As the United States is the most advanced industrial nation in world it was able to make full use of the latest developments in technology in its war against North Vietnam. B-52 bombers, that could fly at heights that prevented them being seen or heard, dropped 8 million tons of bombs on Vietnam between 1965 and 1973. This was over three times the amount of bombs dropped throughout the whole of the Second World War and worked out at approximately 300 tons for every man, woman and child living in Vietnam.
As well as explosive bombs the United States Air Force dropped a considerable number of incendiary devices. The most infamous of these was napalm, a mixture of petrol and a chemical thickner which produces a tough sticky gel that attaches itself to the skin. The igniting agent, white phosphorus, continues burning for a considerable amount of time. A reported three quarters of all napalm victims in Vietnam were burned through to the muscle and bone (fifth degree burns). The pain caused by the burning is so traumatic that it often causes death.
The US also made considerable use of anti-personnel bombs. The pineapple bomb was made up of 250 metal pellets inside a small canister. Gloria Emerson, a reporter in Vietnam, witnessed their use: "An American plane could drop a thousand pineapples over an area the size of four football fields. In a single air strike two hundred and fifty thousand pellets were spewed in a horizontal pattern over the land below, hitting everything on the ground."
The United States also experimented with the use of plastic rather than metal needles and pellets in their antipersonnel bombs. The advantage of plastic was they could not be identified by X-Ray machines. Dropped on highly populated areas, antipersonnel bombs could severely disrupt the functioning of North Vietnam. It has been claimed that the major objective of the US bombing raids on North Vietnam was not to kill its 17 million population but to maim them. As was pointed out at the time, serious injury is more disruptive than death as people have to be employed to look after the injured where they only have to bury the dead.
One of the major problems of the US forces was the detection of the National Liberation Front hiding in the forests of Vietnam. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy approved Operation Ranch Hand. This involved the spraying of chemicals from the air in an attempt to destroy the National Liberation Front hiding places. In 1969 alone, Operation Ranch Hand destroyed 1,034,300 hectares of forest. Agent Orange, the chemical used in this defoliation programme not only destroyed trees but caused chromosomal damage in people.
Chemicals were also sprayed on crops. Between 1962 and 1969, 688,000 agricultural acres were sprayed with a chemical called Agent Blue. The aim of this exercise was to deny food to the NLF. However, research suggests that it was the civilian population who suffered most from the poor rice harvests that followed the spraying.
When a report appeared in the St. Louis Dispatch about the dropping of "poison" on North Vietnam the United States denied the herbicide they were using was a chemical weapon. It was claimed that Agent Orange and Agent Blue were harmless to humans and only had a short-lived impact on the environment.
This was disputed by international experts and 5,000 American scientists, including 17 Nobel prize winners and 129 members of the Academy of Sciences, signed a petition against chemical and biological weapons being used in Vietnam. However, it was not until 1974 that the United States government stopped using Agent Orange and Agent Blue.
During the war about 10% of Vietnam was intensively sprayed with 72 million litres of chemicals, of which 66% was Agent Orange. Some of this landed on their own troops and soon after the war ended veterans began complaining about serious health problems. There was also a high incidence of their children being born limbless or with Down's syndrome and spina bifida. The veterans sued the defoliant manufacturers and this was settled out of court in 1984 by the payment of $180 million.
The TCCD dioxin used in Agent Orange seeped into the soil and water supply, and therefore into the food chain. In this way it passed from mother to foetus in the womb. In Vietnam the dioxide remains in the soil and is now damaging the health of the grandchildren of the war's victims.
A report published in 2003 claimed that 650,000 people in Vietnam were still suffering from chronic conditions as a result of the chemicals dropped on the country during the war. Since the war the Vietnamese Red Cross has registered an estimated one million people disabled by Agent Orange. It is estimated that 500,000 people in Vietnam have died from the numerous health problems created by these chemical weapons.