluster bombs.

US bombs. Causing death and destruction and making enemies all over the world and still continuing to do so. And Americans still wonder why ‘they’ hate us. Why can’t they see that when we invade their countries, bomb the hell out of them, topple their governments, kill and injure their people, use chemical weapons who effects last for generations, that we are doing it just for their own good and with the best of intentions?


  1. Mano Singham says


    Thanks for that link. It is a heartbreaking photo and description of the effects of the chemical warfare waged on that country by the US.

  2. griff says

    As a Vietnam vet, I am stunned at how many smart people still believe the war was a noble cause. James Webb, a Democrat nowadays, still thinks it was a good idea to kill and maim and impoverish millions of people because of the “domino theory”. I guess they believed that communist theory sounded so good you had to kill a lot of people to keep it from spreading. He cites Lee Kwan Yew, a Malaysian oligarch who profited fro the war indirectly, as if that makes it OK to kill a few million people over ideology. Webb was badly wounded as a marine officer, and is invested in believing the war stopped the spread of communism. Even if ideology was what motivated people (it isn’t) the slaughter can’t be justified. We bombed and killed in Vietnam for the same reason we did in Iraq; because our leaders like power and profit war gives it to them.
    These wars are not wars on ideas or drugs or terror. Or even oil. They are wars on people. The Vietnamese fought us for the same reason they fought the French, Japanese, the Chinese; because we invaded their country. And we didn’t do it for ideology. As Kissinger said. “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac” We really should listen to what they say. G.W. Bush, a devout chidkenhawk, told his biographer that if he could get a war, he would use it to pass his agenda of privatizing. everything. No mention of human suffering or wasted billions. It doesn’t matter to them. It’s about power, and who has it, and who doesn’t.

  3. says

    Thank for this.

    I don’t know if you’ve seen the HBO film Nixon by Nixon: In His Own Words yet, but you can watch it at my post here.

    There’s a fairly recent book by Fred Wilcox called Scorched Earth: Legacies of Chemical Warfare in Vietnam. It contains a lot of utterly horrific and needed information, but as a book is unfortunately not very good.

  4. Pierce R. Butler says

    … the first US combat troops entered Vietnam in March 1965.

    Eh what? The US had “advisers” killing and dying there -- mostly killing, of course -- during the JFK years at least, maybe under Eisenhower as well.

  5. dean says

    You should read up on “Tony Poe” -- Anthony Poshepny -- a WWII Marine vet placed by the CIA in Laos (starting in the late 1950s) to begin their secret war against communists. (He worked for them in Korea as well, and in Burma, and Tibet earlier in the 50s. He claimed (falsely, it seems) that he was the person who got the Dali Lama out.)
    Poe was seen as very good at training “insurgents” and worked extensively with the Hmong. He is (seems to be, if you choose to be more cautious) responsible for one especially horrible bit: his reports to his superiors began to be disbelieved -- they did not think his little group could be accomplishing all they claimed to be (which, apparently, was simply a lot of killing). He began having his Hmong fighters cut off their victims’ ears, collect them. He then sent a huge secure parcel of ears back up the chain of command as support for his report.
    If you read various articles you may see the assertion that he is the person upon whom Colonel Kurtz (the Brando character in Apocalypse Now) was based: both he and Coppola deny that.

  6. lorn says

    The Vietnam war, for the US, was not noble. But neither was the desire of the North Vietnamese leadership to unite the north and south under their political banner without regard for the cost in lives and resources.

    The north Vietnamese committed their entire nation: people, economy, and resources, and any help they could get from outside toward accomplishing the job by, quite literally, any means necessary. Ho Chi Minh was quoted as being committed to a war of 100 years. We called him on that bet assuming the Korean war, where we had successfully bolstered South Korea, was a likely outcome. The differences were fairly clear from the start but we only backed off when it was clear that he wasn’t bluffing about his willingness to stay at war for a very long time, even if it cost him the prime of his population, and, most critically, our South Vietnamese allies were not nearly as committed to their identity as a separate nation not under the North Vietnamese banner as we were.

