The Nerve Gas Club

by Bill Mesler

The Nation magazine, June 29, 1998


The excellent investigative story that aired on the Time/CNN television magazine NewsStand on June 7 revealed the unthinkable: US Special Forces units on more than twenty occasions used the nerve gas sarin on civilians and combatants during the Vietnam War. The revelation places us in a select club that includes Shoko Asahara, leader of the cult responsible for gassing passengers in a Tokyo subway in 1995, and Saddam Hussein, who ordered the gassing of Kurds in the eighties.

The exhaustive eight-month investigation by Time and CNN involved the Army's Tailwind campaign, part of a larger secret CIA operation called Honorable Dragon, which aimed to destroy Vietcong base camps in Laos. Featured prominently in the story was an attack in 1970 on a camp harboring US defectors. Participants claim that US gas killed a hundred civilians as well as enemy soldiers. Sources also told NewsStand that the gas was used on more than twenty missions. The allegations were confirmed by retired Adm. Thomas Moorer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs in 1970, who added that the use of sarin would have required permission from the National Security Council, then headed by Henry Kissinger, who had no comment. As one participant put it, "The majority of the people there were not combat personnel." Yet for Moorer the use of sarin on civilians was justified: "I would be willing to use any weapon and any tactic to save the lives of American soldiers."

The revelations come shortly after our condemnation of India and Pakistan for testing nuclear weapons. No wonder Asians have so little patience with US pontifications about human rights or weapons of mass destruction. Asia has three times been the site of our colonial wars (the Philippines, Korea and Vietnam) and twice the target of our weapons of mass destruction (Japan and, we now know, Vietnam). Maybe we would have more credibility if we shipped Henry Kissinger off to The Hague for a long-overdue war crimes trial.

Bll Mesler is a reporter working with the Investigative Fund of The Nation Institute.

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