June 22, 1998
Poison Gas Use By U.S.? Not Likely
By Clay Bowen And Robert Gard
ALLEGATIONS THAT American forces used sarin nerve gas on an operation
Laos against suspected U.S. defectors and enemy troops in 1970 cannot be
dismissed out of hand.
Since every president from Warren Harding to Richard Nixon declared
United States would comply with the 1925 Geneva Protocol banning the first
use of poison gas, this could destroy the credibility of the United States -
not only in efforts to prevent the use of chemical and biological weapons
but also in the full range of arms-control negotiations and agreements.
Further, it is difficult to believe that U.S. forces would launch
operation to assassinate their own soldiers, even if they were suspected
defectors. Moreover, the allegations themselves and the very nature of the
operation in Laos raise serious questions about the validity of claims that
sarin gas was employed.
Eyewitness reports that enemy troops were "convulsing" do not sustain
allegation that nerve gas was the cause. Air crews flying in Southeast Asia
were routinely briefed that if they were shot down behind enemy lines,
rescue operations would be undertaken. If a U.S. airman was threatened by
unfriendly forces, crews were taught, the area would be saturated with a
nonlethal chemical agent.
"You'll wish you were dead for about half an hour," was the warning
the effects of the agent, which would incapacitate and induce vomiting - but
would not kill. Troops convulsing from the effects of such an agent would
appear to be suffering the effects of nerve gas; but that obviously is not
sufficient evidece that sarin nerve gas was used.
Other characteristics of sarin make the story difficult to believe.
mask, often part of a soldier's basic equipment, protects against "riot
control" agents; but it would not be adequate protection against deadly
nerve gas. A vial of atropine, also standard equipment, is an antidote of
last resort against the effects of nerve gas. If the allegation of the use
of sarin were true, this would mean that the mission commander deliberately
put his troops into a potentially lethal environment with insufficient
American military professionals are imbued with the requirement to
priority to the safety of their troops. Taking enormous risks by subjecting
soldiers to lethal nerve gas defies military doctrine and practice.
With the availability of other weapons to incapacitate enemy troops,
seems implausible that that permission would have been granted to employ
poison gas in violation of a solemn U.S. obligation. Nor is it likely that
sarin would be used against American turncoats or enemy forces in Laos who
were not an immediate threat to the security of allied forces in Vietnam.
The commander of the operation has denied that its purpose was to eliminate
The principal source of the claim that sarin was used, a platoon
the operation, wrote a book about it some 15 years ago; there was no mention
of defectors or sarin gas.
Then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Thomas Moorer, was
in the report as acknowledging that sarin was used in the operation. The
following day, he denied knowledge of any instance in which sarin gas was
used during the Vietnam War.
Although the use of sarin gas appears highly unlikely, a full investigation
into these allegations is essential. If the United States is to have a
credible voice in stigmatizing the use of chemical and biological weapons,
its own record must be above suspicion. The investigation must be impartial
Anything less will subject the United States to charges that it violated
own standards in 1970, and then covered up that action in 1998. That would
be a fatal blow to U.S. credibility.
Clay Bowen, a staff member of the Nonproliferation Studies Center
Monterey Institute of International Studies, served in the Air Force in
Southeast Asia in 1974-75. Robert Gard, a retired Army lieutenant general,
is military adviser to the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation and
president emeritus of the Monterey Institute.