    We spent roughly six years seeking a way out and implementing it once the realities became clear. The stumbling blocks were symbolic, political, and a matter of saving face. The argument that we would have been better off shamelessly cutting and running is not wrong. The six year slow walk out was costly in lives and treasure. And nobody was fooled.

    Little known fact: Vietnam cost us our electronics industry. Japan was cheating on trade closing their market to US TVs as they built their own TV production off the profits made by selling overprices TVs to the Japanese public. We took the issue to the world court and were expected to win. But threw it all away by withdrawing the case in return for UN vote that would allow The US to keep troops in Vietnam.

    So North Vietnam took over. The cruelty of the “re-education and correction was epic”, and still going on ten years later. It is also true that the effort set back Vietnam for many decades. Vietnam could have prospered like South Korea. Whereas it has split the difference between South Korea and North Korea.

  7. dean says

    But neither was the desire of the North Vietnamese leadership to unite the north and south under their political banner without regard for the cost in lives and resources.

    Your ‘analysis’ is far too simple. Some other facts for discussion.
    The United States had supported France in its efforts to reinstall Vietnam under its wing (in spite of mixed messages coming from French leadership near the end) in the early 1950s. Then, in the fall of 1954, after the battle at Dien Bien Phu ended the French attempt at re-occupation, the country was divided at the 17th parallel. Plans for a unifying election to be held within two years were developed, but the United States effectively cancelled those elections, fearing Ho Chi Min would win and Bao Dai (who was in place in the South) would be gone, causing the United States to lose influence in the region. Dai went on to install Ngo Dinh Diem, a devout Catholic. As Ho Chi Minh was seizing land in the north, Diem’s regime stole land from Bhuddist peasants and gave it to his cronies. This, as well as Diem overlooking the involvement of family and friends in the organized crime and drug industry, his abandonment of services (schools, hospitals) for majority of South Vietnamese population, and his 1956 roundup of anyone he suspected of being a Viet Minh (wherein most of those arrested were simply executed) soured many in the West on him too, but with no other option they were stuck.

    The point is that your take is far too simple: after the defeat of the French and the start of our involvement both leaders were reprehensible, but a key point (the elections) that could have prevented much misery was nixed by actions of the West. Its involvement in propping up, through the 50s, a corrupt regime went a long way to poisoning the well for us when we did send people in. It’s also worth pointing out that it takes two sides to fight to the end: the north wasn’t extending the war on its own.

    Interesting point (more to the original post): (Albert) Peter Dewey worked in a team of seven from the OSS at the end of WWII, and was in Saigon assisting the Viet Minh (reporting intelligence and other items under “representing American interests. It was he who was primarily responsible for arranging the repatriation of 4600 Allied Pows (about 250 were American) from Japanese prison camps near Saigon. In one of his reports back, discussing the intensity of the hatred and violence between French soldiers and the Vietnamese, he stated “The United States should never become involved militarily here.” Prophetic words.

    He was killed, apparently due to being misidentified as a French soldier, in 1945. He is sometimes referred to as the first American to be killed in the Vietnam conflict, but has no official recognition because the DOD has stated that United States involvement officially began in 1955.

  8. md says

    This documentary about William Colby has a few stupendous minutes of audio between the Kennedys and Henry Cabot Lodge Jr, supporting Diem’s coup, that must be heard to be believed. Such momentous history turned on an almost casual conversation.

  9. says

    The north Vietnamese committed their entire nation: people, economy, and resources, and any help they could get from outside toward accomplishing the job by, quite literally, any means necessary.

    Well, yeah, that’s how war tends to be fought: you get your back into it and hit your enemy with everything you can spare, in order to crush him as quickly and conclusively as possible and thus shorten the time and minimize loss of life and degradation of necessary social infrastructure. Ride hard or stay home, as they say in the movie.

    Instead of blaming the revolutionaries, we should instead be blaming the corrupt regime in the south, for refusing to either yield peacefully or address the very real problems that were inciting revolution. If the south had got their backs into fighting corruption within their own ranks, the north might not have had to get their backs into a war.

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