When Ho Chi Minh, Bertrand Russell and Jane Fonda first claimed American use of “poison gas” in the Vietnam War in 1966 and 1972, the story had no credibility, no legs and no footnote in most histories.
We’re not talking about your garden variety of tear gas or pepper spray or even napalm. The horrific pain, indiscriminate deaths and uncontrollable spread of mustard and nerve gas in WWI led to their universal ban and opprobrium as a war crime that was not violated in all of World War II (but was, later, by the Soviets and Saddam). Many believe even the Vietnamese did not make such wild claims during the Vietnam War. That is not entirely true. A review of the archives and an unpublished 2,000-page history of the ’60s left uncovered scraps of the old forgotten evidence of this failed Communist propaganda. It took the ideological credulity of CNN and Time to resuscitate the old dead lies about nerve gas war crimes — but only for a few hot summer days in 1998.
They stuck with a flawed story — no, a fabrication of hate journalism — about the hated America for nearly a year. This shows that the producers April Oliver and Jack Smith, star reporter Peter Arnett, and perhaps Ted Turner himself believed it or wanted it to be true. Floyd Abrams’ report says, “Tailwind reflected the deeply held beliefs of the CNN journalists who prepared it.”
CNN President Ted Turner’s wife, Jane Fonda, was one of the very few Americans who ever made the incredible charge of U.S. use of poison gas. North Vietnamese ruler Ho Chi Minh first made these allegations. Russell’s War Crimes Tribunal and Jane Fonda dutifully repeated them. And then the outrageous story disappeared from history until the now discredited CNN “Tailwind” report.
Here is how it all happened. In December 1965, North Vietnamese officials met with Tom Hayden, Herbert Aptheker, and Staughton Lynd. A month later, on Jan. 24, 1966, Ho Chi Minh sent a letter to all heads of state worldwide. He alleged “extreme gross violations of … all norms of international law” — war crimes. In April and May 1966, Ho pressed the war crimes theme before non-Communist nations. In a letter published in the Vietnam Courier in Hanoi on April 8, 1966, Ho said American military tactics followed a “burn all, kill all, and destroy all” policy. Indeed, “American troops used napalm bombs, poison gas, and toxic chemicals to massacre our compatriots and ravage our villages.” He closed with his thanks to “fraternal socialist countries and to the progressive people of the world. …” Many of Ho’s messages were repeated by the “progressive” underground press — Dave Dellinger’s Liberation and Staughton Lynd’s Viet Report.
Coinciding with American protests led by the hard left November Mobilization, on November 8th, 1966, the Vietnam News Agency, VNA, and newspaper Nhan Dan said, “We praise the American peace champions. … The movement of the American people to protest against the war of aggression in Vietnam has really become the second front against the U.S. imperialists.”
In midNovember 1966, Russell convened the first official meeting of his war crimes tribunal, nearly a year after his and Ho’s first thoughts on the matter. According to Doug Pike citing letters in his Indochina Archive, Russell adopted the themes and even the words of Ho. Ho wrote a public letter: “On the occasion of the setting up on your initiative an International Tribunal to try the U.S. war criminals.” Ho said it would “arouse universal indignation against the U.S. aggressors and intensify the protest movement.” The Russell Tribunal was widely discredited as crude propaganda and an embarrassment to committed leftists.
In Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, in September 1967, Tom Hayden and 34 handpicked friends met with the Vietnamese and, according to Sol Stern and David Horowitz, advised them to tone down their war crimes rhetoric for sophisticated western audiences.
That appears to be the case until Jane Fonda arrived in Hanoi in July 1972, for a whirlwind of radio broadcasts for which she is eternally infamous.
On her first full day, July 9, 1972, in North Vietnam, Jane Fonda visited Hanoi’s War Museum, where she was shown bombs described to her as fragmentation bombs and chemical bombs. The North Vietnamese recorded Fonda’s comments on American weapons at the war museum on the very next day. Significantly, her broadcast about the war museum was delayed a full week until July 17.
Directing her words to U.S. servicemen on aircraft carriers, she said, “Yesterday, [July 9, 1972] I went through the War Museum in Hanoi, where there is a display of all the different kinds of antipersonnel weapons, the different kinds of bombs, the guava bomb, the pineapple bomb, the spider bomb, different kinds of shells that contain toxic chemicals, the new kinds of napalm, combinations of napalm and phosphorus and thermite.”
The key is her characterization of these chemical weapons.
Jane continued: “[S]ome men in the United States … must want to die very much themselves to think this much about new ways of killing people. I don’t know what your officers tell you that you are dropping on this country. I don’t know what your officers tell you, you are loading, those of you who load the bombs on the planes.”
Now, Jane Fonda, who flunked out of Vassar, lectured Americans soldiers, sailors, and airmen on international law: “But, one thing that you should know is that these weapons are illegal and that’s not, that’s not just rhetoric. They are outlawed these kinds of weapons by several conventions of which the United States was a signatory — two Hague conventions. And the use of these bombs or the condoning the use of these bombs makes one a war criminal. The men who are ordering you to use these weapons are war criminals according to international laws.” She or her speechwriter shifted slickly into the subject of modern European history: “in the past, in Germany and in Japan, men who were guilty of these kinds of crimes were tried and executed.”
POW Capt. Gerald Coffee, “listened in disbelief … lonely, hungry, … and I shook my head slowly.”
Skip forward past 16 broadcasts and 20 days to Jane Fonda’s radio broadcast on August 1, 1972. It was a Viet Cong clandestine Liberation Radio broadcast of a “Fonda … Message to Mme. Binh in Cuba,” in Vietnamese. According to the English retranslation, Fonda said to Madame Binh, the official spokesman of the Viet Cong visiting Cuba, ” Many of us have seen evidence proving the Nixon administration has escalated thewar causing death and destruction perhaps as serious as the, bombing of Hiroshima.”
Fonda repeated her war museum message: “We witnessed Nixon’s crimes of using B52’s to massively bomb civilian targets using antipersonnel weapons, poison gasses [sic] and new toxic chemicals and barbarous bombings with napalm, phosphorous and incendiary bombs.
Claims of the use of nerve gas in the Vietnam War were very rare indeed. They were almost as rare as the claim that American soldiers gutted and ate the livers of fallen Vietnamese. Perhaps CNN and Time would like to check that one out.
Dr. Roger Canfield is a historian from California and a former columnist for the Sacramento Union.